Just hours before Kristene, my wife of 28 years died from breast cancer, a man named Epi Rodriguez, himself a widower, saved my life by forewarning me about grief that would haunt me.
I am sure what I went through would have killed me had I not been warned.
For six months I had next to no interest in being alive. I wasn't suicidal; I just didn't care if I saw another sunrise or not. Grief engulfed me at unexpected times, night or day, rolling in like an ocean floodtide, so that no matter where or with whom I was, I wept uncontrollably, making it necessary to somehow immediately seclude myself until it subsided. My ability to maintain a train of thought was reduced to a few seconds, and my short-term memory evaporated.
I read books about the grief process, but these were of little help because they were written by women and were intended for women. Men, as I have observed, are wired very differently than women, and yet there was next to nothing out there specifically for men undergoing grief. There were many nights when my grief was so severe and the physical pain so excruciating that I thought my kids would find me dead in the morning.
To what can I compare this suffering so those who do not know it can have understanding? It was like having part of my intestines and a leg removed by a surgeon without anesthetic, stitched up and sent home the same day, in great pain and no longer whole, yet having to cope with finding a new way to resume life as one now permanently impaired.
I had been through two divorces before I met Kristene, and I can tell you that as bad as they were to go through, they were picnics compared to this. In a divorce, both parties are still alive, and at least one of them wanted to make the choice to split, and eventually the other partner will accept it and move on. But in our case, neither of us wanted to part -- but parting came, with cruel pain and suffering on all levels.
When death causes the parting, suffering is much more severe. Death is so final and unforgiving.
"Where are you Kristene? How could you be gone from me?" I'd shout at the top of my lungs to no one when I was home alone. The finality of her being gone was crushing, the silence of her voice deafening. I kept rolling over in bed at night, reaching for her, but she wasn't there. Over and over I called her cell phone just to hear her voice on the voicemail. I watched old family videos of our early years while drinking whiskey straight from the bottle, and anytime I saw her onscreen and heard her melodic voice, I utterly collapsed, sobbing and shouting. The pain was horrible and unending, tearing me apart, yet I couldn't help myself - I desperately needed to see and hear her again, even if it was only through film. I paced the house, looking at family portraits and photos. Oh, how blessed we were with each other! Why did it have to end?
With her gone, I was no longer the same person I once was. In many ways, being alive held little interest for me. I didn't know what to do with myself from one day to the next. Of future things I had little concern except for my kids; I was too numb, too indifferent to care much what happened.
This was the point where I was in crisis.
I was beginning to die -- not from illness, but from grief. Life within me was ebbing away; I was disconnected from myself, enveloped by a horrible numbness, so that even prayer was difficult. I lay in bed for hours during the day, staring at her pictures on the wall. I often slept with articles of her clothing, holding them for their scent of her, weeping bitterly.
Like this I could not last long.
Life that does not call to life is making the turn toward the final accounting. But in my inner man, there was an understanding that my day of reckoning was not yet at hand, that there's more for me to do before my time is up.
I returned to Kristene's grave on the first anniversary of her passing. It was late afternoon when I came into town, bought flowers at a small florist shop and headed up the hill into the cemetery. It was gray, cool and threatening rain as I quickly found her grave and the upright gray marble headstone that read "Kristene Kinssies Hansen, Beloved Wife, Mother and Daughter."
Someone had been placing fresh flowers at her headstone. Some were the plastic kind; who they could be from, I didn't know. Fresh flowers in hand, I collapsed into deep mourning as I knelt and hugged her headstone with both arms, rocking back and forth, calling out to her. I must have gone into a strange reverie, for the next thing I knew, it was completely dark and no one was around. The gate was closed, it was past eight, and I had been grieving there for more than four hours. Now I was locked in. I drove around on different dirt paths until I found a way out.
I checked into a cheap motel near the waterfront where I grieved for Kristene through the night as if she had just then passed away. I returned to the cemetery with another vase of flowers in the morning. I laid upon Kristene's grave, talking to her (on the off -chance she could hear me) until early afternoon, updating her on the kids and me and everything else that came to mind.
In the town of Kristene's first home, I haunted the places we had visited as restored newlyweds, weeping profusely but silently as I reminisced, savored, relived those wonderful times. I ate at a familiar restaurant, hiding my tears with glasses as I sat at the counter. Back then, I would have never dreamed I would be the one yearning for those days again.
How blessed I was then! How greatly did God bless me through her, and how little did I appreciate it until she departed this world. And now what do I do? Of this I knew naught. I returned home to Arizona. The kids were still living at home with me, and my daughter continued filling her newfound position in her mother's shoes as the female head of the household, my new right hand, working to hold the family together during a long season of despondency and dysfunction.
The pain and the grief ease gradually, but it took some time to understand the words of Epi Rodriguez: Grief will be with me unto the end of my days. The cruelest aspect of grief was that the very bonds we forged when we were together, that held us together, are now the very ones that cut into me the deepest and hurt the most, so that moving on often seems beyond my ability.