When I became a widow at 54 years of age, my world as I had known it for 17 years had ended. Though my husband had been ill for 9 years, I lived in denial that one day the cancer would catch up with him and he would no longer be able to fight it. In 2006, that fear became a reality. The last year was the worst as my husband needed 24 hour care and that meant a complete change of lifestyle for both of us. I felt so alone caring for him. We had no help except a few personal care aides who gave a few hours each day while I worked a part time job, and his hospice nurse who visited once a week. We also had a social worker who visited once a month and who was quite helpful to us but after the aides left, our day to day lives were filled with the stress of learning how to deal with the effects of the disease that wracked his body. My husband suffered with so much pain from cancer which had metastasized into his bones. I cared for him, worked a few hours a day and tried to keep all the daily management of the household as best I could. I never thought to reach out to people in our church. Being an introvert, I had always been shy about making friends so my circle of friends was small. We had no children and family was out of the state, so together we fought through it as best we could.
People would ask me “are you mad at God?” Or some would say, “it’s time to make a memory book.” Or the worst, “he’s not going to get any better, you have to face that.” I refused to face it. And I refused to believe that God wouldn’t heal him. But God did have another plan…my husband died in May 2007. In retrospect, I can now see the whole process more clearly; I see it in three parts.
Part 1 | Anticipatory Grief
Neither the person who is dying nor the caregiver is prepared to walk through terminal illness. No one can prepare for the death of a spouse. You might know in the back of your mind that it’s going to happen but you won’t speak it. You are unaware that you are already experiencing the normal stages of grief. You just know that something terrible is happening to you. You can’t think straight. You’re angry. You’re depressed. You’re in denial. Going through these stages causes you to feel so many different emotions you feel oblivious to who you are and who you’re becoming. You’re just going through the motions of functioning. The anger, denial, bargaining, depression stages are manifesting themselves but no one tells you that all this is normal.
I didn’t learn about anticipatory grief until after my husband had died. I don’t know if this is a practice with any hospice care services, but I strongly believe grief counseling should start at the time a person is pronounced terminal. It would have made a huge difference to both my husband and myself. If I had known, I would have been able to better cope with caregiving; with my emotions and my husband’s emotions because I would have understood that what we were going through was a normal grief process.
During the caregiving months, my spiritual life was pretty much non-existent. I wasn’t reading my bible…I couldn’t. I couldn’t settle my mind enough to get into sitting quietly before God. I did manage to pray but if there was any spare time after caring for my husband each day, it was used for taking care of the house, working and sleeping. And even then, I would often have to stop what I was doing to attend to him. It was an overwhelming responsibility. I think if I had known about anticipatory grief I would have been better able to think straight and set priorities. If we had received grief couseling together, I think it would have changed our perspective. Perhaps it shouldn’t be called grief counseling as that has a more negative connotation; but certainly a type of counseling that educated us about what was happening in both our lives; how to resolve the problems that came up; and more than anything, spiritual refreshment for our weary and hurting souls.
Caregiving is hard. It’s brutal. It’s over the top stressful. And when it’s over, you feel as though you’ve been through a war. But I was honored to be his caregiver. I did the best I could, even though I felt as though I had not done enough. I honored my marriage vows but I’ll always feel the burden of wishing I could have done more for him…somehow.
Part 2 | He’s Gone.
I came back from the funeral with a pain in my heart that is indescribable. “How can I go on without the love of my life?” Now, I was the one in excruciating pain. I felt as though my heart had been ripped from my chest. I felt was going to die from a broken heart. Half of my heart was in heaven. I cried out to God, “how can I go on with only half a heart?”
That first year without my husband was a nightmare. I cried and wailed continuously; not every single moment, but there wasn’t a day when I didn’t either cry deeply from my heart or just shed a few tears. I remember seeing people laughing and having a good time and I remember thinking “why are they laughing? Don’t they know that the world just ended? Don’t they know that their joy is like nails on a chalkboard to me?” I know…it’s crazy thinking. But my world had ended and nothing made sense anymore. The hardest days were the “firsts” of everything. The first anniversary of his death. The first Christmas. The first birthday. “How will I ever get through this nightmare?” I couldn’t. But God could help me through. I read the book of Job which was actually comforting to me. Job had it far worse than I did and he never cursed God even though his wife told him to. His prayer was “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job 1:21. I made that my prayer.
Part 3 | Healing.
As an introvert, I never reached out to other women to befriend them. But, after my husband died; I believe, in my heart, that God had a plan to give me what I didn’t know I needed. He connected me with women who showed me alot of grace, which made it easier for me to make friends with them. Some were married and some had also lost their husbands either through death or divorce. On New Year’s Eve of 2013, I decided to invite all the women I knew who had been divorced or widowed to my house for dinner. I thought, perhaps they might be spending New Year’s Eve alone, so why not do it together? About 5 or 6 of the ladies came and it was very cathartic. For some of them, their pain was fresher than mine and we spent hours around the table sharing and crying. We ended the night making plans to get together every month…and that night, Sister Chix was born! Sister Chix has become a support group for women who lost their husbands. It wasn’t meant to be a support group but we believe it may have been God’s plan since he kept adding to the number. We are up to 15 ladies now. And we’ve been meeting each month since 2013; 9 years as of the date of this writing. With God’s grace, we have learned to live without our spouses. We have learned how faithful God is; how He always provides. We have learned to depend solely on Him. Some of us have found joy despite our circumstances. Some of us are still working through the pain depending on how new their grief is. All of us have stories of how He walked with us through the deepest valley of our lives.
Without God in your life, the tragedies that one day we will all face, will affect everyone differently. Some people might turn to alcohol to relieve the pain. Some might refuse to leave their bed. Some might look for another relationship too quickly. But with God in your life, you will find comfort; strength; peace; and yes, even joy! The joy comes from being aware how the God who created the universe is providing for you; protecting you; helping you; strengthening you; and showing you the faithfulness and love He has for you. He loves you more than anyone ever could. If you don’t have a relationship with Jesus yet, you can ask Him through prayer to make himself known to you. Here are some helful resources to put your life into perspective.
To Put Things in Perspective
Finally, God’s Love for You
The Lord your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing.” Zephaniah 3:17