Monday, November 14, 2011
We, individuals, really do process death differently. That goes for impending death, too.
Last Friday when Leah was over, she mentioned having a “family meeting.” That is, all the six kids would be gathering on Sunday (yesterday) to talk about taking care of Dave. It was a bit of a shocker – well, more perplexing to me – and as Dave noted, he would have thought this type of meeting would happen when he was half-comatose.
Hello! He’s still alert and here.
But I want to back up a bit. Leah wasn’t even over to the house for a full week. No call, not a text message, no contact. We did not reach out to her either. I figured she needed some space. But Friday I broke, and she responded with she was already planning to come over after work. It was good to see her, both for me and for Dave.
Anyway, her response to Dave being ill last week, as in he was noticeably nauseous and having a bad day, was not to want to see him like that. I forget that many people don’t have a tolerance for being around illness, especially when it is someone you love deeply. As mentioned I have a work background as a nurses’ aid and have seen many people in all stages of medical ill. Maybe it’s just something I take for granted. I run toward sick people, not away. Leah has a great empathy and patience for people with Developmental Disabilities from her work experience. Certainly not everyone can do that either with as much compassion as she does. So she kept her dad at arms’ length for the week. But once she arrived and saw he is pretty much back to himself (our new normal), then she was relieved.
I suppose it is critical during this time to reach out and say what is going well and what is not; specifically when things change back to better after the moment of worse. I’ll try to do this more consciously.
I tend to write and post when things turn bad. Writing is my release. But I may not realize the impact of this release, especially when I don’t mention things are back to “our normal.”
Cancer tends to make a person roll through a series of good days and bad days. It’s like the fight for good and evil – who wins in the end? In Hollywood that would be the good guy, in our case we’d root for life, but in reality the odds are different. There are just too many variables to guess the outcome in a predictable way.
But recently a prediction was stated publicly: “In a matter of weeks, Dave Hitchens will die.” This opening line from a news segment seems to have reverberated through this family (and friends) in a deep, stinging reality check. I know I still hear it. I watched some of their faces as the video played for the first time. There have been audible gasps. This prediction takes our breath away. The doctors and nurses in the past year are never so bold. They site statistics, percentages and “maybes” and “I don’t knows.” The process of death can be documented, the timing is not. Dave does not have an expiration date stamped on his foot, he says.
I will wager a guess that most of us don’t realize how that statement of prediction affects us.
In a matter of weeks… Weeks can go for months and even years, or dwindle to days. It was sensational and painful. But is it right? And what does it mean? I think emotionally it is the same call to action for his kids that I experienced when Dave was first admitted to palliative care. This turn of events calls for a family meeting.
For this meeting I was not invited. Some things they must do together. I am genuinely happy that their bond has grown and encompassed Leah. They are all Dave’s children. This is a lifelong positive change to come from our death from illness experience.
But I disagree on this one. I know it is through love and care and even support for me to begin to plan his memorial. This is a process of mourning, the ritual and rites of passage. This is doing and loving and grieving. I absolutely have no desire to stand in the way. I have also declared that I don’t do funerals! So perhaps that is some of the impetus.
We, individuals, really do process death differently.
Memorials are public and important. I recognized long ago in the early stages of preparing for hospice and its implications that a memorial is required because Dave has impacted so many lives. They, too, need to say goodbye, even publicly. This is not about me, I concluded once before.
Yet, I do have some ideas and considerations that we need to discuss together – some logistical, some for long-term memorial and ritual. Dave “belongs” to many of us. It may be a surprise that I probably have more questions for them than answers about what and how to take these steps.
I would be pleased to have a small goodbye gathering – because I have been in mourning and grief for months now. I have been doing and creating the ambiance I’ve needed to grieve. I have hoped the public forum would provide for active grieving by us all, but more importantly celebration of life during Dave’s lifetime. I think it has to some extent, yet I am reminded now that we all process death differently, and in our own time.
I hear, read and know our grief journeys all play out in their own way on their own time. We can’t grieve for anyone else. We can’t have someone face the harsh truth until they are ready. Grief is compounded by factors of relationship, past losses, suddenness or violence of loss, caregiving role and so much more. We bring a lifetime of experience to fold into each new death.
“In a matter of weeks” invokes anxiety. Have I said what I need to? How much time do we have? What am I suppose to do? What do we do later? How do I grieve and celebrate? Who is going to take care of…? Is time running out? Have I heard what I need to hear? What do I need or want?
I’ve had my fair share of anxiety since this declaration. But like holidays or death anniversaries or milestone dates after a loved one dies, anticipation is far more anxiety producing than the event itself. What stories we tell ourselves as we lead up to the dreaded moment is the anxiety. Most often, we live through and past the actual event with a sense of relief. Having rehearsed the worst we acquiesce to the anticipated moment in kinder fashion.
What do I tell myself now? Don’t worry about the memorial. Dave’s kids love him and need to process their concern in this manner. I will be able to sit and talk with him long past his physical presence. (And I expect to hear back! He lets me know what he’d say: I’m your biggest fan, you’re my best friend, trust your instincts, believe.) I can always write out my anxiety or loss or sadness to find out what I am really thinking. I have learned to cope and I think so far, so good. It is not easy, but it is fluid.
According to one of my bereavement colleagues, as long as grief is moving and changing us – fluid, she says – we are “OK.” I like that. What I witness now is the fluidity that is waving over Dave’s kids. They are processing and acting upon their impending loss. Action is what keeps the grief fluid until it comes into a resting place of assimilation. The path and time differs. No right way; no wrong way. When we stop, we get stuck in hurt. When we try to forget, we deny our past.
Dave is not gone from our presence yet. Whether it is weeks or days or months to come we don’t know. But grief is upon us now and it is fluid. In the future we will mourn together as we should and need. We will carry on in the knowledge that we are all changed, by both Dave’s life and his death. None of us will be the same. Perhaps we will be better for the experience. I have to think I am.
Tuesday, November 15, 2011 PostScript
Yesterday afternoon Dawn and Dana drop by for a surprise visit. Apparently I wasn’t the only one sorting through the aftereffects of their meeting! The air is clear, there is no misunderstanding; we’re just working through feelings and some expectations. Certainly this was a confirmation that we are all on this journey simultaneously together and alone (can that happen?). I reminded us all that there is a team of people to help. Hospice can help us with social worker, counselor, volunteers, whatever we need. It’s nice to know there is help when you ask. When you can ask each other as family members it is even better.
Most important is that they had a good visit with their dad. David and Nikki dropped by too. This turned out to be a very good day after all.