Commentary: Grief offers its own set of surprises

May is National Hospice Month

Elaine Schiman

My husband Greg died unexpectedly of cardiac arrest, on Nov. 2, 2017, about 20 minutes after we kissed each other goodbye, as he went to meet a friend. He was 59.

I got the news from the RCMP, at the door of the Old Fire Hall, after the concert Greg and I had attended together.

It was the worst moment of my life, a shock for which I felt entirely unprepared.

I was surprised then, and now, at how huge grief is. It fills you up, knocks you over, shatters the good things you took for granted and overshadows everything.

When Greg died, I had already lost my parents. Letting them go was hard, but I still felt strong afterwards. I didn’t expect it to be so different with Greg. But, because he was my life partner, because we spent our days together, because we had many hopes and plans, his death meant that my life, as it was, almost disappeared. I’m still working to re-shape it.

I’ve been surprised at how becoming a widow is like becoming a parent, in a way. Before parenthood, you have no idea how this new little person will change your life. Afterwards, you cannot explain it to non-parents. You just have to get there yourself.

Grief is like that. You are changed. You have feelings you never knew existed. It cannot be explained.

Grief makes you question and doubt. When I had thought about our deaths, it was whether our wills were up-to-date, or how Greg might do, if I died first. I never doubted my own ability to manage. It’s much harder than I thought. In addition to missing Greg, in addition to feeling badly for him about everything he’s missing, I have the indelible knowledge that life can end in an instant. It can be a struggle to find purpose and to reconcile the decisions that led you to today.

Grief makes everything more difficult: going out in public, staying home, planning vacations, waking up to face the day. It makes you doubt yourself in new ways. There have been many times since Greg died, when I have been certain I am screwing everything up terribly. On the positive side, when you manage something well, big or small, it’s encouraging. I notice the growth of new resolve and confidence.

I’ve been surprised to realize how inadequately I handled the grief of others in the past. Once I felt my own grief, I couldn’t help but remember all those in my life who had lost dear ones. I had only paid lip service to their grief, saying sorry or sending a card. I had no idea what they were going through or what they might need.

I’ve been surprised at what I do need and how much I appreciate what comes my way. Invites to dinner or events, driveway magically shoveled, help lifting heavy things, emails sharing fond memories of Greg, encouraging words about something I or my boys had done.

If you know someone in grief, make those offers, even if they sometimes decline. Try to be specific. Many people say: “Let me know if I can do anything.” (I’m sure I said it myself.) Although meant well, this general offer puts an extra burden on the grieving person to think of what you should do.

I’ve been surprised about how many people are grieving. Because of my situation, people confide in me and I’m often shocked when someone, who seems fine, has lost a child or spouse, has an illness or some great sadness. You can’t tell from the outside. It’s best to assume everyone is dealing with huge challenges we can’t see.

I’ve been surprised by the way grief affects family. At first, I imagined it would automatically bring us closer and we’d be there for each other constantly. That does happen at times, but certainly not always. Grief throws everyone for a loop; there are new stresses and needs. When we’re under pressure, who best to take it out on but those we love the most. I try to be forgiving with myself and my own failings, and with everyone in my family. We are all struggling.

The last surprise I’ll mention is that all the things that help you live with grief are the same things you should do just to live well. Sleep, eat healthy, exercise, go outside. Do things you love. Spend time with your people. Accept hugs. Smile and laugh. Find joy and peace when you can. Be thankful for what you have. Live.

I don’t know if grief ever goes away. I don’t think so. But I now know that it does subside at times. At first, it hurt so much, I couldn’t imagine going on with life in constant pain. But now, when I have a bad moment, or hour, or day, I know it won’t stay that way.

One of our sons got married last year. I was worried how I’d manage at the wedding, when Greg should so clearly have been with us. There were some sad moments, but overall I found that the day was truly joyful. We were happy together, as family.

That’s what they tell you, the books, the counsellors, the lovely people at Hospice Yukon. They say you will find joy again. It was good on that wedding day to find that seems to be true. I know that’s what Greg would want.

Elaine Schiman is a Whitehorse writer who has used the services of Hospice Yukon. This is an excerpt of an article she wrote for Hospice Month. The complete article can be found at

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