This article if from The Oprah Magazine. December 2006
Title: Lynn Sherr's Aha! Moment
-- Her husband was gone, and she couldn't get on with life. Then, as the cameras rolled, she found her way.
For Nearly six years, I'd been holding my breath.
My husband, Larry, a captivating hunk, was under siege from lymphoma, the cancer that was killing him. Our lives had become a series of lowered expectations: one more vacation, one more weekend, one more day, one more hour.
The clock ran out one February morning in 1992. At home, surrounded by his family, Larry died.
Without him, I was lost. He was my best friend, my deepest love, my soul mate, my pal. Larry was part of every single thing I did, my first kiss in the morning, my last stop at night, and dozens of moments in between. I had to learn to exhale in a world I'd now inhabit alone.
But I couldn't. I wore his clothes, slept on his side of the bed, took secret comfort in leaving his sunglasses on the hall table, his book by the bedside. I told myself I was coping, but when my office was relocated half a block away, I panicked. Oh God, I thought, I can't change offices; Larry won't know where to find me.
A friend suggested, from her own experience, "Don't touch the closets, don't remove anything. It's nice to have him there for a while. Gradually, you'll start impinging on his territory, and one of these days you'll just say, 'I need more space.'" She was right, but when I finally gathered the hangers, seeing his outline in every shirt and jacket, I wept giant tears as I imagined Larry saying, hurt and confused, "You gave away all my clothes. I have nothing to wear."
Later came another improvisation: When we couldn't decide where to spread Larry's ashes, I tucked the box with his earthly remains into my lingerie drawer. I thought that might make him happy.
Something told me I wasn't doing any of this right. All the books, and some of my well-intentioned but clueless friends, talked about moving on, about getting by, about--what does it mean, anyway?--closure. But I couldn't even say the words out loud: My husband died.
What I could do was describe the waves of grief, massive swells of sadness that washed through me without warning and pinned me to the pain of my broken heart.
"It doesn't wait; it just comes to get you," said my very supportive therapist. "You're functioning on two levels. And the grief is always there. Set aside more time to cry, to emote. Let some of it out, and you'll be stronger."
She understood that my moods bounced crazily, that I wanted constantly to rewrite the story, to fix the ending so that magically Larry would see another doctor and be cured. And she said I might next feel guilty because Larry was not on my mind all the time.
I started to get it, but my sorrow still lingered. I couldn't put it behind me.
The breakthrough came several years later, during a story I was doing for 20/20 about the agony of loss. I was interviewing Jimmie Holland, a pionnering psychiatrist at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and a recognized authority on bereavement. I'd met her during Larry's last living days, but somehow the distance my job gave me--as a professional asking the questions for everyone, rather than a patient seeking solace for herself--brought new clarity to the issue.
I remember the scene perfectly: We were sitting in her vacation home in Eastern Maryland. The room was country quiet, and I could hear the water lapping against the shore outside. I asked my questions as a reporter, but her answers drilled into my soul. In a calm, reassuring voice, Holland rejected the popular formula that grief is a finite process ending after we pass through a series of such predictable stages as denial, anger, and then acceptance.
"We saw people in the medical world accepting those stages and putting people into boxes and trying to move them along and being very rigid about it," she told me. "And if you didn't go through stage one, two, three, four, five, you were abnormal in some way. We have put pressure on people to say, 'You have a certain amount of time to grieve and get on with it. We don't want to hear any more about your grief.' Well, wrong! You can't do this to people. Your pattern of grief is an unique as your pattern of love."
Bingo! I didn't have to follow anyone's pattern. I didn't have to stop being sad. Not only was sadness okay, it was necessary. Nobody can tell you how to mourn. And it's not self-indulgence; it's not wallowing; it's hanging on to something important. We should not avoid bereavement. We should embrace it, welcoming our moments of sorrow as a time to reconnect with the person we've lost.
Her words washed over me in a flood of warmth. I nodded slightly, the way one does during a television interview, acknowledging the truth of her statements. I was still in reporter mode, so I couldn't exult. I didn't want to break the spell, so I just quietly digested her wisdom as the cameras continued to roll.
It was only later that day, as I headed home, that I reran her words in my head and allowed myself to appreciate their impact. She was talking about me! She had freed me to mourn.
I was a stunning revelation. Grief was not something I'd recover from but an ongoing process, one that lasts--thank goodness--forever. I could breathe again.
Today the waves of pain are less frequent but no less intense. I cry unexpectedly and then feel better. I've learned to live without Larry but not to forget him; to honor the memory of what was, while functioning in the world that is. To welcome the sadness that keeps us connected. And every time I open my lingerie drawer, I realize that his ashes are fine exactly where they are.
----Adated from Lynn Sherr's new memoir, Outside the Box (Rodale).
- May 19 Sat 2007 16:36
This article if from The Oprah Magazine. December 2006