My wife, Jo, and I had an interview the other morning with a representative from Talbot Hospice. I am still functional. I have most of my wits about me, well, except perhaps when, on that morning, I took out forks to eat our breakfast of soft-boiled eggs. In looking back, I think I was unconsciously edgy about our impending discussion. The choice of forks may have actually been revealing the heart of what we were about that morning. We were all about grief, good grief, but great grief; my fears were keeping my feelings a short distance from myself.
Our decision to consult with hospice arose from an earlier discussion about where I might wish to die. There are practical realities for my spouse if I were to die at home. I eagerly welcomed the consultation . . . or so I thought.
Many years ago, I served as the chaplain to Talbot Hospice. I’d noticed then how people who were terminally ill enlisted hospice only at the eleventh hour. The services would have been appropriate earlier. I remember wondering why people waited so long. I understand the resistance much better now.
It’s all about great grief, little griefs and good grief.
I think there are great griefs, like death and dying. There are little griefs like losing something apparently inconsequential to which we’d become attached. Good grief are all the griefs we ‘ve known and have found ways to acknowledge and embrace.
About ten years ago, I went on a tear to declutter my house – beginning with my closets. I had kept a Harris Tweed sport jacket I bought at a rummage sale in 1960. I loved it. By 1975 I had gained so much weight I couldn’t get into it. Still, all those years it hung in my closet. There was no way I was going to ever slim down enough to wear it. I wasn’t aware at the time how I was behaving. All I thought was ‘Oh, I need to get rid of this, someday,’ and closed the closet door until years later when I launched into another decluttering campaign and took it to a rummage sale. By then I was beginning to feel how much it had meant to me. My behavior was telling me how attached I’d become to something as seemingly inconsequential as an old sport jacket.
I’ve always associated the pain of loss with life’s great griefs, like death, or significant diminishments and traumas of all kinds. Grief comes in all shapes and forms as do the feeling the pain grief engenders. Nobody likes how it feels. In fact, we hate it. We have ways of blocking it, like unwanted robocalls.
However, at the same time in all of us, there is an accumulation of ‘little griefs’ which lie latent, unrealized and never acknowledged. Then the ‘big one’ comes. And at such moments my knee jerk reaction is to suppress it. The ‘big one’ strikes a deep chord, however, which, like a tuning fork sends out powerful vibrations disturbing the tines of those accumulated smaller losses, activating them. The pain gets exacerbated.
I’ve found that there are times when I successfully avoid feeling the pain. I know it’s there reverberating through my heart because I’m afraid to give voice to it because “I’ll lose it.” In cases like that, ‘losing it’ is the best thing that can happen. After experiencing its acute phase, there will continue to aftershocks –– losing it off and on for things as silly as not being able to get the top off a jar of pickles or finding a pencil. After allowing myself to lose it, my heart settles down enough so it can more easily embrace the pain.
As I was mulling over this the other day, I thought of the dust kitties in the difficult-to-access corners of the den that seem to suddenly appear. I may not have consciously noticed the kitties, but they did not just appear; they represented months of gathering dust, like the hundreds of small losses slowly accumulating just outside of my awareness, building up in the corner of my heart.
I was not aware, before I had begun intentionally attending my own grief, of how denying grief over the years had distanced me, not only from myself but from those closest to me. My inability to find ways to access my own interior life had also kept me from being close to others. This is not a call for anyone to become a ‘touchy feely’, but say how important it is to know what’s really going on in the heart.
I’ve noticed a growing intimacy with my wife, children and grandchildren, but also with those people with whom, over the years, I’ve shared cordial but distant relationships. As I learn to grieve more skillfully, I’ve found freedom to speak more easily of my inner life. Some relationships that were cordial become closer.
The visit from the hospice representative was helpful. For me it was more than just an informational visit for which I considered myself fully prepared. The curveball was how I’d grown acutely aware that I was, in a manner of speaking, beginning to acknowledge that the tweed jacket that I knew and loved would never fit me again as it once did, like my life, as I’d once known it, would never be the same and had to be surrendered.
I suspect now that my bringing out forks for our boiled eggs betrayed that while I welcomed the hospice representative at one level, I was really somewhere else, still trying to hold back some of the fears I had of actively entering into the world of escalating diminishments that I would soon have to face.
I am slowly owning up to the fact that this step into my future is scary; by convening the meeting, I’d made a more conscious declaration that I would soon be surrendering the life I knew and in which I had been deeply invested.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.