Reflections on Grieving
On Sept 26, 2002, about 2 weeks after her brain aneurism, I said goodbye to my bride. We had been married for 18 ½ years. We were both 43. It’s been 8 years, enough time for me to learn from and reflect on what it means to live through a season of loss. In no particular order, these are notes from my story.
In a marriage, especially a good marriage before God, the two become one. It’s more than a physical thing, it’s a spiritual joining. The two lives, hopes, dreams, cares, and souls become knit together as one
Imagine two bolts of cloth. The cloth from each bolt comes together and slowly over time the threads begin to re-weave together creating a beautiful tapestry. Eventually the two cloths are one bolt – one cloth – a new pattern combining threads from each original.
Then the threads from one of the original bolts is ripped away leaving the remaining threads hanging there – only barely connected together. The tapestry is falling apart – missing half of the fabric with threads hanging everywhere. All that remains is the memory of the pattern of the tapestry, faintly seen in the cloth that’s left.
Becoming married makes life a degree more complicated. It’s more difficult to spontaneously do whatever you want. Having kids raises that complication a magnitude – any activity requires car seats, a baby bag, or babysitters and worry. Becoming widowed is yet another magnitude – any activity requires enormous energy and remembering to breathe.
The grieving process is not a clean sequence of steps, but more a blender of emotions.
From my journal a few weeks after…
This week has been a complete mismash confusion of emotions. At times I’m angry. I’ve cried quite a bit. And what’s worse, it’s beginning to feel normal. I hate this. I hate that I’m already adjusting to missing Melissa as the normal state of affairs.
I’ve been drawing hearts in the snow in Melissa’s windshield. I miss her so much.
Doing things like grocery shopping, laundry, making meals, etc. is still real hard. I just have so little energy and motivation. If I ever get caught up on my laundry it will be amazing.
I often get the feeling that something’s wrong – some huge terrible thing that I thought of then forgot and must remember. A feeling of being out-of-sorts.
Usually, missing Melissa is the first thought in the morning, a part of every thought during the day, the last thought as I fall asleep and in every dream.
But, the other night I had a dream with Melissa, Lauren and David. We were in an indoor playground with large boxes and geometric shapes. But it was also a virtual reality playground – real cool. Melissa was alive and in her wheelchair. And her purpose in the dream was to pick out a new wife for me. So she would talk to me about the different women. There was no specific women in the dream but that was Melissa’s purpose.
When I woke up it still felt like Melissa was alive until I remembered. It was the first time I felt that Melissa was alive until I remembered.
David and Lauren have also told me that sometimes they hate waking up because then they remember.
When I married Melissa, she was a paraplegic (Miss Wheelchair North Carolina 1982) and my Dad told me I had chosen a hard life. He had no idea. But I wouldn’t have chosen any other life than marrying my bride. I’ll still choose her – pain and all.
From my journal…
Today I went back to church (Woodmen Valley) for the first time since Melissa’s Memorial Service. It was hard to do. The songs made me cry. Everyone around me must have been wondering why this guy was balling his eyes out during most of the service. But it was good. The message was about Amazing Grace. The line from the song, “and grace will take me home”, has new meaning.
There were times, many times, when the grief monster would attack and I’d simply fall to the floor sobbing in physical pain. It hurt to breath.
Melissa had a hard childhood and some memories caused her emotional pain in her later years. When she’d be scared she’d snuggle into my shoudlder and I’d safe “Safe Place Poohser.” We spent a lot of time with Safe Place Poohser during the 2 weeks in teh hospital.
When the found the source of the anyurism and planned the surgery to repair it, Dr. Breeze cam in and talk with Melissa and I about the surgery and it’s risks. The ony thing Melissa said was, ‘I want to see my children grow up.” We were both scared.
Melissa used to sing solos in church and events, and I’d play jazzy guitar with her. Once, at about the 3-4 month point I picked up my guitar and played one of her favorite songs that we did together – “God is my Redeemer”. The image of my music being heard in heaven and her singing and dancing before the throne was overpowering. I wanted to stop playing and break down, but I had to keep playing – she was singing for the Father.
I rarely play guitar these days. It seems like that belonged to a previous chapter.
The first few days were pure shock and pain. My greatest fear was that I would return to feeling normal. The next few weeks I walked around crying, oblivious to the world around me. For me the hardest period was from 6 to 9 months.
