When Grief Becomes Public: What Can We Learn?

In the past three weeks, the experience of grief has become public in a way that it has never before in the 36 years since the fateful day I lost my 25-year-old wife to a cardiac arrhythmia. I notice grief bursting into our consciousness from local to national stories.

Here in Southeast Michigan, sports fans were stunned to learn of the death of a local sports talk radio host (Jamie Samuelsen, on air for 20+ years) due to stage IV colon cancer. The reactions of his colleagues displayed the wide variety of feelings that occur after a death.

First, his co-host Michael Stone was shocked. He had “just spoken” with his partner and did not realize that death was so imminent. Someone less close to Jamie, the afternoon host (Mike Valenti), told listeners, “I’m angry.” Jamie was only 48—and he took such good care of himself. Finally, his closest friend at the station, Bob Wojnowski, was simply saddened. The world was an emptier and less affirming place. These are such wonderful examples of the different ways acute grief can strike others—from a close friend to a colleague who wasn’t even a friend to the deceased. In the context of a pandemic where, in six months, Covid-19 has become the 3rd leading cause of death in the U.S., the listening audience responded to this grief with an outpouring of support and sharing.

Around the same time, a psychologist colleague of mine posted her experience of trauma; the trauma of losing so many older clients in the long-term care facilities where she practices. This is another aspect of grief in the time of Covid. Decline and death is often very rapid due to the virus. Sudden, unexpected deaths, especially at a volume never experienced before, produce trauma that attacks one’s sense of security, and often produces feelings of helplessness in a dangerous world. What a brave colleague. I had never seen anyone share so openly her experience of trauma in her current work. I was heartened that her colleagues responded so supportively. As I shared in an earlier blog, with Becky’s death I experienced trauma and traumatic reactions—invasive dreams, vivid memories of the morning of her death, seeing her dead body in the ER and later how different she looked in the morgue.

The most public grief outpouring recently was by Presidential candidate Joe Biden at the National Democratic Convention. His losses are unimaginable to most people: a wife and infant daughter in a car accident (leaving 2 young sons to bring up) and later the death of his adult son. Candidate Biden shared two messages about healing; both of which I agree with 100%. First, your loved one is always with you and second, you need to find purpose. I could not survive if I did not carry Becky and Susan’s voices with me. They gave me so much and I gave them all I had with love and joy. A sense of purpose was especially consoling after Susan’s death 6 ½ years ago.  I set out on the personal mission to bring up my children. In my career I focused on tackling older adult financial exploitation, to understand and reduce it while helping victims recover from it.

What can we learn from all of this? First and foremost, don’t be afraid to talk about grief and let the people most closely affected know they have your support. Don’t just write one note. Keep in touch. After Susan’s death, I had much support from family, colleagues and friends, yet only one of our neighbors ever asked me how I was or made the effort to check in—despite almost a decade of us hosting holiday parties for the entire neighborhood. Second, understand and accept that grief is complex and changing; one size does not fit all. Be patient and withhold judgment. Stay compassionate and connected without assuming you have the answers for someone else’s healing.

Goodbyes

On the last night of my recent vacation I received a text from my brother. His metastatic melanoma cancer had returned after successful treatment starting in 2017. The tumors are growing quickly into his adrenal gland, spleen, lymph nodes and along his chest wall.

Tom was my best man when I married Susan. He met his wife a month later and they were married the very next year. My son Thomas, and his son John Peter, were born two months apart in 2001. Tom is older than me by 18 months and, in a family of four sons, we were “the littles.” The news of his cancer’s return and growth was jarring. When he was first diagnosed I was able to visit him and his family in the San Francisco Bay Area three times during the first year of his treatment. I can’t visit now—he is so vulnerable to Covid-19. I would hate to catch it on a plane and transmit it to him.Doves set free

The night I got the news, I had a dream in which Susan came walking through the door and threw her arms around me. Her strong arms pulled me into her and when I started to pull back to get a better look at her she pulled me even closer and said “I’m never letting go of you.” It was the first dream I’ve had of Susan in over five years. It got me thinking about goodbyes.

