I had doubts about writing this third blog relating to
my experience of grief. I’m pretty cynical about grieving in public and
using tragedy as an appeal. I much prefer to leave that to Shakespeare
and the great Greek dramatists, and normally do a quick turn-off when
people start talking very publicly about their own bereavement. Yet, in
this instance I thought that my gains might be of particular value to
readers in most any situation of serious personal loss, so I’ve decided
to share what I’ve learned thus far.
As some readers know, I’ve been dealing with a very difficult
personal loss. My beloved wife of more than fifty years has
Alzheimer’s, a terribly debilitating disease that we will face more and
more as medicine extends life. Pauline Boss, in a wonderful book
entitled, Ambiguous Loss, writes specifically of Alzheimers’ as
a major form of what she calls ambiguous loss. The term refers to
situations where the person is physically present, but psychologically
absent, like my wife. Such loss can also occur when a person
experiences serious head trauma, a too familiar consequence of our wars
in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in serious head injuries here in
Last week I placed Marilyn in a wonderful assisted living residence
in the Twin Cities. My network of friends around the country told me
that better services and facilities did not exist.
Yet the next day I could neither think nor talk about my loss without
tears. FYI, I am a PhD with behavioral background, and have both
counseled and coached most of my adult life, still the pain of loss was
uncontrollable. But I pulled together after a couple days, and at my
daughters’ insistence took the opportunity to counsel with a
psychologist friend who’d also gone through serious loss in his own
life. The conversation confirmed my decisionmaking, and gave me
a number of important insights. The most important was that I would be
reframing my identity without my wife. Although we normally think of
identity formation as the work of teens and twenties, it may also take
place conciously in our older years. And, I recognize it will take some
But as part of the conversation, my friend passed on three
exceptionally significant questions that can apply to most any deeply
felt situation of loss.
- What have I lost?
- What still remains?
- What are my still valid hopes?
With a calculated venom, in my last blog on Alzheimers
and The Notebook, I wrote that I refuse to get stuck in melancholy
or complicated grieving. I am committed to living well in spite of my
exceedingly ambiguous loss and ever-present pain, and have given
consideration to that process over the past months. Those three
questions pull the issues together and give them a useful trajectory.
They enable me to say my goodbyes without her leaving.
Though I’ve only started my journey without Marilyn, I’ve already
found my colleague’s questions revealing. He suggested that the more I
can spell out the answers to those questions in specific, concrete ways,
the better I can not only cope but thrive in the days ahead. With that
in mind, I share them with you.