From my journal…
Today is six months. I am lonely to the point of death. I hate my life. If it weren’t for the kids, I would choose to leave this world. I’ve stopped going to church or trying to connect with people. There’s just too much pain and no one understands. The last thing I want is to listen to any more stupid clichés. I have about 20% of my energy and motivation and I spend it sparingly everyday. By the end of the day I just crash. I still haven’t finished the paperwork. I just don’t care. My life consists of going through the motions until another motion arrives. I am barely being a Dad.
I haven’t seen any counselors or anything, primarily because I don’t want to be told how to grieve. The pain is enough by itself without having to be told that I’m doing it wrong. Mostly I want to be left alone and to cry. I am so, so lonely. I miss Poohser. The huge whole in my heart may have stopped bleeding, but it hasn’t healed. I don’t think I’ll ever heal. I feel myself slowly losing my faith. Deep down I no longer believe that God wants good for me or that there’s much of a reason to hope. I feel like I’ve been hit by a train, and God was the engineer.
Hollywood is obsessed with widowhood. Just think for a moment how many movies include the loss of a spouse. Nearly every Disney movie has a parent/spouse die. Most of the movies get it terribly wrong. But there’s one line in one movie that gets it – “I just try to remember to breathe.” Tom Hank, Sleepless in Seattle.
The 2 weeks in the hospital were a rollercoaster of ups and downs. They couldn’t find the anuyrism, then they found it, then there was a surgery to fix it. then there were strokes, then there were good days. The day before she died, the moved her off the critical list and told me she’s be one fo the few who survived a brain anyurism.
The day before she was feelign well and alert, so I called down to the Colorado Springs and asked a friend at Compassion to get the kids out of school and bring them up to the hospital. I didn’t know that visit woudl be their lsat time with their Mom, but I knew this was a rare time when Melissa was alert and she should get to see here kids.
Later Lauren told me that she had a feeling that the good bye was The good bye.
The next day Melissa wook up unable to speak. The Doctors yelled at her to wakie her up from her stupor. When they took her back for a last ditch try to stable her brain’s vaso-spasms, Melissa was barely concious, but we said to each other, I Bubbo, and I said Goodbye. I knew it was for the last time, but I wouldn’t let myself know it.
Ironically, I found most Christians less able to face the pain of death than spiritual, but non-Christian friends. The Christians felt compelled to give a cliché and move on and left the impression that they were truly scared of dealing with any real pain.
Those who have not experienced the loss of a spouse don’t get it. They can’t imagine and it’s too painful to try to imagine. So they say stupid things like,
“God took her from you because you loved her more than God.”
“I understand, I lost my aunt last year.”
“I know exactly how you feel. Last year I was without a job and I wondering if God loved me.”
“God did this to you to grow character in you.”
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have reminded you that she passed away.”
“You should be feeling better by now. I know I wouldn’t be that sad if my husband died.”
The only thing you can really say to someone who has lost their spouse is, “I’m so sorry.”
The best support I found was at WidowNet, an online forum community. They have a saying, “Welcome to the club with the highest dues in the world. We’re sorry you’re here.”
A Google search for grief returns some sites devoted to grieving when your pet dies. I find these sites offensive.
For the first few months I found myself compulsively searching for her as if she was simply lost. I’d wander the aisles at Wal-Mart, I’d call her phone, I took long walks and asked her where she was. On Nov 2, 2002, about I wrote in my journal,
I find myself constantly searching for the missing half of me. Even when Melissa’s death isn’t right in my face anymore, I’m still very unsettled. I feel lost and driven to find what’s missing. The world is not right.
There’s one praise chorus that has the lines, “He gives and takes away.” When I see the song being sung by young folks in the praise band I can’t help but think that they have no idea what they’re singing about, nor have they earned the right to sing those words.
The first anniversary of 9/11 was a Wednesday – chapel day at Compassion. Wess Staford, the President of Compassion, talked about the grieving process of the Todd Beamer’s wife (they were Compassion sponsors and Lisa became connected with Compassion). He talked about the hymn, “It is well with my soul” and how that song is about dealing with the death of loved ones. I couldn’t handle it. It disturbed me.