I never got to say goodbye in person to Susan. We hadn’t expected her heart to give out and her death was sudden. Becky too died unexpectedly during an early morning jog. Goodbye was the last thought in my mind when I kissed her good night and went to sleep. My mother wanted to wait to share goodbyes in person, but she became too confused the last week of her life. My father’s dementia prevented any goodbyes.

I recall only one powerful goodbye. Becky and I had just enjoyed the best summer of our lives after graduation, gone on vacation together, and moved me into an apartment in West Lafayette, Indiana, where I would start graduate school. Becky stayed with me a few days and all too soon it was time for her to drive back to St. Louis. We were laughing and talking as we packed up her car and then, when it was time for a final hug, we both began to sob. She drove off crying and cried for hours and I sat by the riverbank and cried for hours. It was as if we lost a part of ourselves. We knew it wasn’t the end, but it was a goodbye. Becky joined me in West Lafayette four months later and we married that spring.

My brother Tom started his new round of treatments yesterday. I so hope this treatment will be successful. In the meantime I will FaceTime with him and connect across the miles. I don’t know if and when there will be a goodbye with Tom. I do know, however, that my dream of Susan, my memories of sitting with my parents during their dying, and that poignant memory of a tearful goodbye with Becky remind me of one simple truth. I will never finish saying goodbye to those I loved and lost. Our lives together ended but our relationships did not. Their love is too powerful and too positive in my life—why would I ever have a final goodbye?

The Garden

To my mother’s dismay, I never took to gardening. She loved to garden and spent countless hours making her garden a thing of beauty, and enjoying other people’s gardens as well. When we would take walks together, she often would stop and provide a little free weeding for people’s gardens—just too hard to walk by without taking care of those darn weeds.

My mother loved my wife Susan for lots of reasons, and one of the things they had in common was a love of gardening. Susan got it from her father who had a beautiful garden of perennials and vegetables. I loved looking out the windows of our house and watching Susan gardening: pulling out weeds, replanting her perennials, watering her vegetables. Always creative, Susan even grew pumpkins for the kids at Halloween. Alas, despite hiring someone to periodically weed and mulch Susan’s garden, it became sorely neglected across the six years subsequent to her death. That all changed this year.

This spring I was beside myself with joy to see my wife Debbie out reclaiming not only the garden, but also our lawn. Day after day Debbie has been out planting, weeding, re-planting and watering, and putting down mulch for the garden and seed for the grass. There is an incredible continuity to my life tied to watching Debbie love her garden and watching her move in and out of her plantings. I always felt that my wife Becky, who died at age 25, handed me to Susan and expected us to live a full life.

This spring, the first spring together in our home, I can feel Susan handing me to Debbie “Cultivate Peter as you do the garden,” I can hear and feel her telling us. Continuity, that sense of continuing the life I created with Becky and with Susan, is such an important part of my healing. Beauty, connecting my mother, Susan and Debbie, is bringing me a recognition of the continuity in my life. Although I still don’t like to garden . . . I do love to watch the joy each of these women experiences in the garden.

Sitting with My Father

In my mind I can see Susan, my mom and dad, and me hiking the Wissahickon trail in Philadelphia. The sun was shining on us, and on my life. Susan and I weren’t married yet, but we knew we would be together for a lifetime. At one point on the trail, there is a path next to the river and some benches.

A photo I came across last year is of me, Susan and my mom. My mom is talking and gesturing to Susan, and I am smiling at the camera, while my arm is around Susan’s shoulder. Her hand is reaching up and holding mine. My smile is the kind that says, “Yes, I do know how lucky I am.” That memory is 22-years-old.

Today I sit by my father’s bedside during his final days of life. Susan went first; dying of cancer two months shy of her 51st birthday and near our 15th wedding anniversary. (We have two children who were 12 and 9 when Susan died.) My mom, who entered the emergency room the week after Susan’s bad news of metastatic cancer, had multiple myeloma. What an incredible survivor she was! She lived almost four years after Susan’s death, dying at age 88.

