Surrounded by merry-making, those who sorrow throughout the holiday season experience a particular sense of loss. The ones who no longer gather around our table are so greatly missed. Perhaps more than any other time of year, we are aware of the extend to which the loss of our loved ones impacts every aspect of our lives.
My life experience this year has opened my eyes to the unique nature of emotions related to senseless loss. Grief, in any context, is a long and lonely journey. Those who mourn someone who's passing could have been prevented find the journey particularly arduous.
7 years ago this week my friend, Dave, was killed in a horrific collision. Not all vulnerable road users are actually outside a vehicle. Dave lost his life as the direct result of a careless driver; his vulnerability was the same as for anyone who shares the road with irresponsible drivers. Everyone else is at risk when any driver behaves in ways that endanger others.
No victim is just a statistic! Dave was a beloved husband and a dearly loved son. He was the father of 2 fine young men and “peepaw” to 2 grandsons who, sadly, were too young to have memories of him. Respected in his profession and as a scout leader who invested in young people, Dave was a man who impacted a great many lives.
Dave's family continues to be victims, due to the devastating circumstances surrounding his needless death. No one can describe it in the way his widow, Debbie, does. I'm incredibly grateful for her willingness to share her heart. If, by reading of her experience, any of us becomes more committed to standing for justice for VRUs, then we honor her Dave's memory in a meaningful way.
My husband and best friend, lover, the rock of our family was killed in a car accident by a distracted driver, just ½ mile from home on December 18, 2013. I was on my way home when I came upon the accident. I did not know it was he. I was turned around and was
sent on a detour by the police. When I got home I tried to call his cell phone because he always got home before I did. No answer. There was a message from the hospital on the answering machine. It said to come right away and bring someone with me. I called a neighbor to drive me. When I got there he was essentially already gone. Paralyzed from the neck down. His neck was broken, his lungs were crushed and his heart had burst. I kissed him and told him I loved him with all my heart and they wheeled him somewhere to try to revive him again. I never saw him again.
I found out later that the woman who hit him was speeding, trying to run a red light, even though my husband’s car was already stopped. She was also distracted by crawling into the back seat, - yes, I said crawling into the back seat to argue with her daughter. She rear-ended him at 65 miles an hour. She was upset that her car was damaged, but walked away. I could not bring myself to attend her arraignment or even read the depositions. I do not even know her name, nor do I want to. Some of my friends attended the court proceedings. I heard she got off scott free. Not even a fine. There was a big legal case trying to prove it was his fault for being stopped. Then there were several legal issues and people coming after me to file liens on my property, on the life insurance, and take everything I had left. This was motivated by pure greed, not any legal standing. He was as innocent as anyone could be, legally stopped at a RED light. I had to spend a fortune on lawyers to save what I had left.
Dealing with all of this was a nightmare. First and foremost, I was in a state of medical shock, and almost died myself. At the time I wish I had. One of my friends came over, saw the shape I was in, and took me to the doctor. I was given various medications, which I do not remember. I was later told my blood pressure was high enough to cause a stroke, but I have no recollection. I remember almost nothing of the first month. I couldn't eat, couldn't sleep, couldn't drive, couldn't fill out any forms or answer any questions without the help of friends. I couldn't get groceries or fix food for myself, couldn't bring myself to go any of the places we ever went together, and dreaded everything. I cried when I tried to buy groceries. I found myself picking something off the shelf that he liked, then realizing I did not need it any more. I was nauseous for over a month, and lost 25 pounds. No amount of temptation could help, but having friends take me out for breakfast or lunch at a simple place helped me eat a few bites at a time. If not for the support of my friends, I would not have survived. And I did not care if I did or not. I am not now, nor will I ever be the same person again, as I lost most of myself.
