“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.