STAY PUT OR MOVE ON?

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The conventional wisdom extended to the new widow or widower is to not do anything for a while, or (putting it another way) to do only what you feel like doing.  That’s tricky advice, because of the “feeling” component.  Do you go on living where and how you’ve always lived with the person who’s died — reminded every hour, in that familiar setting you shared, that the person who should also have been there is absent forever?  You may “feel” you want to stay, close to as much of his or her presence as lingers, everywhere you look, in the clothing, the furniture, the favorite foods in the pantry.  However, staying put may also prolong the excruciating feeling your life has been torn in two and the other half remains missing.  Your own (now disabled) life may stay put as well.

Or do you take a deep breath and turn your back on your joint past (without ever forgetting it)?  Do you then begin looking for another, smaller, different place in which to live because you “feel” that’s the only way begin building a life of your own even though you really don’t feel like doing it just yet? Should moving on begin with an actual move?

I present this query as if it were a matter of free choice. Indeed, for all the widows I met in the two six-week bereavement groups it was a free choice.  All had been married to the same man since emerging from college. (“From my father to my husband,” as one put it.)  All had comfortable homes in which they had raised their children and which grandchildren visited frequently, homes now free and clear of mortgages. They drove relatively new and powerful cars. Some had second houses in Florida, to escape the winter months.In no case did money problems figure among their laments.  In other words,  in their bereavement they were well fixed to stay put. And I believe that in the four months or so since the second group disbanded, none of these widows has moved. One who I ran into in the local market hasn’t yet begun to empty her husband’s closet, although he died about a year ago; she says she’s begun to think about it only now because of her daughter’s urging.

Two of us have not stayed put.  F., a recent widower, nursed his artist wife for four years until in the end he lost her to cancer. They had been living in a large house in a township about thirty minutes from Princeton, chosen to accommodate his wife’s studio and artwork. Now she was gone and he was alone with all the memories which seeing her paintings, sculpture and drawings around him every day could only exacerbate. Moreover, he had both professional and social connections in Princeton, from which he was somewhat isolated where he lived. Yet these were the people who might best be able to help him begin again.  So F. put his house on the market within a few months of the funeral and before the bereavement group’s first session.  He also made a deposit on a new one-bedroom rental apartment in the heart of Princeton.  This didn’t mean he had worked through his grief.  He felt, however, that he had a better chance of recovery (if we can call it that) in a new environment with fewer triggers to remind him of what he had lost.

My situation too was somewhat different from that of the other members of the two groups. I also had a choice. But not a good or completely free one.  Bill and I had been together only fifteen years, and although we split all expenses down the middle, I was the one who bought the condo we’d lived in for the ten years since we came to Princeton.  While we kept separate checking accounts, we also shared a joint one, into which last January he had transferred sufficient funds to pay part of his share for the calendar year. But his social security disappeared with his death in May.  Although until 2017 I could carry the condo expenses alone (including mortgage and real estate taxes)  without touching capital, after that I would need to begin withdrawing what I had counted on not needing to withdraw so quickly, since there wouldn’t be any more when it was gone.   That seemed unwise.  Irrespective of my “feelings” about the condo, which reminded me wherever I looked of the other person who used to live there and had vanished, I knew I should sell before 2017.

I knew this as soon as Bill died in May.  It took me about three weeks to emerge from shock, weakness, and very frequent tears. Then V., a real estate agent, called. She wasn’t reading my mind.  I was the one who had first called her mid-April to set up a meeting I had to cancel when he developed terminal pneumonia. She was now following up.

The back story is that for a long time after the symptoms of his disease manifested itself, Bill had insisted he wanted to die at home.  About a year ago, he reluctantly changed his mind.  The stairs were becoming too difficult, given the state of his lungs.  We needed to live on one floor, preferably where many of the chores of home maintenance would be taken care of, and perhaps where there was also access to nursing care if needed. However there could be no buying without selling.  The money for the next place was tied up in my equity in the condo.

At the time, I was ambivalent.  Although approaching my 85th birthday, I didn’t feel ready to consign myself to “a retirement community.”  I thought of those communities as holding pens for death. On the other hand, Bill needed to be in such a place. So I swallowed my reservations. We visited a beautiful and (for us) hugely expensive facility run by the Quakers in Pennsylvania, another in Montgomery  (just north of Princeton) which gave me possibly irrational but nevertheless bad vibes, and a third in Plainsboro (but with a Princeton address), where the lovely apartments were market-rate — and without future medical care built into the monthly fees, thereby greatly raising them. I also began calling real estate agents to get started with the sale part of this double enterprise.  We met with three and were about to meet with V., who would have been the fourth, before Bill became too sick to proceed.

So when V. called at the beginning of June, I could have consulted my feelings and said, “Not yet.”  Or I could have made the choice I thought I should, and said, “Yes come. Let’s talk.”  Not in any way enthusiastic about moving to that “retirement community” (just about the only source of one-floor apartments in or near Princeton not priced out of my league), but driven by financial prudence (as well as fear), I agreed to meet with V. in a week.  That gave me just one  week to rid the condo of all Bill’s medications, cannulas, inhalers, oxygen concentrators and related equipment; to get off the floors, and find a place in the already full bookcases for, the towers of books surrounding every place he liked to sit; and also to make his office (the second bedroom) and his bathroom (the second bathroom) somewhat more presentable.