I panicked. Thoughts of moving, selling, wondering what changes I would be forced to make were overwhelming. With friends by my side, I calmed down enough to decide not to make any decisions that I did not absolutely have to make. At least for a year. I still have many of Dave's things, and some days even wear his robe or his shirts, as it gives me some comfort that he was real. I fear that if I get rid of everything, it's as if he never existed.
People spit out so many platitudes, I thought I would go crazy. I will never believe he was taken for a divine reason. No matter what a person's faith, leaving life unexpectedly does not feel like he's in a better place, because he wanted to be here. We wanted him to be here. He wanted to see his grandsons grow up. We had plans to grow old together. Hearing "I am thinking of you" from people who otherwise do nothing makes me furious. If you are really thinking of me, then give me a call and invite me to spend some time with you, or just listen. I am lonely. You might as well say "I don't have time for you, but want to ease my own conscience by telling you I am thinking of you." One friend said, "Thank God I still have my own husband." While true, that was a stab to my heart. Some people are so uncomfortable with death they ignore me, and have cut me out of their circle. I lost friends. Couples who used to include Dave and me now get together and do not invite me. Ever.
If you truly want to help, don’t say “Let me know if you need anything.” Give me a call and invite me for a walk, or to a visit to a museum, or to breakfast, or a movie, or dinner. I never get to go out to dinner any more. I will not burden you with my sorrowful story, because what I need is a break. Talk about something else, something positive, something interesting, and let me take my mind somewhere else for a brief time. Come over and help me clean something, mow the lawn, do some errands. It is extremely hard just to go to the store for necessities, as my mind sees things that remind me of my husband, and I forget why I came.
I have to be careful of what I watch, read, hear, or choose to participate in, as I am often caught off-guard and fall apart. Hearing favorite songs, seeing a car accident, driving over the street where it happened (which I never do, even though it is quite a bit out of my way to go around), hospital shows, books, the news, all sorts of things are now off the table. Emergency lights and sirens send me into a state of anxiety. I went to a wedding and almost collapsed when I heard one of our favorite songs. I ran out to preserve the sanctity of the event, forgetting my purse. After about an hour, someone came and found me wandering around the block, retrieved my purse and drove me home. I did not see that coming. I got caught at play once, when the husband was killed under similar circumstances. I walked out. I had ridden with someone else, and was stuck there alone, shaking and crying in the lobby until the end. I should have called a taxi, but at the time, I didn’t think of it. I no longer can accept rides to events with others, if I might be caught unaware. I must go alone, so I can leave.
People will say the first year is the hardest. It is hard, but the second year was just as hard. No one called me. No one sent me anything any more. No one was offering to help me. The world continued, and I was lost to find my own way. They all took detours and I was on the edge of a great black abyss. Subsequent years have still been hard. The finances are a struggle. Sleeping is still a struggle. The fear and uncertainty of my future alone are very real and always present. I miss him more each day than the day before, because it is one day longer that I have been without him. I cannot celebrate Christmas any longer. I hate December. We got married in December, and I lost him right before Christmas. The whole month is one long endurance race of grief, loneliness, and sadness. Everyone else is busy with their families busying themselves with the festivities of the holidays. I cannot stand to go to stores during the season. I cannot listen to the music and the false cheer, and see the decorations. I spend the holidays alone, all by myself. I get a few non-personal “Merry Christmas” wishes, but nothing meaningful from anyone. I do not want gifts. I would just like for someone to sit with me, let me talk about something interesting and take me away from the oppressive weight that hangs over me. I won’t dump my grief on someone. I would like to talk about anything else. I need a break.
People want to "one-up" my circumstances by telling me of someone they know or lost, or knew of, or read about, who went through something similar, and proceed to relay all sorts of gory details. I have had to give myself permission to simply leave, as there is no way to explain to boors why they are upsetting me. People who also lost someone told me they knew exactly what I was going through. No they didn’t, never will, and I resent the implication. Everyone’s grief is personal. I cannot imagine anyone else’s and no one can imagine mine. I just know it hurts, and always will. Grief is not something one “gets over”. It is something one has to learn to live with, like a deformity or a disability. It does not heal; it becomes a part of one’s being, and is always there in one form or another.
