Lucy Walsh, End of Life Doula
30 Mar 2023
One person's story of their grief after losing their husband and best friend.
How can I explain my grief? And why should I?
It’s so incredibly challenging, gut wrenching, exhausting and such hard work. It is the hardest thing I have ever had to face in my life.
Therefore, I believe being vulnerable and authentic may help another, as other’s stories have helped me and given me some hope.
I have experienced dying and death in many ways and have felt a deep sense of loss and grief with each one. From the sudden death of my father who died as a result of an accident, then my best friend and sister who both died of cancer and most recently my husband who was the love of my life for more than 21 years.
We knew that my husband would die at some point, the odds were against him with the Blood Cancer he had.
We knew right from the start that it was not curable and yet we held on to the hope that somehow, he would beat this, and he did beat the odds and lived longer than expected but somehow that doesn’t ease the pain.
Meditation, tapping, suggestions to self, he did them all and I think that is what kept him focused and living longer than what was expected by the specialist. My life partner was an amazing man.
I felt we were prepared for the dying process, because we had spoken about his death openly over the last year as though we were prepared for that too. That couldn’t be further from the truth on the day he died.
The days before my husband died, he was very weary and spent all day in our bed, sleeping most of the time, only waking for brief visits with friends or family. He was barely eating food at this point except for lemonade icy poles. All of his senses became heightened and at times I couldn’t touch him or speak. Just sitting with him silently was new for me but something I needed to learn very quickly.
I often felt either in the way or not of much use to Alex. I’m a doer, that’s how I cope. But ‘doing’ wasn’t what was needed.
On the day he died he had some discomfort during the day and seemed very anxious, so I called the nurse to check on him and he was given medication to ease his anxiety. He slept most of the day, with little communication and no food.
No way was I prepared for what was to come as the situation became critical and within the next two hours, he went from being alive to suddenly being dead.
My heart broke into a million pieces that night as the nurse pronounced him dead, as he lay motionless but looking so peaceful, the wrinkles vanishing from his face.
I was blessed to have a friend with me who willingly made the calls to the family and the funeral home while I lay with my loved one stroking his face and gently kissing him telling him I loved him over and over.
My son arrived and he too was devasted. His mentor, confidant and friend were gone. The undertakers arrived and gently explained what they needed to do. We all left the room except for my son. He wanted to honour this beautiful loving man one last time by being with him through his final moments, helping to wrap his body and carry him down the stairs and out to the waiting van.
It was pouring with rain, and he loved the rain, so it was a fitting end.
I still look at the photo I took of him when he died just to remind myself that it really happened, it wasn’t a dream.
I find comfort in knowing he didn’t suffer a long painful death and right before he died, he knew it was his time and looked up at me, mumbled some, which I like to believe was “I love you” then took his last breath.
The “disbelief” was and at times still is unbearable. Has this really happened? It can hit me at anytime, anywhere. I can feel the deep sense of loss building up in my heart as I remember he is not here anymore, never coming back, can’t hold him and can’t talk to him.
I wanted him back so much and in the first few days in my grief that is all I said as I called out to him…. “Come back babe” and the tears start now as I write this because I still want him to come back. I wondered how I was going to get through this.
I have asked myself all the normal questions whilst grieving; why did he have to die? Why him? And there are no answers. It’s just the cycle of life and we will all die one day. Definitively easier said than done.
Each person grieves differently and for me the mornings were and still are the worst. In the morning when I wake up reality slaps me in the face. I wonder around the house lost, not knowing what to do. Grief can be paralysing. Some days I could barely function. Having a shower or making the bed took all my energy. I felt /feel anxious and shaky some mornings.
For 21 years I was his friend, his confident, who am I now, without this glorious man in my life?
I was and still am lost although I am trying very hard to make plans for each week in advance, plan to do one small thing each day rather than sit at home alone. I think this is very important and made a huge difference to my sanity. Most times when I did go out, I would cry as soon I got in the car or as I opened the front door. I couldn’t get away from that deep feeling of loss no matter what I did.
Life changed so much for me and at times I couldn’t see how I would exist without the love of my life. What will life look like for me…. I have no idea! All I know is that it will never be the same and somehow someday I will find my way through the fog and into the clearing where life becomes the new normal.
Luckily for me I have good friends that have rallied around me, making regular contact checking in on me inviting me for a catch up, which I truly appreciate. In the beginning I isolated myself at home just sitting quietly with my own grief and then I realised I couldn’t do it alone and needed to reach out more to my friends.
I was honest with my friends when I felt vulnerable and cried openly when I was having a hard time. There is no point suffering in silence, pretending to the world that I was ok when clearly, I was not.
