Widowhood in a Pandemic - Part I
BY MARGUERITE OBERLE THOMAS
It’s the little things that get to you. I received a belated birthday card last week. Inside it read, “I hope that you and Bob are happy and well”. My husband, Bob Kellington, died six months ago. We are neither well nor happy.
As a six-month widow, it was a struggle when editor Shawn Loughlin first talked about writing about widowhood in the era of COVID-19. While I have published many articles over the years, most were work-related and not personal. This series, however, could have an uncomfortable personal element. Eventually the nursey-mumsy in me decided that writing and sharing could and would be helpful to others and may help me to feel more secure. Bob and I were each other’s security, so my first helpful act for my own security was to add cameras to the security alarm system.
To introduce myself, I have been a nurse since 1977 and, although a senior, still work as the consultant liaison for the Ontario Neurotrauma Foundation. My nuclear extended family lives near the greater Toronto area, my stepdaughters live at a distance, but I have a strong local support system of friends and “adopted” adult daughters and their families. Full disclosure: I was married to the 2020 Brussels Citizen of the Year, Bob Kellington, and, while it was two months short of four years, he was the best husband ever.
I lost him during the pandemic, which has overshadowed all of our lives. While not all losses are related directly to the virus, COVID-19 breathes its foul breath on everything we do. Going back to his heart attack and trip to St. Mary’s Cardiac Unit in Kitchener on Wednesday, May 20, I could not be with him. He was admitted to Seaforth and I was allowed to see him off in the ambulance, both of us wearing masks. He thought he had muscle pain, so we were unprepared for how serious it was. In Kitchener, he needed some ordinary items like a toothbrush and phone charger. My granddaughter, who is a biomedical engineer and services ventilators in St. Mary’s and other hospitals, knew her way to the front desk to get items to him during the next two days, but she could not see him. He was texting all day Friday when he was due to come home. They tell me that he collapsed in the pharmacy where he was to pick up his prescription. I will never know exactly how that scene went because the next time I saw him was at the Brussels Riverside Funeral Home.
In my earlier career I worked as a mental health nurse doing crisis intervention counselling. I knew the five stages of loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I was in shock. The doctors had been so optimistic. Bob had been so hopeful and cheerful – how could it go so horribly wrong? How was he well enough to be discharged and dead a half hour later?
COVID-19 was right there, shedding its darkness on everything from losing him to the aftermath. As we planned the funeral, we heard that there would only be 10 people allowed at the service. It had to be a drive-by instead of the usual visitation. The rules were also changing. Were we to wear masks? We were to stand six feet apart and not hug. As the family came around, they wanted to hug and cry together. There was a lot of confusion as to what was allowed and what was needed.
These columns are going to be about much more than our story. They will be about the collective wisdom that we have gained about losses, not just widowhood, especially during this pandemic era. Several others who have been widowed or have had other significant losses have already offered to contribute to the knowledge and coping skills that will be the focus of these columns. While many people can get to adulthood without a significant loss, most of us do deal with some loss when we are young. Grief can be a frequent intruder as we grow older.
What is grief? Grief is the natural response to a loss. When your heart is ripped out, it is going to hurt. It is the price that we pay for loving and caring deeply. It can be overwhelming and crippling. It can bring out unexpected and difficult emotions. It can affect us physically, emotionally and painfully at our very core. Eating, sleeping, thinking straight, energy levels; all may suffer. Is it also a chance to grow stronger and better? What is normal, rational behaviour in an abnormal, irrational situation?
We move in and out of those stages of grief while trying to heal. People talk about good days and bad days, but the same day can be divided into just minutes spent flip-flopping between feeling okay and feeling not okay.
COVID-19 added that extra layer of sorrow. In the early days downtown, people wanted to hug me and express their condolences. Sorry, COVID-19 forbids hugs. I wanted to have people in for dinner – we loved dinner parties. Sorry, COVID-19 makes dinner parties not possible. People in mourning are told to go out to events to try to find what pleasure they can. Sorry, COVID-19 has cancelled events. (Sigh.)
So, along with others who are sharing the grief journey during this time, these columns will be written to provide information, resources, suggestions from literature and we will share our collective wisdom.
We already know many snippets of good advice:
• You never get over it, but you learn to live with it
• You don’t have just one way to have the “right” response
• You feel what you feel, what you do about it though, is a choice
• You will have periods when you want to talk and share and times when you want to be alone
• You are right to take care of your health and to find comfort wherever you can.
Watch for the second installment of this column in January.
What was annoying, horrible, or helpful to you? To contribute to these columns, please e-mail me, email@example.com or contact Shawn Loughlin at 519-523-4792 to leave your phone number. I promise to call you back. Advice can be shared anonymously with full confidentiality.