I had a flurry of legal issues, as neither the car insurance, life insurance, medical insurance, or hospital was willing to come forth with or accept the terms of the insurance policies, and the hospital immediately tried to file liens on my assets. I had to have an attorney immediately.
I immediately had to open bank accounts and credit cards in my own name, before letting the bank know of his death, so the money would not be frozen, and I had access to money to pay bills.
I had to consult an elder law attorney to set up my own estate, go through a lot of legal paperwork, and get retirement accounts, our house, cars, etc. in my control, as everything we held together was no longer valid. I had to declare our assets at the county, and file forms to preclude probate, with the help of the attorney to not trigger inheritance taxes, probate, or other issues.
I had to go to an investment company to get all of the financial accounts into my name. The company was great. While I cried and tried to regain my composure, my representative at the investment company very firmly talked to the necessary people in his deep commanding male voice and got things rolling for me. Getting my hands on some of the stocks my husband had was a problem, as I could not find the original stock certificates. I am not sure Dave ever possessed them when they were doled out as profit sharing. I never did get some of them, and eventually gave up.
I lost my job. No one wants to keep a grieving person on the payroll. I can’t say I blame them. I hated to get up every day because, if I actually slept, when I woke up there was the shock of him not being there all over again. I hated to go home because he would not be there. I hated to go to bed because he wasn’t there, and I knew I would have trouble sleeping. There was absolutely no comfortable place for me to be. I can never be the same person I once was. People pointed that out to me, and asked when I will recover. I never will. People will say things like “It’s been years. Aren’t you over it yet?” Or, “You can still get remarried.” As if it is the same as buying a new car. I lost the better part of myself when I lost him. He cannot be replaced. The wounds will always be with me, as if I had lost a limb. I can learn to move on, but never as easily as before, and never the same way as before. I have had to learn to establish some boundaries for myself. It’s as if there is an invisible shield that I have to live within. I cannot let certain things in. I also must keep certain things within my shield, for to let them out would drive others away. I have a few good friends with whom I can discuss my true feelings, but most people simply do not want to hear it. So I remain quiet.
When I was let go from my job I lost my long-term insurance, and any insurance Dave carried on me was void. I had to set up long-term care insurance for myself. All of the accounts that were in his name, such as the utility bill, the mortgage, the water bill, the cable bill, etc. had to be changed. Some were simple, and some were a nightmare.
My car, house, medical and life insurance policies were immediately canceled; car and house because we had joint ownership, life and medical because I was on his policies. I had to navigate through getting all new coverage the day after I lost him. I lost the benefit of discounts for being a long-time customer. It was as if I was just born. I had to start as a new customer all over again. I couldn't do it without one of my friends sitting there talking to people on the phone for me and answering questions. It is quite surprising how many customer service people do not know how to handle an event like the death of one of their customers. I was actually told they needed to speak to him, since his name was on the accounts. How does a person deal with such an idiotic request?
I discovered that I could not collect his social security unless I gave up my own. We had planned to have two incomes, and now I would forevermore be down to one. In a split second my financial status and future changed.
As time marches on, the whole world seems to be going on as usual, except for me. My world has stopped. I want to get the rest of the world to stop while I find my way again, but it doesn’t happen. People always ask if things are better. Well, I am struggling financially, emotionally, physically, and intellectually. My future is uncertain. I am exceedingly lonely. I am still here, and try to keep up the façade of being OK, because I know that no one wants to be around sadness. Sometimes I even pull off the charade.
I have tried to find some new interests, join some social groups, and find some meaning to my life, as I am still stuck here. It has helped. It is not a substitute for the wonderful life we had together, but it is something. It is the best I can do.
God bless my dear friend and all who mourn!
May we choose to honor their suffering and loss in life-affirming ways,