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My Grief Didn't Defeat Me

My Grief Didn’t Defeat Me

“Grief does not change you, Hazel. It reveals you.” – John Green

As a caregiver for twelve years and a widow for three, I have had ample time to absorb this message. My grief, let me make clear, did not begin when my husband of almost five decades died. It began when I intuited something was wrong with him, which was years before we actually received a conclusive diagnosis. My husband suffered from a rare form of dementia, and when the person you love is suffering from an illness that is protracted and for which there is no treatment or cure, the grief starts early on.

Grief can break you but, as the quote implies, it can bring out strengths that you never imagined you had. Sometime before the onset of my husband’s illness, I had seen a documentary about dementia that included a segment about a woman who was caring for her spouse. Awed by her fortitude, I thought that I could never, ever deal with a challenge like that, only to discover, a year or two later, that I could. 

After a period of unmitigated despair when my husband’s illness was diagnosed, I discovered that I had the strength and resilience to do what was necessary to deal with the many challenges that lay ahead. I juggled caregiving and a career, despite the fact that I rarely, if ever, slept more than two or three hours a night. Over time, I took over all the tasks my husband had been in charge of, which were, needless to say, the ones for which I had little aptitude. It amazed me that I could learn how to manage our family finances, including preparing tax returns – a task that at first seemed insurmountable. Despite my reluctance to challenge authority, I became a vocal and, when necessary, aggressive advocate for my husband when he could no longer advocate for himself. I could hardly recognize this new authoritative and assertive person that was being revealed to me.

My most startling discovery about myself was that I had the steely determination not to allow my husband’s illness to defeat us. I made a promise to myself that I would take away something good from each and every day – no matter how difficult or depressing it had been. On a bad day, something as small as a smile or a wink from my husband could buoy up my spirits. On better days, there were rich veins of joy to mine. At the residence where my husband spent the last three years of his life, we were dubbed “the dancing king and queen.” Although we had never done social dancing, we now threw ourselves into it with abandon. If my relationship with my husband changed because of his illness, so did the love I felt for him. It was sweeter, richer, and deeper than the love we had experienced in our long and happy marriage. It was a most wonderful and unexpected gift. Would I ever have discovered my capacity for such love under other circumstances? I doubt it.

Throughout the loss and pain, I searched out the good moments. I stored them up and treasured them, determined to wrench something good from those difficult and tumultuous years. Writing so that others could benefit from my experience was another way of achieving that same goal. 

Grief can defeat you – but only if you let it. It can also give you the opportunity to mine your hidden resources. You might find out that you are stronger, braver, more capable, and more loving than you ever imagined. You might also discover your capacity to recognize and appreciate the unexpected gifts that suffering sometimes gives you.

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About Joan Zlotnick

Joan Zlotnick, a retired professor of English, is the author of Portrait of an American City: The Novelists' New York and numerous scholarly articles. Her most recent publication is Griefwriting, a novel that plants seeds of hope for caregivers and the bereaved.
  • A beautifully written and inspirational story. Thank you so much for sharing <3

  • Thank you so much for sharing… I feel humbled and inspired.

  • Beautiful piece. As I read it, I am reminded of the quote that says that “You don’t know how strong you are until you have to be…” I am sorry for your struggle and loss. It’s tough losing someone near and dear to you. But through the storm, you’ve evolved. God bless.

  • Thank you Joan for sharing your story, It reminds us that God made us in His likeness and we are capable of so much more than we ever imagined. Your candor and positive attitude helps us to carry on with our burdens. Thank you.

  • What an awesome testimony! Thank you for sharing. Mental illness in any family can make or break a family.

  • This was a joy and inspiration to read. Thank you for sharing it with us!

  • ” . . . that I would take away something good from each and every day” Such a good tip. Thanks for sharing Joan.

  • Your words were beautiful, touching, and inspiring. It’s amazing what we can endure and the beauty of the human spirit.

  • It’s all up to our person how we choose to deal with hardships. It is always a great boost of hope to hear how they are able to become gifts and blessings within a life. Thank you for your story =)

  • Your husband was so very fortunate to have you with him.

  • This is THE something that changes how you live again after tragedy …that anything defeats us only if we let it. Love to you ????

  • You are definitely stronger and braver than you realize. Hard times make us stronger and just believe in your purpose and move forward the best you can. You have so many people that will be by your side when you need it! xoxoxo

  • Thank you for writing this piece. I appreciate your bravery in sharing this with us.

  • Your strength shall inspire the world. God bless you.
    Your husband is really blessed to have you as his life partner.

  • Feminist Church

    Indeed, inspiring. The only thing that keeps most of us from stepping forward is the fear that grief itself brings. That sense of pondering whether things are going to be the as it used to be. Like you wrote, we shouldn’t permit grief to hold us down. I believe it’s a passing wind. Just for a few moment (doesn’t matter how long it takes), and then it’s gone. Life is very beautiful. Thanks for sharing. You are a strong woman.

  • Inspiring and heartbreaking. We do learn the most about ourselves and grow into the best version of ourselves as we traverse difficult journeys. Your husband was blessed to have you in his life, as you were blessed to be able to learn and grow as you did. No one would consciously choose these things, but I believe they’re chosen for us, probably by us.
    Jerry

  • Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings. You have inspired me. Grief in any form will not defeat me!

  • This was so inspiring! Thank you so much for sharing!

  • Thanks for sharing a touching story. Reminder for us to be grateful for today. Someone told me that grief is the price you pay for love and so I’m prepared to pay a lot.

  • Wow Joan! Thank you for such an inspiring post. Your husband was lucky he had you. Your courage and tenacity were revealed to you, through the grief. This post is helpful to me in my life with grief I am feeling for different things. God bless! 🙂

  • I share your experience to a lesser degree, with loss of a wife of 57 years. Lesser because we faced only three years of deterioration of their beauty.
    Thank you for so well expressed feelings and growth through caring.

  • Inspiring post! I have been amazed with the inner strength I have been given from the positive memories of my dad. He may have been killed over forty years ago, yet these great memories continue to have a positive impact on my life. It is comforting to hear you were able to hold onto your treasured moments and that grief has not defeated you. God bless.

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