As I See It: ‘He Kindly Stopped for Me’
April 25, 2011 Victor Rozek
Richard was at work when his wife died. Although it was a Saturday, he was hunched over a keyboard, stringing together lines of code that would become a customized inventory control system. He had hoped to join his wife and some friends for a bike ride, but the project was late, the client was impatient, and Richard prided himself on being conscientious. When his phone rang, the caller ID said it was his wife, but the voice on the other end was male and the tone was grave. Afterward, he could not recall all of what the man said, just the four words that ended life as he knew it: “There’s been an accident. . . .”
Ashen, he turned to a colleague and said: “I gotta go to the hospital. My wife. . . .” He couldn’t finish the sentence. It was as if someone had kicked him in the solar plexus. Unable to catch his breath, he stumbled out the door and staggered into the parking lot.
His wife had been riding on a narrow country road and apparently swerved into traffic, perhaps to avoid another rider, or to miss some shards of glass on the shoulder. A truck struck her from behind, slamming her into a tree. Death, the doctor said, was instantaneous.
It’s difficult to talk about death in a culture so intent on escaping it. We’re all too busy living to give it much thought, too frightened to give it much credence. Affluence and technology have allowed death to be sanitized and the elderly to be warehoused, while their aging, youth-obsessed children use science and surgery to maintain the illusion of youthfulness. When death finally strikes, it’s like a foreign invader whose language we have never learned to speak.
Yet it’s quite possible that sometime during our working years we will experience the death of a loved one, and few if any of us are prepared for the aftermath. Whether it’s accidental or expected, death brings a flood of emotion and swift permanent change for which there is no adequate preparation. Grief, regret, sadness, loneliness, despair, desolation, anger, guilt–perhaps even relief if the deceased had been sick for a long time–are just some of the unbidden feelings crying out for expression.
Adults, accustomed to solving problems, find themselves not knowing what to do, because nothing they can do will alter the outcome. Richard likened it to floundering in a river so swift no amount of struggle will conquer it.
One of the challenges of coping with death in the workplace is that it underscores our complete lack of control, in contrast to the thoroughly controlled environment of information technology. Work focuses on achieving specific goals, and death is a reminder that we have no control over the ultimate outcome. And if so, does anything we do really matter? Richard chided himself for having worked that Saturday. What difference did it make whether he was conscientious or not? What did he really care about? These were questions asked in despair, and for Richard they marked the beginnings of a search for renewed relevance. For a while, he admitted, death had stripped his life of meaning. Nothing seemed to matter.
He discovered that recovery is a process, not a destination. It takes more time than the three days of bereavement leave offered by most employers, sufficient only to compartmentalize undigested feelings. More often than not, people return to work too early and emotions leak out, impacting both the quality of their work and the people around them. Richard took a week and returned to work hoping to lose himself in lines of code. But concentration was elusive. More than once a coworker found him staring at a blank screen, wholly immobilized.
The bereavement process is rarely linear, and it almost always begins with some degree of shock. Shock is a normal response to acute stress and provides a useful numbness that keeps the system from being overwhelmed by emotion. But it may last for some time, perhaps even weeks, during which, as Richard discovered, work is all but impossible. He asked his manager for more time.
As the griever adjusts to the new reality, pain floods in, often accompanied by guilt about things said or unsaid, done or undone. Richard remembered it as a period of intense suffering and incongruity: even as his internal world crumbled, the external world remained intact. Absurdly, life around him continued without interruption. Sporting events went on as scheduled; children still attended school; and radio talk shows were just as histrionic as the day before. The only thing different was his excruciating pain, which seemed so strong that it should stop the planet from rotating. But the planet continued spinning, unaware. At first, the continuity seemed preposterous and annoying, but as he began to heal, it became reassuring.
For Richard, pain gave way to the anger of unanswerable questions. “Why her?” “Why now?” “Why not me?” He was angry at his wife for leaving; angry at himself for not being with her. He was angry at God. Death shook some of Richard’s core beliefs: the notion of fairness and reward for virtuous living; the belief that a benevolent power was looking out for his best interests; that bad things should not happen to good people. He joined a grief support group and it helped him release the anger without directing it at others. He again returned to work only to discover that as the anger waned, it gave way to a period of profound sadness.
Anger directed inward feeds depression. After all of the tasks that attend a death had been completed; after his family returned home, and friends quit calling, only the loss lingered. With the calm came a period of reflection and remembrance. During this time, Richard had a tendency to isolate, ignoring the urging of friends to “get on with his life.” He discovered that fully experiencing his sadness was the fastest way through. He found inspiration in a card he received with a quote by Winston Churchill: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
And so he did. One step at a time, one day at a time, one feeling at a time. He found that any feeling fully felt, changed; that the emotional intensity dissipated once it was completely experienced. His emotions became more manageable. The desire to self-medicate or to lose himself in work and activity had only prolonged his misery. The full truth of his experience needed expression, and that required time. On the other side of the sadness, Richard finally found acceptance and renewal.
“If possible,” says Richard, “be patient with your process. Get help. Take all the time you need.”
Of course each of us reacts differently when facing death, and when the pain is great enough, taking all the time you need may require taking all the time there is. Some things, like the loss of a child, we never get over. In such circumstances perhaps the best we can do is to live with the wound without becoming debilitated by it.
One of the consequences of his wife’s passing was Richard’s examination of his attitude toward his own eventual demise which, he said, consisted mostly of fear and avoidance. “Death used to be a distant rumor, now it’s a fellow traveler that helps me set priorities.”
“It’s been awhile but I still miss my wife every day. Having friends helps. Having good work and doing it well helps too, but I still can’t quite come to grips with the fact that she’s gone for good. Like Proust said, sometimes I think she’s just traveling abroad.”