Preparing for Grief

Preparing for Grief

By Donna J. Mansfield

Preparing for Grief


I didn’t know before my husband died how well prepared I was for grief. Sure, I suffered, lost my memory, had a bad reaction to tranquillizers, cried almost non-stop, couldn’t eat (my throat closed after two bites) and missed him like crazy. And it took about six weeks before I stopped saying to friends who asked “How can I help?” with the response, “Bring him back”.

When I could look around me with clear eyes, I could see how well I was being supported in my grief. Chuck had been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous for forty-eight years and we had been attending a local open AA meeting for over a year, and at that meeting, non-alcoholics could speak. There I was surrounded by people who knew and loved him. They could listen to the pain of my loss because they felt the same way.

Those folks are not made uncomfortable by sharing painful feelings because they do this regularly with honesty and bravery. Saying it a different way, these people are KNOWN and KNOW me. We don’t coddle each other emotionally. And this is the rarest form of being known. I wonder in looking back at how attending 12 Step meetings for 46 years enhanced our marriage and personal growth journeys. Some people are lucky to have ONE trusted friend with whom they can be honest. We had dozens. And they didn’t back away in uncertainty when I LOST Chuck. They respected me enough to know that they couldn’t say anything that would make my grief worse, or better. That I could, even in my grief, take care of myself or they would take over.

We also attended a Zoom ‘Partners in Recovery’ meeting with new friends here and long-time friends in France, two of which had joined our “Die at 95 Club”. We formed this group with others who decided we would live healthy until age 95 and then die on the same day as our partners. It was a noble goal. Dr. Bernie Seigel in his book “Love, Medicine and Miracles” indicates we have some limited control over our own deaths. In our case, this was not to be. Whatever, we put death out of our thoughts with the exception of pre-paying for our cremations and writing health directives and hold harmless agreements with our doctors in case they made “mistakes” that caused our deaths. But even though my husband had a debilitating disease, we put death mostly out of mind and focused on living each day.

However, with the “95” mindset, I found myself angry when he died because he “owed” me 14 years.

I was also fortunate to have a friend who had been a widow for seven years. She was persistent in the face of my ignoring her offers of help, constantly sending me emails that said, “I want to have lunch/dinner/coffee”. When I finally relented she gave me constant reassurance that what I was experiencing was normal grief and not as “off the rails” as I determined. It is impossible to imagine ahead of time how you will grieve so every reaction that is not normal in your usual life feels crazy. I think it might also be helpful to read a book about grieving before YOU NEED IT. That will make you much less self-critical when the time comes. And speaking of books, buy a copy of  “Healing After Loss”, by Martha Whitmore Hickman. It will help you, once your spouse dies to move from caregiving to grief because you will be stunned by the loss of your past role. And please be aware that your caregiving skills are not transferable to yourself.

I also have an Al-Anon sponsor who can listen to resentments I had with friends and family who have no experience in emotional honesty. I judged them harshly. One family member even told me I expected too much of people. I had to listen and consider this criticism and found it to be true but not valid. With 46 years of 12-Step Programs and 40 years of being a psychotherapist, I am used to people gathering together for purposes of eliminating their liabilities, increasing their enjoyment of life, and coming to love themselves. This leaves me little patience for victims who excuse their failure to change to fear as if that excuses it, or to the neglected childhood resentments they can’t let go of.

Also, with my widowed friend, we have started a local branch of the USA based Modern Widows Club. Hopefully, when you need it, a branch will be available. I don’t have a resource for men, sadly.  This is important for women because the MWC’s website is a wealth of information that widows need as they traverse the deep waters of settling estates and insurance claims. This is incredibly difficult when one is overwhelmed by grief. As a psychotherapist in private practice, I am quite familiar with insurance companies that want to slow walk payouts. I used to hire sweet and unassuming women to be my insurance clerks. Within six weeks I would walk into their office and hear them swearing, screaming and spitting anger to the insurance rep on the other end of the phone. They would accuse that rep of throwing the paperwork away as the first step in paying a claim…and then recite a list of other behaviors that slow down legitimate claims.

I found one kind and sensitive insurance agent in all my survivor interactions. I received one notice that the company had received all necessary paperwork in my survivor case. Then, three weeks later, I received another notice that my claim could not be processed because there was outstanding paperwork.

By now, I was so angry that it crowded grief aside and I got on the phone with an insurance rep. His name was Chris and he listened patiently to my rant. Then he said, “Donna, turn over the first page of the letter”. There was a list of all required paperwork. All were marked submitted EXCEPT one form that the company had to fill out.

Chris said, “this letter is absolutely thoughtless to send to grieving spouses. Let’s go over it page by page to determine changes that should be made in order not to re-traumatize grieving spouses”. I promise you, I will take your suggestions to the highest authority in the company and fight to secure change”. The first needed change was NOT to write the paperwork list on the BACK of the first page as the natural instinct when reading is to go to the NEXT page.

His words suddenly straightened my tilted world upright. It was no longer tilted in favor of a heartless insurance company.

Another thing necessary for caregivers is to have a caregiver of their own. Unless I remind you, you won’t think of doing that on your own because all your attention is focused on making life easier for your ill loved one.

But you really do need someone to remind you to take a walk, go to a movie, or eat healthy. To demonstrate how skewed a caregiver’s life gets, during the entire 12 years of my husband’s decline only one person asked how I was doing. A caregiver seems to disappear into their role.

Be prepared to be ignorant of how to take care of yourself once your loved one dies. The transition from other to self is difficult because you probably have become expert at ignoring your own needs in order to prioritize another. You will also feel purposeless. Only when the ill person is no longer there do you realize the inordinate amount of time it took to care for them. Life seems empty but that is just the stillness of waiting for the tide of your own being to surge back in.

In order to prepare for this, decide on a hobby to try before you need it and, maybe even buy the supplies you will need to carry it out. Choose a club, an exercise group or a lecture series you might be interested in when you get the time and write down the details of how to participate. You won’t be capable of gathering this info when you REALLY NEED IT.

Write down self-care appointments you will need to make: nails, haircut, dental appointment, massage, etc. Because after death occurs, you will find yourself looking in the mirror at overlong hair, broken nails, or a physical pain from lack of touch.

You will need to learn to be proficient at skillful emotional discharges because the emotions of grief might overwhelm you otherwise. Remember, “the only way out of it is through it”. But how to do this requires a much more extensive explanation and will be saved for the next article.


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