There’s nothing like a timetable to get you off your ass and thinking again about something other than yourself. Plenty of time to cry early in the morning and in bed at night.  As for the question posed in the headline, in a way (and much like attendance at bereavement groups) it’s different strokes for different folks. What answer might I have given if I were rolling in money?  I truly don’t know.  But I’m not.  That said, I think I made the right decision — for me.  I’m better off, in almost all ways, here than there.

The prospect of V.’s visit precipitated a whirlwind of activity that didn’t let up until after I moved into the Plainsboro residence near the end of September.  By that time I had resumed sporadic, although not yet regular blogging. I had also reaped all kinds of kudos from acquaintances for having rebounded so efficiently and accomplished so much in such a short time. I hadn’t “rebounded.”  I still miss Bill acutely, beyond writing about it,  even in this new environment. But I did accomplish quite a bit in not very much time at all.  However, there’s no mystery or miracle about it.  You do what you have to do.  And with some luck, and some help from friends and interested professionals, it gets done.

One or two (or three) more posts about the “moving on” part. And then we’re up to date!

TALKING ABOUT GRIEF

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Does talking about it help?

There’s no one answer. We’re all different.  The only thing you and I have in common is that we’re both human.  In other respects each of us is, miraculously, one of a kind. So people experience loss of a loved person differently.  The searing pain may be the same in every bereaved heart. There the similarity probably ends.

There are differences between loss of one parent and then of the remaining parent, between loss of a brother or sister and loss of a child or of a husband or wife. Family situations also vary among the grieving survivors.  There may be strong familial support or no family at all, loving friends or none. Often when the survivor of a death is getting on in years, the loving friends who might have been there are already dead themselves.

For the most part, men and women also seem to differ in their response to what has happened. Many men may feel they can tough it out alone, or that their loss is too private to share. Some simply lack the habit of being able to talk about feelings.  There are women who also feel uncomfortable speaking openly about private matters. However, these appear to be in the minority.   In the five or six walk-in bereavement group meetings and two six-week bereavement group sessions I attended after Bill died, I encountered only five men — two in one of the six-week groups and three others at separate walk-in sessions. Three were widowers and two were sons who had lived all their lives with their mothers.  Everyone else I met was a recent widow, or a sorrowful daughter or sister.

Therefore anything I say here about the value of talking about one’s great loss will not be useful for everyone.  I have at least one friend, no shrinking violet, who went to a couple of meetings after her husband died at too young an age and felt bereavement groups would not help her deal with the hand she’d been dealt.   Nonetheless, since I’ve been quite frequently asked why I attended (and now and then still do attend) such meetings, I’m going to set down here my experience with the benefits of going.

At the time Bill died last May, the very existence of bereavement groups hovered only lightly on the periphery of my consciousness as a vague notion they provided spiritual solace for church members. Since I’m not only nominally Jewish but entirely without spiritual faith of any kind, I would therefore not have been in any way comforted by the references to Jesus and God I expected would be offered by such groups. However, on one of his last days of consciousness before the morphine required for intubation knocked him out, Bill mentioned them. Although a psychiatrist by training, he had always favored talk therapy over pharmacology wherever medication might not have been absolutely necessary. Concerned even on his deathbed about my being alone in Princeton after he left me, he tried to think of what might help. So of course his suggestions included a place where I could talk it out.

My own instinct, not dissimilar, was to find a psychotherapist instead of a group — of necessity one who would take Medicare.  Throughout my life, it was always psychotherapy that helped me survive and surmount some very real difficulties.  Afterwards I would say, in jest (but it was also true), “I can’t leave a husband until I have a shrink, and I can’t leave a shrink until I’ve found another husband.”  I’ve also said, not in jest (but equally true), “I don’t know what I think till I hear what I say.”  Last May I wasn’t leaving anyone; he was unwillingly leaving me.  But the default position was the same.  I was going to need someone to talk to.

When I had sought therapy before, I was working and could pay.  Now I wasn’t working, and couldn’t pay — at least not for long.  In the intervening years, it has also become hard to find a therapist (let alone a psychiatrist who still does talk therapy) willing to settle for what Medicare will approve per session.  Eventually, with the help of my internist, I did find such a person. It is a great and much appreciated luxury for someone like me, needing to talk or write about what is going inside, to be able to sit down once a week with someone absolutely supportive and non-judgmental who for fifty minutes at a time exists only to listen and offer an occasional comment or suggestion.  But it took time to find her.  In the meanwhile, there was a nonsectarian bereavement group meeting once a month at the Princeton Senior Center where you could just walk in without registering or making a prior commitment.

I’m not a group person.  I like one-on-one, not only in therapy but with the people to whom I can be open. So it was with some trepidation that I showed up at the Princeton walk-in group on May 16, ten days after Bill’s death.  There were about eight people in the room, plus the group leader, who was a licensed social worker and part of the local hospital hospice staff, and also the hospital chaplain, a young woman newly pregnant. Despite my hesitation at the presence of the chaplain, she said nothing remotely “spiritual” at any point during the hour and a half we were there. Her function was to co-direct the discussion with the leader and, I suppose, to be available with her chaplain hat on for anyone who sought her out privately afterwards.