Peter with his parents (2002)

I promised my mom that I would watch out for my dad. Two years before her death, I came to town to help move my dad from their independent apartment to the Assisted Living unit due to his dementia and our belief at the time that mom would be dead within a few months. I have now been here with him for six days; a gift to me that during the Covid 19 virus I am able to put PPE on and come into the facility. He has been in hospice and his dying has been peaceful.

I hate that I will look at that photo and think I am the only one in the picture still living. I will be at peace, however, knowing that I was here—not just for dad, or myself, but for my mother. I will remember us as a foursome—we had so many cherished times.

Peter’s father died peacefully the morning of May 22. Peter was by his side.

Grief in the Time of Coronavirus

I was interviewed by a newspaper reporter recently about grief and loss. How is it different during the time of coronavirus and what does that mean going forward? While we can point out the differences for the former (e.g. lack of saying goodbye, inability to gather for a funeral or memorial service; finding a funeral home that can assist during this pandemic when they are over-run), the answers to the latter will reveal themselves in time. This is a new phenomenon.

We do, however, know a lot about grief and healing and the challenges that situations like this can provide. First, many deaths due to this virus come quickly. A South Korea study found that among those who died, time from diagnosis to death was just 11 days. What do we know about sudden death and its impact on grief?

When death is sudden and unexpected it often carries traumatic reactions as well as normal grief reactions. Disbelief, numbness, and feelings of depersonalization or depression are more likely in those who lose loved ones more suddenly. These traumatic reactions can lead to more difficult grief outcomes and a higher risk for what is termed “complicated grief”—a state in which the grief remains acute despite the passage of long periods of time.

Second, we know that grief and healing take much longer than people expect with sudden death. The longer period of acute grief can leave the grieving person feeling isolated and alienated. Since so much of healing from grief involves connections with others and support, recovery from sudden grief becomes more complicated. Third, we know that funeral and memorial services can bring comfort and support to the grieving person. Without these, there is a risk for an increased sense of being disconnected from others in the world.

These are unique circumstances for those who lose a loved one. Never in our lifetime have so many people lost loved ones in such a short period of time. While traumatic and devastating, this shared experience can also provide an opportunity for support from social groups and taking advantage of online or virtual grief support. This may be one of the great strengths that helps people heal during this pandemic.

Peter A. Lichtenberg

May 14, 2020

 

Love & Healing – By the Numbers

By Peter Lichtenberg

Twenty, two thousand, thirty-five, and one. Numbers.

Numbers have always been important to me as a way to mark significant parts of life and living. When I was growing up, and Hank Aaron was my favorite player, while everyone else loved Willie Mays, I kept close track of his batting average and home runs. When my hometown Philadelphia Phillies were awful, I tracked Tony Taylor’s best season—could he end up hitting .300? He did and batted .301. When I had an All-Star baseball set and played constantly, I had season averages, lifetime averages and an assortment of other statistics always in my mind. During my first year of graduate school, while walking to class, I would count the number of days I would live in West Lafayette, Indiana. When I became a researcher, I began to count my numbers of publications. First, because it was a marker for promotion and then because numbers just stay with me. 

Twenty! In ten days, September 18, 2019 I will mark the 20th anniversary of my marriage to Susan. I have journaled and written about Susan so often, (including my own short book,
“Grief and Healing: Against the Odds,” of being widowed twice, at 25 and 55). How miraculously she came into my life and allowed me to begin living fully—for the first time since the death of my first wife, Becky, who died suddenly at age 25 from an arrhythmia while jogging. Susan was not only my wife; she was my colleague, my best friend, my tennis partner, my hiking partner, movie critic partner, parenting partner, and my partner in noticing and reveling in the small things in life. Susan once wrote to me that “being married to you is the easiest thing I have ever done in my life”—wow!!

How would I not celebrate and mark the 20th year!?

