On November 2nd, 2010, I lost my wife Annie to a blood cancer. As Annie’s caregiver for thirty months, we were always looking over our shoulders, dealing with a prognosis that was exceeded within the first three weeks of her diagnosis. So I was always dealing with grief to a small extent, but something else was happening that I wasn’t aware of until she passed.
When the day came that we had to say goodbye, my gut wrenching grief and the heartfelt pain that followed were both immediate. My head was spinning as my life started spiraling out of control. For the first couple of months I cried many tears, with my thoughts always drifting to the what ifs, how comes, what for’s and of course the biggie was “Why.” I mean, how does one go from having everything to seemingly nothing over night? None of this made any sense to me. And the more I started taking control of my grief, the more agitated I became—which was a new emotion that I hadn’t expected. I certainly felt the recoil of anger, but agitation was different.
On January 14th, 2011, I decided to fly out to Northern California and spend some time with my brother Tim. I knew when I got around him, my family members and old friends, I’d stay busy and be able to mask the pain of my grief a bit. It worked for a couple of weeks, then I started feeling different. It was part agitation laced with another emotion I didn’t recognize. The feeling was very strange and always there, but distinctively different from grief. If one were to draw a fine line in the sand with one side being grief and the other side being this new feeling, I felt as though I would be standing on top and in the middle of the two. That went on for a couple of weeks with my lack of understanding clearly getting in my way. Then it happened. I was out riding around with my brother when I noticed several people riding bicycles in the pouring rain. I said to him, “I can understand those people riding their bikes on a bright and sunny day, but it’s poring with rain today, what’s up with that.” He explained to me that most of those people had no choice. Some had lost their licenses due to a DUI, and some were addicted to drugs and couldn’t get a license. What Tim said bothered me for some reason, so I gave it some serious thought throughout the day.
Later that evening the light bulb in my head came on. I was starting to realize that over the past two and one-half years of being a caregiver for Annie I had become addicted to her and our extraordinary way of life. And when she died, just like an addict in detox, I had no way of getting a fix. I felt like I was on a runaway train, speeding down the tracks and suddenly hit a brick wall coming to an immediate stop. Even though the train had stopped, my body remained in motion… I was a caregiver! (Although I didn’t understand it at the time, I know now that turning away from a life of continual motion, chaos, and everything else that goes into caregiving for a terminally ill patient, is way too complicated to simply shut down. It can’t be done. The emotions from the addictive nature of caregiving, creates a thirst that unless you understand it, cannot be quenched. You will need to detox.) I knew I desperately needed to detox, but making my situation worse was the fact that I would soon be going back to Kansas, and my home would no longer be warm and cozy when I got in. My thoughts were grim.
Instinctively I knew I had to fight back, and beat back this uncomfortable feeling. On my flight home I came up with a creative idea that just might help me detox. I decided that each day I would shut off all the disruptive electronic gadgets, make myself unavailable to the rest of the world and sit and visit with Annie. I called it “Annie’s Time.”
I would find a comfortable place to sit, talk to her, and gaze at the lovely home she had created. Sometimes I would play some of our favorite music, or get the photo albums out. The time was never scheduled, I let my emotions guide me. I never set a time limit on my visit, but I usually felt better after one or two hours. Most days when I woke up I would get excited as I looked forward to Annie’s time, knowing at that moment it would just be her and I. And just like that I started taking charge of my emotions. “I was in detox!”
I know it was similar to grief, but there was a difference. When I was talking to her or sharing in fond memories I wasn’t crying. It may sound a bit silly to some, but when you have just spent almost three years living in the insane world of caregiving for a terminally ill loved one, it’s probably more normal than you think. And does it really matter? If it works and helps you, then it can only be considered good strategy.
Looking back I can see clearly where I was very addicted to Annie and our way of life. When I would leave home to do a little food shopping people must have thought I was nuts. I literally did a slow trot through the market and grabbed what I needed on the run. When I was out, there was never a moment I wasn’t looking forward to getting home to her, to see her beautiful smiling face and knowing that she was okay for now.