The group was part of the hospital’s outreach to the community. We sat around a long table on which there was a large box of Kleenex, introduced ourselves, identified the person we were there for and when he or she had died.  That was all we had to say, unless we felt like saying more. Almost everyone in the room said I had come too soon.  I didn’t think so. “Soon” is when you are raw and bleeding inside.  “Soon” is when you most need some kind of triage.  Even if you just listen to other people talk about how they are hurting without saying anything yourself, it helps. It helps to hear you’re not by yourself in feeling such extreme pain and fear. (Some people don’t admit the fear, but you can hear it in what they say.)

A number of acquaintances have said to me they didn’t need groups because when they were in that dark place hollowed out by death they were able to talk to family and friends.  I didn’t find talking to family and friends to be the same.  Even when you’re being deluged with phone calls, and invitations to dinner, and visitors bearing flowers and food, the callers and visitors don’t really want to hear too much about how you’re feeling.  You can sense their uneasiness as you speak. They make sympathetic sounds and nod and offer tissues, and then try to turn the conversation to other things, either to distract you from your sorrow or because they’re uncomfortable with such raw feeling.  It takes someone who’s been there or — better yet — who’s there right now.

Moreover, you get about thirty days of undiluted sympathy from the non-bereft.  Then you’re expected to make efforts to return to regular life.  Even quite good friends are capable of asking, “So, how are you now?” or, “How are you doing these days?” or, “Any plans to get away for a while this summer?” They also make every effort to avoid mentioning the person who has died. His or her name simply disappears from what they have to say.  They mean well.  But they just don’t get it.  And they don’t comprehend your inner confusion, if you try to explain it to them:  Are you really missing him (or her) so much as the weeks and months begin to pass?  Or is it the life you built and lived together that you miss?  Nor do they grasp the hot rage that alternates with your despair: The death wasn’t the fault of the disappeared, so why are you so angry, and (for God’s sake) at whom? After a while, you realize it’s futile to reach the uninitiated.

You can talk about all that in a bereavement group.  The others may come from other professions, other social circles, backgrounds, cultures, faiths…may have other vocabularies, may be less able than you to articulate what’s going on with them inside. But they will listen respectfully and with interest to what you need or want to say. They will have felt what you are feeling, or will begin to feel it as you talk about it and they let it well up.  You (and they) are in a place where it’s safe to let it out.

You also learn coping strategies, or work them out for yourself, from listening to those a little further away in time from death than you are. In addition to the good ideas you pick up, you may also on occasion feel privately superior to some of the group participants.  For example: one poor fellow in his fifties whose mother had died several months before said he wandered around the local supermarket in the evenings although he had no need to shop, so as to feel himself among other human beings. Although I felt sorry for him, I knew at once that’s something I simply would not do. And if you’ve come to the meeting with the sense you’ve been crushed by loss, perhaps beyond repair, hearing about such desperate measures may energize you to find a more palatable and self-respecting alternative.

Some people even make new friends from among those who are sharing their experience.  A mini-group of four who participated in one of the two six-week group sessions I attended  last summer banded together for the purpose of not being alone on Saturday nights.  They pick a local movie by e-mail and all have supper at a nearby restaurant before the movie begins. I myself would not find a shared loss sufficient basis for pursuing friendship outside the bereavement group unless there were other interests and points of view in common.  But it seems to give these four considerable comfort, now that they are all without partners, to spend “date night” doing something together that they did with their partners before.

Why do I still occasionally go to bereavement groups now that it’s six and a half months since Bill’s death? Because I’m in no way out of the woods yet.  The rawness of the injury (and death of a partner is a severe injury to the survivor’s sense of self) has scabbed over. But in my case, anyway, the depth of the sorrow seems to have been somewhat deferred, given the fact that I had to spend June, July, August and September winding down Bill’s affairs, getting a condominium townhouse ready for sale, marketing it, looking for an apartment to live in after the sale, coordinating both contracts so that the apartment contract was contingent on the successful sale of the condo, downsizing, working with a contractor to somewhat alter the apartment before the move, and then finally moving.  (Some of that perhaps to be recounted in future posts.) Such concentrated activity left only early mornings and nights for unrestrained crying. So it is just now when I am “settled” again that I have the relative leisure to let myself fully experience how I feel as I embark without him on this new life into which I was thrust against my will.

And for where I am in what could be called the grieving process, a group can continue to be helpful. I’m the sort of person who responds to what someone else has said rather than initiating a train of thought myself.  Last Monday, at a walk-in session, I responded to a widow who told us how she was sorrowfully trying to recreate the Thanksgiving she had had with her husband for so many years — with a thought I hadn’t been able to formulate clearly before she spoke. I said I felt as if the life I had shared with Bill now seems to me like a play in which I was suddenly left onstage without the other player.  But half a year later, I’m not in that play anymore.  The scenery’s been struck and they’ve mounted another play on the stage, with new scenery.  I certainly remember the first play. I know all the lines. And I dearly wish I were still in it with my co-star.  But I’m not.  He’s disappeared. Now I’m the lead character in this new play.  Except I’ve only been given the first few pages of the script and I have no idea at all yet what the author,  whoever the author is  –me? — has in mind.

That’s exactly how I’m feeling this Thanksgiving.  But I don’t think I could have discovered such an apt and clarifying metaphor for it if I hadn’t been at the bereavement group meeting last Monday. I’m sure there will be post comments from people who’ve had other, more negative, experiences with bereavement groups. But as I said at the beginning, and as Bill always said when someone said or did something that flummoxed us, we’re all different.

