Archive for October, 2006

Seeing Halloween in a new light.
Monday, October 30th, 2006

Ever since I became a widow, people have been warning me about how hard the holiday season was going to be for me. I have been bracing for the emotional torrent that Christmas will surely bring ever since he died.

Little did I know that the difficult holiday season would start way too early. I am now seeing Halloween in a whole new light.

Being affectionate of the macabre and having a dark sense of humor had facilitated a long love of Halloween. I’d always been into good scary movies, trick-or-treating, and wearing a costume. One of our happiest memories as a couple was the time when we mentored a group of teens to design, build, and act in their own haunted house. My husband and I were “scarers” during the event and frightening passersby with a one-two punch. He even helped me in painting the exposed areas of my body with a ghostly bluish-grey pallor, complete with oozing flesh wounds on my neck and face. Halloween used to be incredibly fun for both of us.

And now, I see the cheerfully “dead” costumed children, and I know that no make-up, even the make-up used in the scary movies, can replicate the look of a dead body. I see the yards decorated with fake tombstones and wonder if the families inside the adjoining homes spent any time this year visiting a real grave. I used to think that persons who opposed the celebration of Halloween were religious proselytizers, but now I see the true nature of the holiday, soulless as corpse’s eyes.

Why, oh why must Americans take a meaningful ritual and turn it into something completely devoid of deeper meaning? Day of the Dead, the holiday on which our Halloween is loosely based, invokes the same dark imagery but instead celebrates the dead with offerings, shrines, and remembrance. Would it kill us to add some depth to our celebration and candy?

So, sorry kids, I’m not playing this year. You can keep your dead cheerleader and dead football player costumes, you can keep your candy and your empty, commercialized holiday. I’m remembering someone real, someone warm and loving and caring, someone whose death is all too recent and honest and painful. And I’ll pay homage to him, thanks.

Bridesmaid Blues: Memories of a Love Lost.
Monday, October 30th, 2006

Next week, I’ll be serving on bridesmaid duty for the first time for a very good friend of mine who I’ve known for almost eight years. And I’d be lying out my teeth if I didn’t say that I am having mixed feelings about the whole thing. I love my friend, and I am truly happy for her and her fiance, who is a hell of a guy. But this will be my first wedding after my husband’s death, and I can’t help but think that being surrounded by a lovey-dovey celebration of couplehood is going to make me extremely sad and/or bitter. I can try my best to remain positive and be the supportive friend that I so desperately wish to be–but I don’t know if I realistically will be able to escape the memories of my own wedding and romance for the entire day. And I cannot promise to anyone, even myself, that I can be happy with memories of a marriage that was cut far too short, and a love that I am so desperately missing right now that I am moved to tears over just about anything.

Truth be told, I have been lashing out over the most minute things lately. Will this attitude continue at the wedding? I am so nervous that I will not be able to hold it together during the festivities, or that my presence will cast a pallor over the event.

The best accessory for this bridesmaid? A mini-tube of vaseline–so that I can maintain a constant smile through my tears. Like a pageant contestant, I’ll march down the aisle with my poofy dress and my vaseline perma-smile under my tears. People get sappy at weddings, right? This shall be my excuse and my disguise, all wrapped up in a tiny parcel from the drugstore…

Information for Friends and Family.
Monday, October 30th, 2006

Mostly Risible, a blog by a funny, sharp-witted woman who also happens to be a hospice volunteer, posted these items on grief at her place recently. I would like to share them because these pieces were very helpful for me, and might help others deal with a friend’s, or a personal loss.
For those who have experienced loss of a loved one:

Please don’t ask me if I’m over it yet.
I’ll never get over it.
Please don’t tell me he’s in a better place.
He’s not here with me.
Please don’t say he isn’t suffering any more.
I haven’t come to terms of why he had to suffer at all.
Please don’t tell me how you feel
Unless you’ve lost someone in the same way.
Please don’t ask me if I feel better.
Bereavement isn’t a condition that clears up.
Please don’t tell me at least you had him for so many years.
What year would you like your loved one to die?
Please don’t tell me God never gives us more than we can bear.
Please just say you’re sorry.
Please just say you remember my loved one if you do.
Please mention my loved one’s name.
Please be patient with me when I am sad.
Please just let me cry.

