May 11th 2008

Warren, – Grief Observed. Bereavement.

Posted in Helen & Warren, Izzy

Warren alone, with Izzy in a suddenly quiet house: "Half of me is gone."
Warren alone, with Izzy in a suddenly quiet house: “Half of me is gone.”

May 11, 2008 – Last week, I  signed up with Hospice as a bereavement counselor, and have begun studying and asking questions about “bereavement,” a clunky term for so powerful an experience. Warren has agreed to let me continue the Hospice Journal I began with Helen, this time to write about grief and loss, and to take photos,  “if it helps people.” I will try. I guess I hadn’t quite grasped the depth or reality of bereavement, but then, I never thought much dying either.
It is astonishing to me how little we know of this extraordinary process, living on the edge of life and beyond. I want to know more.
Helen died a week ago, and Warren’s family left early Saturday morning. This weekend, he was alone in a home for the first time after 60 years of marriage, and seven years of round-the-clock caretaking of Helen, who became ill in 2000. Hospice has taught me many things, and now there is a new lesson, or perhaps a reinforcement of an old one: most of the time there is nothing you can say, sometimes there are things you can do, and you almost always need to just listen, and can never go astray doing that.
Warren’s house has changed beyond recognition from just a week ago, when it was filled with a Hospital bed, countless vials of pills, papers, trash, food, lotions, towels, pads, and respiratory and other medical equipment. When I went in Saturday and again today, all of that was gone, and it was striking how big the house seemed. The equipment was not the only thing missing. Helen was gone,  and her absence was almost disorienting, as she and her illness had dominated, even overwhelmed the room.
“There is an emptiness,” he said, “and it is vast, endless.”
Izzy went right to Warren, but continues to look for Helen.
Warren has kept himself busy this weekend, going shopping, getting a haircut, calling relatives and insurance companies, getting rid of things. “I need to think,” he said. “My mind is racing with memories of her, and I don’t want to forget a single one. I’m 81, and I’m afraid of losing her in my head, and that is what is left.”
Warren told me he never grasped the concept of emptiness until he got up Saturday and Helen was not there to talk to. He said in six decades of marriage, they always made every decision together, and had never even had an argument he could remember. He said he had no desire whatsoever to travel without Helen. That, he said, was something they always did together.
My friend Becky MacLachlan, who lost her husband Bill a decade ago, runs a Griefshare workshop in her local Church, and she says the same thing the Hospice social workers say about the first days and weeks of grieving: Don’t let anybody else tell you how to grieve, and don’t make any significant decisions for awhile.
I have often noticed a tendency when people approach the grieving,  to try and lighten things up. Buck up, things will get better, get on with your life. Helen would want you to be happy. This makes the stricken often feel guilty, or incompetent. I was humbled in the presence of Warren’s grief, and can’t imagine telling him how to deal with it.
Grieving can take a long time, or in some ways, go on forever, and there is no right way to do it. You can’t cheer people up, and ought not to try. It’s certainly not my job as a bereavement volunteer to cheer Warren up, rather to listen to him work things out, and to suggest help if he wants help.
“I feel like I’m in a state of waiting,” he said. “I’m waiting to rejoin her. I keep thinking of her, along with my son, up there on the hill behind the house, waiting for me. I want to join them,” he said, adding that he also wants to live life, re-involve himself in restoration and preservation work.
It was hard to see Warren so sad, even bewildered, but it is also, I know, natural and he needs to be left alone to deal with the new reality of his life. I checked on the house, his eating habits, his health, and he talked about Helen for an hour. He is strong, brave and determined.
I am close to Warren, but deliberately chose to visit him as  Hospice volunteer rather than a friend. Good, perhaps for him, and good for me. I can see he has a lot of thinking to do.
I was touched to see that he put a portrait of Helen I gave him, the last photo I took of her face, and propped it up on the mantel. “I love that picture,” he said, “it captures her, and the smile she almost always had. A hundred times a day, I look at that picture, and I say “I love you,” and she says, “I love you back.”
Izzy is important to Warren, as he connects him to Helen, and our last months together. Izzy continues to do good work, to make a difference.
Warren often recalls Helen’s last night, when we all sat around her bed and told stories and jokes, a night of what he calls “merriment.”
I am reading “A Grief Observed” by C.S. Lewis, to help me prepare for bereavement work, and I remember this passage he wrote about the death of his wife:
“It is incredible how much happiness, even how much gaiety, we sometimes had together after all hope was gone. How long, how tranquilly, how nourishingly we talked together that last night.”
All during Helen’s last day, said Warren, who sensed the end was close,  he kept looking over at her and saying hello, and she whispered hello back and waved. At that point, he remembered, she could no longer speak, but he always knew what she was saying.
All weekend, he said, he found himself talking to her, telling her things, feeling her presence. Did that sound strange?, he wondered. No, I said, it sounded like Helen and Warren. There is no strange, I said, just what you feel.
We talked about writing some poems together that were about the memories he wanted to keep, so that he might feel safe that they were being preserved. He lit up at that.
Lewis wrote of his wife’s illness and death that they both knew it would be different.
“We both knew this. I had my miseries, not hers; she had hers, not mine. The end of hers would be the coming-of-age of mine. We were setting out on different roads. This cold truth, this terrible traffic regulation is just the beginning of the separation which is death itself.”
As the shadows deepened and a long night for Warren approached, I got up, packed up my camera, watched Izzy say goodbye, and I left, nodding. There was absolutely nothing to say, except that I cared about him and would be back. He said that was good to know.

Helen’s portrait on the mantle. To the right, a picture of them in Egypt.