Weathering Grief

by Cheryl Jones

Archive for the tag “cancer”

THE BLESSING

IMG_7300Not long before Joanne, my wife, died, she told me she expected me to love again. She said it would “not be right to waste all the lessons we’d learned,” and I was “too young” never to love again. When I replied that I couldn’t imagine any love ever being as good as ours, she replied, “maybe it will be better.”

She was bedridden by then, disabled by multiple myeloma, and we spent most of our time in her room, talking, cuddling, and receiving visitors. This was after I’d taken a leave from my therapy practice so I had lots of time to think, feel and talk. And pay attention to the children, all of us often sprawled out on her bed.

But after they left for school and day care in the morning, the days stretched out, somehow lengthened by the fact they would be few in number. We were preparing, even though we’d agreed that we didn’t have to accept ahead of time. Acceptance would come on its own time table. (Remarkably, it was possible when it was finally needed a few months later.)

Although I didn’t think of it much in the days that followed, I stored our conversation somewhere in the back of my mind. Those words also awaited their perfect moment.

After she died, I gave myself to grief a little like a new love. I cried and laughed and shared stories. I saw my friends and felt their support, but my own idiosyncratic path of mourning got first dibs on my time, just as a new lover would. I listened to what it needed and tried my best to give it. Looking back, I see that I tunneled into grief, boring my way to the center of my own earth. I found the ore hidden in me. There was music, and gardens and tears, but mostly, me.

And then I knew that I was ready to fulfill the promise that Joanne had initiated; that I would love again. But I was terrified. Now I knew what it meant to let love command me. I would one day lose the person most precious to me. As Rilke said, “For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation.” I felt I was about to go to graduate school! How would I let myself fall over the cliff when I knew how far down the bottom was? But how could I not, knowing the beauty of that ecstatic  flight?

On the night I met my wife, I had a feeling. I was going to go out salsa dancing. I didn’t actually know how to salsa dance, so I planned to go to the lesson at the beginning. What could hold me back from doing new things? I had already done the biggest thing I could think of. But nerves held me up. Maybe I needed to take a hot bath, to play a little piano, and take myself out for sushi.

By the time I arrived, I was late and my hands were, despite all my effort, still shaking. Everyone was already paired, ready to listen to the instructions the teacher was set to deliver. I didn’t know a single soul in the room. But somehow, the instructor noticed me, probably looking a bit lost. “Did you want to take the lesson.” “Yes, sorry I’m late.”

She took my hand and walked me to a row of chairs, filled with people who already knew how to salsa. And then, to one person in particular. “Will you be her partner?” she said, and put our hands together. At first, my dancing partner looked just a little irritated. But then she gave me a full look and said, “sure.” I fumbled my way through the lesson, but she didn’t seem to mind. She was a great dancer, helping me through the mysterious steps.

I don’t remember how we ended up on two chairs at the edge of the room, sitting close so we could hear each other over the music. I do remember looking at her red shoes as we talked about death, children and spirituality. I left with every number she had.

I had never had a love at first sight experience, but this was it. I knew. She knew. No doubt. It was a matter of months before she joined me in my home, which was still filled with reminders of Joanne. She said she felt entrusted with me and encouraged me to take my time with all the corners filled with Joanne.

Now I felt the nature of my fear. I would wake in the night, her sleeping next to me, and see her face, a death mask next to me. I would have to confirm she was breathing. My youngest child asked her at the dinner table if she was going to die too. My friends were protective and slow to accept that I was giving my heart again. While I had grieved every minute, come through to a new place, they were still not ready.

But all the while, I heard permission in my head, encouraging me, supporting me to feel every wonderful, awful, scared, courageous, unexpected feeling that came along with choosing to love after losing a love. I never doubted that this was my destiny, my path and my greatest pleasure. And I never doubted that I set foot on this (now) twenty-year path with the blessing I most needed.

In the twenty-one years since that time, I have counted that simple conversation as perhaps the most generous gift I have ever received. What did it take to think of my good beyond her own life, to want the best for me beyond the time we would have together? When I heard the words, they bored into me in a permanent spot deep down. Long before I was ready to find that true love again, they gave me hope that life would, somehow, transform itself.

And so now, deeply in love with my wife of nearly twenty years, I count myself most blessed, to have loved deeply not once but twice and to have learned that the heart can grow to fit all that comes to it.

