Name: Roberta O.
Tell me about the person who died:
My beloved husband John was a man’s man type of guy, very John Wayne-esque. He lived life by three F’s: faith, family, and football. He treasured the USA and told his children often that they were living in the greatest country, and should be thankful. I always described him as a “workhorse”—he put 100 percent into everything he did, whether it was fathering, coaching, running, golfing, or being a good husband and friend. We loved him very, very much.
Our children, Jacqueline, Ben and Margaret, threw us a 25th wedding anniversary surprise party Labor Day weekend in 2011. John was scheduled for a thyroid scan that following Tuesday, and after discovering a tumor they sent him to the ER. He was admitted to the hospital and the next day they told him he had a rare fatal thyroid cancer. Without surgery he would live three weeks and with surgery maybe three months. There was no protocol, and the prognosis is always death. So in his John Wayne fashion, we pulled up our bootstraps and requested he be released from the hospital to spend the weekend with family. We pulled in the garage and he took off his work boots by the door and never wore them again. My hardworking husband was taking on the biggest job of his life—trying to live. He died 159 days later.
We often think back to the anniversary party, how our children put it together, and the friends and family that celebrated. It was a “meant to be” event. No person attending that party ever thought that less than a week later that we would be gathered in a room for surgery and that John, a larger-than-life teddy bear, would be fighting for his well-being.
That weekend we spent at home included the last meal John would ever eat again, since his surgery resulted in a tracheotomy and feeding tube. I quickly became a bad-ass caregiver, health care manager, and advocate. John took his declining quality of life graciously. He only once questioned, "Why me and not some jerk?” (we knew there was no answer). One time in a painful moment of reflection we sat at the kitchen table with our heads touching and pondered, “Why? What will happen to us, to our children, to the life that is now ceasing to exist?” John looked at me, got up from the chair, and said, "We won't be bitter, we will be better people because of this,” grabbed a napkin, wiped a tear, and walked away. That is the gift he gave us—he died and we were lost, scared, and sad, but never bitter.
February 1, 2012, he woke up after a painful night and said, "Call the kids, I am ready to go to hospice.” He looked out our living room window and told me he wanted to be cremated and the ashes spread in the backyard. He asked me if I had been satisfied all these years and I cried and said, "How could I not have been?” As we were leaving the house, I asked him, “John, is there anything you want to see or look at before we leave?” and he said “No, I will be back.”
I drove him to hospice and he walked to the bed in room 75 and died 15 days later.
What has your experience of grief been like since your loss? How did it change over time?
The first week after John died all I did was sleep. The second week after he died all I did was look out the windows and sigh. Where was he? His washcloth and toothbrush were still here, but where was he? I was paralyzed with grief and often could not physically move. The despair resonated so deep within my being that I cannot even name where inside my body felt the darkest. I leaned into every emotion of pain and fear–it was like I was existing in another realm. I couldn't hear people talk but only saw faces. Noises were blurred. I don't even think my eyes were visually processing. I took many deep breaths during the day and I could hear myself breathe out so loudly. I prayed over and over that God would help me get through this.
I knew deep down in my soul that I would "graduate" from this thing, grief, and my plan was to lean into everything and work like a bitch to be better. So my first step was "faking it to make it.” I went to events but cried and screamed on the way home. I couldn't believe all the losses involved in one big package–my husband, my friend, my driver, my repair guy, the one person who loved our children like I did, the one person who knew exactly what I was thinking.
After John died I reached out to a friend with whom I hadn't spoken in ten years, a young widow. She said, “Berta, you have an adaptable personality and you will adapt to this,” and that was a mantra that helped with my healing. Grief is ugly and messy and I just did it naturally. I cried when I cried, I laughed a lot, I loved a lot and I made an effort to record what I was grateful for every day. I also read and educated myself about loss and grief. The book that helped me most was George Bonanno’s The Other Side of Sadness. It told me that I will survive because I am hardwired for grief. I was also able to recognize that my story is a very sad story but there are other sadder stories out there.
If you had to describe your grief as a literal landscape, what would it look like and feel like at different points since your loss?
I think of my grief as a road, blacktopped and narrow, curvy and lit in a manner so that you have to wonder if it is dusk or dawn. There are hints of the shadows of trees, and the grass is just about the length where it needs to be cut. The trunks of the trees are dark and the leaves are deep shades of green because the light is producing a variety of hues.
At the end of this narrow path is a large tree with a tire swing. The tree is in an open pasture and sits alone. The tire swing feels safe and with each movement the gentle breeze sways the swing like a predictable pendulum, neither scary nor unsteady. I sit on the swing, moving back and forth, with just enough breeze on my face that it tickles and makes me smile. The tire swing is large and I need to concentrate to hold on but I like the way it feels: big. I feel subtle joy and peace.
Tell me about an object that reminds you of the person who died, and why?
