For the Week of August 14, 2016: When a Loved One Dies

Last night my husband and I saw a friend at a jazz concert.  Twice married and divorced, he longs to find a partner to share the rest of his life and has begun dating in hopes of finding lasting romance.  We met his date he brought to the concert, and I learned she was recently widowed, as was another woman our friend had recently dated for awhile.

“Another widow,” he said as his new date left to find the bathroom.  He shrugged his shoulders and sighed.  “I don’t if I’m ready for this”—“this” meaning the emotional roller coaster that often accompanies new romances or relationships after a spouse’s death.

“Be patient,” I said, “it takes so much longer than you think it will to recover from the loss of a spouse.”  He smiled and nodded, but I wondered if he really understood what I meant.

Whether the loss of a spouse, a child or a friend from serious illnesses like cancer, ALS, or a sudden heart attack, there is a great deal written about dealing with the loss of a loved one.  Despite that, grief is not well understood by those who haven’t experienced it.  Some may think of grief as a single instance or just a short time of pain or sadness in response to loss, but the American Cancer Society reminds us that the real process of grieving lasts much longer.

When we experience grief and mourning, it can be hard on our friends or acquaintances, even family members.  Well meaning friends may not understand how important it is to allow grief to take its normal course, particularly in our culture.  “Aren’t you better  yet?” may be something you hear more than once.  It’s painful to see someone we care about dealing with the heartache and sorrow that accompanies the death of another, but it’s important the bereaved are allowed to express their grief and feel supported through the process.  Sometimes it’s hardest for those closest to us to understand what we’re feeling.   It’s why we have bereavement support groups, therapists and pastors who specialize in grief counseling.  Grief, while similar in a general way, is experienced differently for everyone, but what’s important is accepting and honoring however the bereaved person chooses to express sorrow and grief.

This morning, my husband and I talked about the grief process when a loved one’s life ends, remembering the agonizing four year battle with bladder cancer my husband’s brother in-law endured before he finally died.  I recall telephoning my husband’s sister the day after his death, rehearsing what I could say that didn’t sound trite while the telephone rang and rang before she answered.

“Hello?” I knew immediately she had been crying.  “I’m sorry,” she said.  “I just went into his room and saw how empty it is, and then…”  She began sobbing again. “He’s gone, Sharon,” her voice was heavy with grief and exhaustion.  “He’s been my life for sixty-four years.”

It is hard to give up after months of making lists,

phoning doctors, fighting entropy.  But when the end comes,

a bending takes over, empties the blood of opposition

and with a gentle skill, injects a blessed numbness…


After sixty-four years together with her husband, my sister-in-law may be grieving for a long time.  We are grateful her children all live near her to offer support.  According to the American Cancer Society,” studies have identified emotional states that people may go through during grief. The first feelings usually include shock or numbness. Then, as the person sees how his or her life is affected by the loss, emotions start to surface. The early sense of disbelief is often replaced by emotional upheaval, which can involve anger, loneliness, uncertainty, or denial. These feelings can come and go over a long period of time. The final phase of grief is the one in which people find ways to come to terms with and accept the loss” (p.2)

Perhaps this surrender foreshadows my own old age

when I have raged to exhaustion and finally have to go.  For now,

the numbness wears off.  I drive to the market, cook my own food,

take scant note of desire

with no one to consider or contradict my choices.

Something in me will never recover.  Something in me will go on

(From “Numb,” by Florence Weinberger, in The Cancer Poetry Project, 2001)

Yet I believe that some losses are far more difficult to accept than others.  Death from a protracted illness has, at least, a cause that we understand, and it allows the survivor time to come to terms with the inevitability of a loved one’s death.  But unexpected loss or the sudden death of a spouse or child, comes as a complete shock, defies our sense of what is “supposed” to happen in life, and can complicate and extend the grieving process for years.

Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

(Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking)

I remembered my emotional state in the aftermath of my first husband’s drowning, recalling how his parents, now deceased, and his siblings never fully recovered from his sudden death.  My daughters, then nine and ten, still carry remnants of the grief and loss they experienced in the wake of his death.  And it took me more than a few years to work through the grief and emotional ups and downs of losing a spouse in such an unnecesary accident at 36.  But I was lonely, so I began to date again in the year that followed, hoping to ease the constant heartache I felt.  It didn’t work, and I made poor choices in the process before I realized I hadn’t acknowledged how every un-ready I was to begin a new relationship.  Healing had its own time schedule, and it couldn’t be rushed.  It took eight years before I met and finally married my present husband.  Even then, I carried an exaggerated fear of loss in the first few years of our marriage.

In the turbulent days following my first husband’s death,  a friend and English professor offered this distraught then-36 year-old the poem, “And Death Shall Have No Dominion,” by the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas,.  Thomas’s poem celebrates the undying and everlasting strength of the human spirit—and reading and sharing it provided me with some degree of solace in the face of tragedy, reminding me that even in death, loved ones are not lost to us. I later used to honor my husband by sharing it with family and  close friends.  Perhaps you will find as much power in it as I did.

And death shall have no dominion.

       Dead men naked they shall be one

       With the man in the wind and the west moon;

       When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,

       They shall have stars at elbow and foot;

       Though they go mad they shall be sane,

       Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;

       Though lovers be lost love shall not;

       And death shall have no dominion.

(From:  Twenty-Five Poems, 1936)

Writing Suggestion

This week, consider the process of grief and mourning:

  • Have you lost a loved one to cancer or an unexpected tragedy? Write the memory of the day someone you loved died.
  • What did you experience in the aftermath death? Write about the emotional ups and downs of grief.
  • What helped you deal with the loss and gave you the strength to go on? Write about the gradual process of healing from the death of a loved one.

About Sharon A. Bray, EdD

Best known for her innovative work with cancer patients and survivors, Sharon is a writer, educator and author of two books on the benefits of expressive writing during cancer as well as personal essays, a children's book, magazine articles and the occasional poetry. She designed and initiated expressive writing programs at several major cancer centers, including Breast Cancer Connections, Stanford Cancer Center, Scripps Green Cancer Center and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She continues to lead expressive writing groups for men and women living in the San Diego area and teach creative writing workshops and classes privately for UCLA extension Writers' Program. She previously taught professional development courses in therapeutic writing at Santa Clara University and the Pacific School of Religion, was a faculty member of the CURE Magazine Forums and at the Omega Institute in 2014. Sharon earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto and studied creative and transformative writing at Humber School for Writers, University of Washington, and Goddard College.
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