- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 29, 2004

Marcel Humber, a retired Navy captain from Falls Church, went into the hospital Dec. 2 for a routine gall bladder operation. He was supposed to come home that afternoon, but complications set in. He died Dec. 30 after nearly a month in the Intensive Care Unit.

When it became clear her husband of 50 years wasn’t going to pull through, “That’s when fear sets in and you think, ‘What am I going to do?’” says Ann Humber, her voice going tight.

Five years ago, Kathy Cunningham of Sterling, Va., woke up to find her husband, Frank, dying of a heart attack. There had been no warning of heart trouble. They had been together for 25 years, married for 21.

Now 50, Mrs. Cunningham still feels her loss keenly, but she accepts the possibility of a good life without Frank, and she even has a boyfriend.

Mrs. Humber and Mrs. Cunningham have joined a sorrowful coterie: people who lose spouses after a long marriage.

Mrs. Humber finds support where she always has found it: in her children, volunteer activities, church and a spiritual support group. She counts herself blessed to have friends and neighbors to whom she can turn, as well.

Even with all that, she often feels lost. She chides herself about not being focused enough, citing her deteriorating memory and inclination to waste time, but specialists in grief counseling say hers are common reactions.

“I knew one fellow who got lost driving home,” says Kathy Persson, director of Grief and Loss Services at Capital Hospice in Fairfax. “People can’t find their glasses, keys, shoes. It’s grief. They’ve lost someone who is often their best friend, someone they’ve counted on for years.”

Even if the relationship was not ideal, that other person was an integral part of life.

“Any time you have the death of a spouse, it’s as though part of you has been amputated,” agrees Thomas R. Golden, a licensed master social worker from Gaithersburg who has written two books on grieving in men. “When a couple has been together for a long time, each person’s life doesn’t revolve just around themselves, but around the relationship and the spouse.”

Knowing how to deal with that loss is a problem, says Mr. Golden, especially for men, who may not feel comfortable seeking out support from others.

“Men aren’t encouraged or taught how to get close to other men,” Mr. Golden says. “So they’ve got no support group. They’ve got nothing.”

In addition, what Ms. Persson calls “secondary losses” can overwhelm a grieving spouse. Perhaps a man is deprived of the wife who always did the cooking. One man came to her baffled by trying to handle his checkbook, a job his wife had undertaken. “How do I know it’s balanced?” he asked.

Mrs. Cunningham gives a short laugh. “I had to learn to do everything,” she says.

Social changes can be hurtful. “People stop calling,” Ms. Persson says, “and if the [ones grieving] are invited someplace, they don’t know what to do when they get there. They don’t know how to be single.”

Other issues are financial. Perhaps the surviving spouse can’t afford the same lifestyle as before. Sometimes they lose their homes.

Mrs. Cunningham still feels her loss keenly. She can share that grief with her daughter, who is 23. It wasn’t that way at the beginning.

At first, they clung to each other emotionally, but silently. At night they slept in the living room together. The daughter, Holly, used the sofa while Mrs. Cunningham took the floor in a sleeping bag.

For a long time, they didn’t talk about how much they were hurting. “Holly was afraid to cry in front of me,” Mrs. Cunningham says, “and I was afraid to cry in front of her. We were afraid we would make each other upset.”

In the past 2 years, however, they have talked more about Mr. Cunningham’s death and have cried together.

In the beginning, Mrs. Cunningham notes, “I told her I had lost more than her. I’d lost my spouse, my mate, my best friend. She’d say, ‘I lost a lot, too.’ It was hard on her to be around friends who still had both parents. Sometimes when they were around a friend’s father, Holly just had to leave.

“We don’t go to church on Father’s Day anymore. We go to dinner and shop. My daughter has really had to grow up. It has been quite a journey.

“We’ve gotten so tight since Frank’s death,” she says. “We’re like partners; she’s my mate.”

Her relationship with her stepchildren also has evolved because of Mr. Cunningham’s death. She hadn’t been close to her stepchildren, but they were helpful after the funeral. They told her they regretted not getting to know their father better. “Now it’s too late,” the stepdaughter told Mrs. Cunningham.

Some family members didn’t understand how Mrs. Cunningham felt. “After six months, my family said, ‘You need to move on.’ I said, ‘This is not easy, after 25 years of being with the same person,’” she recalls.

Kathleen R. Gilbert, who holds a doctorate, specializes in grief and families. Too often people assume that everyone in a family is grieving the same way, she says. The family is a system that individuals operate in, she says, and “systems do not grieve.”

Depending on each person’s relationship with the deceased, the loss may be devastating, distressing or a relief. Expectations of appropriate grieving behavior often cause conflict within a family.

Mr. Golden says today’s society depends on talk as the healing mechanism, but men often feel uncomfortable going to groups or counseling. Often they don’t want to bother their children with how they feel. They’re too used to being the ones who do the supporting.

“If they come to me,” he says, “they’re at the end of their rope.”

One approach is to give them something to do. Not all men prefer activity to talking, he hastens to say, just as there are women who fight to ignore the pain by keeping themselves busy.

Ms. Persson counsels one man who feels supported by his family. “He tells me he just needs to go talk to someone whom he doesn’t know already so that he can say however he really is, without saying what’s expected.”

“Today, grieving people are invisible,” Mr. Golden says. “Our culture has almost no way of letting people show that they are still in mourning.” In a different era, people had bereavement stationery, funeral wreaths, black armbands and widow’s lace that indicated how long a woman had been widowed.

Today, after the first six weeks, reality hits as people stop calling, the flowers wilt, sympathy cards stop arriving.

For three weeks after her husband’s death, Mrs. Cunningham was on three antidepressants, and she remembers very little from that time. She lost 30 pounds in those three weeks and regrets giving away some of Mr. Cunningham’s jewelry right after the funeral. “Don’t do anything for a year,” she warns others.