Two-thousand! Two thousand days ago Susan died. Her heart gave out after battling Stage IV breast cancer for 44 months—enduring all sorts of treatments. It was sudden, her death, and it was a blessing that she did not know she was going to die that day. She grieved so the idea of leaving me, of leaving her children and step-child ages 21, 12 and 9 behind.

One Thousand. I took a long walk on her the 1,000 day after she died and reflected on how much grief I had experienced and how much hurt remained. I also reflected on how much I kept Susan close to me and how her spirit enabled me to heal and to continue living with a zest for experiences and joyful moments. At two-thousand I am back to the regular rhythms of day to day life. Happily re-married for eight plus months and so relieved to see my children doing so well and finding their day to day rhythms too. Susan is everywhere in our home and her smile and laughing, joyful and beautiful pictures give me energy and pride—I’m so proud that Susan chose me to be her one and only.

Thirty five! In two months and six days it will be 35 years since Becky died. I just had brunch in Chicago with her college roommate (and my friend too), Mary. We each reflected on how grateful we are that Becky graced us with her love and friendship. Mary had shared with me letters Becky had written her when we first moved in together, and on this trip told me of her last call with Becky and the loving things she said about me and about our marriage. I was always in awe that Becky chose me. She was the funniest, the most spirited, the smartest and the most capable person in any room.

In Chicago I stayed two blocks from where we spent the first days of our marriage. As much as my mom loved Susan and boy did she—Becky was the daughter she never had (had 4 sons). I cried more during the five years after Becky died than I ever thought possible. Grief was overwhelming and lonely. Nevertheless, I survived and grew and Becky’s influence on my life and her presence at key times of my life have been amazing. She handed me to Susan.

One! Despite being married to Debbie for slightly over 8 months, we finally moved in together only one month ago. We each had sons who were seniors in high school and we knew it was so important to keep them in their respective routines and graduate from their respective high schools. Then, like a whirling dervish, Debbie pulled off the impossible. She got her house packed up and ready for sale and sold it within a few weeks. Watching her was exhausting and intimidating. How could someone be so organized and so effective with things!!

She (and her 3 young adult children) moved into my house, since Sophie was just about to enter high school and wanted to stay put. Debbie has been an incredible blessing not only to my life, but to all three of my children’s as well—and I think among them especially Sophie! It is my life that Debbie has impacted most. She is my best friend, my hiking partner, my dining out partner, and my business partner. I wake up next to her, make us coffee and breakfast and cannot believe that once again I am blessed with such a happy home and such a healthy relationship. She has done the impossible in other ways too—whereas Susan accepted and embraced Becky, Debbie has embraced Becky and Susan and Susan’s children. 

I will never be able to make sense of what has happened to me. I miss Becky and I miss Susan—Susan, especially as we went through so much and went so deeply together. I cry at the drop of a hat—commercials, comics, and any sentimental scene I see. I hurt. I long for. I am grateful, too. Grateful for all the joys of my life and Debbie’s gift of love and a life to lead together strikes me as the most unlikely joy of all. Twenty, two thousand, thirty-five and one—there are stories behind the numbers.

Peter A. Lichtenberg

Farmington, Michigan

lichtenbergpete@gmail.com

September 8, 2019

A New World

Debbie and Peter in Arcadia, Michigan

Much to my surprise, I discovered two major things this holiday season. The first was that I was ready for a joyful and meaningful Christmas. I had really enjoyed buying gifts this year but I wasn’t certain how the actual day would go. It was calm, happy and celebratory. The second was that I came to recognize how much my own triggers of grief and abandonment fears had been affecting me. I couldn’t describe why it was happening but I was often feeling like a pendulum swinging from the present to the past. Bringing these two together, and with an amazing amount of patience and support from Debbie, I not only had a wonderful Christmas with my children, but also found myself wanting to be ever present in my current life.

Across these many months Debbie and I have been quietly building the roots for an ever more satisfying and deepening relationship. Our increasing understanding and acceptance of each other, along with the fun, conversation, adventures and closeness we share came even more to light. This may be my last blog because I am learning that letting go is part of moving ahead. Not forgetting, of course, but letting go of the past relationship for sustenance and esteem. I will still share my story in presentations, and help others to share theirs, but my own emotional life, my home life with my children, my relationship with Debbie and her children, and my friendships, occupy my heart and mind now.

