I planned each charted course/Each careful step along the byway/And more, much more than this/ I did it my way . . ./I faced it all and I stood tall/And did it my way.”
It was the year of the plague.
I lost a client, a mere child, to leukemia. A long-standing client dropped dead of an aneurism while getting her classroom ready for the students.
And two couples, whom I’d known for years, morphed into single men, as the wives died after long battles with breast cancer.
With these two women I’d had the opportunity to visit as their illnesses progressed, and in each case to sit with them, holding their hands, as hospice made them as comfortable as they could be.
And then they were gone–and I was once again at a funeral, comforting two men who seemed at a loss as to where to place their forks after eating, where to look when being spoken to, when to respond to the visitors addressing them. I worried greatly for the men, who had been dedicated husbands for long years–where would they find an existence for themselves as individuals, apart from the spouses who had helped define them?
And it was from these two men’s responses that I truly and deeply understood how personal grief is, and how radically different people have to cope, in order to make their altered universes work.
Lyle,* who had lost Leslie,* clung fast to the world the two had shared. He was insistent that he wanted to continue to talk to me–he could only see someone who had known Leslie. He kept her shampoo in the shower, left her perfume bottles untouched, was resistant when his daughter asked if she could have Mom’s silver. Leslie’s box collection remained on the dresser, untouched except when dusted every two weeks by the maid.
Leslie and Lyle had traveled to Jamaica every winter. And so Lyle’s first winter as a widower found him, again, in Jamaica, at the Hidden Paradise Resort, where he and Leslie always stayed. In a move that his daughters protested, finding it too creepy, Lyle left Leslie’s voice on the answering machine. It was his last piece of her voice, he said, he didn’t want to let go.
And he kept the room she called her ‘sewing nook’ unchanged, a partially knitted sweater strewn over the couch, the afghan tussled, as if Leslie had just crawled out under it to go grab something–and would be back momentarily. His children called it the shrine.
And thus Lyle mourned Leslie in his way, with the smell of his wife’s shampoo, with her voice playing from the answering machine, with a replay of the trips they had taken together–with a continuation of his life with Leslie as he knew it, with as little change as possible.
I had talked with Dave* and Donna* on and off for years, had visited Donna frequently as she declined, talking with Dave alone outside her hospice room.
And then, two weeks after the funeral, I received a call from Dave cancelling our appointment. “I can’t come back to see you, to the same room and setting where Donna and I used to come together. I’m sorry, Candida–I just can’t.”
Dave simply found it too painful to do the things he’d done with Donna, which covered a wide swath of his life. He quickly got to work with his children packing up the house, and dispersing Donna’s china, jewelry, and knickknacks to the next two generations. In short order he had moved into an apartment in the city, a 30-minute drive from their former suburban home.
It wasn’t conscious, but he slowly grew away from couples they’d had as friends; there was too much of his life with Donna in the interactions; he needed to move on.
Even his appearance changed, as Donna had always picked out his clothes, and had insisted on his being clean-shaven. With a beard and side-burns, and a much more casual style, I hardly recognized him when I saw him out of context.
Comfort eventually comes to all who mourn, as impossible as it may seem. Some will ease their pain through talk of their suffering, others retreat to lick their wounds in silence. Some allow tears out to ease the pressure from the fountain of suffering; others watch the changed landscape of their world pass, dry-eyed. Some leave the deceased’s possessions untouched; others have already given them away.
Ways of mourning can seem like those famous Frostian paths diverged in the woods, as people seem to take the way less traveled by–but all who are healthy, without complicated grief, come out of the forest eventually.
We, as those who wish to bring comfort, must remember this, and must remember the importance mourners attach to the ability grieve and be able to say ‘I did it my way.’
*As with all characters in this blog, there is no actual Lyle, Leslie, Dave, or Donna, whose names have been changed to protect their privacy. Rather, these are teaching stores, compiled of bits and pieces from real lives, books or movies, and altered to make my points more interesting and educational.