A deer with antlers. On a June morning after John died, a big deer with pointers (lots) walked through our backyard ever so slowly, and looked in the direction of the screen porch where I was sitting. In the 27 years I have lived in this house, I have never seen deer in our fenced backyard, and deer do not have a huge rack of antlers in June. I got up to get my camera and the deer was gone. When we built this house, John set a ceramic deer in our yard and loved pictures of deer. It was one of the many signs he sent—John checking on us as he said he would.
How did the people in your life support you in your grief? What was helpful? What was frustrating?
The people in my life, especially our friends, as I like to say, "carried me and my children.” I was constantly checked in on and invited places. I grew closer to my brother and to John’s brother, Mike. I embraced relationships, help, and support. I didn't try to fight it. I came to understand that if I allowed people to help in whatever way they were comfortable then everything would turn out ok.
How did people who were grieving the same person respond to the death compared to you? What similarities and differences did you notice?
Everyone who loved John missed him. I think friends observed my grief but spared me their sadness and were reluctant to share their tears. I guess it was enough to be in the same space with each other and hold the sorrow that came with remembering.
I wish I could have better witnessed my children’s grief in those first few months, but physically I could not see them, and the tones of their words didn’t have any variation. I am not sure if I could even feel what they were feeling—despair took up a residence in me that was all encompassing. They wanted hugs and embraces and I was robotic; I didn’t respond properly. But they kept watching me and waiting, wondering when I would return, and I did slowly, with their help and persistence.
Did anything surprise you about your experience with grief?:
Grief crippled me in many ways; I was fearful, anxious, scared, and unsure. I didn't realize at the time that grief was those emotions, and that the ability to be rational is stunted.
After John died trying to be and act normal was exhausting. To go to the deli and order meat, to pay for gas, without telling people over and over that my husband died. I was also taken aback by how much you think of the dead person all day every day. I knew I was getting better in my grief process when I didn't think about John every waking minute, and it made me feel good that I was doing better. Now when I think about John it doesn't make me smile like the stupid cliché you read about; it still makes me sad but not as sad as I used to be.
Also I never anticipated the overwhelming feeling of homesickness and yearning for my husband. It was almost crazy how to sort through those emotions. The yearning would make me weak. Grief also made me immobile. I would sit and stare out my window, which I eventually called my “meditation window,” for what seemed like small eternities. There I would work on myself, listen to sad music, read, and pray.
How did your private grieving relate to your public mourning?
Privately I screamed, laid on the floor of his closet crying, banged my head against the wall, walked around outside and cried, drove and cried, got on bended knee and prayed to the moon, the stars, and God to save me and help me grow and learn and move forward. I embraced and honored every single tear.
Publicly, I put on makeup, went to work, and cried. I talked openly about John, shared stories, and told people my life would never be the same but I was going to make it—and I faked it and I am still making it. I appreciated that my children and I never lost our sense of humor. In public I like laughing and having fun. Being busy was vital and helpful.
Was there anything about your cultural or religious background that affected the grieving process for you?
I believe in God and I put my healing trust in him. Without the grace of the Holy Spirit and daily affirmations I would have been stuck. My view of heaven changed after John died. It’s more concrete now, inhabiting a nearby dimension in which time is irrelevant. Heaven is so close but we can't see it or touch it because we live in our realm. I think in heaven they are busy doing what they do—not sitting on clouds playing harps in a golden city! Heaven is great and they are happy but they have the ability to visit us through many different channels.
Were there any personal or public rituals or structures that helped you in your grief?
His friends organized a golf outing for three years that kept alive his love of family, friends, and golf. It was good for us to remember him and salute his life through stories and laughter. I miss his guy friends. His buddies would come over for football, cookouts after golf, and hanging out. I liked that part of our marriage and I miss the guys.
When we did last rites and blessing of the sick he was fully awake and conscious. He sat up in bed and held his hand up and said, "Now I don’t want any crying,” and the priest blessed him and everyone went around and shared stories of his life and gave testimony to the great man and his loving influence on all present.
How did your loss and your experience of grief change you?
I am a different person and I am ok with that. I miss the person I was before the loss. After John died I would look in the mirror and not recognize myself. Slowly I started to see myself, the person in the mirror, and she was changed but I started to acknowledge her. Parts of me came back, but with different eyes now, and my smile is a little crooked where I don't think it was before. I hold my head slightly off center now.
I hope that I am calmer now and that no problem is bigger than a life. I think I don't get disappointed anymore. I mean really, I suffered one of life’s biggest disappointments: I lost the father to my children, my beloved husband, my expected future, way too early.
Everyone liked John and we felt special because he was ours. For me and my children, not having him made us feel ordinary for the first time in our lives, because John was not an ordinary dad and husband he was extraordinary.
This post is part of Grief Landscapes, an evolving art project documenting the unique terrain of people’s grief. Participants share an experience with bereavement, and I photograph an object that evokes the person who died, transforming it into an abstract landscape inspired by the story.