I wish you a warm and tranquil holiday weekend.

TRUMP AND LIFE

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Yesterday I declared I wouldn’t be commenting on the election. However, I just came across a piece by Adam Gopnik, published four days ago by The New Yorker Digital News Desk, called “Talking to Kids About Trump’s Victory.” Gopnik’s last paragraph strikes me as so exactly right — not only about Trump arriving after eight promising years of Obama but also about life in general, especially as I have been experiencing it recently — that I can’t resist quoting it.

The lesson of history—one of them, anyway—is that there is no one-way arrow in it, that tragedy lurks around every corner, that the iceberg is there even as the mighty Titanic sails out, unsinkable. [italics mine] Having a tragic view of life is compatible with having a positive view of our worldly duties. This is a big and abstract thought to share with children, of course, and perhaps, like so many like it, it is teachable only as a pained—at this moment, acutely pained—daily practice.

Is a quote a comment?  Probably.  Is life really tragic?  If you live long enough, it does seem so.  Must we nevertheless keep a positive outlook on our familiar duties and pleasures, and take as much comfort as we can from them? What other choice is there?

BIG WORD FOR FEELING AWFUL

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[Whatever the headline may suggest, this post is not about last Tuesday’s election.  My feelings about that are indeed awful, as if someone had suddenly and unexpectedly died, except it’s not the heartrending death of a someone but of political, ethical and perhaps even personal life as I and everyone I know has come to expect it. However, everything that can be said at this point has already been said, by other bloggers, columnists, friends.  As for the frighteningly uncertain future, we can only grit our teeth and wait for whatever comes next. So I am returning here to last May, after Bill’s death and my visit to the undertaker.]

Bill died on a Friday. On Saturday morning, of necessity, I visited the undertaker/funeral director. I then got myself home and didn’t go out until Monday.  There were comforting phone calls, which made me sad when they ended because I was alone in the house again. There was also cuddling with the cats and raw sorrow.  It felt as if a large part of me had been cut away, leaving a hollowed-out bleeding cavity. Solicitous acquaintances sent flowers.  I had no desire to eat (although I knew I should), and wished I could sleep (but couldn’t).  The refrigerator was still full of Orgain, a packaged drink somewhat like Ensure but designed by a doctor undergoing treatment for cancer and allegedly composed of more nutritious ingredients, which Bill had been able to consume even when the medication he was taking to slow the progression of his pulmonary fibrosis removed his appetite and made him nauseous.  I survived the first weekend on two or three daily vanilla Orgains.

I did go to bed early and lay there until it was light again, but if I slept (and I probably did, in fitful bits) I don’t remember it. I do remember my law-school-trained mind spinning like a kaleidoscope gone crazy, unable to focus either on my misery or what I had to do next on Bill’s behalf.  Which was to (1a) sell the red Honda he had driven; (1b) try to return to the distributor for credit his newest and virtually unused portable oxygen concentrator,  five pounds lighter than the one Medicare had provided — for which he had paid nearly $2000; (1c) close his credit card accounts; (1d) notify his insurers of his death; and (1e) verify that I would not need to probate the will, since New Jersey doesn’t require it if the decedent owned nothing solely in his own name at the time of death. There was also what had to be done, all by myself, on my own behalf. Which was to (2a) sell the condo as soon as I could, since it was both too big and too expensive for me to maintain alone much past the end of the calendar year without seriously dipping into capital; and also to (2b) find another place for the cats and me to live as soon as the condo was sold, although the money to buy this “other” place, when I found it, was solely the equity in the still unsold condo because I was pretty sure I didn’t qualify for another mortgage while I still had one. (A few weeks later, I found out I was right.  I was coldly informed by loan officers at two separate banks that I would need to show at least $10,000 in monthly income to carry the two mortgages, even for only the three months or so before the condo would presumably sell.  Hah.  That was not something I would ever have been able to do, even when I was working.)

The (1a-1e) through (2a-2b) in the prior paragraph is of course so neatly organized because I am writing this piece six months later; organization or any kind of  plan was completely beyond me that weekend.  My mind lurched from “close his credit card accounts” to “see if I can get a mortgage” to “should I take the car to Honda or try to sell it myself” to “do I know a lawyer I can consult about the will who won’t charge me” to “the condo is an unsightly mess of medical equipment and books all over the floor” to “how could he leave me to deal with all this by myself?” to “I need more Orgain from Amazon, chocolate flavor this time.”  Then one of the cats, still missing Bill, would come to the bed in the middle of the night to be scratched, petted and comforted. And I would cry, in the dark, into her fur.

Everyone who called advised doing nothing for a while until I felt stronger.  That was good advice. But the Type A person I also am thought: What do they know?  “Listen to what your body wants,” said Bill’s niece, a psychotherapist practicing in Israel.  Well, all right.  Unfortunately, by Monday — when I attempted to walk to the brick mailbox stand two driveways away from mine — I realized I could move only very slowly and was wobbling. Was my body trying to tell me something? I began to eat again, carefully, because I knew I should, and also because kind acquaintances were deluging me with offers of meals at their house, meals at restaurants, prepared meals brought in (one even vegan and surprisingly tasty) — none of which I could in good conscience refuse — and also because a survey of the refrigerator and pantry cabinet revealed so much food stored there to tempt Bill’s appetite that I would have to give it away, throw it all out or begin consuming some of it.  Sleep didn’t come as easily as the meals.  And the trips to the mailbox were becoming even more difficult. By the end of the first week, I was making them only every other day.  (Since Bill was the King of Catalogues, that meant the box was so stuffed when I did eventually open it that I hardly had the strength to pry out its contents and scraped the outsides of my fingers raw on the metal sides of the opening.)  A friend who picked me up to feed me rotisserie chicken and salad had stone slabs for steps up the grass from her driveway to the house. I had to ask her to let me clutch her arm to make it to the front door.

