Sunday, May 20, 2007

Finding Mr. Grief: Restoring Order After Losing One's Life Partner October 2005

“Lost love is still love, Eddie. It takes a different form, that's all. You can't see their smile or bring them food or tousle their hair or move them around a dance floor. But when those senses weaken, another heightens. Memory. Memory becomes your partner. You hold it. You dance with it. Life has to end. Love doesn't."
--Marguerite to Eddie (The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom)
Looking for Mr. Right has never been an easy task. A series of trial and error would have to be endured for one to find his or her perfect match. As far as divine intervention or sheer luck is concern… it will remain a mystery.

What if after endless search, you lose the one and only person you chose to live the rest of your life with…the one you wish to grow old with…the one who shares all your joys and woes… the one you vowed to love and to hold? How does one cope with the new role of being a widow and single again?

The truth of the matter… death is very much part of life…

Five months ago I was forced to undertake the big task of preparing my husband’s funeral. Fourteen months of endless chemotherapy did not help in finding a cure for Jerry. Doctors advised me to prepare for the inevitable. My immediate thought was how would I be on that day? How can I tell my children that their father was dying? I heard stories of widows becoming non-functional, stunned and hysterical. I didn’t want to be any of those. I wanted to give dignity and honor to my husband’s departure.

Thus, I began planning how his remains would be managed. I discussed it with him and followed through with his wishes of cremation and where his final rest would be. I even involved the children in choosing the exact spot where they wished to visit their papa and eventually me. Dr. Francis Dimalanta agreed that it was best to involve the children in the decision making so that until the end they have taken a role with their father’s demise.

When Chino, my 7 year old, asked me why we were doing this, I said, “Remember when I told you that Jesus is coming soon to make one of us an angel, well, it’s going to happen anytime. Jesus sees that Papa is really having a hard time and He wants to save him from this cancer. We need to find a place where Jesus can pick him up and give him wings so he can watch over us.” He cried and later on obliged to find a spot for his father. At a very young age, he understood the whole concept of death and was willing to accept it.

I started writing the eulogy and made my husband read it to ensure that he had a full understanding of what I will say about him. I needed him to hear these words while he was alive and not when he’s already gone. He appreciated everything written and added a few more. “People need to know what we both went through regardless of what they have to say,” he affirmed.

Caterers were called to pre-order the food, stampitas were produced and the funeral home was already advised of an impending death. Checks were issued and were turned over to my appointed funeral coordinator, my best friend Weng. What was left blank was the date of death.

May 15, 2005 at 1am, the man I vowed to love and to hold, through sickness and in death, in richer or poorer, joined his creator after less than 24 hours of coma. I did not cry anymore. Finally, he was at peace and completely pain free. I chose to sleep in our room alone and somehow try to make the adjustment and recovery faster. It was an eerie feeling like he was still there watching over me.

Upon his wishes, I had him cremated and after two days of wake, his remains were finally laid to rest at the spot chosen by his children. It was a beautiful service attended by most of our relatives, friends, and colleagues.

So what now….

After the 9th day novena, the children and I, including my household staff, flew to Boracay for a much needed break. I planned this even before Jerry’s death because the children needed to look forward to something after their father was gone. If only time allowed it, I would’ve taken them to the US but school was about to start.

This was where I decided to organize my thoughts and eventually design my road to recovery. Things I needed to do associated with Jerry’s passing such as insurance claims, outstanding loans, estate taxes, financial planning, etc. What I needed to do with myself and the children so we can cope properly. What are my current resources and who exactly can I rely for emotional support and the drainers who will just suck out the remaining positive energy in my life?

What I Have and Don’t Have and Until When? It was important for me to realize exactly what financial resources I have and how I can manage it to determine until when I can continue to support my family without the pressure of finding work right away. After inquiring family counselors and support groups for widows and single parents, the average time frame for recovery for a loss of a beloved is 8 months to a year. During this period, I wanted to focus on what really mattered which was my and the children's well being.

