Surviving Complicated Grief

 

Surviving complicated GriefThe hospital smells of disinfectant, trying to mask the presence of illness and grief. I walk into my husband’s room and give him a hug. I hold on tight, and even though he’s too weak to reciprocate, I relish the familiar touch and feel of his skin. How, I wonder, will I find the strength to witness his decline. He promised he’d never leave me, that he’d love me forever. But now he has cancer and promises are a thing of the past.

Six weeks later my sweet husband, Rex, passes peacefully at home. Even though I’m with him when he takes his last breath, I just stare in disbelief. Grief takes on many forms, and for now I feel like I’m watching a scene in a really bad play. I walk through the funeral, burial and reception like I’m a robot. I engage in conversation but I’m not really present. There’s a blanket between me and the rest of the world and nothing’s getting through.

When the feelings start to come they are complicated and not what I expected. The anger kicks in first. I tear through Rex’s tools and start packing them away. When I find corroded duplicates, I go to the dump and toss them out frantically. I call in a friend to take down the walls of his make-shift office in the garage. I clean out the space with a vengeance, furious at the mess that he left behind. If I’m going to be alone then I’ll do what I want, so don’t get in my way.

My kids are adults with families of their own, and I don’t want to burden them unnecessarily. But toughing it out on my own is harder than I thought. Out of nowhere, with Rex gone 6 weeks, the tears start to come. They come at the supermarket when I can’t decide between peaches and plums. They come when the light turns red and I’m going to be 5 minutes late. I cry when the gas tank hits empty and I’ve forgotten to fill the tank. And again when the dishes pile up in the sink and the dishwasher hasn’t been unloaded. It doesn’t take much, but for the next 8 months grief feels like it’s never going to end.

When the fear kicks in I suddenly feel very old. How will I navigate this next phase of my life on my own? Will I be lonely for the rest of my days? What if I get in an accident and nobody knows about it until it’s too late? Will I have enough money to live comfortably if I need long term care? Who can I talk to when I’m feeling worried or sad or even happy and excited? Rex was my heart, the one I shared everything with, and now I have no idea where I’m supposed to turn.

I’m independent to a fault and resist reaching out, until I see a card from The Gathering Place. Provident Little Company of Mary is offering a “Loss of Spouse” Grief Support Group. Even though I’m not Catholic, it’s close to my home so I agree to give it a chance. I go to the group for nine weeks and start connecting with other women. I start to make friends and surround myself with people who understand. “How did you deal with Social Security?” “Do you have to take your husband’s name off the mortgage to set up a trust?” “What are you doing with his clothes?” “Who do you talk to when you are feeling hopeless?” And most importantly, “Tell me about your husband, what was he like?”

It’s two years since I lost the love of my life, and although I’m still grieving I have begun to have hope. I journal every morning to stay in touch with my feelings. I honor my husband by sending him loving prayers throughout the day. I’ve learned to reach out and ask for help when I need it. I know who I can really talk to and who just wants me to move on. But mostly I’ve learned that I have not been abandoned. I have been loved and cherished by a man I adored, and that love gives me the strength to make it on my own.

Sydell Weiner, Ph.D

Surviving Grief, August, 2017

When Great Souls Die: Mother and Rex

 

My mother in 1945
Janet Kay Horowitz

Would my life have been different if my mother had lived beyond my 14th year? She was my universe, and I revolved around her like a planet orbiting the sun. It was safe and predictable, and I knew where I belonged.

My mother died suddenly, after a five year illness that was kept secret from me.  At the time, all I could feel was shock and disbelief. I no longer knew who I was, what was real or who I could trust.  So I looked for people, performance and academic achievement, to reassure myself that I had a right to keep living while she could not.

My grief was so deeply embedded that I couldn’t shake it loose. So I shut it down and kept it inside. I developed a polished “false self” that brought me external success, but internal emptiness. Because she wasn’t there to cheer me on, I never felt good enough.  As Maya Angelou said, “I was reduced to the unutterable ignorance of dark, cold caves.”

I made it through college and even started grad school, still trying to find my place in the world.  When I got married at 23,  I started to figure it out.  My career took off and I had two beautiful kids. But I hadn’t dealt with my grief, so my default mode was to avoid getting too close. We inevitably divorced and I vowed to learn from my mistakes.