This was both embarrassing and worrying.  I was all alone in Princeton.  Although they were warm and supportive on the phone, one son lived in Florida and the other shuttled back and forth by train between work in D.C. and weekends with his still-young children and wife in New York.  If I became too weak to take care of myself, not to mention all the things needing to be done, then what?  By the time I stepped out the door to get the mail a week to the day after Bill had died, my heart was pounding loud and frighteningly fast, I gasped for breath as if I too had suddenly developed pulmonary fibrosis, and I was so dizzy the ground under my feet spun around. As I proceeded very slowly towards the box with legs far apart, like Charlie Chaplin, to keep some kind of shaky balance, I felt I might be on the verge of dying — not that very minute, but soon.  Although my head was still revolving like a top, I was able to grasp and hold on to one thought:  Call a doctor before it was too late.

Easier said than done.  For nine and a half years, since coming to Princeton, Bill and I had been seeing an internist highly recommended by the nurses in the major medical practice nearby as the most patient-friendly.  Dr. L. was indeed apparently much interested in each of his patients, at least for the time allotted him by the insurance companies, and even seemed to remember just about everything about you when you showed up for bi-annual checkups without first having to review your chart in your presence. But as we each grew older, and more symptoms of this and that surfaced, Bill pulled away. He was mostly seeing specialists by then, anyway.  I hung on to Dr. L. until last year, although Bill kept urging me to switch to Dr. G., another internist in the same practice whom he liked much better on the one or two occasions he had consulted him.

The cause of Bill’s disenchantment with Dr. L., and eventually mine, was that patient-friendly as he was, Dr. L. was a worrier. He was also perhaps over-impressed by our academic and professional credentials and shared all his proactive medical hypotheses with us.  If there were a symptom or a complaint, he not only knew all the conditions and diseases of which it might be a harbinger, which would need to be tested for, but would share all this (potentially scary) thinking with us.  In my seventies, I was sufficiently healthy that Dr. L.’s proclivities as one’s medical advisor didn’t really bother me. Later it did, very much. By then I had enough to worry about, without contemplating dire possibilities that might not come to pass.  But that’s another post, for another time.  Suffice it to say that last March, Bill prevailed, I switched to Dr. G., and obtained an appointment for the end of May.

Thus, in the middle of May when I suddenly needed him, Dr. G. had not yet met me. Moreover, a phone call revealed he was completely booked through the end of June, and certainly couldn’t squeeze in a new patient he didn’t yet know.  Although no one suggested it, I felt unable to return to Dr. L.  Nor would I under any circumstances take myself to the Princeton ER, given my recent experiences at that hospital.  (See “After Death, What?” TGOB, July 29, 2016.) However, Dr. G.’s appointment secretary was very kind when she learned my husband had recently died and I felt as if I were going to die too.  Her husband had died two years previously and she had felt exactly the same way.  She would try to find someone else to see me. (I did hope it wasn’t going to be Dr. L. but kept that to myself.) Good as her word, she called back an hour later with the name of Dr. S., who had recently joined the practice and therefore had an opening, five days from then (no, not sooner), at 8 a.m.

Beggars can’t be choosers.  In the meanwhile, I googled Dr. S.  His photo showed pink cheeks, a big smile on a round young face, lots of neatly combed dark hair; he looked as if he’d just emerged from college. Although he hadn’t gone to any of the medical schools known to me through fifteen years of living with Bill (a psychiatrist), young Dr. S. had practiced for a couple of years in Philadelphia, could probably determine whether I was dying or not, and could then hand me over to the appropriate specialist(s) to treat whatever was wrong with me.

Dr. S. looked exactly like his picture.  He might have been a classmate of  one of my sons when in their twenties.  Still, he was an M.D..  I explained why I was there. Husband died ten days ago. Heart fast and pounding. Unable to breathe. Legs like cooked spaghetti.  So dizzy the world was turning round and round.  No balance.  Unable to think a straight thought.  “Well, let’s see,” said young Dr. S. soothingly, reaching for his tools.  My blood pressure was normal.  My heart rate was normal.  My blood oxygenation level was 98-99 (so the breathing was normal).  “Then why am I feeling like this?” I demanded. “As if I were going to die?”  Young Dr. S. must have been a very good student in whichever medical school he had attended.  He knew exactly what ailed me.  It sounded as if it had come right out of a textbook.

“Somatization!” he declared.  

He meant it was all psychosomatic.  The pounding heart, the breathlessness, the vertigo, the loss of balance, the inability to focus.  I had never heard the noun form before, but if there’s a medical adjective, there’s usually a big and latinate related noun. “It’s just a reaction to your loss,” he said to me in a voice appropriate for addressing a small child or someone not quite with it.

