By Fred Colby
You had a romantic wedding, celebrated the birth of children, and got comfortable with your happily-ever-after life. Then tragedy struck, and you realized how fragile the human body could be. Suddenly, you faced the prospect of seeing the source of your happily-ever-after life take her last breath.
When a terminal illness shapes the process of death, vital opportunities for mental health are present. Seven types of communication can help you begin healing while still experiencing horrible pain.
- Stay connected to your spouse. One of my friends who beat cancer said that the worst part of the battle was seeing a look of pity when someone noticed her bald head and pale skin—key signs of chemotherapy. It made her feel disconnected and rejected. A person with whom you have shared a lifetime of affection and challenges probably wants more of the same—not looks of pity. You aren’t engaging in avoidance or distraction; you are actively continuing the relationship you have enjoyed for years. My wife and I would have humourous bonding moments seeing how she looked in each of the many wigs friends loaned or gave to her, ranging from long blond to short brunette.
- Have conversations with the professional caregivers who have become part of your life. They are skilled in palliative techniques and prepared to help patients and their loved ones navigate fear and confusion, as well as provide physical comfort.
- Interact with family and friends. A website like Caring Bridge makes it easy for loved ones to offer comfort, humor, memories, prayers, and even anger over the situation. It’s also an efficient platform for responding to people who want to do something practical for you: “Yes, I’d appreciate a hot meal,” or “Let us know if you are interested in visiting her; we are scheduling visits when she can handle it.” I made a practice of reaching out to my male friends to meet me for a beer or bike ride, and I let them know upfront that there would be times when I might tear up… but that it was o.k., and they need not feel embarrassed for me.
- Share your experiences and feelings with other people who are going through the same thing. I had a Men’s Grief Group, the members of whom contributed stories and insights to me for the book Widower to Widower. It sounds clichéd, but knowing you’re not alone in your distress provides strength. By showing up for the people in your group, you can feel a sense of purpose in helping your fellow man who is struggling as you did. Almost every new widower would express their gratitude for the group being there for them at the end of their first visit.
- Get one-on-one counseling. A friend I thought would never go to a therapist finally admitted he needed a professional hand to pull him out of his pit of depression. After a few sessions, he stormed out of her office—angry that someone was arrogant enough to think she could help him! The anger was soon replaced by a commitment to healing; he credits the therapist with saving his life.
- Communicate with yourself. Go ahead: Talk to yourself. And answer yourself. You will probably have many moments alone in the coming days that would have been shared with your spouse. You need to know the sound of your own voice—to think out loud and listen to your thoughts. If, like me, you spent many years together with your spouse, trust me, you know the answer she would give you anyway.
- Tell your story over and over again. I found that each time I told my story (or rather the story of Theresa), I would feel a little bit better. Sharing your story is therapeutic and brings comfort to both you and the one hearing the story. I would tell it to complete strangers, as well as to family and friends.
Know that what you are going through is normal and you are not going crazy. Each of us has our own unique grief experience, but we can learn from the commonalities in our experiences. So to heal, be open and willing to hear and learn from your widower brothers. Good luck to each of you.
© Copyright 2023 Fred Colby
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