When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut…
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
(excerpt, “When Death Comes,” by Mary Oliver, in New & Selected Poems, 2004)
This morning, the newspaper headlines announced Canada’s COVID-19 death numbers had surpassed 10,000, clear evidence of the continuing second wave of this pandemic in our lives. I try not to spend too much time reading about the COVID-19 statistics now; to do so only increases my anxiety and more, is a stark reminder that we are far from an end to this current state of social distancing, lockdowns, and face masks as a necessary part of our daily attire. My husband and I are both high risk—he, a cancer survivor, me, living with heart failure, and both of us older. In these times, that fear of mortality can easily creep into my thoughts, usually late at night, a shadowy presence that is the evitability of life.
This past weekend, I gave a Zoom session on journaling at the National Symposium for Ovarian Cancer Canada. After introducing a short writing exercise on fear, one attendee offered to read what she’d written: an emotional admission that the fear of death that is constantly in her thoughts—echoing what many of those attending the session were feeling—and in a time of a pandemic, the prospect of death, of grief, seems to be much nearer.
We haven’t lost any of our friends or family to COVID-19, but we have lost some people dear to us from cancer recently, which forces the topic of mortality and grieving out in the open. My husband and I have talked about the grief of a friend’s partner in the past weeks, even though his death was expected as any further treatment options for his cancer had been exhausted. His death and his wife’s loss reminded me of the death of my husband’s brother-in-law a few years ago, and his sister’s grief. His death was not unexpected either; he’d endured an agonizing four year battle with bladder cancer, but his wife’s grief had been held in abeyance as treatment after treatment failed, the medical expenses increased, and he clung to life and hoped for a miracle.
But the dam broke after he died. I telephoned my sister-in-law the morning my husband boarded the airplane to fly to Seattle for Ed’s funeral. It rang several times before Joan answered. She had been crying and quickly apologized. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I just went into his room and saw how empty it is, and…He’s gone, Sharon,” she said, her voice heavy with sorrow 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…
(From “Numb,” by Florence Weinberger, in The Cancer Poetry Project, 2001)
There’s a great deal written about dealing with the loss of a loved one from cancer, and while some may think of grief as a single instance or short time of pain or sadness in response to the loss—like the tears shed at a loved one’s funeral—as the American Cancer Society reminds us, the real process of grieving lasts much longer and involves the entire emotional process of coping with the loss.
This morning, I plan on touching base with the friend whose husband died a few weeks ago from prostate cancer. I check in with her every couple of weeks, remembering too well that emptiness after a spouse’s death, after the calls, sympathy cards, and flowers, and the the reality of living without one’s loved one—the unexpected emptiness in the home, the silences, and diminishment of calls from acquaintances. The loneliness. In our last conversation, she described what she’d been doing to keep busy. She and her husband, like my husband’s sister, had been together for sixty plus years. “I haven’t cried yet,” she remarked.
It’s hardly a surprise. According to the American Cancer Society, studies have identified emotional states that people may go through while grieving. 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.
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.
Life, death—these are the shared human experiences. I know that, for me, the death of a family member or a close friend stays with me longer now—partly because death seems to be more with us in the time of a pandemic and partly too, because autumn, that final burst of color before winter sets in, is a time of looking back, remembering, being more aware of life—and of death too.
This week, consider grief and mourning. What memories come up? Have you lost loved ones to cancer, unexpected death or other serious illnesses? Write about the loss of a spouse, family member or friend. Try to articulate the feelings of grief you experienced. What was it like? What helped you work through your grief?