Sadness flies away on the wings of time.
— Jean de La Fontaine
In April 2009, two Mayo Clinic physician’s assistants and two doctors gradually and gently broke the news to my husband, Earl, and me that Earl had Stage 4 lung cancer.
On that dreary spring day, we swallowed the first hard truth together: Chemotherapy was available, but there was no cure for Earl’s cancer.
The second hard truth was mine alone. I had to come to grips with the reality that sometime soon my best friend would no longer be there when I walked through the door of our house. There’d be no more of his wise counsel, no more sharing his excitement over the next Elderhostel trip we’d be taking. Never again would I hear his cheery, “Hey, Girlfriend!” greeting.
After Earl passed in November 2011, that’s exactly how it was. I felt utterly, completely lost. Actually, “unprotected” is a better word. My husband was of the old school, where you “take care of your wife,” keep her from harm. With Earl physically gone, I was fearful and uneasy — of what, I’m not sure.
I found myself seeking the chair between two friends at after-church coffee on Sundays. I appreciated sitting at a bridge table, physically surrounded. People became my shield.
And then cancer struck again. A month after Earl’s funeral, to my amazement, a tiny dot was discovered on my breast. But unlike Earl’s, my cancer wouldn’t kill me. There was no “breaking it gently.”
After my diagnosis, I was sent almost immediately to the operating room. And with this, my vulnerability became laced with anger. Where was Earl when I needed him most?
Thankfully, my surgery was completely successful. But I was a sorry mess. I cried a lot. Feeling numb and shocked, some days I felt like I was walking through molasses. I’d look into our closet and see Earl’s clothes still hanging there. I just couldn’t bear to part with them.
Kind friends suggested group bereavement counseling. But listening to others relate their sad stories only made things worse. Seeking help from my primary physician, he explained that there was nothing I could do to jumpstart my psyche back to normalcy. Grief is different for each person. I’d just have to wait it out, he said.
Because being with friends/shields provided comfort, I sought ways to get acquainted with new people. Docents were needed at the history museum of my former employer, Northwest Airlines, so I volunteered (and do still today).
I joined a small group of church women who offered support to people facing serious problems. (I got more from their kindness at our monthly meetings than I ever gave to their cause.)
The new activities helped. My grieving gradually lessened. I started coming out of the fog. Then, finally, the time seemed right. I phoned the DAV to come by and pick up Earl’s clothes.
Only six months had passed since Earl’s death, which seemed unusually soon for such a significant breakthrough.
But I realized that grieving can occur before death as well as afterward, and mine had begun that April day at Mayo Clinic.
Carol Hall lives in Woodbury. She’s a longtime freelance writer, a University of Minnesota graduate and a former Northwest Airlines stewardess. Send comments and questions to email@example.com.