At 4 am the night of Friday Sept 13th, when Melissa was begin transported from the ER in the Springs to University Hospital in Denver, I drove home to leave note for my son before driving to Denver. On the way I pleaded and yelled to God to please not take away my bride.
In the last few days before Melissa died, God brought me to the place where I prayed that His will be done.
Our lives, our stories, are not our own. We are God’s workmanship. We are the characters in the story of redemption that He’s telling in our lives. I’m amazed at how rich of a story he’s let me live.
From my journal…
When I see couples in public, I’ve felt very jealous of those I don’t know and glad for those I do know. When I see couples arguing, it makes me angry, Don’t they know the tomorrow they could be alone? But a different feeling fluttered by a couple days ago while I was at the mall. It’s going to be fun falling in love again.
I’ve been visiting jewelry stores and looking at rubies that I would have liked to buy for Melissa. The sales ladies try to give me a sales pitch, but I don’t explain why I’m just looking. It would be too hard.
Later, I bought a very nice diamond, a down payment on the hope that I’ll find someone new. Much later I gave the diamond to Edie.
In the first couple years, I had several dreams involving Melissa – searching the hospital to find her or searching for the machine to fix her. In a few dreams I could talk with her. In real life she was a paraplegic, but in the dreams she could run, and be tickled.
One of the best therapies for someone who’s grieving is for them to simply tell their story, so just listen.
One of the hardest parts of grieving for me was to call our friends back in NC and tell them the sad news.
In Melissa’s memorial service, I told the kids, “While it may be clear tha this is God’s will for Melissa’s life, somehow, I can’t se it now, but somehow, this is God’s will, God’s plan for our lives too.”
Now, 8 1/2 years after Melissa’s passing, I can see that God has done many incredible thigns that would never have happened otherwise. Probably the best of these is adopting Dasha. I’ve become a firm believer in the doctine of adoption. Caring for orphans is dear to God’s heart and should be an intentional part of every Christian’s life.
Now that I’m remarried (to a very beautiful, intelligent, and funny woman) the phrase in the marriage vows, forsaking all others, has a complex and deep meaning.
For the first couple of years of our marriage I thought of Edie as my second wife. Sometime in our third year, I noticed that I started thinking of her as “my wife, and I was married before”. It may seem subtle, but it’s a huge difference and I’m glad about that.
The psychology of a widower, especially a remarried widower, is very complex. There are “what if scenarios” I just can’t allow myself to think about.
This may sounds weird, but a part of me knew that Melissa would die. It felt like I was reading a book that I had read decades ago and forgotten. But. With every page I woudl remember as I read. I think that at some level our eternal spirits know our lives. Conciously, we aren’t aware, until it happens, but all of time, all our lives are already layed out, we’re just reading the story God has written for our lives.
The day before Melissa died, I spoke with her prayer partner back in North Carolina who said that God wouldn’t let her die because she still had such a testimony and story to tell that would glorify God. I told her that the way God measures His glory, it just might give God more glory for Melissa to die quietly and with faith. We can’t judge how God measures His glory.
During the 13 days after her anyurism when we were in the Nuerological Intensive Care at University Hospital in Denver, Melissa was in and out of being lucid. She had a couple brain surgeries and a few small strokes. Some days she didn’t know where she was. Other days she was her normal self.
Melissa tried to talk me into sneaking her out of the hospital. She said that everyone would figure out we were just being lazy bums spending all the time laying in bed. She’d keep whispering “Come on-lets go. We’ve got things to do.” “Come on, let’s go” became an inside joke that she’d whisper and laugh to me often. But now I wonder if she didn’t know at some deep spiritual leve that she had somewhere to go.
The night of the aneurism, I took her to the ER. Once they figured out what was happening, at about 4am, they had me sign a release. It was strange. As the Doctor told me he was backpeddling and so fearful that it seemd he was walking backwards away from me as he spoke.
He said that Melissa would probably not survive the ambulance ride to Denver, but that they did not have the facilities to treat her in Colorado Springs.
I drove home to leave a note for the Dave and rushed to Denver to meet her there.
While driving to University Hospital in Denver I shouoted to God and pled wioth him to not take my bride from me.
During the last few days of the 13 days she survived, after days of pleading with God for my bride’s life, I felt God whispering to me, “But what if I bring her home?”, “You’ve always prayed Thy wil be done, What if it’s My will for her Earthly life to end now?”
