I finally began to understand that those who survived a great loss and have begun to live again experience a new appreciation for almost everything. Though I had always had some appreciation of nature and its beauty, even as a child, I really began to appreciate it much more after the plane crash. I had only begun, though, to understand how fragile human life was. By that time, I had lost a six year old playmate to leukemia, my grandfather to a stroke, my first fiancée in a freak auto accident, and had watched and listened to a nineteen year-old kid die in my room at Elmendorf AFB Hospital from burns. I began to stop to smell the roses, to feel a breeze, to watch birds fly, to watch the sun set into Puget Sound or the Olympic Mountains, to listen to birds singing and the waves lapping on the beach. I was still somewhat of a loner and didn’t get close to many people, so their comings and goings had little effect on me.
Over a period of time, through a marriage, children and a divorce, the loss of my father, the death of my grandmother, remarriage, and then the loss of my mother, I had learned to set aside whatever grief I was carrying so I could get “the job at hand” done in a timely manner. I managed to get those jobs done, but I was becoming depressed and didn’t know it. Postponing…or stuffing…one’s feelings can be a detriment to one’s health. I didn’t think to take a lesson from my mother and her rheumatoid arthritis. About six years after I had remarried, my wife told me I was depressed and should seek help. With her help, I found a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with PTSD. Everything I had stuffed over the span of almost twenty years had finally shut me down. I felt empty, emotionless. However, thanks to my wife’s understanding and six months’ worth of treatment, I reemerged with feelings again. It took a little while to get used to them, but I was determined not to lose them again.
I knew this could be that ‘double-edged sword’ that people talked about, being able to cut both ways, but I kept on. Over time, I became more passionate about life, about my beliefs, about friendships and about love. I didn’t worry much about whatever the negative aspects of feelings could be, though there were times my feelings got hurt. When that occurred, I would retreat and analyze why they got hurt. Most of the time I found that hurt feelings on my part were caused by my failed expectations of others. I found that I expected as much of others as I did of myself, especially regarding issues of honesty, trust, loyalty, and even love. When I realized this and lowered my expectations of those people to little or none, my frustrations and hurt feelings subsided. The side effects of my lowered expectations, though, were the lack of trust and loyalty with regard to those people. I became more apathetic toward them. I also was careful of being too honest with them. I eventually found I got along nicely without many of them.
This happened more with acquaintances than it did with true friends. As true friends, we could disagree and argue, we could tease and insult each other, we could laugh about it all, and in the end, we were still friends, we still respected each other and our differences, we were still honest and loyal to each other, and we still loved each other. In a couple of instances, though, people I thought were friends really were not. Everything was fine until we disagreed on something, then we were no longer friends. They would not agree to disagree, so thus ended our friendship. In retrospect, I believe we’d still be friends had I agreed with everything they believed. I would not.
When my wife died, I was angry. I was lonely and heartbroken. I wanted to die and be with her, but I was angry. I wasn’t angry at her for leaving me, I was angry at God for letting her cancer happen. I was angry at God for not answering my prayers for a miraculous cure, for thinking he didn’t hear my prayers, for ignoring my prayers, for letting me watch her die a little more every day, and for not answering my prayers to die in my sleep. I was angry at myself for not realizing that it was I who had kept her with me instead of giving her permission to go. I was angry that her memorial service had provided closure for almost everyone else except me. I was just plain angry.
I still believed in God through all this anger, though I wondered if He believed in me. My days were long and time almost stood still for me. That can happen when one gets only four hours of sleep a night. Yet, it was time that I needed to think, to continue praying, to not let my emotions shut down again. There were few things that helped me get through those days, but one thought foremost in my mind was that I wouldn’t be hurting so much if I hadn’t have loved her so much. Here was that double-edged sword.
As time went on, new things happened to me that caused the ever-present ache in my heart to ease, and they were truly answers to my prayers though they were not as obvious as I would have liked. I needed the time that passed to quell my anger at God, at myself, and at life for continuing on around me. I needed the time to calm myself, to get to know myself again, to let my emotions flow and my mind to wander and wonder about life without my wife. I needed the time to remember things we talked about, things she selflessly said she wanted for me if she should die. Time was the salve that eased the pain and the loneliness of living without her. At first it was my enemy, then became a friend…a true friend. These new things, these answers to my prayers, came only when I was ready for them…actually, when God thought I was ready for them. That is my belief because of my faith in Him.
Time, and these new things, these new gifts from God, were changing me. I was becoming more different than I was before. I was becoming more empathetic and understanding of those who had lost spouses as well as other loved ones. I was remembering the losses of a six year-old playmate to leukemia, my grandpa to a stroke, a fiancée to an auto accident, my friends in Vietnam, a young soldier who died in my hospital room from burns, my father, grandmother and mother, and now my wife to cancer. I was learning how to put my emotions into words that I hoped would help others cope with their losses by showing them how I felt, and by showing them they weren’t crazy or alone in their grief when I felt that I was.
I wanted them to know there is no right way or wrong way to grieve, and there is no time limit on how long it takes to grieve. I wanted to show them that grief is an individual thing that can only be experienced when one gets there. I wanted to show people that grief is not clinical, that it is real, emotional and terribly raw. I wanted to show those who know someone who is grieving a loss what to say or what not to say, but mostly to just be there to listen and to cry with them. I wanted to show those who have lost a loved one that grieving eventually leads to healing and hoping again, and even love again, but to never forget from where they came.
Am I new? No. I’m old to some and I’m getting older though new things have happened to me. Have I changed? Some. I still have the values that were instilled in me by my parents, some perhaps tempered and even hardened by time. I also still have most of the characteristics that were inherent in me when I was born. Perhaps those, too, have been tempered and hardened by time. Time and life has a funny way of doing that to people. The important thing is to realize it.
Am I different now than I was five years ago when my wife passed away? Yes, I believe I am. I am different because the true friendships I have now I will cherish and keep alive, because of the losses I’ve survived, because of those new things that happened to me, and because of the understanding and empathy I now have for others who have suffered losses of loved ones. I also have a belief in God that has grown stronger because I have chosen to let it. Yes, I’m different.
So what’s this “Are We…” stuff? Well, I believe that those of us who have experienced the loss of a loved one are not new, unless we have discovered a faith in God, become a Christian, a born-again Christian or unless we have totally lost whatever faith in God we once had. I do believe that, because of the loss of a loved one, new things happen to us. I also believe that how we react to those new things make us different, whether one chooses to totally shut down, or to hope, heal and grow again. Ultimately, it’s our choice as individuals which way we want to go. Which different would you rather be?