Breathing Deeply Through Grief: A Widow’s Take On Healing
Posted on April 5, 2016, 10:00 AM
By Kristin Meekhof
My journey began very early. I was two weeks shy of turning five in 1979 when my father died after a long battle with cancer. If this same situation had occurred today, he would have been alive as many of the medical scans that are available now simply were not in existence when he was first diagnosed. Both sets of my grandparents were still alive in 1979, so my father’s death was my first loss. I learned firsthand that grief is not something that you overcome, but rather, something that you learn to live with. It changed the entire trajectory of my life.
Then in 2007, I was 33 when my husband Roy was diagnosed with advanced adrenal cancer. Around Labor Day weekend, Roy went to his primary care physician with a persistent cough and was told he had bronchitis. Less than eight weeks after this primary care physician appointment, Roy died. We didn’t know how sick he was until he had additional tests. It was important for me to get a second opinion, and I took my husband’s case from a local hospital to the University of Michigan cancer center. His case went before their tumor board twice, and it was very comforting to know that the medical staff was taking it so seriously. They weren’t trying to rush into any decisions. We soon realized that palliative care and hospice were the next steps.
During Roy’s medical procedures, I learned to breathe very deeply. Literally inhaling and exhaling in a small controlled manner is one thing that I could control, and it provided moments of calm. I couldn’t control many things around me, but I could take charge of my breath. I’d like to add that caregiving is very stressful and emotionally painful. It is important to be gentle with yourself and give yourself grace. I have a graduate degree in social work, but nothing prepared me for this medical crisis or his death.
A former professor told me to “leave nothing unsaid,” and this was some of the best advice I ever got during this time. Roy and I had the opportunity to talk about many things. We openly discussed hospice and my fear of being alone. End-of-life discussions are not easy, and I realize that having these conversations with Roy is a gift that many do not get the opportunity to be a part of. Roy also gave me the gift of not being bitter about his diagnosis. We had started to exchange gratitude lists in 2002 long before “gratitude” was trending, and during the palliative care, we continued to exchange them.
If I could give advice, I would strongly urge medical staff to be upfront with the patient and their family members. The family never forgets how they are told their loved one is dying. It also marks the end of their lives as they knew them.
I can’t remember the exact time frame, but I began to see glimpses of light through my grief here and there within weeks of Roy’s funeral. I went back to yoga and being on the mat opened me up. I don’t understand all of the chemistry behind yoga but, I can tell you that it did help with some of the intense sorrow. The postures began to open up my constricted muscles. Running also helped me. I also began a meditation practice, and I know it has transformed me.
About four years ago, it became very clear to me that I wanted to help widows learn from one another. This was when I decided that I would interview widows and compile their narratives in a book, A Widow’s Guide to Healing. Grief is very isolating, so my intent was to help widows feel less alone. I thought perhaps if a widow could identify in some way with one or more of the stories it would reduce the intensity of his or her sorrow.
The interviewing and writing process was very intense. Widows shared deeply personal stories, and listening to all of this is never easy. The work also brought back memories that I hadn’t talked about in years, so there were times when I wanted to quit the entire project. And then I would have a conversation with a widow, and she would end it by thanking me for working on this. Her words would encourage me to continue and remind me what an honor it is to be able to share her story with others. I still listen to the narratives of widows and others who are impacted by grief. I learned that no two stories of grief are the same. While the cause of death might be identical, each loss is very individual. Grief is asymmetrical. The ways in which individuals even approach the healing process and release sadness varies as well.
After my book had been released, I had the great honor and pleasure of talking with Katie Couric. Her work and dedication to cancer research and prevention continues to inspire me and push me to do more. After Roy died, I decided that I wanted my life to positively reflect a part of him and my father. This means that I remain committed to cancer-related causes. I’ve run a 25K to raise both money and awareness for cancer research and treatment, and, I’m a member of the University of Michigan Cancer Center Patient Family Advisory Board. This is a voluntary position, but this is also the hospital where my late husband was treated. It took me several years before I had the courage to go back to the hospital.
I encourage anyone impacted by cancer to find their own meaningful way to give back. It might be a one-time event or perhaps a monthly commitment. None of this is easy, so taking your time to make this choice is vital.
Loss creates a tremendous void, and I’ve discovered that volunteering helps to fill that space. There are many ways to stand up to cancer and for myself, it takes the form of giving back.
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