After six weeks, she made her way to a weekly widows group. She also went to one-on-one counseling. She learned that telling her story over and over helped — she might be upset by reliving that horrible night, but it was upset “in a good way.” Her daughter went to counseling as well.

Mrs. Humber goes to her volunteer activities, talks with her children often and oversees workers who are dealing with termites in the back wall. She relies on one daughter for help with the family’s financial affairs and on a son-in-law for doing some of the handyman work.

Five months after her husband died, she picks his hat up off a dusty trunk at the top of the stairs. “Daddy Dog” reads the front of the blue-and-white baseball cap. “That’ll make you cry,” she says softly. “He surely loved his dogs,” a succession of collies.

Mrs. Humber turns away from the unfinished library her husband was working on when he died. The unfilled bookcases he built. Finely sanded wood panels he placed on the pitched ceiling. An alcove waiting for a bronze statue. She walks down the stairs, careful not to smudge the brass rail he designed. She’ll have to find some way to finish without him.

MORE INFO:

BOOKS —

• “FINDING YOUR WAY AFTER YOUR SPOUSE DIES,” BY MARTA FELBER, AVE MARIA PRESS, 2000. THE AUTHOR, WHOSE HUSBAND HAS DIED, WRITES FROM EXPERIENCE. SHE GIVES PRACTICAL ADVICE ON PICKING UP THE PIECES AND MAKING IT THROUGH THE DIFFICULT DAYS.

• “WIDOW TO WIDOW: THOUGHTFUL, PRACTICAL IDEAS FOR REBUILDING YOUR LIFE,” BY GENEVIEVE DAVIS GINSBURG, PERSEUS PUBLISHING, 1999. THIS BOOK EXPLORES ALL ASPECTS OF WIDOWHOOD, FROM CLEANING OUT THE HUSBAND’S CLOSET TO FINANCIAL MATTERS TO EATING ALONE.

• “SWALLOWED BY A SNAKE: THE GIFT OF THE MASCULINE SIDE OF HEALING,” BY THOMAS R. GOLDEN, GOLDEN HEALING PUBLISHING, 2000. THIS BOOK WILL HELP BOTH MEN AND WOMEN UNDERSTAND THE WAY MEN GRIEVE.

ONLINE —

• AARP (WWW.AARP.ORG/GRIEFANDLOSS/) OFFERS INFORMATION ON GRIEVING FROM MANY POINTS OF VIEW, INCLUDING THE SPOUSE, ADULT CHILDREN, SIBLINGS, PARENTS AND FRIENDS. THE SITE HAS BEREAVEMENT CHAT GROUPS AND OFFERS INFORMATION ON PRACTICAL MATTERS, SUCH AS DEALING WITH FINANCES.

• AN ACADEMIC — BUT INTERESTING — PAPER TITLED “WE’VE HAD THE SAME LOSS, WHY DON’T WE HAVE THE SAME GRIEF?” IS OFFERED BY KATHLEEN R. GILBERT OF THE DEPARTMENT OF APPLIED HEALTH SCIENCE AT INDIANA UNIVERSITY (HTTP://RIVENDELL.ORG/LIBRARY/ARTICLES/FAMILIES.HTML). SHE ALSO TEACHES AN ONLINE COURSE: GRIEF IN A FAMILY CONTEXT (WWW.INDIANA.EDU/~FAMLYGRF/SITEMAP.HTML).

• COUNSELING FOR LOSS AND LIFE CHANGES (WWW.COUNSELINGFORLOSS.COM) OFFERS RESOURCES AND OUTLETS FOR PEOPLE COPING WITH LOSS. THIS SITE WAS STARTED BY A LICENSED CLINICAL COUNSELOR.

• WASHINGTONIAN MAGAZINE OFFERS AN ONLINE LISTING OF PRIVATE-PRACTICE GRIEF COUNSELORS (WWW.WASHINGTONIAN.COM/HEALTH/91101HELP.HTML) WRITTEN IN RESPONSE TO THE SEPTEMBER 11 TERRORIST ATTACKS. THE LIST NAMES WELL-RESPECTED INDIVIDUAL PRACTITIONERS AS WELL AS COUNSELING ORGANIZATIONS.

ORGANIZATIONS —

• CAPITAL HOSPICE, 9300 LEE HIGHWAY, SUITE 500, FAIRFAX, VA 22031. PHONE: 703/383-9222 OR 888/583-1900. FOR REFERRALS AND INFORMATION, CALL 800/869-2136.

• HAVEN OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA, 4606 RAVENSWORTH ROAD, ANNANDALE, VA 22003. PHONE: 703-941-7000. ONLINE: WWW.HAVENOFNOVA.ORG/

• JEWISH SOCIAL SERVICE AGENCY OF METROPOLITAN WASHINGTON, 6123 MONTROSE ROAD, ROCKVILLE, MD 20852. PHONE: 301/881-3700. ONLINE: WWW.JSSA.ORG. THIS NONPROFIT, NONSECTARIAN AGENCY OFFERS GROUP AND INDIVIDUAL COUNSELING AT SEVERAL AREA OFFICES.

• WASHINGTON REGIONAL TRANSPLANT CONSORTIUM, 8110 GATEHOUSE ROAD, SUITE 101 WEST, FALLS CHURCH. PHONE: 703/641-0100. THE CONSORTIUM OFFERS EXCELLENT, FREE SUPPORT GROUPS FOR THOSE YOUNGER THAN 50 WHO RECENTLY HAVE LOST SPOUSES OR SIGNIFICANT OTHERS; THE PERSON NEEDN’T HAVE BEEN AN ORGAN DONOR.

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