Climbing Out of Grief: Terminal Illness Means Losing Him Twice
Little Astronaut at the Bottom of a Crater
The first thing I lost was an emaciated, dying man. When my boyfriend breathed his final breath as I lay next to him in the hospital bed in the middle of my living room, I held his ruined body, reveling in its terrible beauty, knowing there was nothing do to but let him go.
I imagined my grief to be an ocean in the days immediately after his death—something that I could swim across eventually if I worked at it diligently. A few days after that, a mountain seemed a better metaphor. I had to keep trekking if I was going to survive. There could be no floating, no riding the waves passively or treading water. It was claw my way upward or plummet.
Dan died on a Friday. Which meant I didn’t go to the train station to pick him up on Saturday afternoon and that he and I did not go to the local farmer’s market on Sunday. But in those first days, I’m not even sure how specifically I considered where he wasn’t or what we weren’t doing together. Mostly I was just lost in the loss. The lack of him was amorphous and huge.
At some point, though, days or weeks later, as I drove to the east side of town, I realized I was not driving to the hospital to see him, nor was I turning onto the street that led to the nursing home where he spent a few days before his hospice care was transferred to my house. I wasn’t overseeing medication or taking his temperature or making fresh juice, or trying to imagine what I might concoct that would entice his ravaged taste buds. I wasn’t hunting for sweat pants out of season or debating the merits of medical marijuana. Not only was the dying man gone, the sick man, who was frequently a hell of a good time, was gone, too.
Later still, our ritual of evening phone calls reconstituted itself one night as I sat at the dinner table waiting for my mother to finish. I was feeling physically better. Like going for a walk instead of lolling around on the sofa or simply giving up and going to bed at 8 p.m. But my weeknight walks meant talking to Dan. I went for a stroll anyway and played all of the dozen or so voicemails from him I had saved in my phone. All but one were polluted by opiates or pain or fatigue, and the one that wasn’t sent me careening down into a grief that felt more like a crater than a mountain.
Today, exactly six weeks since he died, the crater seems to getting bigger as grief dances me backwards in time. It’s one thing to mourn the loss of a terminally sick person who deserves relief and release; it’s quite another to remember the vibrant lover flirting with you over email or saying sweet things over the phone. It’s unthinkable to wake expecting kisses when the man so generously doling them out is not, and never will be, on his side of the bed. Little by little, it feels as if the robust man I once knew and loved is being reconstructed, shoving that sick guy into the background, and in the process, the loss grows larger, not smaller.
At night I scroll through Dan’s Facebook timeline with pictures of him when he was healthy. I watch videos of him playing music or doing t’ai chi. A sweater of his, buried at the bottom of my drawer since last winter, surfaces. I walk the stretches of beach we walked together before he grew too weak. A bottle of Siracha on my refrigerator door works its way to the front. I lost all of these things to fevers, anemia, dehydration, pain, and out-of-whack electrolytes. In the last months, I was so busy juggling care for that sick guy along with taking care of my 89-year-old mother that I’d practically forgotten the man I met five years ago on a Match.com date. The healthy Dan had already been missing for a long time by the time the sick Dan died.
Lately it seems that every tomato, every strawberry, glass of wine, shot of vodka, every train whistle, every moon, all the songs he once sung to me are swirling molecules of memory reconfiguring a man I haven’t seen for months. Each time a scene takes shape, the slope of the crater gives way and I’m back at the bottom again. I don’t mean to argue that my grief is deeper and wider or even different than anyone else’s. I don’t mean to say that losing someone to a debilitating illness or a terminal disease is any more heart-rending than a sudden heart attack or a tragic accident. I’m just telling you this grieving thing isn’t going how I thought it would, and maybe grief—our own or anyone else’s—doesn’t ever go as imagined.
Years ago on a family vacation to Meteor Crater in northern Arizona, I was stunned to be standing or the rim of a hole in the ground that was a mile across and deep enough to hold a 50-story building. It wasn’t what I had expected at all. It might be that a crater is the perfect metaphor for grief. It might be that grief digs deeper and deeper inside of us and that each new revelation of the loss is a subsequent impact, adding depth to the initial event. Yet somehow we go on, survivors who’ve lost lovers and parents and children and friends. We stand at the bottom of our grief, feet solidly on the ground like the barely visible life-sized model of the astronaut at the bottom of Meteor Crater. There we are, waving a seemingly tiny flag, providing scale to the immensity of our loss, which in the end is really about the immensity of love. So much bigger, so much deeper and wider than we ever imagined.
author of the book Birth Mother
and the blog Margaritaville.