The Relationship to Relation

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

OK. I have stories in mind but other stuff wants to come out of my fingers here. The voice of grief has a stronger voice that that of my storybook writer this morning.

My eyes are puffy. I can feel the swelling by my tear ducts. Yesterday, Dave was “inside.”  He was not completely withdrawn; rather, he was contemplative, less talkative. Actually, he slept most of the morning. He has wondered whether he sleeps more. I’m not sure – compared to when? Yes, no, maybe… I don’t really know.

I finished up the taxes paperwork and retirement planning over the last couple of days. No fun! I made my annual vow to keep up with the details better this year so I don’t have such a large task next year. Again! But I will have to make changes. The changes are coming to me. The lifestyle to which I am accustomed will require some different choices. Oh, I do still choose this comfortable lifestyle! I’d prefer this lifestyle with Dave. On this, I apparently don’t get a choice; nor does Dave.

I am many years younger than Dave. 19+ actually. I’ve been very sensitive to this fact because socially there are the “looks.” Because when you are a student who meets a professor, rumors follow. Because men are given the high-five and women are classified as needing a father, or being a gold digger, or something weak and dependent. The reality was Dave, at 40, (the birthday he declared himself an adult) was just really growing up (regardless of the fact he had two marriages and five children) and me, at 21, lived very independently and had already made my way into the adult world. As the youngest child and only girl in a family of four children in Texas, I scrapped my way through a man’s world growing up. (Remember the ERA?)  So, when we began dating in 1980, Dave and I became adults at the same time!

Yesterday, 31 years later we talked. I cried. We are the fortunate couple who have grown together, not apart. We are closer now than when we wrote and ceremoniously proclaimed our marriage vows. Our foundation of friendship really does hold us and keeps us stable. (Leo could not have predicted how prophetic or valuable sending a copy of Arlo Guthrie/Pete Seeger Precious Friend as an engagement gift.) We found adversity in life to be a strengthening bond. Yet, we would not have made it as a couple, or even become parents, if he (we) hadn’t quit drinking March 11, 1985.

There are some decisions that change the course of life. Some are huge and become the history of the world. Some are personally huge and become the history of our lives. This one was a game changer – in a good way – for us. Who would have known then? His decision to declare himself a recovering alcoholic meant that I have come to know a very different Dave than did all the people before he quit drinking.

So I cried yesterday as we talked about these 31 years in generic terms of love, marriage, parenting, friendship, growing up. We shared what we want each other to know in case it hasn’t been said. We expressed our gratitude for having had our time together (and many more months, please). We acknowledged the ways we will remain entwined even after he is gone. He reminded me that he is my biggest fan and that won’t change. For me, I am comforted, but tearful.

For the last couple of weeks I have recognized that my grief and this journey is truly like so many others that play out each day. I also realized that I am the first of my peers to face the death of a spouse. I’m not sure what this means if anything; it just is.

In the SFH program one of the important aspects of coping with grief through writing is to identify and expound on the relationship to the deceased: parent, child, friend, sibling, spouse. Each type of relationship has its own unstated rules of engagement with its own variation of depth, longevity and communication. Any relationship can trigger profound grief, none being worse or more difficult than another for it belongs to the individual. It is the understanding of how the relationship affects the writer that is to be examined.

As Dave and I reviewed our lives together, the power of the relationship’s role in grief became clear to me. After 31 years together there are no secrets, no mysteries between us. Childbirth and illness take away all forms of physical modesty. Tears, hormones and parenting make for unpredictable challenges. Working day in and day out is the rhythm of time. Love, laughter and life happen every day as a couple. What we came to say to each other is that we know each other like no one else. Not our children, our parents, our friends. Who we are, both together and separate, cannot be understood by any other person because we are the ones to live it. When he is gone, I’ll be losing my personal historian and my best friend; my lover, my comforter, my cheerleader, my truth finder, my sounding board – my husband – committed to each other through joy and sorrow, in sickness and in health.

After a loss, when the meaningful person states the classic “I understand what you’re going through” is met by a reactionary “no you don’t, you can’t,” it is because the relationship to our loved one cannot be defined by anyone else. The grief pain that manifests, feels all alone and is singular is perhaps because it has not been validated even by the griever. I am so happy to be giving voice here through writing, so I once again find out what I really think. No, you can’t understand what I am going through unless I can find the words to let you know. I must know what I am going through first.

One again, what I started out to write about made a turn into its own topic. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get all the stories that rattle around in my head completed. Perhaps I don’t need to. Some things I’ll just keep in my heart.

* * * * *

(BTW, I’ve been meaning to comment on the “anticipatory grief” term, one I’ve used myself. The grief is not anticipated, the grief is current and real; the loss is anticipated. As the bereavement and healthcare industries shift to recognizing the “new grief” that begins at illness, and especially Alzheimer’s and dementia, perhaps this definition needs to be clarified.)

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