Unknown Author

For those who know someone who had recently experienced a loss:

How to Help Grieving People- What You Can Say, What You Can Do

  • Read about the various phases of grief so you can understand and help
    the bereaved to understand.
  • All that is necessary is a hand squeeze, a kiss, a hug, your presence.
    If you want to say something, say "I’m sorry" or "I care."
  • It is not necessary to ask questions about how the death happened. Let
    the bereaved tell you as much as they want when they are ready. A helpful
    question might be, "Would you like to talk about the death? I’ll listen."
  • Don’t say, "I know just how you feel."
  • The bereaved may ask "Why?" It is often a cry of pain rather
    than a question. It is not necessary to answer, but if you do, you may reply, "I
    don’t know why. Maybe we’ll never know."
  • Don’t use platitudes like "Life is for living," or "It’s
    God’s will." Explanations rarely console. It’s better to say nothing.
  • Recognize the bereaved may be angry. Encourage them to acknowledge their
    anger and to find ways of handling it.
  • It is good to cry. Crying is a release. People should not say, "Don’t
    cry."
  • Be available to listen frequently. Most bereaved want to talk about the
    person who has died. Encourage them to talk about the deceased. Do not
    change the conversation or avoid mentioning the person’s name. Talking
    about the pain slowly lessens its sting. Your concern and effort can make
    a big difference in helping someone recover from grief.
  • Be patient. Don’t say, "You’ll get over it in time." Mourning
    may take a long time. They will never stop missing the person who has died,
    but time will soften the hurt. The bereaved need you to stand by them for
    as long as possible. Encourage them to be patient with themselves as there
    is no timetable for grieving.
  • Offer to help with practical matters such as errands, fixing food, caring
    for children. Say, "I’m going to the store. Do you need bread, milk,
    etc.?" It
    is not helpful to say, "Call me if there is anything I can do."
  • Accept whatever feelings are expressed. Do not say, "You shouldn’t
    feel like that.
  • The bereaved may appear to be getting worse. This is often due to the reality
    of death hitting them.
  • Depression is often part of grief. It is a scary feeling. To be able to
    talk things over with an understanding friend or loved one is one factor
    that may help a person not to become severely depressed.
  • Don’t say, "It has been four months (six months, a year, etc.). You
    must be over it by now." Life will never be the same.
  • Don’t avoid the bereaved. It adds to their loss. As the widowed often say, "I
    not only lost my spouse, but my friend as well."

by the Funeral Consumers Alliance

Black Heart; Black Funny Bone.
Monday, October 30th, 2006

During a recent personal trip to Pennsylvania, I realized that my husband’s passing had imparted a sense of humor to me that was so black and dark that others simply refuse to understand it. The trip was overall a successful one–most of my time was spent visiting with family and friends. There was only one hiccup throughout the entire weekend, when I was sitting in a local bar with a mixed group of about seven friends and acquaintances:

Friend: What do you do when you’re out with your friends and some weird guy comes onto you and will NOT take the hint and leave you alone?

Me: Well…I have a comment, but it will probably only be appropriate to me…

Friend: No, go ahead…we all know each other here…

Me: (said in the most sarcastic way possible) Just tell the guy that your husband just died. I *guarantee* that no one else will hit on you for the rest of the night.

(insert sounds of crickets chirping, tumbleweeds rolling, and jaws hitting the table here)

Looks like I need to work on a few things before I’m approved for a mixed social setting again. Yeah.

Unexpected Moments.
Monday, October 30th, 2006

Last weekend, I realized that I simply cannot shop at the Somerset, PA Wal-Mart Supercenter anymore. For some unknown reason, I become a stark-raving lunatic whenever I enter through the automatic sliding doors.

Take, for example, this excerpt from a post I wrote last spring, recounting an experience that I had immediately following Eric’s death at Chez Wally-World:

For the most part I am stoic on the outside—although most ironically, it was that soulless bastion of consumerism that is Wal-Mart that finally brought me to my knees. I did not cry at the funeral home or church or cemetary when we were planning your services. However, I fucking lost it in the Men’s Underwear Department. Your undertaker had asked that I purchase some underwear for you to wear since my parents forgot to grab some—and I was carefully picking out the very best, combed-cotton undershirts (the ones without the scratchy tag in back) and the very nicest socks and briefs that Wally World had to offer. I think that the gravity of the whole thing hit me when I thought, “I had better pick out the most comfy stuff since he’ll be wearing them a long time.” More than one shopper saw me blubbering away, hunched over the blue shopping cart with a pair of men’s microfiber dress socks in my hand. Clean-up on Aisle 5!!