Checklist. Create a to do list of things you need to complete associated to your spouse's death. In Jerry's case, these was insurance that needed to be filed and claimed; outstanding loans that needed to be settled; estate taxes; and clearances from his former employment; cancellation of credit cards; mobile phone subscriptions; etc. It would be wise to get the services of a lawyer to find out exactly the rights of the legal heirs and to establish guardianship for minors.
Losing your footing and relearning things. After realizing exactly what my financial positioning was, I got the services of a fund manager to help me place the remaining proceeds and maximize its yield to help tie ends together. I attended talks on investments and banking to understand the instruments that can be used. It also helped when I down sized my overhead at home bringing down the costs significantly. Cost cutting was the order of the day.

Remove Triggers. Help yourself recover by identifying items, music, or what have you that will pull down your spirit. I'll always be grateful to my mother-in-law and sister-in law, Tina for offering to remove all the medical gadgets and equipment associated to Jerry's illness. Each and every time the memories of what my husband underwent would send me into a weeping frenzy.

The exercise of packing away his personal belongings was done by me. I made this decision a month after his passing. Sure there were offers but I needed to complete this exercise to also put a closure to his departure. It was more like sweeping everything into boxes. Some of his stuff were given to my in-laws, his friends, and former colleagues as keepsakes. The rest will have to wait for a better day for me to meticulously sort out.

The matrimonial bed had to go and the lazy boy where he expired was given away. Even the whole house had a face lift, changing the tune to happy tones.
Never doubt your child. Nowadays, seeking professional help is as common as consulting an ob-gyne. Somtimes a 3rd person's perspective can be helpful than seeking counsel from a family member. I brought my eldest son to a child therapist, Tom Batalla, to ensure that all areas are addressed. Children, unlike adults, will reveal themselves when they are most unguarded like when they are in active play. Tom started asking Chino about his departed father during this moment and when asked how he feels about the whole death scene he answered, "I was sad at first, but now I'm okay because my mama is taking care of me and Basti."

Being a paranoid parent, I quickly asked Tom what should we do now. His answer surprised me, "Nothing, believe your son when he says he's okay. Apparently, he is modeling after a very strong woman and that is you. But mom, it's totally acceptable to show your sons that mama also cries. I believe it's time for you to cry. What’s important is that you’re okay and your children will respond accordingly."

Your anger your ally. Crying has always been reserved for moments of hurt, disappointment, anger, but never for grief for I never really experienced the loss of a loved one. Before I could allow myself a good cry, I needed to resolve the confused emotions that were consuming me. It was then I decided to consult Sophie Lim-Basa who helped me process the feelings I had that buried all my grief for my husband.

A dominating emotion that would easily trigger rage was anger. No doubt it was consuming me like anything. Anger towards the situation I was in; anger towards what my children had to endure due to the loss of a parent; anger towards people who disappointed and betrayed me during the lowest moment of my life; anger towards people who find amusement with the misery of others; anger towards Jerry who had left me to deal with this; and anger towards God who allowed tragedy and loss to happen.

After several sessions with Sophie, I have learned that this anger I was trying so hard to rid myself of is actually the only true friend I had all this time. It kept me at bay from people who have hurt me, reminded me of my own goodness within me, motivated me to move forward and stay focus. It kept me from making the wrong decisions that would cause any negative effects on my children's lives. More importantly, it made me commit to doing what is right in spite of how bad the situation was.

Ignore the nasty. The perennial speculation for a young widow is that she would marry soon. Others will be very straightforward about this without any consideration for the feelings of the widowed and her children. Such was my case, I guess that is the curse of one widowed so young. Even if such is farthest from my mind, speculations, nasty comments and baseless criticisms would make one entertain the thought. Nevertheless, it is not a priority.

Remember that unhealthy comments should not even be given the time of day. Learn to purge this from your system. You may not have control over what people think or say about you, but you have full control of how you would respond to this. Find comfort that God sees everything and that the best battles won are the ones that are not fought.

Moving Along vs. Moving On

If there is a pill that would address all these emotions and grief, I would probably be a drug dependent by now. Nevertheless, I am reminded that in spite of being just a widow for 5 months, I am able to accomplish much. True, I may have had months to prepare for my husband’s passing but one can never be ready for a loss of a loved one, there’s simply no manual that goes with it. The loneliness, feeling of abandonment, anger issues are the ones that would require a longer healing process. Believe me, when it hits you, you find yourself emotionally drained, physically disabled, and mentally useless.

On days like this, I find myself intensely praying to the higher being who sees everything. I find comfort in His presence and I somehow manage to get through the day without any help from any anti-depressant. I’ve made that decision to trust in Him and no one else. My relationship with God is how I would describe a marriage. You may not always be in love with your spouse but you have committed to be so regardless of how you feel. I would look at my checklist and see what else needs to be completed and when I see I’ve done so much, it lifts my spirits and encourages me. Truly, the one up there is an enabling God.

My children are my greatest source of strength and inspiration. I’ve made a deal with them that when they miss their papa, just let me know and I will hug them. When it is my turn, they would hug me back. Building new memories are our priority now. We’ve modified old traditions and committed in new ones. We have become the best of friends always longing to be with each other.

So where is Mr. Grief now? Every now and then it pops out and I allow him to be. Mornings can be tough because my waking moments are spent nursing it. In doing so, I have released this emotion and liberated myself. As days passed by, the rage I once felt inside is slowly dying down. I’ve learned to laugh and be normal again and somehow find the peace I’ve lost through all these turmoil of emotions. Mr. Grief will soon go away and the memories of my husband will remain and keep us going. No, we have not moved on yet. We are simply moving along and yes, I’ve finally had a good cry.

Chino, aged 6, Mama Denise, and Basti, only 3 in Boracay after the 9th day. Definitely, still a family.

Putting Life in Order – When Cancer Hits Your Family (Published in Men's Health Today November 2006)

How does one equate life with order? Being a homemaker and a so-called “cleaning cum organizing” expert, friends, clients, family members, and even strangers would freely approach me with this question. Is it keeping an inventory of one’s belongings and sorting these according to function, color and style; is it keeping the whole house spotless; is it making sure everyone’s schedule is followed to a T; or having full control over one’s own resources?

If these were the only basis of having an orderly life, wow…life would be a bed of roses. Unfortunately, life offers a more complicated scheme of things. After seven years of married life and having adequate control over resources, schedule, activities, and space, all of these were taken from me.

Losing It

The word malignancy and carcinoma are two words that have haunted both my and my husband Jerry’s families. My sister had a rare tumor in her left optic nerve; I lost a grandfather to a rare form of leukemia; an aunt who underwent mastectomy for breast carcinoma, while my mom was diagnosed with thyroid cancer a few years back. Jerry, a senior banker in a foreign bank, lost his grandmother and two aunts to colon cancer and an uncle to prostrate cancer.

Having been exposed to this dreaded disease, both Jerry and I committed to our annual executive check-ups and promised a routine colonoscopy by the age of 40, which was next year for Jerry, to arrest any tumors at its early stage. With two very young children, ages 5 and 2, we had no choice but to be responsible adults.

Last March 5, 2004, I was stunned by the news that Jerry had colon cancer. There were no signs except for blood in his stool. Initially, we were expecting it to be at its early stages. A hemicolectomy procedure was required, this included cutting off the part of the colon infected by this dreadful disease and resetting it together with the clean colon. As for any other spread, we needed to wait until they open him up to see how far the cancer has gone and whether the surgeon can physically remove the tumors. The procedure took 5 hours, 30 mins. for the colon resection and the rest was consumed by palpating the rest of the nearby organs to see if there were any other spread. The surgeon found a total of 8 superficial tumors in the liver, all registered positive for cancer. Unfortunately, the surgeon could not touch it due to the locations. Best to leave it there and let chemo handle it. The rest of the organs are clean. Jerry has been classified as Duke Stage 4. All sense of control was lost.

Who’s Going to Wake Me Up?

The moment I found out about Jerry’s condition, it felt like I was in a very bad dream waiting to be awaken. Until today, no one has done me that favor. Initial reaction was to ask WHY? This drama in life happens to other people and not to me. Crying it out was not an option nor did I have the luxury of time to attend to my own anxiety, worry, or fear. People were somehow looking up to me for either strength or despair.

I consider myself a practicing Catholic yet my relationship with my Creator needed deepening. It was not a priority since client calls, gym classes, PTA meetings, and the like have booked my schedule. Life was too hectic to be bothered by thoughts of mortality.

Nevertheless, I struggled with my own will and decided to seek God’s help. My prayer was very demanding, ”Lord, you have no choice but to heal my husband. When the surgeon comes out, I expect him to say ‘Jerry is one lucky guy. It’s not cancer after all, it’s something else.’” I held on to this prayer with all of my heart and I claimed it. Yet, God seemed to have other things on His mind.

I no longer knew what to pray for after my initial encounter with God. He disappointed me so much that all I can say to Him was “just encourage and strengthen me. Help me tell Jerry the truth about his condition.”

The events that followed the surgery were roughed. Our estimated 7 day stay in the hospital extended to 21 days due to other complications: small intestines not working; a distended colon; coughing due to allergies; infection et al. Jerry had to submit his body to a lot of discomfort and pain. His 190 lbs. built shrunk to 165 lbs. in just a matter of three weeks.

When he was brought up to his room, he had an epidural line inserted on his spine, a drain bag attached on his wound, an IV with a machine that monitors the flow of solution coming from 3 different sources. He had so many tubes attached to him that he started calling himself an octopus. Blood was drawn from him several times a day.

What was most painful to both of us was being separated from our boys and depending on other people to care for them. Since we were just requesting relatives to watch over the boys, we could not demand for them to give the same kind of care that we give our children. We needed to make some allowances and to fully trust that no harm or illness would fall on them. Prayers were constantly offered for their caregivers – patience and love.

Unexpected Blessings and Restoring Order

In spite of all the pain and anxiety, Jerry has been a picture of courage, hope and inspiration. I once asked him if ever he felt anger. His response was ”how can I even feel any anger or bitterness when there’s just so much support and prayers coming from everyone including strangers.”

So how does one find order when it seems that all else has been lost? My answer is this…it is not how but who puts order in the first place. Initially, I expected the Lord to send me a great flood or some great manifestation of His power. Instead, I saw small miracles unfolding before my eyes each day of our stay in the hospital and thereafter.

Seeing your spouse getting up and trying to walk just a couple of days after surgery was a cause for celebration. Time spent with the kids was so scare that it is considered a precious commodity. Somehow, concerns and anxieties that used to consume us are now small stuff that surprisingly gets resolved on its own. We learned to choose our battles and thank God for both the good and the bad.
Cancer never stopped him from being at his best. He continued to work at the bank and truly excelled in it. I saw him have chemo at 9am, be done at 11am, be at the bank by 1pm to attend to meetings and clients. On the days he was not well, he would ask me to prepare either lunch or dinner for his staff and/or clients. Our house became a satellite branch of the bank. Even at his death bed, he closed 4 major deals for the bank.

The road to recovery was rocky. Jerry and I agreed not to worry or even think about tomorrow. We handed this over to God. We’ve learned to live each day a moment at a time and count the many blessings that we receive at this rate. Short term goals are now our cup of tea and quality time is very much in order. He turned out to be a much better planner/organizer than me or Jerry could ever be. How can you have fear when you know God is in control?

The Bravest of them All

May 15, 2006: The man I promised to love in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer… succumbed to cancer but not without a good fight. Jerry underwent a total of seven chemo protocols in a span of 14 months. None worked. Though his body was badly beaten, his spirit was not.

When he announced he wanted to go home and no more treatments, I saw in him a man who was full of courage. He was ready to accept God’s will for himself. He fought a good fight and it was up to him to decide when to say “it’s over.” Besides, it was his life and his body. The decision was really up to him, no one else’s.

He was truly the bravest man I have ever known.