About 2-3 days before her death, God brought me to the point where I said, “Thy will be done, Whatever is your will, I’m ok. I trust you.”
I gave most of her clothes away, but kept a few favorite PJs and blouses just so I could smell her and cry.
I was finishing the author’s review of SQL Server 2000 Bible when Melissa suffered her aneurysm. I edited the dedication:
This work is dedicated to the author of the true Bible, our heavenly Father, “Hallowed be Thy Name.”
My heart, love, and blessing goes to you my wife, Melissa, not for anything you do but because of who you are and how you complete me. God blessed me greatly the day we met. I can’t imagine any other life or any better life. Thank you for your love, compassion, faithfulness, and sweetness. I will never forget.
During the two weeks she was in intensive care and I stayed with her nearly 24/7, I would read to her the description of heaven from Revelation. My faith in Christ, His resurrection, and heaven became more personal and real believing that Melissa is there, now, with Christ.
When Melissa passed away I called her prayer partner and my friend in North Carolina. She was the first person I told. It’s an hour drive down to the Springs. I was fearful that word woudl spread in the small town back in NC, and my kids would hear about it from on a computer chat, so I drove as fast as I could to get home. I’m not sure what I woudl have told a cop had I been pulled over but I wasn’t.
Folks often say, “The hardest thing I ever had to do was ____”. They have no idea. I can’t even say to folks who say that how foollish it sounds to me. They have no idea. I spent the hour drive home frantically trying to figure out how I was going to tell the kids.
I tried to gather David and Lauren close to me, but they could sense my pain and they wouldn’t sit near me. I told them Mom didn’t make it. Dave exploded and ran outside, trying to ride his biclycle to Denver to see his Mom. Lauren withdrew and tried to figure out how this was going to impact our lives.
Don’t let anyone tell you how to grieve. Grieving is a very personal and difficult process. No one knows how you need to grieve but you and God.
Grieving is like the 16 piece sliding kid’s puzzle with a piece missing – sometime its takes one piece to move so another piece can get into place. I remember when I started dating again and I’d think, Melissa would have laughed at that joke. And it would be one more tiny aspect of Melissa that I would miss.
In the first few months I occasionally hallucinated and saw rats in the corner of my vision scurrying about. Rats are a symbol of death. The idea that life is a vapor, a mist, and can end abruptly without any warning was and is very real to me. With every birthday I don’t celebrate another year of life, I wonder if I’ll live to see another one.
As I drove away from the hospital after Melissa had passed away, I heard, in my head, Melissa say to me, “I’m OK. Go be a good Dad.”
For a long time I cried constantly, then daily. Then the crying stopped. I used to cry at movies or moving moments. But my ability to cry was all cried out. For a long time my heart felt nothing. It was a mass of scare tissue.
But about a year ago, I started to cry normally again. It felt good.
Thursday Sept 26
Having gotten back from the hospital a little after 3am the previous night, I slept until about 10 and since Melissa was doing better I didn’t rush but slowly got myself going. I was feeling much more relaxed about the day than I had been for the past two weeks. I got to the hospital at about noon.
When I entered Melissa’s room I knew something was wrong. Melissa wasn’t speaking and couldn’t even smile. Her eyes were darting around and she grasped my hand and held it tightly to her face as a comfort.
I asked the nurse how long Melissa had been like this, and why didn’t she call me? the nurse said that she had been speaking earlier and was going in and out of it, but she didn’t want to alarm me just because her voice was going in and out. But to me Melissa seemed worse off than anytime since aneurism first blew 2 week prior. I wanted to say to the nurse that she was being stupid and of course she should have called, but I didn’t say anything because I wanted to focus all my attention on Melissa. But even though I was there most of the time, I decided to be sure to tell every future nurse to call me on any change, and committed to calling more frequently to check in.
As I held her hand and talked with Melissa, she was unable to squeeze my hand in response to my request. I’d say loudly, “Poohser, squeeze my hand.” She was squeezing my hand all the time and didn’t let up or squeeze on command. She could turn her head but her face and mouth had no expression, but her eyes would look at me while I spoke to her. At one point she was wide awake, but her throat started to snore and she make sputtering sounds. It sounded funny. But I was scared.
The doctors came into the room and began to ask her several loud questions – the standard question – where are you, what’s your name, are you ok. Melissa managed to look at them and say “OK”, but they were concerned. They said they wanted to do a cat scan to see what was going on.