Rex in 1988
Rex Heuschkel

And then I met Rex. I was 39 and he was an artist–a deep creative soul who allowed me to be honest, to take down the façade and be authentic.  And he thought I was wonderful. He thought I was the smartest person he ever knew, the most talented, and with him by my side I was also the most loved. Yes, he was troubled, and not an easy man to be with, but I loved him. I loved him so much that I almost lost myself in the process. He died 2 years ago, and I still can’t always find myself without him.

Rex, I visited you at the cemetery Tuesday morning.  As I drove  through the gates a familiar calmness swept over me, not unlike the feeling of coming home. The grounds are lush with green rolling hills and tall leafy trees. How can a place that is so beautiful hold so much grief?  I drive to your spot and grab the burgundy towels that I brought from home. I spread them out like a blanket, softening the blow of the hard, rocky ground.

As I sit facing your gravestone, I notice that dirt has accumulated between the raised letters of your name. Why isn’t there more grass close to the stone to absorb the water from the sprinklers? You’re in the shade, so the surrounding dirt turns to mud and never has the sun to harden it. Damn, that makes me mad! I pour out some water from my bottle and start scrubbing with one of my towels to clean it up. Have I neglected you by not coming here more often? Do you miss me my love, or has your spirit long flown away to be with the angels?

I lay down on top of the earth that holds your remains, where someday I too will be buried.  I feel your presence so deeply; you are embracing me from below.  It reminds me of the many times we held onto each other in bed. “What happens when you die?” I’d often ask you. “Oh darlin’,” you’d reply. “We will fly through eternity, untethered by appetite or earthly restraints. We’ll be together in a place where there’s no judgement, no need to impress, just acceptance, freedom and love.”

You are in my heart as I yearn for that freedom to soar. I sit up and search for the stone I brought from home. “Here’s a special one from Hart mountain, your favorite place on earth.  I’ve cut it open and polished it, so the colorful pattern can shine with your brilliance.”  I place it on your now clean gravestone and dig up 2 more with my fingertips.  The stones are a symbol of permanence; unlike flowers, they will never die.  I’m counting on that, Rex. Please wait for me, so we can share your dream of the everlasting.

I hope my mother has found the soul of my dear husband. He’s not who she would have imagined for me, but he was good and he loved me beyond anything I ever thought possible. I want to be with him NOW. Some days that’s all I can think about, just being together in another dimension.

My dearest Rex, losing you has cracked me open in unexpected ways. I’ve faced the unimaginable and instead of destroying me, I am still in one piece. When great souls die there is grief and loss, but there is also hope. Besides getting stronger, I am helping others to cope with their grief. Try not to worry about me, Mother. I am being sheltered by Rex’s love.  He’s helping me release the darkness and ease through the narrow opening towards wisdom and light.

Sydell Weiner, July 21, 2018
Inspired by Maya Angelou’s, “When Great Trees Fall.”
https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/when-great-trees-fall/

 

I Used to Be Pretty

I used to be pretty, I mean cheerleader, actress, head-turning pretty. Fortunately, I was also smart. I learned early that it would take more than I used to Be Prettygood looks to make my way in the world. And as much as I’m struggling with aging, it’s harder for women whose identities revolved around their husbands, their children and their fleeting good looks.

I always felt an urgency to craft a meaningful life.  My mother died at 44, so I knew first hand that life could be short.  I calculated the most likely path to success and pursued a Ph.D.  According to plan, I secured a tenure-track position at a state university and thought I had it all figured out. Aging wasn’t going to mess with me.

What I hadn’t figured out was how older women are treated in our society. Granted, I live in Los Angeles, the land of the young and beautiful.  But it seems to be pervasive; as women age they are often dismissed as irrelevant. “What could you say that would interest me?”  Or if you walk a little slower, the unspoken response is often, “Hurry up, get out of my way, I have things to do.” The corollary being that you, as an older woman, do not.

I retired from the university in 2011, and my husband retired in 2010. He had a history of smoking and youthful bouts of alcoholism, which aged him prematurely. He loved to go to Starbucks for a latte with whipped cream and a gooey French pastry. Since Rite Aid was only 2 stores away, stopping there before Starbucks became part of his daily routine.

