180 Degrees of Life

By: David Kennedy, Bereavement Coordinator at Hospice Peterborough

He stood in the chaos of boxes and paper – the reminders of the holidays that brought a trail of family and people into his house. Everyone was trying to make this Christmas better than it could be. “It’s over and I survived.” He spoke it slowly out loud not because anyone was there to hear it but as if congratulating himself.

It was true what his grief group leader had told him that the expectation can be worse than the reality. The worry and anxiety of this first holiday without his partner of 15 years had certainly brought more than its share of anxiousness and dread. But here he was – a survivor. It was not all easy sailing though. It is true that Christmas day passed without a major meltdown and in some ways it was great to have his siblings come and go that day. There were times of laughter and expressions of love that made him realize that he still had things worth living for. What he wasn’t ready for was New Years. In his mind, getting through Christmas was the challenge. He never really thought about New Year’s Eve. Oh not the question of what to do – he had all kinds of options given him. There were private family functions he was encouraged to be part of, there was the party from work that he was invited to and there was the regular gang that he and his partner had shared this night with for the past 10 years who had encouraged him strongly – perhaps too strongly, to join them again this year. Even the option to be alone and do nothing was there for him. No it wasn’t the question of what to do that caught him. It was only as he thought about it later that he realized why he was blindsided by this and so unprepared.

Jack had met his partner 17 years ago after each of them had come through a marriage breakup. His was bad enough, but his partner’s story was enough to fill a chapter in a therapist’s book and to pay for a house in the Caribbean for the lawyers involved. Neither of them had been looking for a relationship but when they met at a party of mutual acquaintances there was a spark that just wasn’t about to go away. They tried – both of them – both gun shy but the love they found in each other was finally the kind of relationship they had longed for. Two years later they made the commitment and the past 15 years have been without a doubt the happiest years for both of them. Then that dreaded “C word” and within 14 months here he was alone again, only this time the pain of being alone was almost unbearable. It had been 6 months since he had said goodbye to the love of his life. Six months and now he felt the obligation from others that he should be okay and that while Christmas would be difficult it should be manageable.

It was only on reflection that he realized the depth of the challenge of this season. Christmas was connected to the past – all the memories and shared experiences with his partner – the collective joys, laughter, tears, hopes and disappointments. They were shared with someone and now that someone isn’t here to share, to reminisce, to recall, to laugh and to remember. New Year’s is about the future, a turning of the calendar, the writing of new digits to reflect the new time frame and it is the fact of facing this New Year without that partner by his side, in his bed, creating memories – that he will have to live this coming year without his beloved partner – that is what blindsided him. He spent all his energy bracing himself for Christmas and the flood of memory that accompanies that holiday, but he wasn’t ready for the gut wrenching awareness of a new year to be lived alone. That almost did him in.

That is the journey of grief. When we are first thrown into the chaos of a person dying we are flooded with the memories, the experiences and the relationship that we had with that person, no matter if it was wonderful or dysfunctional. Grief for a while is looking behind us at that moment of death, that moment of ending of all that we had known. But grief is a 180 degree experience. Soon we find ourselves oscillating between the pain of what can no longer experience and the pain of “what now,” how can I go on living without that person here? Eventually and moments such as New Years, put that future right smack dap in our face and we are forced to look at the reality that I will need to live this year without that person here. Then the weight of this perspective turns our attention to now facing ahead. Every now and then we will need to look back and remember and so this back and forth of grief. Finding a healthy way to live and carry our grief will mean that we will always experience this 180 degree living to some extent.

In time we will find our way again and look ahead but it will always be accompanied by those times when we choose, or are chosen for us, to remember, be thankful and be sorrowful. Yet even in those moments we are reminded that we have life to live and that we can and we will, be open to all that life may bring with gratitude, grace and 180 degree perspective so we will never forget, but we will continue to live.