The nurses rushed to get her ready for the cat scan. They said that there was an open window for 15 minutes and the Doctors wanted to get her into it.
I went down to the cat scan with Melissa holding her hand and comforting her. The stimulation was waking her up more and she managed to say “hey” to me.
As I waited for the cat scan results, I prayed earnestly for Melissa, but I was sure this was just the last big push of the vaso spasms.
Dr Marco came out to speak with me and told me that there was some problems in her brain and they wanted to do another angiogram radiology treatment. He said that I shouldn’t underestimate the seriousness of the vasospasms – the girl in the room next to Melissa was going to die today from them. He asked me to sign another waiver to perform the angiogram.
I asked to see the cat scan and he said ok. I had to wait outside the room for about 2 minutes while he set up the computer to display Melissa’s cat scan. He showed me several screens of Melissa’s cat scan paging up and down very quickly. He said that there wasn’t much time and he wanted to hurry. He pointed out several white streaks and said that these needed to be checked.
Melissa was in the hall between the cat scan and the angio room behind the door that I had not been allowed to go through before. This time they let me go in and see Melissa as she was moved from the cat scan to the angio room. I held Melissa and told her, “I love you”, she tried to say “I buboo”. She moved her head up slightly to give me a kiss and I held her some more and said “safe place Poohser, safe place.” As the started to take her into the room told her, “I love you Poohser. Good bye.”
I watched as they moved her into the angio room and onto the angio machine. Then the door were closed. They asked me where I was going to wait. The previous angiograms had taken several hours so I said I would wait in the third floor waiting room. They said, “not here?” And I didn’t pickup on their concern. “No, I’ll be ok on the third floor, I know it will take a few hours.”
While I waited I wrote a letter to our sponsored child in Kenya, thanking him for praying for Melissa and giving God credit for healing Melissa. At about 4pm I was getting hungry (I hadn’t eaten since breakfast) and I called the nurse to ask how things were going. I was thinking that I should eat before they bring her back so that I would lose any time with her. The nurse told me that they had just ordered another CAT scan and they normally do that when they are done to see what they had accomplished with the angiogram. I told the nurse that I would grab a bite to eat and be back by the time Melissa came back up. She seemed shocked that I would leave, but said ok we’ll call you on your cell if anything happens. So I went to Boston Market and ate quickly.
As I returned to the hospital my cell phone rang while I was on the first floor. Dr. Breeze was calling and he said that Melissa had had a bad spasm and there was more bleeding and that I should come up to the NeuroICU right away.
When I got to the ICU, Dr. Breeze was waiting for me at the door, and he showed me into the family conference room. He and I sat at the table, while several other doctors stood around him and watched me. They looked very serious.
“Melissa has had a severe bleed in the left side of her brain. She’ll never be able to organize a thought.” In the shock of it, I initially thought that Melissa wasn’t always very organized anyways, and that’s OK if she’s not logical. I just want her home. But then I understood what he meant.
When I saw her, I could tell that she wasn’t there. It wasn’t her, it was just her body.
Today I withdrew life support and said goodbye to my bride.
Melissa and I were married for 18 ½ years. The last two years were the best. And the last two weeks in the hospital were intensely close. There’s nothing like being at death’s door to draw a couple together and flame the love. I believe our days are numbered and there’s nothing anyone can do to add or remove a single breath. I’m extremely grateful to God for letting me share those last two weeks with Melissa. It’s amazing how God wrapped up every conflict in our lives and matured us, bringing our marriage to a satisfying end of the race.
However, I felt that God forgot about me once I was left alone. I felt abandoned by God.
Later, at about the five year point, I was worshipping in New York City at Tim Keller’s church, Redeemer Presbyterian. Tim was preaching on the passage in Romans that talks about how the Holy Spirit groans for us and we share in the suffering of Christ.
15 So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children.[h] Now we call him, “Abba, Father.”[i] 16 For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. 17 And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.
-Romans 8:15-17 NLT
It hit me, as if God spoke to me, that for the couple of years that I didn’t feel the presence of God that God was letting me taste one drop of the ocean of abandonment that Christ felt on the cross. The pain of grieving was actually one of the most precious blessings that God has given to me.
and it really is well with my soul.