Mourning is something you do. Recently I wrote an article about dying, focusing on my mother’s death, which occurred Dec. 28th. Little did I know when I was writing about her death around the 15th of January that Bob Stauber’s death was only nine days away. Knowing how interdependent Mother and Al, her husband of 42 years, were, I would not have been surprised if Al had died in less than a month, but I was certainly surprised when it was Bob instead. Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief (like her five stages of dying) are incorporated into most pieces of literature on grief, whether she is credited or not. They are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. They do not always all occur and certainly do not usually occur in order.
Bob and I married in August of 1951. There was no air conditioning in the little Presbyterian church in Oklahoma City where we married, and in our wedding pictures the candles in the candelabra lean over in synchronized, curved pieces of wax, as though to frame our heads at the altar. It’s interesting what I remember as I think about our life together. We divorced in 1975 and drifted back together in 1986 when our oldest daughter, Beverly, had a ruptured Arteriovenous Malformation at the age of 31. The “bleed,” or stroke, produced significant neurological deficits, and I grieved for what she and we had lost. Bob moved in with me in 1990, and his health was failing. He had Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). He said “we failed at our marriage and we failed at our divorce.” Mother was 97. Her death was not unexpected. Bob was 74 and in 1994, his doctor told us his COPD was so advanced that he had two to five years to live. He lived 12 years. (So much for predicting when someone will die.)
His death was not unexpected — and yet it surprised me. I watched his steady decline. When he took medical retirement, he was on an oxygen-enhancement machine 24 hours a day. He did not, however, at first, take a portable tank with him when we went out to eat or he went out grocery shopping. He didn’t want his “weakness” to show. He became my “wife” and did the laundry, the grocery shopping and cooking on the nights that I came in late (four nights a week). He also acted as assistant, chopping veggies, etc., on the nights I cooked. During the weeks since Bob’s death, I have read two books: The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd and The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. They speak to my grief, perhaps more than Kubler-Ross, although the thread of the five stages is sometimes visible. Didion describes grief as passive — it happens to you. Mourning is something you do. Freud would say you mourn to work through the grief. Peter Kramer in Against Depression disagreed with Freud’s belief that people who are ambivalent about the lost one are more likely to be depressed than those who love wholeheartedly. Kramer wrote that he sees people who are not ambivalent sink into depression as well. He suspects a genetic predisposition to the depression. It is a very complex issue, and I add that depression is most likely to affect those who avoid active mourning.
People who feel anger, even hatred, for the departed one may avoid the task because they mask any love they might feel with the anger and hatred and therefore see no reason to mourn. When May died in The Secret Life of Bees , the sisters shut down their business for two weeks and spent the time in active mourning. Were they done with the grief at the end of two weeks? No, but they did pick up their lives and begin to move on. In Didion’s book, she focuses intently on the denial. She wrote about her “magical” thinking, as she had great difficulty getting rid of her husband’s shoes when he died because he would need them when he returned! I recognize this magical thinking. It’s what allowed me to believe, at some level, that Mother would live forever. I had written about the stages of dying, and when they manifested themselves in Bob, I refused to see them. There was a difference, of course. Death is different for each of us. Mother seemed to accept death peacefully. Bob fought. He didn’t withdraw. He refused to use the scooter we got for him to make it easier for him to get around. He refused a hospital bed and the wheelchair until the day before he died. He stayed in the family room with us in front of the TV, and he couldn’t stay awake. He kept falling over in the wheel- chair he accepted from VITAS (his hospice provider) only one day before he died. The other signs were there, and I didn’t see them.
Didion wrote about her efforts, in the year after John died, to avoid being sucked into the vortex (of intense and unrelenting grief). She avoided looking at the pictures on the walls, and she avoided familiar places. She avoided talking about the past. She even avoided reading the many obituaries for her famous husband. During the year from five days before John’s death, her daughter, Quintana, had an extremely serious illness and was near death several times. This no doubt added to the intensity of her felt need to avoid the grief for John. I know about the vortex. It comes unexpectedly out of nowhere to suck me in. Music was so much a part of Bob’s life and mine, too, by default. When I hear one of the songs he loved and perhaps played on his guitar, the tears come unbidden. I have a similar experience, although not as intensely, when I walk into a restaurant we used to go to.
After Mother died, I spent some time in active mourning, writing her obituary and the short program we used at both of the funerals. Mother’s husband, Al, and I went to Muskogee for the burial, and we met and talked with family and old friends. When Bob died, the grief for him pushed out the grief for Mother from my consciousness. And I am sure I am not finished. I wrote Bob’s obituary and his brother, his daughters and I collaborated in the program for his memorial service.
I am very good at compartmentalizing. When our oldest daughter was so sick after her stroke, I learned I could focus well and intently at work (unless someone mentioned her name or asked about her). When I was driving home, doing mundane housework, or walking the dog, the tragedy would catch up with me. The vortex would suck me in. I can do that now. Focus on the work I’m doing (unless someone mentions Mother or Bob) or the radio plays one of those tunes. I think Didion did her mourning as she wrote her book about her year of denial. We all do our grieving and our mourning in our own time. This article is part of mine.
By ROSEMARY J. STAUBER, PH.D.
Rosemary J. Stauber, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist.