“How low can you go?”
That’s the common chant for spectators of the popular Caribbean game of limbo, urging contestants to bend backwards lower and lower as they shimmy forward under the bar.
That same question haunts my current state.
First, inconsolable grief and sadness. Now COVID? What other misfortune awaits? How low must I go?
Two days after my brother succumbed to COVID I tested positive, symptoms undeniable. Now we had two COVID patients! I resolved to isolate on board, postponing departure from Vancouver for as long as necessary. The Healing Voyage would have to wait.
Feelings of frustration and anger rushed in. How could this have happened? Why didn’t Bill take better precautions? He told me he didn’t even wear a mask on the plane! The anger mingled with my daily staple of sadness and desperation since Jocelyn left.
Perhaps all of this is some sort of test. What does it take to drive Jack over the edge?
Consider what I was dealing with. Death of a loved one. A known deadly virus. How do I survive these tests?
As I wrote in my anniversary card to Jocelyn, this grieving business is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The deep, inexpressible sadness of missing her is helped, though, by the people who have connected with me. Particularly in the first weeks after Jocelyn died, many offered condolences and support. As grief took hold, the attention was always welcome and well meaning.
Invariably, they’d ask me, concern in their voices, “How are you doing?”
This greeting, routine in normal circumstances, struck me as oddly insensitive in those first days of full-fledged shock. In my head, the reply that instantly formed was “How the f*** do you think I’m doing?” I kept that to myself of course, instead saying, “As you might imagine.”
As one contact followed another over the next week or so – each opening with the same question, “How ya’ doing?” – my response evolved into “That’s a dumb question.” Overhearing that reply, my son admonished me, saying it was rude and off putting. My friend Roni suggested I reply with “I think I’ll be okay” as a way of easing folks’ worries about my state of mind, even if it wasn’t completely true. You see, I did then and continue now to worry about whether I will ever be able to be happy again. That’s the power of this grief thing.
As the bouts of rage, anguish, and tears accumulated, a revelation dawned on me. I was experiencing something quintessentially human. This level of suffering, this grieving, is a uniquely human experience. I’ve read of corollaries in the animal world (elephants, for example) but on this scale? Surely not. A new reply formed to the question “How are you doing?” It was “Well, I’m not getting cheated out of a full dose of humanity.”
After the standard greeting of “How are you doing?” the next question often was “What are you going to do now?” As a reflection of the grip grief had (has?) on me, I would reply, “I’ve got a new full-time job. It’s very demanding. 24/7 actually.”
“Oh. What is it?” they would ask.
“Grieving widower,” came the reply.
I suppose my son might categorize my part in this exchange as a bit off putting as well because it often elicited pained expressions, an anxious chuckle, or an abrupt end to the conversation.
The flip side of these many early connections is the absence of contact by more than a few people who I would have thought would be concerned about me, or at least would want to check in with me in my suffering.
As the days turned into weeks, I encountered a person or two who fit this category. Awkwardly, they would offer an explanation for not contacting me such as “I thought you would want your privacy” or “I didn’t want to intrude” as if I needed to be left alone in my suffering.
David Kessler, who helped develop the five stages of grief and authored Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, writes that isolation is no antidote for a grieving person. The opposite, in fact. To be effective, grief needs to be witnessed, he asserts, because we are all social creatures who need connection and affirmation.
My theory is that, rather than concern for me, those avoiding me are subconsciously avoiding the subject matter at hand, namely suffering and death. Now, I am stigmatized, the embodiment of suffering, a person recently acquainted with death. It is understandable that I should be avoided. Nothing personal. Just a reality. Who wants to be reminded of their own frailty and mortality?
Kessler: “We want to ignore death, forget it, deny it. But it will come to all of us. It’s the change that happens whether we want it to or not. If met head-on, the prospect of death, its inevitability, can bring new meaning to life.”
Perhaps the way to pass this test is to find new meaning. Rather than avoid the subject of suffering and death, don’t necessarily dwell on it, but accept it and use it as a spring board for good.
Just as when my children were born, Jocelyn’s passing has caused me to see things differently. Life suddenly has more value, is more precious now. More finite, to be sure. Perhaps part of the way forward, the solution to this test, is to recognize the gift each day presents, to take nothing for granted, to live life as intentionally as possible.
From birth, we are programmed to strive. Instinct drives us to seek nourishment, to connect, to survive. The catch phrase for surviving grief is “one day at a time; heck, one hour at a time.” As hours turn into days and days into weeks, the instinct to put one foot in front of the other, to seek a new path, reveals. The path forward never forgets the loved one who is gone. Rather, it honors her, becomes part of her legacy as it is followed by someone who lives life deeply influenced by her, and seeks to live well, as she would want.
Bill stayed in his bunk in the V-berth for two days. At its peak his fever hit 101.7 degrees Fahrenheit. I ministered to him with soup and tea. He emerged on day three feeling somewhat better though not entirely well, just as I slipped into symptoms. Mine weren’t as bad as feared perhaps because, unlike him, I had received a recent second vaccine booster shot. At its worst I experienced what I would characterize as a bad head cold.
Considering our setbacks, I admitted the possibility of sacrificing my goal of circumnavigating Vancouver Island. Once the fog of COVID began to lift, Bill urged that we stick to the plan. We would leapfrog ahead, making up for lost time. The only sacrifice would be our time in Vancouver, which was limited to the view of downtown from the end of the dock.
On Friday, July 8th, we motored under the Lions Gate bridge, leaving Vancouver in our wake. Our course took us north and west, up the Sunshine Coast and through the Johnstone Strait toward the top of the island.
How low can he go? All the way to the bottom. From there, there is nowhere to go but up.
The Healing Voyage had resumed.