Two months ago, my husband, Jim, died of dementia, pneumonia and sepsis. I will spare you the details but suffice it to say that he was gaunt, thin and agitated toward the end. His breathing was shallow. He is, blessedly, in a better place now, and on his behalf, I am grateful for that. The issue for me now is that I cannot get the physical image of him in those final weeks out of my mind despite efforts to avoid these intrusive thoughts. I am eating well, sleeping enough and don’t otherwise feel seriously depressed. Are there things I can do to minimize these vivid recollections?
– Grieving in Santa Barbara
The Sage offers condolences and hopes that this becomes less of an issue over time as you get through the grieving process. Few people die and leave us with images of fun and laughter, though some have tried their best with tombstone messages:
• Mel Blanc, the voice of Porky Pig: ‘That’s all folks.’
• Merv Griffin: ‘I will not be right back after this message.’
• Rodney Dangerfield: ‘There goes the neighborhood.’
• Anonymous: ‘Raised four beautiful daughters with only one bathroom and still there was love.’
The Sage will not presume to analyze whether you are grieving normally – but it is a good sign that you are eating and sleeping. So let’s focus on your present issue.
The internet is filled with ideas for dealing with grief. Many of them focus on keeping your spouse close to your heart – which is great, but some can result in an obsession with the death rather than tips for cherishing memories while letting go over time and developing the capacity to deal with loss in a healthy way. The Sage will offer a few of his own ideas in addition to time-tested strategies that have helped millions:
• Peruse family photos of happy times – your wedding, wonderful vacations over the years, the births of your children, celebrations of milestones, times when Jim was robust and happy. Take some of these out of albums for now and keep them close to your bed or your living room chair. You should begin to see your husband as the vibrant individual you fell in love with, and those images will gradually supersede the ones that are so pronounced now. Perhaps you will reminisce – and smile – about a holiday cookout, a boating day on a lake, or a great photo of Dad with a humorously horrified expression on his face after changing the baby for the first time.
• Compile a list of funny stories from your years together. This, too, will bring back fond memories. Share with friends and family and try to laugh about them. Remember a nervous Jim the first time he met your parents, or embarrassing moments from an early date? Maybe he took you to a fancy restaurant, ordered for you in French, and the server delivered you a grilled-cheese sandwich instead of the filet mignon that he thought he had asked for.
• Write a letter to Jim. Many psychologists recommend this for healing purposes, and for various reasons – some to address conflicts that were never resolved, for instance, or simply to acknowledge feelings and emotions. You could, for example, simply tell him that you’re doing everything possible to remember your life together when you were both healthy and happy … that you’re struggling, but will get past this the way he’d want you to …or you could enumerate the things you loved about him. Each of these strategies is likely to enkindle warm impressions.
• Volunteer for a cause close to his heart or make a donation to a favorite nonprofit organization. If you have the money, you can even set up a scholarship program for a student who wants to follow in his footsteps. If he had a strong sense of altruism, this can keep that spirit alive. Recall any conversations you may have had about charitable causes, or about people who needed assistance.
• If you can afford it, commission a piece of art. Perhaps someone can paint a scene of your #1 beach or vacation destination. The Sage himself, armed with a series of Rhode Island beach photos and one of his grandfather getting his rowboat ready, hired an artist to paint what turned out to be a family heirloom – grandpa happy in his element, smiling away, knee-deep in seaweed, clam rake in hand.
• Do a scrapbook of uplifting photos and major events during your life together.
• Listen to music from the era when you two met. As some music companies discovered decades ago, it’s not so much the songs that matter – it’s the bright memories that those songs evoke.
• Look for humor everywhere – in books, on TV, in movies that you enjoyed together. You can also read funny quotes that will help keep things in a positive perspective.
– Whenever I have a headache, I take two aspirin and keep away from children, just like it says on the bottle. Anonymous.
– I'm writing a book. I've got the page numbers done. Comedian Steven Wright.
– How do you get a sweet little 80-year-old lady to say the F word? Get another sweet little 80-year-old lady to yell ‘BINGO!’ Anonymous.
– Always borrow money from a pessimist. He won’t expect it back. Oscar Wilde, Irish playwright and poet.
– If you think nobody cares if you’re alive, try missing a couple of car payments. Comedian Flip Wilson.
• Help others who are grieving with you – for instance, your children and/or grandchildren. Look for your husband in your children’s looks, mannerisms and personality traits. Listen to them and offer suggestions for adapting to their loss. It will be good for you, too.
• Follow popular suggestions: Eat right, exercise, keep sleeping well, spend time with positive people who make you laugh, be realistic and expect the normal ups and downs, ask for help from others when you could use it, and get counseling if you think you need it.
• Go out and do things that Jim would encourage you to do under these circumstances – whatever gets you through an hour, a day or a week. That may mean that you get up early and go for a walk, call your closest friend to make a lunch date for that week, or remember once and for all to look at the gas gauge in the car.
• Visit places where you had wonderful times together and picture those times. It may make you sad in the beginning, but over time you will embrace those precious images.
• Create new traditions. Holidays are usually the toughest times of year, especially in the first year after a major loss. Examples: Get together with friends and relatives and encourage each person to come prepared to relate two funny stories about your husband. Note: Bawdy stories about college frat parties should wait until after the grandchildren have gone home.
• Do something fun that your husband taught you to do – play tennis, take the kayak out, do a jigsaw puzzle. You could also oil the door hinges, rewind the lawnmower cord, and cuss at refs during hockey games.
• Complete Jim’s bucket list. Give yourself years to do this, especially if you have to travel great distances, like to Wagga Wagga, Australia, or Poopoo, Hawaii. Meanwhile, you can probably tackle Beer Bottle Crossing, Idaho, fairly soon from your home in Santa Barbara.
Wishing you the very best,