And last weekend, I had gone into the maw of the beast for the simple, quick purchase of a photo frame. Trying to avoid running into old high-school classmates (one of the pitfalls of going into the only large store in an entire rural county is that there is always someone that you know in said store, who Really Wants to Catch Up), I cut through the cosmetics aisle to reach the home department. And therein I found my downfall.

Mixed in with all of regular make-up products was a special section of Halloween accouterments. There were sparkly fake eyelashes, face paints of every color, and crazy wigs. There were also Goth-style nail polishes with mini-tombstones as the bottle topper.

And then I noticed the promotional photos on the product packaging. Each model was carefully made up to look cheerfully dead. I saw the artificial asphyxiation pallor created with Blue #2 and White Base make-up. I saw the rows and rows of products that made death look like a fun party gag.

Then, I went a little bit crazy. I picked up a handful of mini R.I.P. Tombstone Death nail polishes and said loudly, “Death isn’t fun. Death isn’t FUNNY!”

And the lady at the other end of the aisle looked at me furtively, then quickly shuffled into the next aisle.

Yeah. I am definitely on my way to becoming the next crazy lady of Somerset.

Fierce Look into the Future.
Monday, October 30th, 2006

The following is a recent essay that I submitted to several schools in my area:

I do not need to be admitted to this University.

That’s right, you read that correctly. I will find a way to realize my goals whether I am welcomed to this school or not.

Let me explain by sharing how I arrived at this point. At twenty-six years old, I have a job that has afforded me the opportunity to travel to many new and exciting places. I get paid very well for my career field and level of experience. My current employer even paid for all of my undergraduate student loans as a perk for committing to the company for three years.

And I am about to throw it all away to pursue a job in a career field that I had never previously considered before February 19, 2005.

On that day, my new husband and significant other of nine years, Eric W. Shaffer, was diagnosed with a relapse of Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia. This was his second experience with the disease; however, assuming the role of his sole caregiver was a new one for me. We had been married for nine months. Eric was twenty-three, and I was twenty-four.

Cancer is a terrible disease for anyone it touches. As a newlywed young couple, we quickly found that there are few other diseases that devastate the afflicted so thoroughly. For those patients who are lucky enough to beat cancer, overcoming the physical disease is just the beginning as they then face co-pays for months and months of medical care, prejudice in finding new employment post-treatment, and the lingering secondary effects of harsh but necessary treatments.

Eric and I also learned that the devastating effects of cancer are compounded greatly when young adults are affected. Due to the limited career choices that I had after receiving a B.S. in Developmental Psychology, I accepted a government internship on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. Five thousand miles away from our families when he was diagnosed, Eric and I were forced to end the honeymoon early and negotiate a confusing system of specialists, referrals, and prescription-drug benefits. While learning to clean Eric’s chemotherapy catheter and giving him growth-factor injections, we often had to deal with being treated differently by the hospital staff as the youngest adult patients on the floor.

Eric and I had good health insurance through my job, but were still hit with $300-$400 co-pays each month that were a struggle to pay with my entry-level salary. When we went to our local Social Security Office to apply for disability, Eric was immediately turned down for all benefits when it was determined that he hadn’t worked enough to accumulate the necessary forty S.S. work credits. (When we asked the representative how Eric was supposed to have worked enough to obtain the credits while having cancer twice since 1999, just graduating from college, and only being 23 years old at the time of application, the answer was, “I’m sorry that there is no policy to address your concerns—please write your Congressman.”)

When the news came that we would need to go back to the mainland for a bone marrow transplant, the stress of getting our few possessions, our cat, and ourselves to Maryland was added to the mix. The pressure of performing at my job, acting as a caregiver and advocate for my husband, making arrangements for the move, finding a new job in the vicinity of Johns Hopkins hospital, keeping our family members and friends posted on Eric’s condition, and caring for household duties took its toll on me. I struggled to do it all and felt that I was succeeding at nothing.

