Those six words, said by my husband’s oncologist, changed our lives forever, although the sense of impending loss had begun weeks earlier with a blood test. There would be more tests, exams, and visits to specialists. As George and I waited for a definitive diagnosis, we bargained with ourselves and with the universe. When we finally met with the cancer treatment team to review all the tests, George’s 6-foot 2-inch frame struggled to fit into the space at the small table, where we strained to follow the conversation. Hearing the word metastatic — meaning cancer had spread throughout his body — was like fingernails on a blackboard.
But there’s no real way to prepare for grief, an inescapable feature of the human condition. Its stress following the death of a loved one can lead to physical illness: cardiovascular diseases, broken-heart-syndrome (takotsubo cardiomyopathy), cancers, and ulcers. Emotional distress often sparks physical distress known as somatic symptoms. How each person navigates grieving varies. Comfort takes different forms for different people. While my journey is individual, my story touches on universal themes, particularly for those grieving in the time of COVID-19.
Anticipatory grief strikes first
George’s diagnosis was advanced metastatic prostate cancer, spread to lymph nodes and bone. There would be no surgery. No radiation. No chemotherapy. Only palliative care.
Some days George wanted to talk only with me. Other days he wanted to talk with those who were “in the same boat.” He saw himself as washed up on the shores of a new, unknown continent. I felt washed up with him. The National Cancer Institute describes these feelings as anticipatory grief, a reaction that anticipates impending loss.
In time, we returned to everyday routines. Sometimes we laughed and didn’t think about his illness. George even conceived of and hosted an annual party for his best friends — men who would be his pallbearers — and their partners. The “pallbearer party,” as it came to be known, was a wonderfully raucous event. Grown men laughed until they cried. Each year, by the end of the night, I knew the tears were for anticipated loss.
George lived another 11 years, more than twice what was expected. But anticipating his loss did not cushion my broken heart.
Acute grief following a death
George died in May 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown. Despite the pallbearers’ dress rehearsals, there was no funeral, no gathering of loved ones. Nothing to soothe my overwhelming pain.
In those first few weeks, time seemed stretched thin, moments repeating themselves like musical notes on a scratched record. I felt untethered, unmoored, adrift. My sides ached from crying; my knees were unsteady. I don’t recall eating.
At the funeral home, when I saw George in a casket, the large room seemed bright from lights hitting the shiny wood floor. Later, I realized the room was much smaller and dimmer than I remembered, its floor not shiny but covered by oriental rugs. Burgundy drapes kept out the sun. As I took in the scene, so different from my recollection, my chest heaved and spasmed.
Such physical reactions and perceptions are common in acute grief. The death of a loved one is accompanied by waves of physical distress that can include muscle aches, shortness of breath, queasy stomach, and trouble sleeping. Food may have no taste, and some experience visual hallucinations. The grief-stricken may not believe their loved one is dead.
Grief in the time of COVID-19
Restrictions to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 disrupted social rituals that connect us during grief. In The Atlantic, Ed Yong describes this absence of much-needed support as the “final pandemic betrayal.”
Although my husband died of cancer, not COVID, I experienced the loss of comforting rituals and the sense that my grief was never truly acknowledged. Experts call this disenfranchised grief. Some predict that prolonged grief disorder driven by this pandemic may reach rates seen only in survivors of natural disasters and wars.
Grief is proof of love
Losing loved ones is not easily incorporated into our life story, though it becomes part of it. The finality and acceptance of a monumental loss takes time. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion captures the sudden tragic death of her husband: “John was talking and then he wasn’t.” Life changes in an instant. Yet it takes time to untangle and embrace all that it means.
My life must now be reconfigured and re-envisioned without George. Letting go of grief happens haltingly. Gradually, I noticed that more of my memories of George were happy ones, slowly crowding out the all-consuming early intensity of grief. With time I began to re-engage with the world.
Just as George had, I found I wanted to talk with others in the same boat. A bereavement group helped. I began to exercise more. That helped too. When our dogs died, I got a new puppy. Above all, I learned to be kind to myself.
If you, too, are struggling with loss, experts advise some basics: try to eat, sleep, and exercise regularly; consider a bereavement group or seek out others experiencing grief; stay open to new possibilities — new hobbies, people, and opportunities. Talk to a professional if, after months, you are preoccupied with thoughts of your loved one or find no meaning in life without them. These may be signs that your grief is stalled or prolonged. Effective treatment can help.
Every “first” without George — the first birthday, first wedding anniversary, first anniversary of his death — awakened the early days of intense grief. Still, the experience of living through each made me realize I could survive. I think George would be pleased.
Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren
Suppose you find fifty righteous people living there in the city—will you still sweep it away and not spare it for their sakes? (Genesis 18:24) And the Lord replied, “If I find fifty righteous people in Sodom, I will spare the entire city for their sake.” (Genesis 18:26)
And be sure to say, ‘Look, your servant Jacob is right behind us.’” Jacob thought, “I will try to appease him by sending gifts ahead of me. When I see him in person, perhaps he will be friendly to me.” (Genesis 32:20)
to say to you: ‘Please forgive your brothers for the great wrong they did to you—for their sin in treating you so cruelly.’ So we, the servants of the God of your father, beg you to forgive our sin.” When Joseph received the message, he broke down and wept. (Genesis 50:17)
“Forgive my sin, just this once, and plead with the Lord your God to take away this death from me.” (Exodus 10:17)
Pay close attention to him, and obey his instructions. Do not rebel against him, for he is my representative, and he will not forgive your rebellion. (Exodus 23:21)
Moses Intercedes for Israel The next day Moses said to the people, “You have committed a terrible sin, but I will go back up to the Lord on the mountain. Perhaps I will be able to obtain forgiveness for your sin.” (Exodus 32:30) So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Oh, what a terrible sin these people have committed. They have made gods of gold for themselves. (Exodus 32:31) But now, if you will only forgive their sin—but if not, erase my name from the record you have written!” (Exodus 32:32)
The Lord passed in front of Moses, calling out, “Yahweh! The Lord! The God of compassion and mercy! I am slow to anger and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness. (Exodus 34:6) I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations. I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin. But I do not excuse the guilty. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children and grandchildren; the entire family is affected— even children in the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 34:7)
And he said, “O Lord, if it is true that I have found favor with you, then please travel with us. Yes, this is a stubborn and rebellious people, but please forgive our iniquity and our sins. Claim us as your own special possession.” (Exodus 34:9)
just as he does with the bull offered as a sin offering for the high priest. Through this process, the priest will purify the people, making them right with the Lord, and they will be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:20) Then he must burn all the goat’s fat on the altar, just as he does with the peace offering. Through this process, the priest will purify the leader from his sin, making him right with the Lord, and he will be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:26)
Then he must remove all the goat’s fat, just as he does with the fat of the peace offering. He will burn the fat on the altar, and it will be a pleasing aroma to the Lord. Through this process, the priest will purify the people, making them right with the Lord, and they will be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:31) Then he must remove all the sheep’s fat, just as he does with the fat of a sheep presented as a peace offering. He will burn the fat on the altar on top of the special gifts presented to the Lord. Through this process, the priest will purify the people from their sin, making them right with the Lord, and they will be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:35)
The priest will then prepare the second bird as a burnt offering, following all the procedures that have been prescribed. Through this process the priest will purify you from your sin, making you right with the Lord, and you will be forgiven. (Leviticus 5:10) Through this process, the priest will purify those who are guilty of any of these sins, making them right with the Lord, and they will be forgiven. The rest of the flour will belong to the priest, just as with the grain offering.” (Leviticus 5:13)
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