September, 2000: Mike was two years along in the battle against ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) at that point and having lost his ability to swallow food, he'd had a feeding tube surgically placed so that he could receive nutrition. Once he was home from the hospital, he was being fed by an infusion pump, equipped with a startlingly loud alarm that would sound, should the machinery malfunction. The at-home nursing instructor showed me the intricacies of the machinery, how to change the various nutrient-filled bags and how to properly navigate the maze of tubing, while Mike had that look on his face to which I had become accustomed... the look that clearly said, "I am so over this". Who could blame him?
As cruel fate would have it, the infusion machinery did indeed malfunction and it naturally chose to do so at 2:30 a.m.; setting off the aforesaid startling alarms both on the machine and in my heart rhythms. It being the middle of the night and as one might expect, I could not get anyone on the phone to help me, thereafter resulting in one very unpleasant slumber party for the two of us.
Having had absolutely no real sleep for several days and as most of our bodies do when we are not taking proper care of our health, my own body chose the day after the machinery malfunction to retaliate against me with a terrible case of shingles... so bad that I was bleeding from the backs of my legs. Add in that it was 95 degrees, our home had no air conditioning and that our family had been in this horrible battle against ALS together for two years and suffice it to say -- we were not doing very well.
So as I continued to wrestle with the uncooperative infusion machinery (still insistently sounding alarms every 15 minutes) while wiping the blood from my shingle-ridden legs and trying to keep Mike cool from the terrible heat, I began to cry. Uncontrollably. Bless Mike's heart, he was so worried watching me fall completely apart and when he asked what was wrong, I replied:
"I think I'm depressed".
He nodded understandingly and sympathetically of course, while I felt incredibly guilty. Talk about selfishness. Where did I get off complaining -- after all, he was the one who was dying. So from that day forward, I did not say another word about feeling depressed -- to Mike or to anyone else.
Shortly after Mike died, I confessed the deep dark secret that I had been harboring to my mother; finally revealing that I thought I "might be depressed"... and then I apologized to her for saying it. She looked at me with a raised eyebrow and said, "Well, let's see, you've just lost your husband after two years of illness. You've just undergone major surgery [three weeks after Mike died] and your father is in a coma [he passed away nine weeks later]. You 'think' that you're depressed? Carole, you would be weird if you weren't depressed."
I felt more freedom in hearing those words than I had felt in a very long time. Imagine discovering that there wasn't anything wrong with me! I was not being selfish, nor was I losing my precariously-balanced marbles. My husband had died, my own health was at an all-time low ebb, my father was terminally ill -- and it was perfectly normal to be depressed about all of it.
At what point exactly did so many people (including the widowed) get a similar idea; that we should not be depressed or sad or at the very least... perhaps a little quieter than usual? Stop and think about what you have been through -- the loss of a spouse; the adjustments that you have had to make as a result; the inevitable challenges that you have faced (financial, practical, possible conflicts with other people, etc), the post-loss "chores" that need attention, the routine of a household that has to continue in spite of everything, the obligations of a job that still require daily attention -- is it any wonder that just maybe, you are not feeling quite like yourself?
If you are now or have been feeling depressed since the loss of your beloved, I am delighted to let you know that just as I was, you too are absolutely 100 percent normal and justified in those feelings. However (and this is important), I recently heard a quote that I thought was absolutely spot-on:
"Sadness is when you care about everything...
Depression is when you care about nothing."
Is it normal to feel depressed during and after the experience called widowhood? Without question. However, there is a huge difference between depression that lasts for a finite period of time in reaction to a traumatic event and depression that takes over, permeates and dominates your entire life. It is incredibly vital that you distinguish between "situational" depression and a depression that is causing an inability to not only function in your daily life, but to eventually thrive again as well.
As I am so fond of saying:
If you need help... please get help!
Nowhere is it written that you have to suffer alone. You don't. If books, online support groups, in-person support groups, etc., are not enough, there are fantastic mental health professionals out there who are ready and eager to help you get through this season in time. If you are one of those people who is now thinking, "Well Carole, I tried counseling (or therapy or treatment or books or support groups) and it did no good"... I equate that to saying, "Well, I tried this medication for my sore throat and it didn't do any good, so I'm not taking medicine anymore". If the medicine that I am taking for the sore throat is not working, I change medications. The same thing applies here. If whatever you tried or whomever you saw did not work for you -- try something or someone else! If one book didn't speak to your grief, get another one -- and another and another. Try a different support group or treatment or counselor or therapist. Talk honestly to your doctor, your cleric -- anyone who is in a position of caring and compassion that can either help you directly or get you to the help you need.
And always remember...
It does not have to hurt forever.
You do not have to do this alone.
Carole's latest book, "Happily Even After..." has won the prestigious Books for a Better Life Award. For more information about Carole Brody Fleet and Widows Wear Stilettos, please visit www.widowswearstilettos.com
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