And what was I supposed to do with this information? Learn to live with it? Dr. S. mentally turned pages till he reached the one that dealt with treatment for the grieving patient. He then told me I needed sleep and food. I was to get eight hours of sleep, and if I couldn’t fall asleep when I went to bed, I should get up and read till I felt sleepy, and then try again.  I was to eat whatever I wanted, even if it was french fries, without worrying about it, because I now needed the calories.  I suppressed various impulses to tell him I wasn’t stupid and instead listened impassively, not quite the good and grateful patient contemplated by the medical textbook but close enough. What was the point in pushing it with young Dr. S.?  He was doing the best he could.  He also told me to exercise. “Even if I’m moving like Charlie Chaplin, but more slowly?”  Yes, exactly.  And then I would start to feel better.  Well, perhaps that’s what the medical textbook said. “Could you also write a scrip for ten days of a mild sleeping pill?” I asked.  “To get me through till my appointment with Dr. G.”  No, young Dr. S. feared I might become addicted.  If I really couldn’t sleep after the getting up and reading for a while, I might try Benadryl, which is over-the-counter and not (he said) addictive.

While waiting in line at Rite-Aid to pay for the Benadryl, I thought about Dr. S.’s big word for feeling like death.  Somatization. I had never believed that symptoms of what were later diagnosed as real physical complaints, like chronic fatigue syndrome or Lyme Disease, were psychosomatic, even if they were first dismissed as such.  Apparently I was wrong. It seems in some instances the body does speak up to tell you what you’re really feeling.  Mine, for instance. It was saying that all of me was suffering from mortal grief, even where my heart was actually beating regularly and my lungs actually functioning normally. I had just been been in shock too great to realize it.

And that did make me begin to feel better.  Or at least less worried. The Benadryl was a bad idea; one tablet knocked me out for eleven hours and left me woozy for twenty-four.  But after that I began to fall and stay asleep without help, except from the cats.  So although I continued to weep often and spontaneously when by myself, I had become somewhat more optimistic about being able to manage living without Bill, even if unhappily,  by the time my scheduled appointment with Dr. G. rolled round.

The following week, the undertaker called me to come pick up Bill’s ashes. For the $3,000 I had paid him he probably would have kept them for a while, had I asked. But better sooner than later, and be done for good with that unctuous and falsely sympathetic man. The bag containing the plastic urn seemed surprisingly heavy when I picked it up, although Bill hadn’t been tall or big-boned.  Regretfully, I needed Mr. Unctuous to carry it to my car for me.  I hadn’t thought to bring a cane (although there were eight or nine of Bill’s, in various styles, in the house) because I wasn’t used to needing one.  But I was still afraid I might fall if I held the heavy bag while going uncertainly down the incline from the funeral home door to the curb.  However, I wasn’t dizzy anymore, and that was something.  Besides, Dr. G. had written a scrip for physical therapy to get me stronger again and I already had a first appointment scheduled.  He had also given me another prescription, for thirty days of a mild sleeping pill.  I did fill it, but by then I no longer wanted or needed sleep aids. Six months later, the thirty little pills are still in the drawer of my bedside table.

AND THEN…

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I can’t tell you what happened after I drove away from the Princeton hospital in the middle of the afternoon on May 6 because I don’t remember much about it, other than that I kept swerving erratically as I turned the wheel and was repeatedly honked at.  I suppose I survived because the honkers were also good drivers.  But I did manage to get myself back into my own driveway behind Bill’s red Honda, and then into the house through the garage door, carrying the hospital plastic bag containing everything he had had on when we had checked him in seven days before.  I couldn’t unpack it.  I just put it down.  It was all I had left of him.  It would still smell of him.  And I had to save that until I could cry.

Just then I couldn’t cry.  I sat on the family room sofa to call my two sons to tell them it was over.  They must have said the right things, each in his fashion, but I don’t remember what they said.  Did my voice shake? It must have.  I don’t remember.  Then I must have used Bill’s phone, which had a reduced overseas rate plan, to call his oldest niece in Israel and afterwards his Swiss first wife, mother of his older son, in Geneva.  His niece, who is a psychotherapist, was very kind. I do remember the kindness of her voice, but not her words. It was something about now I had to take care of myself.  His first wife (who speaks English and also likes me) was so matter-of-fact that I actually do remember what she said. It was that she was sorry but after all he had lived a long life, and I had my sons. She also invited me to visit if I ever come to Switzerland.

After that, I must have fed the cats and petted them and petted them.  They knew something was wrong.  Bill hadn’t been home for a week and I was clearly not myself.  They kept rubbing their furry cheeks against me in an unusual display of either affection or distress. I cleaned the litter boxes, and forced myself to drink an Orgain, of which there were over a dozen left in the fridge for Bill.  (Orgain is a somewhat more nutritious, and expensive, version of Ensure, that last nutritional resort for people who have difficulty eating enough).  I was numb.  I put my checkbook in my purse for tomorrow and went upstairs with the sole thought that I had to get some sleep because the next morning I needed to drive to the undertaker, who would have by then removed the body from the hospital — to pay him for having done that and for the cremation that would follow.  We had some old sleeping pills in the bathroom cabinet, but I was afraid to take one, or even half of one, lest I not wake up in time.  I stayed in bed all night, but if I slept I don’t remember it.

