Rare is the person who will miss the grief experience. As intelligent beings, we have a deep sense of loss, whether loss of a job, innocence, or
another person. Generally, grief is a staged process that helps us to deal with our loss in a reasonably ordered manner, and then move on. Some
losses are greater than others, and some few can push grieving into a level that is traumatic and has a profound and lasting effect on a person.
My wife and I awaited one another for 42 years, searching for the right person, our soulmate, and she was mine and I was hers. We knew after just a
few weeks of meeting that we would spend the rest of our lives together, we were engaged within three months, and married three months after that. As
my wife, Patti, said, "when you know you've found the perfect person, why would you want to wait?" It was as if she knew that our time together
would be short.
After four years of marriage, every day a joy for me, and after a morning no different than any other, Patti called me at work around lunchtime and,
with a strained voice, told me she thought she was having a heart attack. I was home ten minutes later to let the EMTs in, but they were unable to
resuscitate her -- in speaking with the EMTs and, later, one of Patti's sisters, a nurse, it's likely that she died within a minute or two of that
phone call. Only 46 years old, and dead from a massive heart attack.
What happened to her, I have faith and belief, but I don't have any knowledge. What happened to me, though, has been traumatic, complete, and
devastating. As I begin to work out of the other side, I thought to write some of this down, to share the sorts of things that happen. It is likely
that you will experience something similar, and whether you do or not, it may help you interact with a friend or family member in a similar
I do have to say, however, that a commonality of traumatic grief is that it doesn't affect everyone the same way, and it's both unfair and improper
to assume that lessons learned from one grief experience will apply to another. Grief is a reflection of the relationship, the person grieving, and
external factors that have nothing to do with the loss. For example, I have Asperger's Syndrome, one of the reasons that my relationship with Patti
was so special, because she understood, worked with and actually enjoyed some of my foibles, but that part of my person affects how I grieve.
Elizabeth Kübler-Ross fashioned the famous "Five Stages of Grief" -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance -- out of her work with
people who were, themselves, dying, but she quickly realized that it applied not just to the dying, but to those who grieve their loss. Shock comes
before any of them, and it's like taking a shovel to the head. As I sat in the emergency room, listening to the ER doctor tell me that Patti was
gone, I felt absolutely, utterly numb. Not generally emotional, I cried, wailed, shook like a leaf. "I don't know what I'm going to do", I said,
over and over, to no one in particular. The hospital chaplain asked me if I wanted to go into the room to see her, and I did, but I kind of wish that
I hadn't -- she still had tubes shoved down her throat, and her eyes were open, vacant, staring, and all I could do was grab her hand, already
cooling, and start bawling and telling her how sorry I was.
Sorry, for what, I don't know. I've still not sorted that out, though when I visit her grave, or talk to her, I still have this overwhelming sense
of feeling sorry.
But the shock remained, and it was a cocoon, of sorts, that sheltered me from the stark reality of my situation. Getting her back to her home town,
five hours away, getting myself there, planning the funeral, writing part of the eulogy, all tasks made easier by the fact that I felt nothing, I saw
nothing, I remembered nothing. I vaguely remember the wake and the funeral, although when I concentrate, pieces of it come back crystal clear.
After the funeral, I returned home, although I no longer really had anyone here. In the ensuing months, I've worked through a couple of other
stages, although I skipped anger and bargaining, for the most part (Kübler-Ross noted that all stages aren't necessary, but everyone goes through at
least three of them.) Reading through other people's experiences, I've found that there are generally two types of recovery from traumatic grief.
The first group works through things and, though they will continue to be impacted by their loss, they generally work themselves back to a state of
normalcy in time.
The second group, and I count myself among them, do not ever get back to that state. A "new normal" develops, but it is a normal that an outsider
would view as being skewed, a reality that has parts from this world, and parts from a world of sorrow and pain. Ultimately, I'm okay with that. I
have a very strong faith, and it has both sustained me and actually grown through this experience, but the deep love that Patti and I developed in
those four and a half years made her such a part of me that her loss literally ripped away a large piece of who I had become, and I don't expect to
ever feel less hollow.
Some aspects of reality that traumatic grieving have impacted include:
Financial -- I can't emphasize this enough, which is why I have put it first. We live in a world where so much of our financial lives are
online and protected by PINs and a variety of passwords, and if you're not able to tell your spouse what one of those seemingly insignificant pieces
of data is, you will be causing them undue stress at a time they can least afford it. I never bothered asking Patti what her password or PIN for her
online bank account was, so that money stayed locked up in her bank until we went through probate. The day I realized this, I wrote a letter to my
daughter, detailed every account, password and PIN, and put that letter in my safe deposit box. Don't make your wife or husband worry about how
they're going to feed the kids because you didn't tell them a four digit number.
When you are dead, no one can ever ask you anything, ever again. Not your PIN, not what you'd like to name your unborn child, not where you put the
flyswatter, nothing. If it's important to you, write it down. You might live to be 100, you might die in the next hour. Write it down.