However, in meeting other 20- and 30-something cancer patients, I realized that Eric and I were luckier than most. We hadn’t fallen into the gap that many people our age experience. One of us had gotten a job with a full benefits package immediately after college. Young adults just out of college are the most likely to be uninsured or underinsured-too old for their parents’ plans and not established in careers with full benefits. Also, our health insurance was willing to pay for Eric’s bone marrow transplant, no questions asked. Many leukemia and sarcoma patients have their claims denied after cutting-edge treatment that may prove to be life-saving is deemed “experimental.” Despite this supposed “luck,” Eric and I relied on charity at times for assistance with paying our co-pays, prescriptions, and medical equipment expenses not covered by insurance.

While Eric and I were thankful for the breaks we got during our journey with leukemia, the added difficulties of being a cancer patient in early adulthood had resulted in an overall disheartening experience, leaving a bitter taste in our mouths about the condition of health care in the United States. Additionally, we were not able to figure out what Eric would have told potential employers about the significant amount of time after college when he wasn’t working. While employers are not legally permitted to ask specific questions about an applicant’s health during an interview, we feared that Eric’s leukemia would have had a negative impact on his career and professional opportunities for the rest of his life.

My husband and I were dealt a final, crushing blow when we received the news that we would not be able to have children together due to side effects from his years of chemotherapy. A pre-marrow-transplant fertility test in July 2005 confirmed that, at the ages of 24 and 25, we would never have the opportunity to have our own children. Eric’s initial leukemia treatment, in 1999, was at a pediatric hospital that did not explain options for preserving one’s fertility to its young patients.

However, the burdens of employment and lost fatherhood are no longer of concern to Eric. Eric W. Shaffer, my husband, partner, and best friend, passed away on March 17, 2006 from complications caused by his chemotherapy treatment. He left behind his mother and father, a twenty-five year old widow, and hundreds of friends, family members, and acquaintances whom he touched and inspired simply by staying real and fighting until the end.

Six months after my early entry into the world of widowhood, I am still finding it to be a strange and bewildering place. Being a twenty-something widow is very similar to being a young adult long-term illness patient: there are few to no resources available that address the specific needs of the population. The general public does not know how to react to a twenty-six year old in my situation; I have experienced avoidance, platitudes, and downright ignorance when I choose to share that “no, I’m not single, I’m a widow.” As I make my way through this dark time, the urge to hide my status from the world and avoid the pitying looks, the prying questions and the well-meant, but misguided remarks grows stronger and stronger.

But sometimes, a seemingly harmless object or event will trigger a string of memories to go off like firecrackers inside my head, and the grief spills out into my public and professional lives. Try as one might, it is damn near impossible to portray to the world that everything is fine while one is still deep in the throes of grief and healing. While I have publicly displayed my grief, I’ve also found that it is absolutely necessary to remember the person who passed away in terms of the positive contributions he or she had on other people’s lives. And for that reason, I have chosen to soldier onward and live to honor Eric’s life, instead of perpetually mourning his death. I am becoming a Medical Social Worker. In this vocation, I hope to make the world a friendlier place for cancer patients and young adults whom are dealing with long-term illnesses, end-of-life planning, and related issues.

In honor of my late husband, the love of my life, and young adult cancer patients and widow(er)s everywhere, I REFUSE to let my grief control me. I am mad as hell that there are few resources for twenty-somethings faced with serious illness and death. It isn’t fair that public, charitable, and corporate spending for cancer research is not distributed equitably—breast cancer, a highly treatable cancer that is not even the leading cancer killer of women, received the lion’s share of both research and patient support funding. My goal is to challenge the treatment and resource inequities until I can be confident in the knowledge that no other young adult patients will have to endure an experience similar to ours.

To achieve this ideal, I am currently working on two separate fundraising campaigns in memory of Eric. I’m also working on developing materials on grieving, written specifically for young widows. To further awareness of treatment and funding inequities, I write for several websites, including an appearance as a featured author on The Huffington Post (huffingtonpost.com). And I plan to shout and write and scream until research and patient support funding is more equally distributed, young adult patients of long-term illnesses have more of a support system, and young widows no longer feel like they have to hide their marital status for the sake of others— emotional comfort.

It is for Eric that I am changing my profession, my goals, and my life. It is for Eric that I hold onto my dream of kicking cancer’s ass.

And so, I will become a medical social worker. My determination is fierce and I have a motivator that is heart-breaking, infuriating, and inspiring. I will find a way to achieve this goal even if it means applying to every MSW program in the country.

Will you help me in my quest?