Keep the people that support you well around you. There will always be those that can’t deal with your grief and don’t know what to say. Sometimes they will make inappropriate comments or tell you to move on. Unless they have lost a spouse themselves, they have no idea what it feels like for you. “Be strong” they say…… no, you don’t have to be strong at all.
“he would want you to be happy”….. I am sure he does but right now I can’t be. “You have so many memories to hold in your heart” I get that but right now I miss him so much.
I don’t know this life now.
I am sure in time I will be and do all those things but right now I won’t put too high expectations on myself.
It may sound harsh, but you need to keep those who support you well around you and not those that don’t. You need compassion and love to get through this sad time; someone who will sit with you while you cry. You may find that the friends you thought would support you won’t and to be honest that can be tough to deal with.
I understand that some may not cope with your grief and that is ok. I hold no judgement, however I would rather they be honest with me rather than walk away from me in a time when I need them most. I have found the people you least expect to step up are the ones that do.
It is very hard to be out in the real-world watching life go by as normal when your normal is no longer. I pay more attention to people in the shopping centres rushing here and there with arms full of gifts for Christmas and it is like being in a movie, but I was standing still and the hustle and bustle is moving around me. I could only cope for a short amount of time before I would retreat into the comfort of home where I felt safe.
There are no set rules for grieving and no time frame. Yes, there are stages of grief and we all do them at different times. My advice to you would be to just go with the flow with how you feel day by day and try not to get too hung up on the stages and where you are at. It doesn’t matter.
At the 9 week mark since my husband died, and I feel as time goes by it seems to get harder. Days go into nights and the days just keep following the next. I wish I could put myself in a time capsule and fast forward twelve months just to feel more at ease within.
At the end of the day, you need to do what works for you, each day you may feel different and that’s ok. We are allowed to be sad one day, maybe angry the next and just maybe we have days where we feel lighter.
I speak to my husband every day. I tell him about the day I have had, I tell him when I am struggling and tell him I love and miss him every day. I light a candle and just sit with him. You may have other rituals that bring you comfort and that’s great.
I started writing a journal; I call them letters to you. Sometimes writing down your thoughts and feelings brings you closer to your loved one and helps you slowly heal. It is a good way to express your inner thoughts and feeling rather than bottling them up in your body that can make you unwell physically only adding to your grief.
I also spend time listening to podcasts and read books on loss and grief and the experience of others. It helps to know that I am not alone in this and that my feelings are NORMAL!
And then there were and are days I cry all day and isolate myself, don’t answer calls or messages because it is all too hard and that’s ok too. I allow myself the space to grieve how I need to without guilt.
If you find that you are not coping to the point of self-harm thoughts, please reach out to your doctor. I often wished that I could go to sleep and never wake up because the pain was so unbearable but self-harm was never an option, but I know how easily it can happen. So, watch your thinking and please know when to reach out.
This time of year is especially difficult. It’s a time when we celebrate Christmas with family and friends and it’s going to be tough…. I know that. I have pushed myself to decorate my tree even though I really couldn’t be bothered and don’t care about it, but I still have a family and it is them I celebrate. I will spend time with my sons, their partners, my niece and mother and I am grateful for that even though I know it will be a hard day. I will set a place for my husband at the table, and we will remember him with much love and there will be tears because we all miss him greatly.
As the New Year approaches, I face it with dread and no expectations while others celebrate it with excitement. I dread moving into another year without the love of my life. I feel scared, lonely and somewhat guilty that I am going to move on and live a life without him. It’s like I will forget him if I move on.
I seemed to have lost some confidence in the loss and grief. Even the simplest of things like changing a battery or charging the front doorbell becomes challenging and overwhelming. Navigating my way through bills, banking and all the jobs I didn’t take notice of and left to my husband now become my responsibility. Gosh, how dare he leave me to be responsible for myself…..
In the New Year I need to find the courage to re-create myself. What does that look like?
I trained as an End-of-Life Doula with the Australian Doula College as this was my calling, however I put it on hold so that I could focus on my husband and spend as much time with him as I could during his illness.
I know my grief is still raw and some have said “oh no you’re still grieving, wait a year” but I just can’t do that. I need to follow my heart and use what I’ve learnt in this experience to help others in need with care, empathy and compassion.
I can honour my husband with the role I play as an End-of-Life Doula, adding my newfound wisdom with what I learnt in my training to serve others facing critical illness and death as he did.
I will always grieve the loss of my love and without him there is a huge hole in my heart and life. I will in time come to terms with what has changed in my life. The life as I once knew it will never be “normal” again but in time I will learn to live around a new kind of normal and relearn myself within that.