Every day he’d pick up band aids, or shaving cream, or toothpaste, or whatever single item gave him an excuse to go to Rite Aid. He grew up working in the hayfields, so he never felt comfortable with the PhD’s at the university. But going to Rite Aid became his way of connecting with his “peeps.” The clerks and check-out people all loved him because he took the time to talk to them, and often had them laughing in the aisles.

As my husband’s health began to decline, so did his trips to Rite Aid. When I started picking up his medications, I was greeted with questions, advice, and many well wishes. I gave them constant updates, but when I told them he was on Hospice their pitying looks cut right through my heart. Hospice delivered his medications  at home, and I was frankly relieved that I no longer had to face his friends at Rite Aid.

On September 17, 2016, Rex died peacefully at home. Even though I was still in my 60’s, I suddenly felt terribly old. My daughter and daughter-in-law sprang into action and took over the arrangements. In Jewish law the burial should take place within 48 hours of a death, so there were a lot of preparations for the gathering at my house 2 days later. I appreciated the help of my 2 beautiful girls, but I felt useless and extraneous as the activity swirled around me.

It was several months before I went back to Rite Aid for some prescriptions of my own. I was in sloppy clothes, with no make-up, and felt about ten years older. It broke my heart to tell his “peeps” that he had passed away. They all made sympathetic remarks and couldn’t have been nicer. But something had changed. From that point on, they would always see me as “Rex’s widow.” The sad looks in their eyes made me want to run out screaming every time I bumped into someone he knew.

About 10 months ago I went into the pharmacy looking worse than I had in my entire life. Yeah, grief has a way of doing that to you. I asked for my medications hoping there would be someone at the counter that I didn’t know. Of course Linda was there, and she greeted me with those pitying eyes that seemed to say, “Oh, you poor pathetic creature, how hard it must be to be old and alone.” I know I’m projecting because she was sweet as could be, but I’d gained 15 pounds and looked like hell.

Linda put my medications on the counter and directed me to insert my card into the payment machine. The first screen came up. “Press the X in the right hand corner,” she told me, before I had even read what was on the screen. As soon as the next screen came up she blurted, “Check the box if you want a consultation.” When the 3rd screen came up, without even waiting a second, she instructed: “Sign on the bottom line and hit Next.”

This went on for several months. I know she meant well, but she prompted me on every screen before I could even read what it said. I started to feel nervous at the counter and afraid I couldn’t answer the questions on my own. Was I just a feeble old lady who couldn’t even handle an ATM machine? I’d finally had enough and had to speak up. “There’s some ageism going on here. You keep feeding me directions without giving me 3 seconds to read them myself. It makes me feel so demeaned.  Please have some respect!”

I grabbed my medications, stormed out of the store, and transferred to another pharmacy.  What I really wanted to say was: “I used to be pretty! I have a PhD and I can take care of myself. Don’t you dare treat me like an old lady!” Standing on the sidewalk outside the store I began to sob. Maybe that’s who I am to the rest of the world now. The thought horrified me and I worried if I’d ever feel whole again.

Some time has passed and I’m feeling better about myself. I’ve lost 20 pounds and wear make-up and matching clothes when I go to the pharmacy. Although I’m aging like the rest of my generation, my mind is sharp and my confidence is coming back.

Instead of turning heads, I counsel people who are struggling with relationships. When I’m not working, I go to the gym, I discuss world affairs, I take classes, I get massages and I have lunch with my friends. So yes, I’ll go into Rite Aid and apologize for being rude, but my prescriptions will be  filled elsewhere.

Aging isn’t easy and neither is loss. I was married to a man who knew me completely. In his eyes I was more than just pretty, I was a deep, sensitive soul. When I reflect on the values that constitute real beauty, of course I know it’s more than just physical appearance.  Nonetheless, I sometimes I need that reminder to face the future with courage and hope.

I Used to Be Pretty, 2/08/2018

Unexpected Acts of Kindness

Alaskan collaboration
Sydell and Rex in 2013

“In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” This quote is getting thousands of “Likes” on Facebook, but do we really practice kindness in our everyday lives?

