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Palliative Care and the Three Stages of Friendship Loss

Widowhood at an early age is not an easy topic to deal with, and yet there are thousands on thousands of us in this situation, each in differing stages of relationship with their late partners. One thing is universal Grieving for someone you love is probably one of the most traumatic events many of you may ever experience.

There’s always someone who’ll compare your loss against losing their pet gerbil (True story), losing a sibling, parent, family member or even divorce. Whilst these events (except the gerbil) are traumatic in their own right, nothing prepares you for the anguish, guilt, physical pain, flashbacks, tears, crippling fear and paralysing thoughts especially when the one person you need to talk to isn’t by your side.

For those that compare grief to divorce I say, sure they’re traumatic, however at any point you could pick up the phone and talk to them again, you know they’re living a life to potential. In the widowing world, we call these people muggles. However, none of us would wish this experience on anyone in life, and yet around 50% of you in a relationship will probably experience it.

Competitive grieving isn’t the subject of today blog. Today I’m going to discuss the three stages of friendship loss through this shitty journey.

The Background

We all have differing groups of friends, some who hang out together and those we keep separated from others. To say it’s devastating to learn the news your loved one is diagnosed with cancer brings a crippling experience that I can’t describe. My late wife had gone for a routine exam the week before, what was different was the number of additional tests being run that day. Alarm bells were ringing but Janice was adamant it was nothing to worry about, and that she’d get the results in a weeks time.

I was doing a job in Slovakia the following week, and due to work commitments was unable to get an earlier flight home than the Friday morning. Janice was insistent I go, playing down the seriousness of it all.

I called Janice from the hotel, and she chatted as she normally did without letting on the results of the tests, so I assumed it was all ok, until I asked… Janice explained that she was met by a nurse and her new oncologist that gave the awful news she was Stage 3, very rare, extremely aggressive and chemotherapy would start the following week.

On hearing the news, I collapsed to the floor of my hotel room, paralysed with fear & guilt that I should have been there, knowing she was alone that night. Janice was more held together than I was, I was stuttering, in tears, unable to get words out for a good 30 minutes or more, shock set in quickly, we talked for as long as we could, I tried to find an earlier flight home, but was unable to do so. It was a long night, unable to eat, unable to sleep, unable to think straight, unable to talk to anyone about what I’d just learned. The morning couldn’t come quick enough, my car took me to the airport, I boarded my flight to find on my return Janice waiting at the door. She always tracked me on my phone so knew I was just pulling up, we hugged and cried for a long time that day.

After the weekend when immediate family were informed of the news, only a small group of very close friends were informed who would hopefully provide the support network that we inevitably needed during the course of her remaining few months (Did I mention it was extremely aggressive?).

Stage 1 Loss – Diagnosis

We all have friends we see on a regular basis and those for whatever reason, once in a while. Everyone has their own problems and their lives to get on with. Whilst a few close friends were very supportive, others it turned out were fair weather ones, ones we didn’t here from at all after, or who didn’t return calls, one who thought it’s just a mild illness that can be cured with the equivalent of aspirin and be alright in a couple of months.

It’s at this initial stage you find out who your fair weather friends are, and we were both appreciative of the help and support received, sometimes just talking over a cuppa helps. Personally I was coping less well than Janice, but that’s not the focus of todays entry.

It turned out some of those friends you see once in a while, were the ones that really stepped up and provided more support than we imagined. It gave some kind of tangible purpose to the friendship other than the occasional cuppa, meal and conversation and I’ll be forever grateful for what are now the new inner circle.

So there you have it, first hurdle and poof… gone like the wind those we thought were good friends…

Palliative/End-of-Life

Janice had been admitted to hospital after a round of chemo, extremely poorly and neutropenic, she had to be isolated from other patients on the ward. Although I’d worked from home, that fateful day I had a meeting with a big software giant. Janice was in good hands, and she told me to go. I had a strange text during the meeting, it looked innocuous but you know when something is wrong.

I was caught in traffic on the motorway so it took just over four hours to get to the hospital which was when we found out about the metastasis, the Cancer had spread to her lungs. Janice was introduced to her palliative care nurse, and over the course of a few weeks, she lost her mobility as the cancer attacked her spine causing bone to collapse on the spinal cord. She was in a significant amount of pain, and at that stage I was under immense stress trying to hold down a full time job and take care of Janice. I had no choice but to get signed off, so I could support her 24×7 which anyone in the situation I’ve experience know how stressful and uneasy it is. Patients with cancer is nothing like the movies where people deteriorate with dignity, it’s a fucker, nasty, evil cruel disease and takes more than the persons physicality. In the back of my mind was the thought of the next stage, but you convince yourself everything will be alright, just a blip, we’ll be back to normal, laughing it off in a few years time on a beach.

It’s at this point that friends have a feeling of helplessness but rally round as best they can.

Janice was admitted to hospital for the final time for seven weeks, awaiting spinal surgery, I was visiting everyday, the hospital was just under an hours drive to get there, I’d sort the laundry, run errands, bring coffee and cake or anything she may have fancied that day. I won’t go into details, but one morning a nurse thrust a leaflet into my hand and said you may want to read this.