Vows Fulfilled

Not everyone knows how it was like caring for someone suffering from cancer. Cancer does not only hit the patient but the whole family. I remember when I would wake up at 1am to rush Jerry to the hospital due to an infected porta cathe then take him home at 6am. My son, Chino, would be waiting for us worried that there will not be a parent with him for Family Day in school. Without a wink of sleep, I would just freshen up and off we go to his school activity.

I was once asked by friends if there were any regrets I felt when it came to caring for Jerry. Regret was one emotion that I never felt from the time Jerry was diagnosed up to this very day. True, caring for a sick person was not a walk in the park but I looked at it as an opportunity to care for someone I care deeply about even if I had to drop everything and if our world literally stopped.

As a last promise to my husband, I’m sharing with you the story of our journey together amidst this crisis and how one can cope with such.

Things to Do When Its Cancer

1. Know the enemy. Research about the cancer. The internet offers a treasure of information regarding all types of cancer. In one site I visited, they actually have a slide presentation of a hemicolectomy procedure. After watching, I felt more comfortable with the surgical procedure and did not feel as scared.
2. Ask questions. Always get a 2nd or 3rd opinion from specialists. Discuss possible approaches and treatments with the doctors. Do not forget to ask questions. Cancer is a life threatening disease and it needs to be understood.
3. Be honest. Anger, depression, grief, fear are feelings that come naturally not only for the patient but with the family members as well. Acknowledge these feelings and confront every one of them. It is also important to tell the patient the whole truth about his condition for the body and life belong to him and him alone. It is only fair so he can make the necessary decisions and to prepare for any eventuality.
4. Commit to normalcy. The biggest decision my husband and I made was to make things as normal as possible especially for the children. In spite of the chemotherapy sessions, Jerry continued to report for work and meet clients even at home. The children’s routine remained unchanged. Even if Jerry was rushed to the hospital at 1am, I would bring Chino to his Family Day at 6am. Their schedule was never interrupted. It helped us beat cancer by not allowing us to stop our world.
5. Practice self-care. For the caregiver/caring spouse, it is important that his/her world is not cloistered. True marital vows will take place but it is not a sin to take care of one’s self especially when the possibility of becoming a single parent is very much evident. Jerry was very supportive to the fact that I should have an outlet to release my fears, worries, and anxieties. This is called coping and it is very personal. The venue for me was writing and working out at the gym.
6. Be productive. Though life threatening, cancer is not a death sentence. I have come across a number of cancer survivors who were able to resume normal activities even during their chemo and thereafter. In fact, keeping themselves busy and occupied helped them cope and live with their disease.
7. Storm the heavens. Pray unceasingly to whomever Higher Being your religion acknowledges. Even in silence, God knows the desires of your heart. I fully respect novenas though I’m not the type who can complete one. Somewhere along the way, I developed my own way of praying, one that may be likened to a dialogue with a friend. Pray as if everything depends on it. Ask people for prayers as well. Even doctors will not say no to divine intervention.
8. Remain positive and hopeful. Faith and hope are the two things that one should hold on to in any kind of trial. No one can take that away from you.

Lessons Learned and Love Endured During My Cancer
by Jerry S. Lopez (September 30, 1964 to May 15, 2005)

  1. Coping and grieving is a personal choice and no one else’s.
  2. It takes a strong person to face the illness, but an extra ordinary strength and grace from God is necessary to accept its fate.
  3. Decisions made are between husbands and wives, no one else’s. Explanations are not necessary.
  4. God sees everything and that’s what really matters.
  5. Wish people well even if they do not appreciate you. Forgiveness and love are always the order of the day.
  6. Children are a great source of joy, strength, and inspiration. In the final analysis, how we respond to this illness as well to the loss will be their foundation of coping.
  7. Preparing for the uncertain or inevitable is acceptable even if you are not sick. Putting order in one’s life should matter at any given point.
  8. Being normal (even with a lot of effort) is possible even in the most abnormal situation.
  9. Love is an act of will and should not be “subject to conditions.”
  10. Assume the role of a suffering wife but never look the part.
  11. Blessings will come even in the most unfortunate circumstances. Angels are present everywhere.