Tuesday, December 13th 2016

My Journey through loss and grief

By Noela Smith

This week marks 10 years since my husband Don passed away. Family and friends have joined the Community with me this evening to think about and remember Don on this anniversary in a special way.  I remember him as a beautiful partner who I shared my life with for 40 years.  I remember his gentle and calm nature, his creative spirit and his wonderful sense of humour.  He was a very loving and gentle  Father to our children, David and Natalie & father -in -law to Alison – And his grandchildren John (Johnny) and Lucy held a special place in his heart.  Throughout our 40 years of marriage together we loved, faced challenges, worked together, supported each other, traveled, enjoyed the company of our family and friends and shared a spiritual journey.

This year, my 70th year has been a very reflective year, something my children will be happy to hear.  I’m generally a Doer and a Problem Solver.  I’ve been reminded by them that one doesn’t have to solve problems, but just be a good listener.  So even at this stage of my life I’m learning.  This year I have also reflected upon my journey during the past 10 years.

I’ve been encouraged to share this reflection here and wondered why I’d want to share such a personal journey.  Then I thought about the fact that since around 1996 the St Mary’s Community had given much to Don and me and then more recently to me alone.  Over the years Peter Kennedy shared much of his personal journey and there have been many other stories like that shared by Robert Perrier about Homelessness that have resonated with me.  So if sharing my journey of the past 10 years offers anything then it’s been worthwhile.

So I now return to August 2006 when Don and I sat in the medical rooms of Professor Smithers who gave us the news that he couldn’t operate on Don’s cancer but only refer us to a palliative care team.  We had gone there with hope but had decided that we’d make the most of whatever came our way.  The only other significant thing I can remember of that date was that Professor Smithers and Don shared a love of fine art.  Prof. Smithers owned a painting by the artist Michael Zavros and this impressed us.  We told him that Don had just won first prize in an Art Exhibition and we were leaving his rooms to receive the award – and that is how we spent those first hours of devastating news.

The next few months were filled with many medical appointments but they were also filled with lovely family time with our children, their partners and our grandchildren.  We enjoyed lots of extended family visits and connecting up with friends. Family and friends brought meals to us.   The staff from our business days gathered with us at the Lord Stanley Hotel which was our former gathering place after work.  Friends travelling overseas visited Don bringing poems of farewell. Peter Kennedy visited and prayed with us.

By November it was getting tough and the morphine patches weren’t controlling the pain.  We made it to a family wedding and shortly  afterwards Don was admitted to hospital.  One evening Natalie and her family visited.  Johnny brought with him a big robot he’d assembled, a birthday gift from us.  He also brought up a screw driver for Pop to tighten the last screw to complete the assembly, which he did.  The next morning when I went to the hospital Don told me that things were not very good and I knew that he was very, very sick.  Natalie came to be with us and David arrived from Sydney a few hours later.  Don’s final words were a beautiful greeting acknowledging his son’s presence and about 36 hours later he passed away.   I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a ‘good death’ but I know Don died in a very loving environment with me and with his children by his side.

A very consuming fatigue overtook me for days where I went through the motion of living and interacting but not really being totally there.  I think it’s some sort of coping mechanism.  The only emotions I can remember feeling were Pain and Fear.  Pain at the loss of my beautiful man and Fear for the future without that person.  I was warned I may not feel like getting up in the mornings but somehow I did each day.  I remember Peter Kennedy telling me he thanked God for every day he got up and I just thought – I wish I wouldn’t wake up.  I resumed my usual activities providing transport for my grandchildren, going to Chandler Swim Club and meeting up with family and friends.  Family, extended family and friends showed so much kindness to me.  Some had to speak up for me when I just couldn’t – something very unusual for me who is never short of words.

Somehow I got through the day, however the nights were nearly unbearable.  I shed many tears, initially over the phone to my son.  I knew my children were grieving too but I wasn’t thinking rationally about that.  After a while David told me in no uncertain terms that the last thing he needed was for me to fall apart.  This jolt didn’t stop me and I just transferred my tears to the strong shoulders of my sister.  My thinking was that I shouldn’t make things difficult for my daughter which in hindsight may have been a mistake.

To get through the evenings I went to my Swimming Club and did Yoga, water running and anything on offer.  A lovely sister -in -law spent one evening per week with me and we did various activities.  I also learned to do evening activities by myself such as going to movies and walking.

When finally I had to go to bed my companion was my Rosary and I prayed using it as a Mantra to get to sleep.  Here I felt the true presence of my God – this had been a habit of a lifetime and something I return to when feeling distressed.  In hindsight I now know I was being carried along by a greater force than myself and I was not alone –  I call it my ‘God’ experience.

In this evening’s Second Reading we heard the Prophet Isaiah tell us that God will hold us by the right hand and he will provide comfort to us.   St Luke in the Gospel assures us that if we seek assistance the heavenly Father will send the Spirit to help us.  At no time did I feel despair but always felt hope that the future would be OK.

I began the process of de-cluttering my life and this included dismantling Don’s Art Studio. I ‘rewarded’ myself for everything I did and this may have been something as simple as going out for a walk or sharing a coffee with someone.  Feelings of Pain remained acute but my fear dissipated as I focused on the tasks at hand.  I prayed constantly for guidance and continued to feel the presence of the Spirit and my husband providing approval and acceptance for every move I made.  My reward system remained a valuable tool and I began to feel empowered as I moved forward.

I went travelling and I moved from the family home to my own small house.  I’ve created my own environment and I have a plan for my future – I know that my life may not proceed to plan but at least it offers me some sort of direction.  No doubt, along the way I’ve made mistakes but I’ve learned to treat myself  gently about the decisions I make.

The immeasurable acts of love and kindness I’ve received have been integral to my moving forward.  My love for my children, grandchildren & family has given me a purpose for moving forward and remaining independent.   I doubt that I would have fared without the support of each of my siblings and their wives and husband who have never wavered in their care for me.  Friends of 50 years have provided strong shoulders when I’ve needed them.  My nieces and nephews and their partners have shared their lives with me.  Friends have extended their arms to me.

Here at this Liturgy when we gather around the table for the Eucharist which is a time of Thanksgiving I give thanks for everyone who has touched my life and helped me along this at times very difficult journey.  I give thanks for the beautiful person I shared 40 years of marriage with and for everything I learned from him during those years.

My grief is contained in a little secure place within me and it feels gentler now.  That’s not to say that from time to time it doesn’t resurrect itself with different degrees of intensity.  However, I’ve learned to live comfortably and function well as a single person.  Now, in my twilight years I embrace life with whatever it may offer.  I look forward to each day with enthusiasm and with God’s help I feel empowered to face the future.

MY JOURNEY THROUGH LOSS AND GRIEF                                         13.11.2016