It said “End of Life Care“, I was confused, bewildered, what does this mean as the nurse scurried off. She was ok and getting better yesterday, what’s changed? I didn’t want to know and was in denial to a large extent, how can she be slipping away and so quickly?

I stayed by Janice’s side until the very end, the hospital were very good, they provided a mattress to let me sleep on the floor next to her bed, until we had a transfer to the hospice where she passed away. That’s something they don’t prepare you for. Did I mention it’s nothing like the movies?…

Stage 2 Loss – The Funeral

One of the hardest things to do is carry your wife’s coffin on your shoulder as you walk her down the aisle for the final time. I don’t know how I managed it to this day, I made a promise to her and the least I could do was keep those promises. The chapel was packed with friends old and new, wanting to pay their respects, I delivered the final eulogy which was extremely hard to do and very upsetting, where I met people outside for a brief hug and chat before going forward to the wake.

It’s after the funeral that you see more friends disappear, maybe they’re focussing on their own issue, thinking you need space to process it all. The fact is, walking into an empty house with only your cat for company is extremely hard, I wanted to go anywhere that wasn’t home and hide, but couldn’t because of the list of promises and tasks Janice asked me to do on her behalf.

At this stage you’re left with an even smaller group of friends. Maybe I’m hard work, maybe because us men folk are meant to be emotionally tough and all that, coming from an era that “Men don’t cry”…

I was diagnosed with PTSD given the extreme trauma we had both gone through. I still have flashbacks in full glorious Ultra4K-HD, which show conversations, medical people in rooms and procedures being carried out, feelings, emotions and paralysing fear.

In the newly widowed stage you make new friends too, having joined a widowed young group, there was some comfort in knowing much that we’re experiencing is normal when counselling and therapy not helping and you try and build yourself back up.

At this point you’re left with what you believe are your core group of friends remaining that have been through you during the worst experience and depression, where you hope one day you too can return the support they provided.

Eventually though, the topic turns to “What Janice would have wanted” and isn’t it time to move on etc. and that leads into Stage 3 of friendship loss.

Stage 3 Loss – Moving Forward

Whatever happens, people judge your actions from the comfort of their armchair snuggled in the arms of their partner as though they know it all, because they’ve empathised, they believe they know what you’re going through. Until you’ve been widowed you have no idea of the isolation, the loneliness, the lack of meaning and purpose to life kicks up a whole new gear when the realisation of “Is this what is left” hits home…

There was a poll last year on This Morning TV show that showed a significant percentage of the population didn’t think widows/widowers should date again, where this common perception or belief comes from I don’t know, as it’s not taught in schools.

From widowed friends I’ve spoken with, there’s an unspoken expectation (By the muggles) that once widowed, we’re expected to live behind the black veil for the next 40+ years. The Victorians however, had a fixed grieving and mourning period of two years, starting out in black fading through to shades of grey until white clothes could be worn and you’re deemed eligible to date. Then again, the victorians would also marry off their young shortly after the funeral to the first available lecherous uncle for financial stability, how things gave moved on.

At the point you can even contemplate life with another or even think of the dating world is where you find the final cull of friends happens, maybe not intentionally, but it happens none-the-less.

It starts out with someone suggesting you date and how they’d be happy for your etc. However, the moment you actually try dating is when the final wave of anger, judgement and guilt trips start.

It’s bad enough that as a widowed person you have feelings of guilt and longing for the your partner who died, the feeling that you are cheating on them, physically or their memory, and the baggage that comes with it. Or your date, feeling they need to compete with your late partner as though they will spring up any moment and shout boo…

It when some friends or even family members that give you their blessing, turn against you, should you try and date again. I’ve seen this happen to too many widow friends. You already feel you’re dishonouring their memory without it being pointed out to you. The anger and disappointment from them flows like a bottle of Châteauneuf-Du-Pape at a dinner party. Maybe it’s the harsh reality that you’re trying to move forward that they may not like, or the group dynamic is different. Maybe jealousy or a strong sense of moral beliefs, who knows, but it’s inevitable, the harsh words, judgement, the guilt trips etc. Those that judge, however, don’t realise we’ve been through probably the worst kind of trauma in most of our lifetimes, and whilst their lack of support stings a little, it’s nothing in comparison to losing your partner.

You turn a corner and you next chapter begins, you never forget your late partner, the love you shared for one another, it’s not through choice they’re not here (a dig at those who think Divorce is on par with loss), and we continue to mourn the loss for the rest of our lives.

Don’t make the mistake assuming widowed folk dating are fine, cured or even “Over It”, because we’re not. We’ve learned to adapt and mask the grief, trying to find happiness in a world we know is already black.

Don’t judge us, support us.

There you have it, the three stages of friendship and family loss :-

  1. At Diagnosis
  2. After Death
  3. Moving Forward

What remains, are your true core friends, and I want to thank my remaining friends for supporting us both and myself when I really needed it. Thank you x

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