The undertaker was professionally solicitous. Sleepless and still in a state of shock, I resented it. He didn’t know me, he didn’t care about me, he was really only interested in my business — which he was going to get anyway because he took care of 90% of the dead in Princeton (as he was quick to assure me when I inquired).  I particularly resented his oily deference and lowered voice when, after obtaining the requisite information for the death certificate, and learning that I had no interest in buying any of his pretentious urns, he informed me that the fee for having removed the body and for the cremation would be $3,000, payable before I left.

Does anyone haggle in such circumstances? Did I really have any viable option?  Deciding it might be more prudent to hold on to cash for the time being, I kept the checkbook out of sight and gave him a credit card in payment.  My mother’s identical cremation in Palm Springs, California, sixteen years earlier, had cost slightly over $300.  I asked him what he charged people who couldn’t afford the fee.  He said if they could prove they were being supported by the state, there was a reduced price, which they could pay in installments.  He also said because his establishment was in the center of town and he needed a lot of space in back for mourners to park, his real estate taxes were very high. He was sure an educated, professional woman such as myself would understand.

The educated professional woman who was allegedly myself didn’t understand much at that point, but she did understand that in a money economy, everything costs.  Even dying.  However, she didn’t have time to brood about it.  There were many other things to attend to.  I had to finalize Bill’s affairs. As important, or even more so, I needed to decide what to do about the condo, which was both too big and too expensive for me to maintain by myself past the end of 2016.  The best time to try to sell it was soon, because people with young children who were looking to buy in Princeton wanted to do it in time to register those children in the Princeton public schools before the beginning of the school year.  So if I were going to sell, I had to get it staged and on the market by early July.  But first, I had to get myself back in shape to function.

Easier said than done.  Bill died on a Friday.  By the following Monday, I felt — felt physically, in my nearly 85 year-old body — as if I might be dying too.

AFTER DEATH, WHAT?

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This is not a philosophical question, or a religious one. It’s a question about what happens to the person sitting by a hospital bedside when the occupant of the bed, someone who was loved and cherished, becomes (suddenly or at last) “the deceased,” dies perhaps even while the sun is still shining brightly through the clean hospital windows, mocking the dark ache in the heart of the solitary survivor.

In the hospital where Bill died early in May, a four-year-old state-of-the-art hospital in upscale Princeton, New Jersey — home of a world-renowned university, of the Institute for Advanced Studies (where Albert Einstein found safe harbor after fleeing anti-Semitism in Europe during World War II), and of Westminister Choir College, whose graduates grace stages in many celebrated opera houses – in this spiffy new hospital, the person blinded by tears who holds the still-warm hand of a new cadaver simply ceases to exist.

A nurse’s aide came to wheel away the equipment that had sustained Bill’s life for the past seven days. I began to gather up my things, thinking they were about to clear the room. “You can stay for half an hour or so,” she said matter-of-factly as she left. “They won’t take him away and remake the bed before that.” People continued to walk back and forth in the hall. I had to get up to close the door.

Not that I had counted for much in the hospital before that, except as a conduit for conveying important information about Bill. In fact, “you can stay for half an hour or so” was one of only five things anyone there said to me the day Bill died. Earlier, Bill’s fourth pulmonologist had come by to report he wasn’t getting better and what did we want to do next, whereupon I told her Bill’s son and I agreed we should let him go. She nodded and said, “I wish more families were as wise as you.” And that was that. She just left. I never again saw or heard from her, although it was me who had accompanied Bill on every outpatient appointment with her and asked at least half the questions. It was also me who had brought him to her office in a wheelchair just before she checked him into the hospital because he was so weak and sick. She knew me. I had thought she was nice. But of course I wasn’t her patient. Her role as a physician ended with Bill’s death. She had no obligation to me, not even a human one. Not even to say she was so sorry.

Somewhat later, another pulmonologist came in. I had seen him briefly just once before, because he was one of four in practice together who took turns doing the hospital rounds for pulmonology cases, so that each was there only every fourth day and you never really got to know any one of them. (Maybe that’s how they keep from becoming too emotionally invested in a patient.) “You’d better notify a funeral director to come get the body afterwards,” he said. “We can only keep it overnight.” As if Bill were a left-behind package needing removal.

After they pulled out the intubation tubes and — still unconscious — Bill was rapidly slipping away, an intensive care nurse came to check that dying was proceeding properly and reprimanded me for looking at the monitor to see his oxygen level. “Don’t look there. Look at his face,” she scolded. (While I still could?) She turned off the monitor. So it was me who first noticed he had died. I held my hand against his cracked and slightly open lips but no faint breath came out. She brought in the pulmonologist who had advised calling a funeral director. He held Bill’s inert wrist for a moment, looked at the clock, and said — not to me, but to the nurse, who was taking notes — “Time of death 2:52 p.m.”

When he, the nurse, the nurse’s aide, and the equipment were gone, I called the funeral director and made arrangements to come to his office next day to pay him for what he was about to do and give him the requisite information for the death certificate. Then I kissed the forehead of the body in the bed that wasn’t Bill any more and stumbled out of the room into the hall and towards the elevator. It was a long hall. I had trouble maintaining my balance. The resident who had seen me every day for the past seven days was at the floor reception desk as I passed him. I gave him a slight nod, but not a flicker of recognition crossed his face. He might have been staring into space. I also crossed paths with the two day nurses and one of the four pulmonologists who had looked after Bill during the seven days he spent in their care. All three looked right through me.

