Grief does not take a holiday – Mary’s story
Mary, on losing her husband: “I knew how to be a wife and I was good at it. I didn’t know how to be a widow.”
Mary and Cal were joyfully married, cherishing their retirement and grandchildren. They were an active couple, involved in church and community. “I love our life,” Mary would say to Cal every night. But then one day their daughter noticed Cal’s speech was slightly slurred.
A few weeks later Cal was diagnosed with ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Cal had survived the Vietnam War and cancer, but ALS has a 100 percent fatality rate. ALS is a cruel, fast-moving, terminal illness whereby muscle groups shut down one by one, in no particular order.
“Almost everyday there was something new that Cal couldn’t do,” said Mary. In early stages he lost his ability to stand and speak. In later stages he had difficulty coughing and even breathing. He couldn’t swallow easily and choked on his own saliva. Mary never left him alone, bearing witness to her husband’s frightening decline.
Cal died 16 weeks after his diagnosis. He died in hospice care, where he was kept calm and comfortable in his last night. He died with Mary in bed next to him.
“I knew how to be Cal’s wife, and I was good at it,” Mary said. “But I did not know how to be a widow.”
After Cal died, Mary enlisted the Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center to help her process the trauma she experienced as a witness to Cal’s tremendous suffering, and the void she felt after he died. She is quick to express gratitude for the many people who helped and she is passionate that others may access the assistance they need too.
Today, Mary is a spiritual director and helps others process their grief. “I tell people it’s OK to weep and it’s OK to laugh,” she said. She advises grieving people to ignore the shoulds and do what they need to do. She reminds them to eat and sleep. Sometimes well-meaning people say the wrong things, she says, and she has suggestions.
Mary’s list of what not to say to a grieving person:
- He’s in a better place.
- At least he didn’t suffer long.
- You look a little rough.
- Call me if you need anything.
Mary’s list of what people said that helped her:
- I loved him too.
- I cared for him too.
- Hi, you don’t know me, but I worked with Cal and he was important to me because______________.
- I will miss him.
- We’re going to a concert, would you like to come? (Mary suggests saying yes to social invitations, as soon as possible.)
- Don’t write me a thank you note. I know you appreciate it.
“Do I still miss Cal?” Mary asked, then answered her own question. “Yes, a lot.” But now, instead of withdrawing into sadness, she has the emotional tools to connect with friends and family, and she is equipped to help others who have experienced loss.
Note: We’ve changed the client’s name and identifying details to preserve privacy. Photo is a stock image.
Please consider a gift on so that all persons – like Mary – can receive quality counseling services when they need it most. Grief does not take a holiday. Your donation will help people find a way to cope and could save a life.