Christmas Memories

Two Chchristmas-tree-in-the-snow-storm-1152x720-wide-wallpapers-netristmases stand out for me as my very favorite ones. The first began on the morning of December 23rd, 1983 . . . On Christmas Eve, my in-laws were supposed to arrive from Elkhart to join Becky and me for Christmas. When I came out of the library after working on my studies all day at 4:30 pm, darkness was just falling over West Lafayette, but it was still light enough to see that there was a blizzard going on and that the temperature had dropped to near zero degrees. Sure enough this blizzard shut the major north south interstate from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky. Becky’s parents would not be coming, and I had Becky to myself for Christmas for the first time ever! I felt as if time stood still as Becky and I got to luxuriate in each others company. I was surrounded by love and fun the entire Christmas weekend.

I have many memories of Christmas with Susan. The Christmas we drove to my parents in Philadelphia and told them Susan was pregnant with Thomas; the Christmas seasons we hosted the neighborhood holiday party (10 years in a row), the times we stayed up late getting the presents ready for Thomas and Sophie.  And the last Christmas in which we had such a great day, but at the end of the day when Susan went to bed, I knew she would never have the same energy again.

The Christmas I remember as my favorite was the first Christmas Susan and I spent together — in 1997. First, it was a wonderful surprise that Susan was around for Christmas since I had thought she was heading to her parents’ home in Spokane, Washington. Susan decided to stay in Michigan and spend the long Christmas weekend with me in her apartment. We took long runs in the morning, read, watched movies and had romantic dinners and evenings. Susan and I would duplicate this type of long weekend many times; always happiest when we had uninterrupted time together.

Acceptance and Grieving: Two different things?

A widowed friend of mine looked at me the other day and said “when your loved one is terminally ill you accept their death, and you are more prepared to accept it than if they die suddenly. But,” she went on to say, “that isn’t the same as grieving; you only grieve later.”

I found these words profound. I spent so much time during the first two years after Susan’s death focusing on my children’s needs, managing my household, making sure work was okay (indeed work has been phenomenal) and although I had many periods of terrible sadness and pain, the issues related to persistent grief were put off. Now, in the past six months I have been grieving the permanence of my loss. I miss knowing that Susan will be home to greet me or vice versa, that the story of love and friendship that we created will never evolve more, and that the warmth, intelligence, humor and smile that simply emanated from Susan will never again capture me wholly and totally.

I am taking the time to grieve the permanence of my loss, and at times the sadness is simply piercing. I’m finding that my social support system has changed greatly. Several people have dropped off and my circle is smaller. Perhaps my grief chased them away. Yet I am finding that by owning up to my grief I am opening up more to Debbie, and I am incredibly grateful for her patience and presence because when I spend time with her I enjoy it so totally. I used to say this after Becky died and before my life with Susan: “Healing always takes longer than you expect.”

The Death of One of Our Protectors: A Community Grieves

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Officer Collin Rose, WSU

I was out to dinner with a close friend and colleague right before Thanksgiving, when word came across the Wayne State alert system that an officer had been shot. Twenty-nine-year-old Officer Collin Rose was shot while on duty, patrolling off campus.

Our campus is one of the safest in the nation because our trained police force, so highly skilled (each a college graduate and most with master’s degrees), does community policing; policing around a 3-mile perimeter of the campus. Only one other time had an officer been shot—in the leg—36 years ago.

The day after the shooting Officer Rose died from the gunshot wound to his head. Acute grief surrounds us, and this week there will be a candlelight vigil, a public viewing and a funeral. Grief will continue for those close to him. When doing research on my own grief, I discovered that grief is often the most difficult when it is sudden, and viewed as preventable. My heart aches for those in his private and work life, and especially our Chief of Police, who will grieve Officer Rose and his shortened life.

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