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cjones2 pic onlyCheryl Jones is a grief counselor and the host of Good Grief radio at VoiceAmerica. During her education as a Marriage and Family Therapist, her first wife was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, which was at the time a uniformly terminal illness with a six month to one year prognosis. In the eight years that followed, Cheryl engaged daily in the work of preparing for her death. She was trained during this period by Stephen and Ondrea Levine (Who Dies and Grieving Into Life and Death) and Richard Olney (founder of Self-Acceptance Training).

After her wife’s death, Cheryl immersed herself in her own multifaceted grief, startled by frequent moments of joy. Along with her private therapy practice, Cheryl is Manager of Professional Education at the Women’s Cancer Resource Center in Oakland, CA. She has trained extensively with Erving Polster, leader in the field of gestalt therapy and author of Everybody’s Life is Worth a Novel. Website: http://www.weatheringgrief.com Good Grief host page: http://www.voiceamerica.com/show/2264/good-grief

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First Christmas Without Mom

December 10, 2014

I’m searching the internet for ways to get through this first festival of lights season without my mother. The articles I read about loss and the holidays offer helpful tips for getting through it. So many helpful suggestions: find meaning in your traditions, ask for help, plan ahead, discover what has most value to you, change it up, keep it the same, leave an empty chair at the table, feel the absence.

This small list hardly scratches the surface. And what I keep thinking is, skip to January!

This is not an option I would actually take, because in some other corner of my being, I want to be with the people I love, I want to watch my grandkids with their eyes lighting up, I want not to lose all the other things I enjoy about celebrating just because I have lost her. I even wish it could be the same as usual, minus my mother, but even in this way, life is not cooperating (and neither is my family). It will be utterly, remarkably and painfully different. There will be no attempt or even option to pretend or assimilate as if she has not died.

How did I manage it when my wife died so many years ago, at almost exactly the same time? I can’t even remember.

So, not knowing exactly what taking care of myself would look like in this moment, I prepare. I ask for everyone’s wish list. I make the house ready and pull the boxes down from the attic (actually, I haven’t done that yet). I try to figure out where we will actually be when. I make lists. And I cry…

Today I pulled up the list from last year, happy for something I don’t have to reinvent, and there, second name from the top, there it was. “Mom.” As it turns out, last year was the last year she will be on my list.

Last year, before her diagnosis, when all she wanted was a family picture. I can’t tell you how glad I am that I drove everyone crazy and begged them to make it happen. There we all are, under the arches at Lake Merritt in our town, Oakland, smiling and happily unaware what the next year would bring.

There are so many things I’m grateful for and I remember them each day. I’m grateful to have a mother I can sincerely mourn. I’m grateful for all the love and support I have in my life, for a wonderful wife, and children, and friends and work I love. But just for today, I’m saying to myself, “Let it stink that your mom died. Don’t make it better. Be grumpy. For one day, don’t try to see the bright side.” Complain a little.

How am I doing?

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cjones2 pic onlyCheryl Jones has been working with people facing loss in their lives for thirty years. She is the host of Good Grief, a weekly radio show on the VoiceAmerica Health and Wellness Channel, about the transformative potential of our losses. You can learn more about her at her website,http://www.weatheringgrief.com.

MOURNING MOTHER

November 25, 2014

Exactly a month after my mother’s death, I’ve boarded a plane for Toronto, Canada to train with the cancer center there in their protocol, CALM (Managing Cancer and Living Meaningfully).

It’s hard to leave home right now. I stick close to my wife and become easily overcome by the many details of living. On the other hand, I’m going somewhere that my grief will be, I assume, accepted, and where I will have space to appreciate that my mother died prepared, facing death squarely with her eyes open, just as this program teaches us to facilitate.

What a gift she gave me. I have no worries that she regretted her death or thought I, or anyone including herself, should have done anything different. There was just the simple fact that the end of her life had come. Maybe there was a strange blessing in such a clear diagnosis, pancreatic cancer, and the 9 months we had together after that. So I’m not really struggling with her death.

Grieving a parent, however, has brought me up short, affected me in ways I couldn’t have predicted. When my father died, I devoted myself to caring for my mother and so, in this time of mourning, they are both sitting on my shoulders, ripping apart the seams of my usual calm. I search for words to describe my new orphan identity which, even at 61 years old, feels profoundly new.

There are the ways my parents enveloped me, sometimes in my awareness and sometimes not. But I find it is the parts of me that pushed against them that suddenly make me feel the ground has been removed. It has been in defining my difference from them that I became myself, my own person. It is in coming to an understanding of each other as whole human beings that I discovered my unique gifts and talents. For all the agreement between us, it is in our disagreements that my life took shape.