In March of 2002, my husband Rex and I moved to a small fixer upper in Palos Verdes. Our next door neighbor is a single guy named Mark. He is barely 30, and like Rex, enjoys schmoozing in the driveway about home improvement. Rex invites Mark to one of his plays at the university, and that’s where we meet his fiancee Karen.  They get married, Karen moves in next door, and before long they’re raising a family. No matter how busy they get, they remain our “go to” neighbors when we go on vacation or need a favor.

As their children begin to grow, my husband’s health begins to decline. At first it’s almost imperceptible, but as the years progress he becomes increasingly tired with bouts of confusion. On an ordinary day in January, 2014, I drive to the Westside to babysit my son and daughter-in-law’s 4 kids. As soon as they leave for their “date,” I get an urgent call on my cell phone. “Rex is in his car in the driveway,” my neighbor Karen says. “The car alarm is going off and he’s just sitting there, staring into space.”

I’m with 4 kids under 10, even if I could leave them, it would take me an hour and a half to get home in traffic. I tell her I’ll call her back and start making some calls. Meanwhile, Karen brings Rex into my house and manages to turn off the car alarm. Her kids come over too, because Mark isn’t home and they’re too young to be alone. Fortunately, I reach my step-daughter who agrees to drive from Burbank and stay with her dad until I can get home.

By the time I get there Rex is running a high fever. I call 911 and he’s taken by ambulance to Torrance Memorial Hospital. Everything happens fast, and before I know it he’s having his gallbladder removed. The doctor-on-call tells me not to worry; everything else checks out fine and he’ll be ready to go home in a few days. Even though he’s given a clean bill of health, as I reflect on it now, that was the beginning of the end.

On July 28th, 2016, Rex took another emergency trip to Torrance Memorial. This time I have my own doctor involved, and she personally runs all the tests that should have been run in 2014. By noon the next day we have a diagnosis: Stage 4 Cancer. We do surgery, we do radiation, we do everything possible. But on September 17th, 2016, my sweet husband dies in a hospital bed at home and none of us knows what hit us.

With all the funeral arrangements and commotion in our family, I forget to tell Karen and Mark. About 3 weeks go by when Karen knocks on my door to ask about Rex. “Oh Karen, I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you. He passed away 3 weeks ago.” She stands on my doorstep as tears start flooding her eyes. “We loved him,” she sobs. “Mark is going to be devastated.”

The next few months go by in a blur. I do all the household chores and try to keep it together. I continue going to my daughter’s house in Costa Mesa on Mondays to watch her kids. On those days I don’t get home until after 7 pm. Monday is garbage day, so I try to get the cans out on Sunday nights.

One Monday night when I get home, I notice that my empty cans have already been taken in.  The neighbors on my other side were also very helpful when Rex was sick, so maybe it was them. Oh wait, I’m close to the rabbi who lives around the corner, so it could have been him. I have no idea who my “Secret Angel” is, and I want to find out so I can thank them.

The next Monday night as I’m driving home, I see Mark and his 10 year old son Bobby in front of my house.  They’re wheeling my garbage cans to the side yard.  I roll down my car window and call out, “Are you the one who’s been doing this for the past few weeks? He looks like a kid with his hand caught in the cookie jar. “We try to,” he answers sheepishly; “it’s no big deal.”

The next day I see him alone in his driveway and go over. “Thank you so much, Mark,” I say. “You don’t have to do this every week, really.” He smiles at me with a look of embarrassment and says, “I want Bobby to learn about neighbors and chores. And besides,” he pauses with a catch in his throat, “I loved Rex. I want to do this for him.”

That was a year ago and they still take out my garbage on Sunday nights and return the cans on Monday, without saying a word. A few months ago, when the fog in my brain started to lift, I bought Bobby a junior size football that he freely retrieves from my backyard whenever it goes over the fence. For Thanksgiving I made them all a huge gift basket with gummy bears and other kid friendly treats.  They’re always appreciative, but they don’t need gifts or recognition.  Their acts of kindness seem to be helping them and much as it does me.

A few weeks ago I knocked on their door, because an unfamiliar car was blocking my driveway. When Karen answers, one of her friends hears me and appologizes profusely. “I was just dropping off my kids, I’ll move my car in a second.” I start chatting with Bobby and his 9 years old sister Julie. We’re laughing about our dogs digging under the fence so they can play together. Julie is very talkative and I’m enjoying the friendly banter with my next door neighbors’ kids.

