The loss of a spouse can be an unfortunate  part of family life and one that we’re not prepared for
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DAVID TAFFET  |  Senior Staff Writer
taffet@dallasvoice.com

Part of family life is dealing with the death of a loved one.

I’ve lost my parents, lost a very close grandfather and lost numerous friends to AIDS, but none of that prepared me for losing my husband. On March 6, Brian was fine when I left for work. When I got home, he was unconscious. By 9 p.m., he was dead.

Brian and I were married just nine months and had been together seven years. I’ve had other partners, but I finally met the person I was going to grow old with. Nothing prepared me for losing him. It’s emotionally devastating. That I knew. But its also exhausting and expensive.

Counselor Candy Marcum said the big losses in most people’s lives are “the loss of a mother and a lover.

“They have the same depth of connection so the same depth of loss and grief,” she said.

Marcum called grief healthy and encouraged anyone grieving to experience their emotions.

“Your emotions are right on target,” she said. “It’s the healing.”

She said grief doesn’t have to be over a death but may be about a break up or a job. Whatever the reason for the grieving, don’t hide it.

Over the past few months, I’ve learned a lot about grieving, and some of it surprised me. I’d heard of the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — but I haven’t experienced them all, at least not in any traditional way.

After a bad day, I expected to go home and miss having someone to share it with. Someone to give me a hug. But here’s what I didn’t expect:

Dealing with happy events

Bad days just blended into my grief, but happy days? It was the good days I was  having trouble handling.

Earlier this year, I was nominated for two writing awards. For a few days, I didn’t tell anyone, because I couldn’t tell Brian. He would have been more excited than I was. I just didn’t know what to do with the information.

While figuring it out, I looked up the awards to find out when the winner would be announced. I’m not sure if everyone in my office heard me begin to cry when I read the date: Our anniversary.

That upset me more than anything. Would it be a real win if Brian, somehow, fixed the results as my anniversary present?

So, not wanting to sound like a crazy person, I kept that to myself. Of course, when I did win, and anyone said congratulations, instead of saying thank you, I explained about the results and how Brian interfered with the selection process. Yeah, that was healthy.

Expensive

Losing a spouse is costly.

The day Brian died, I had just paid bills and noticed how we were ahead of schedule catching up on several things — like a vacation we were going to take in three weeks.

Then I got home and suddenly I faced $10,000 in expenses I hadn’t expected that morning.

While losing a spouse is very expensive, what I learned over the next month was those expenses were just going to continue to mount.

First were funeral bills. Then came a bill from the city for an ambulance. Then from the hospital where we transported him. 

But then came the everyday living expenses. We used to split the rent. Now I pay it myself along with an increase I got when I renewed my lease. And the increase was twice what it’s been in the past, because Oak Lawn rents are skyrocketing.

I began shopping for one person instead of two. That doesn’t mean half the cost. For example a half gallon of milk doesn’t cost half what the gallon we used to buy cost. Utilities have gone down, but not by half. I’m noticing the bill is only about $10 less than before. Gas? It takes the same amount of gas to get one of me somewhere as it did for two of us to get there.

Exhaustion

Losing a spouse is exhausting, because there seems to be twice as much to do. I no longer share the chores. The sheets need to be changed once a week whether Brian’s sleeping in the bed or not. It takes me twice as long to put sheets on our king size bed as it did when two of us did it, and now I have to launder the sheets every week instead of relying on him to wash them some weeks. I do all the vacuuming now, and the floor is the same size even if only half the number of people are walking on it.

I don’t buy as much food, but I have to shop for it every time. I have to go to the mailbox every day instead of half the time and clean the litter box all the time instead of never. In other words, everything  that we shared doing or he did, I now do myself and twice as often as I did before.

Those five stages of grief

Marcum said not everyone goes through all of the stages of grief and certainly not in order. One day a person grieving might accept the loss and the next day be depressed again.

I was glad to hear I’m not doing it wrong and didn’t necessarily have to go through every stage.

For example: Denial. Brian died in my arms. There was no denial.

Well, maybe a little. When I called 911 and no one picked up, I kept doing chest compressions for 20 minutes until they answered and the ambulance arrived. If I kept trying to revive him, maybe he’d start breathing again. Maybe that was denial, or maybe I just didn’t understand that even if I had revived him, without equipment the paramedics would have, I wouldn’t have kept him alive.

Anger. I’m not angry at Brian for dying and leaving. I’m a little annoyed he fixed the writing competition from up there. I might have won it on my own. And I’m furious at the city for allowing the 911 system to deteriorate to the point people were dying when they didn’t respond.

Marcum explained that bargaining is often associated with someone dealing with a long-term illness. “If I go to church more often, will you let him live longer,” she said.

I didn’t do that type of bargaining. I did do this type. When I got a bill from the city for $1,650 to drive Brian’s body across the street to Parkland Hospital, I returned it with a note: “I’ll pay your damn bill when you settle my lawsuit.” But that probably isn’t what she meant by bargaining.

Depression. No, not really. Sadness? Yes. Burst into tears at each of the three weddings I’ve attended in the last month? Couldn’t help it. Joy at the happiness of those couples at the same time? Wanting them to be happy as I was? Really wanted to attend? Yes, yes and yes. That’s not depression, but Marcum indicated it comes under that category.

Acceptance. Haven’t gotten there yet, but learning to adjust. For three months, just going to the mailbox upset me. It doesn’t anymore.

Some advice

I’ve learned a lot of things about grieving since Brian died. The people you hoped would be the most help weren’t, and the people you never expected to help did. Like when I took that trip Brian and I planned just a few weeks after he died and Chad in my office arranged a petsitter for me. Or one day I took off and my friend Barbara and I went for a walk through the Arboretum.

Friends help. Brian’s friends help more. My friends are trying to make me feel better. His friends are grieving him with me.

Brian’s friend Jeremy lost his partner in a fire about seven years ago. He understands my loss. Ray lost his husband a few weeks before I lost mine. We keep a message box open on Facebook, and when something pisses one of us off, we let the other know.

I’ve been lucky to have the support of my family and his. My cousins who came to my wedding last June flew to Dallas to spend my anniversary with me.

I took his mother to a Turtle Creek Chorale concert. We had been married on stage at a chorale concert the year before and members of the chorale came to sing at his funeral. They have a devoted follower in Brian’s mom.

His father lives in Austin, and I recently spent a night there with him. His brother and sister, his uncle, an aunt, her son and his partner all reached out to me to make sure I was OK. That made a huge difference and is something I had that others often don’t.

How to help someone grieving

Comments like, “You look like you lost weight,” don’t help. Most people lose weight immediately after a death in the family. Don’t comment on how someone looks. My response, “And you look fat,” didn’t help, but indicated how much the original comment just hurt.

Not everyone feels like going out to eat after losing a spouse. If the grieving person declines your invitation, accept it. Don’t push. Don’t insist. Don’t put more pressure on that person. Is your offer more about you than the person who’s grieving?

“Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” is a much more appropriate offer, but don’t be surprised if the thing you can help with is cleaning the litter box and not going out to dinner.             

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 28, 2017.