I see that this was also true of them with their own parents. They ended up miles form where they began, spiritually, politically, personally, in nearly every way. Their faith remained but what defined that faith changed completely. This is the job of each new generation; to define themselves as “other than” their parents, and ultimately, hopefully, to strengthen the parent-child bond through that exploration. This has been one of the greatest gifts of my life, that my parents were willing to transform themselves to meet the person I became.

But now, that is all over. From here on out, I define myself, I change not in relation to them but in relation to my chosen life. I had no idea that I still referenced them until they were both gone. I now take what they gave me, to make what I will of it.

One of my mother’s caregivers dreamt of her, a week after she died. They were sitting together as they used to, with arms reaching out to each other and one caring for the other. My mother, a look of peace on her face, said, “I am so happy, so very happy,” and they shared together a beautiful moment of connection and contentment. The cares of the world are over for my mother. Now, I feel her as a steady, loving force just out of reach, murmuring to me, “go forward, keep going, continue to follow your own dreams.”! !!

It’s up to me to do that, not for her (or against her) but in her honor.

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cjones2 pic onlyCheryl Jones has been working with people facing loss in their lives for thirty years. She is the host ofGood Grief, a weekly radio show on the VoiceAmerica Health and Wellness Channel, about the transformative potential of our losses. You can learn more about her at her website,http://www.weatheringgrief.com.

Wildest Dreams: How We can Learn to Grieve

 September 8, 2014

On the day my wife died, the house was overflowing. In the room with me were our kids, 2 1/2 and 14, and a few friends who had pretty much moved in with us those weeks when we knew it was the end. Out in the living room were people who had supported us through her illness, really supported us! They fed us, took care of our baby and helped our teenager navigate having a parent with life-limiting cancer. They had been there when we cried, and laughed, and napped; even for our difficult conversations. We all learned together to live at death’s door, claiming the word live. My mother would later say that although she had belonged to loving churches all her life, she had never experienced the kind of love she felt in our community of friends.

This was the first remarkable change in me as a result of her cancer and death — after eight years of living next to cancer. I was comfortable conducting my life in front of a crowd. Before cancer, I was shy and, at one point, even agoraphobic. Before cancer I was a one-on-one person, coming to a party when only the host was there and leaving before the guests arrived. Before cancer, I had trouble exposing my deepest feelings. Before cancer, I was anxious and feared abandonment, often fitting myself into what I thought others wanted me to be. Now I was take charge, sure of my own way, telling the truth about myself whether it was popular or not.

That night offers a perfect illustration. About to take a shower when she died, I pulled off my robe afterwards and laid down next to that body that I had loved for so long, holding her in a skin to skin embrace, the first for months that wasn’t inhibited by a fear of hurting her. She was no longer dealing with the pain of broken bones and degenerating nerves and I could bid her farewell with abandon. I realized later I had had no hesitation about nakedness, words of love, songs, whatever I wanted to do to say goodbye to her, disregarding the crush of people in the room, even including (as soon as they could get there) my parents! Where was that shy girl now? Where was my fear of being seen or heard? I had reincarnated somewhere along the way.

This person I had turned into hardly resembled me Before Cancer. I entered grief better able to matter to me. I committed to at least a year of giving myself whatever my grief asked for. Within the boundaries of (now) single parenthood and going back to work, I did that. In the quiet hours when the kids were at school, in between the clients I worked with as a therapist, I played music and dug in the garden and cried and meditated. I ate good food and depended on friends (who were now so much greater in number). Grief, for me, was an extension of the life I had had with her; rich and full and open to possibility. Those eight years of illness had taught me to face, unafraid, whatever I felt in a given moment, to ride the waves of it to my own shore, and to come home to myself in any situation. What could undo that? What could make me truly afraid when I had already lived through her death?

My life today rests on the shoulders of that time. What I discovered then, through deep pain and profound joy, informs everything I do and everything I am. I will never be glad she died, but I will always live in awe of what we learned together; life is a joy, a miracle, and love should not be avoided or wasted. Taking a chance on love is always worth it. I’m grateful for whatever I feel, because emotions remind me, each day, that I am alive.

When I couldn’t imagine how I would live through losing her, I was right. I couldn’t imagine it — not in my wildest dreams.

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cjones2 pic onlyCheryl Jones has been working with people facing loss in their lives for thirty years. She is the host ofGood Grief, a weekly radio show on the VoiceAmerica Health and Wellness Channel, about the transformative potential of our losses. You can learn more about her at her website,http://www.weatheringgrief.com.

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