I few days later, I get home from work feeling tired and cranky. As I approach my front door I see a pink gift bag with ribbons overflowing. Inside there is a handmade card and on the front it says: “A little Gift for…” I open it and it says, “YOU! Look in this bag! I made this for you!! “Love, JuJulie's gift of kindnesslie!” I rummage through the bag and I find it: a 2 inch wide heart, made from over 30 pink beads. It’s adorable! This 9 year old child’s gesture has touched me beyond words.

It’s easy to resort to self-pity when you lose someone you love. Believe me, I’ve done more than my share. Yet who would have thought that the single guy next door would morph into this beautiful, loving family? Their unexpected acts of kindness have been instrumental in helping to lift my spirits.

They make me think of all the other caring people who’ve been there for me since I lost my husband.  I am so grateful. Acts of kindness remind us of our shared humanity. For the past year and a half I’ve been the recipient, and now it is time to pay it forward. The greatest acts of kindness are helping others without expecting anything in return. In Hebrew we call it a Mitzvah. And what better way to honor the memory of my dear husband Rex.

Sydell Weiner, Ph.D

 

 

 

Caution: Set Designer at Work

 

Our Town backdrop
Our Town backdrop

My husband Rex was a brilliant set designer. He did his best work in the scene shop behind the theatre at Cal State Dominguez Hills, where we worked together for 25 years.

The shop was 50 x 100 feet with 30 foot ceilings, and every inch had a designated purpose. There was a long work bench along the north wall with power saws spinning, and the smell of sawdust everywhere. To me it sounded like a dentist’s office, but to Rex it was wonderland and he was in his glory. He was proud to be working with students and helping them build the sets he’d designed. When it was all put together I’d find him alone on stage, hanging from a cherry picker to touch up the paint.

Backdrop for theatre design
Here’s To Love

I loved coming into the shop to check on a set for a show I was directing. I’d call out his name and my voice would echo in the large concrete room. When he saw me, Rex’s face would light up. He’d always stop what he was doing and take a break. We’d go outside to catch up on our day, laugh about the students who were driving us nuts, and enjoy a high octane cup of coffee. Soon he’d go back to work and get lost again in the thing he loved more than anything in the world.

It was fascinating to watch Rex work, especially when he was painting a backdrop. There was a paint frame along the east wall of the shop. He hung the muslin for his drop along the top of the frame. With a push of a button, the frame would go up so he could reach the bottom with his brush. With another push of the button the frame went down, so he could paint along the top.

Backdrop for Gypsy
Gypsy: Farm Boys drop

He usually had students working the paint frame. They loved watching him transform a piece of muslin into a masterpiece. It could be the skyline of New York for Guys and Dolls, a sunny field with bales of hay for Oklahoma, or a quaint New England villiage complete with church and steeple for our favorite, Our Town.

I was one of the few who knew his secret weapon. Rex used a spray gun to create highlights and shadows. He used it with the focus of an orchestra conductor. He’d draw an outline of the scenery on the canvas, while a student mixed paint at the sink near the frame. Then he’d lay in the details, grab his gun and off he’d go. My husband was John Wayne of the paint frame, spraying in subtleties of color like he was waving a magic wand.

Backdrop for Guys and Dolls
Guys and Dolls

Rex was a genius, there’s no argument there. His need to create beautiful art was unrelenting. But like most geniuses, he had little concern for his own well-being while he was working. The hours he spent spraying paint on canvas without a mask, are too numerous to recount. And in the early days, he’d have a cigarette in his hand at the same time. Spray–breathe in fumes, spray–breathe in cigarette smoke, spray– and create phenomenal art.

guys and dolls backdrop
Guys and Dolls: Sewer drop

My husband’s work was astonishing, but he could have lived so much longer if he wasn’t so reckless with his health. Was that the madness of an artistic genius?  I knew I was talented, but I was jealous of Rex’s genius.  Maybe I was lucky to be spared. As the saying goes, “Talent does what it can and genius does what it must.” 

And now you are gone my love and I am alone. I’m angry and sad, and I miss you every single day.

Sydell Weiner, February 23, 2018