One person noticed how erratically I was walking. It was the respiratory technician, a woman called Antonia who appeared to be in her late fifties; she had been in Bill’s room every day during the last three days of his life to adjust the respirator keeping him alive. Our eyes met, she came towards me and held out her arms. It was a big hug. My eyes began to fill again. “Will you be all right driving home?” she asked, still hugging. I nodded, because it was too hard to speak. “Be careful,” she said. “God bless.”

Of course I wasn’t all right driving home. My hands and arms shook so much I could hardly keep the wheel from going out of control as I tried to make the winding turns out of the hospital complex and back onto Route 1 South. Two other drivers gave me long and frightening honks, as if it were thanks only to them I myself had narrowly escaped being killed.

Resigning myself to the fact of Bill’s death is still very hard. But what particularly festered on the day he died, and does to a certain extent even now, is that his doctors and nurses made it so very clear they didn’t care at all about what I might be feeling. Maybe where there’s so much pain and suffering for their patients, they can’t permit themselves the humanity to be even momentarily concerned with those who survive the patients. Or maybe my experience was unique. Maybe at other hospitals it’s different. I don’t know. All I can say is that nearly three months later, I don’t remember the names of any of the four pulmonologists or the intensive care nurses. I’ll remember Antonia with gratitude for a very long time.

BEREAVEMENT ASSIGNMENT

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I’m not generally a group person. I have belonged to book groups over the years, where I invariably tend to talk a lot.  As a rule, however, I’m more comfortable meeting people one on one, rather than being one of many sitting around a conference table.

That said, Bill (in helpful mode to the end) noted from his hospital bed that I might find it comforting to join what he called a “grief group” after he was gone.  Dutifully, despite my lack of enthusiasm for groups, I found two, terming themselves “bereavement” groups.  The first, which cost $50 for six weekly sessions and by happenstance had only women participants, is over now and was not, for me, particularly helpful, other than being a place to go when I needed very much to get out of the house.  The second, also running for six weeks but free, has another two meetings scheduled and is more interesting, possibly because there are a couple of men in it who speak of their bereavement in somewhat different terms than the women in both groups have tended to do, but possibly also because the leader/coordinator is a much better counselor.

For this second, still ongoing, group there was an assignment this week: I was to write myself a letter from Bill in which he addresses what he valued and appreciated about me during the time he was facing his illness and death with such bravery, and then to reflect  on what difference this letter might make for me in my life currently. I was also cautioned not to stress about it or put myself under any pressure, and to remember there is no right or wrong.

Stress? Pressure? Me? This “assignment” was like waving catnip at a pussycat. Thirty minutes later I had sent it off, thinking, as I clicked “attach file,” that it might also make a pretty good sequel to the last piece I posted here several weeks ago. So for those of you who are wondering how I’m doing, here’s how I’m doing, as of now:

Bereavement-Group Assignment, July 26, 2016

I wrote many letters for Bill during the years we lived together – business letters and also letters to his grown children, the latter based on what he wanted to say to them but typed all lower case so as to look as if he were the one at the computer and not me.  The fact is Bill not only couldn’t really type, but also couldn’t write worth a damn (which he cheerfully acknowledged), and couldn’t spell very well either, although he had a huge vocabulary and was an easy and charming conversationalist.  It’s a wonder he got through medical school, and in French, too. (His medical degree was from the University of Geneva, in the days when very few Jewish boys were accepted by American medical schools.) So it seems extremely unlikely he would have written me a letter when he was dying.  If he had, it would have looked like the messages on the birthday cards, Valentine’s Day cards, Mother’s Day cards, and cards that came with flowers for no reason at all just because he felt like bringing flowers home that day: “For my beautifull wonderfull Nina. All my love, Bill.”

But he did tell me what he might have put in a last letter, had he thought to write it.  He told me on the evening of May 3, the last night before intubation and three days before he died; it was the last night he could still speak, although through the bi-pap mask.  I wrote it down as soon as I got home, so I would never forget it.  This is what he said:

            “It breaks my heart to see you so sad.”

             “You were the best thing that ever happened to me.”

              “You’re one in a million.”

               “I love you so much.”

                “You are wonderful and beautiful. You’re intelligent, and funny and sexy.”

                 “You’re so kind.”

                 “We had fifteen wonderful years together.”

                 “It’s all right to cry.”

                 “I hate to leave you. But I don’t want to live on a machine.”

                 “I know everything will be okay.  You’re strong, and you’ll be fine.”

 Does rereading this change anything about my days without Bill?  It doesn’t make them less painful. If anything, it reopens the raw wound of his having disappeared from my life.  I feel it’s better for me not to dwell on what is gone and irreplaceable, but just to go on putting one foot in front of the other and trust that, as he said, eventually “everything will be okay.” Maybe not “fine.” Certainly not “wonderful.”  But okay. After all, he was “one in a million,” too.

When I was somewhat younger, I used to think what you had to do in life was find the “right” person and become secure in your relationship together, and that would be the end of the story, that particular search story, anyway. I now feel nothing in life is secure, and that it’s all a journey each of us takes by ourself, with good times (if we’re lucky) that we don’t entirely appreciate while we’re passing through them, but also times after the good times that are not so good, because at bottom we remain profoundly alone, even where there are other (similarly lonely) people to keep us company at the movies.