Breaking the Grief Barrier

My wife comes to the final turn, the Death Valley of the 440-yard dash. She's dying as two women with slim bodies work their way to her heels on this July Fourth in 1978. The four slender legs stretch, hit and glide in unison. Sher's legs are thicker, giving hint of her Indian ancestors who endured long treks and heavy burdens.

The women are dead even into the forty-yard straight-away. Cinder puffs shoot up as Sher kicks into a gear I didn't know she had. She breaks the tape five yards ahead of her opponents. The next day the local newspaper runs a photo of my 25-year-old wife crossing the finish line with the expression of a woman in childbirth. Sher wins a tacky Loveland Superstars blue ribbon.

I can't tell you the exact day the wife of my youth died. Her death didn't come nicely packaged with an obituary, a coffin or a hefty check from the insurance guy. Sher still lives, but the woman I married, the Sher who won races and scaled mountains, doesn't. Once I mentally put to rest the healthy Sher and grieved that "death," then we could journey beyond the Death Valley of our marriage and our lives.

Fibromyalgia and other health problems zapped the vitality from Sher and wrapped her in a straitjacket of pain, headaches, exhaustion and depression. Fibromyalgia is a rheumatic disease with arthritis-like symptoms. According to Arthritis Foundation literature, millions of Americans have fibromyalgia. This mysterious disease joined forces with hormonal and back problems, causes unknown, that led to four major surgeries during a four year period. Sher's body looked great but she was a mess under the hood.

I was a high school jock and big-time dreamer who assumed I would become a professional athlete. I devised a baseball game played with a deck of cards and fabricated my own major-league career, pages of stats documenting my success. While young Mike Schmidts and Dave Winfields played ball year-round, honing skills demanded in "the Show" (the big leagues), I fiddled away my days, expecting dreams to turn true, producing a long-running show of my own that was pure fiction, not prophecy.

I never earned a dime playing baseball, but the game brought sher and me together. In the summer of '71 I was the second basemen for a semipro team in Boulder, Colo. Sher was the shortstop's sister. We met in the stands before a game and started dating soon thereafter.

Our free-flowing courtship turned into a high-hurdle marriage two years later. We had no money, no job skills. Another problem was that I desperately wanted to be the family leader, but Sher made most of the decisions the first twelve years of our marriage. When fibromyalgia hit, however, Sher struggled with what brand of bread to buy, what color sweater to wear. Uh-oh—ship without a captain.

Heavy footsteps beat down the straight hallway from our bedroom. Sher staggers into the kitchen, looking the part of a suburban lush. "Cyall shuh Poishun Shenter!"

"Huh?" I say.

She lunges for a paper beside the phone and smacks a finger on the printing. "Shuh Poishun Shenter!" I fumble the phone. I'm Barney Fife grasping for his damn bullet. I finally reach a poison expert and we learn that a concoction of prescribed drugs has backfired. We induce vomiting and, as usual, it takes a week for Sher to recover. Pain. Headaches. Depression.

In 1978 Sher became the City of Loveland's wellness director, teaching aerobics, racquetball and cross-country skiing. But after the birth of our second child in 1982, Sher's body started its downward spiral. She was forced to quit working.

It became normal for Sher to sleep twelve hours nightly and take a nap or two. I bought her skis and running shoes in the '70s, a recliner chair and cordless phone in the '80s.

I was forced to spend more time with the kids, to do more housework, to make more decisions. To my surprise and delight, kudos came pouring in.

"Sher is so lucky having you stand by her."

"What would Sher do without you?"

"Gregg, you are a trooper."

All right! I had become the leader I was meant to be—or so I thought.

For years friction existed between the part of me that sought adventure and the part that demanded security. I was the reckless Indiana Jones teamed with the corporate accountant. The internal numbers guy always won out, causing relief mixed with a dose of self-hate.

In the summer of 1985 I as assigned to write about Mexico City missionaries. Sher and our two daughters were set to go, too. Excitement mixed with fear.

Two weeks before we were to leave, Sher got the flu and a stomach rash. It marked the end of the healthy Sher. We postponed, then canceled our trip. The sore joints, headaches and exhaustion wouldn't go away.

Relief overruled disappointment in my brain. This time I hadn't chickened out. Adventure is not an option when your wife can barely make it to the grocery store. Sher's illness allowed me to imagine wondrous experiences without the angst of actually deciding whether to take a bold step. Sher's fibromyalgia was the perfect out for me—I didn't have to back up my dreams with action and people gave me a four-star rating as a family leader.

I had become dependent on Sher's illness just like a caregiver spouse is dependent on the partner's alcoholism. Take away the chronic illness, or the alcoholism, and you eliminate one of the caregiver's primary reasons for existing. Sher's illness was the family's jug of wine.

In January, 1990, a friend asked me to be his partner for a program outlined in a book titled The Grief Recovery Handbook. I played along as a favor to John.

I learned in the first chapters that "grief is a normal and natural response to loss." I also discovered many Americans have been given bad information about grief. Bury your feelings and replace the loss are just two of the myths. John and I began to talk openly about our losses and failures in handling them. At our third meeting I listed my losses—deaths of relatives and friends mostly.

Then it hit me. The Sher of my memories had also passed on from my life. I had buried my feelings about Sher's illness, hiding behind a happy-face Superhusband and Superdad. Instead of grieving over that loss, I focused on a glorified past and a fictional future, believing the myth that by just giving it time the healthy Sher would return. I had been living in an existential vacuum—where the present was empty.

John and I are driving on a two-lane road through the Colorado prairie. I'm on step 8 of the grief program, telling of my greatest loss.

"Gregg, how have you felt with Sher so sick?"

"I feel sad, especially for Sher, but also for the kids and me." I'm driving 60 mph.

"You're thinking too much. What does your heart say?"

Who is this, Mike Wallace? "OK, I am mad as hell—mainly at the illness." 65 mph.

"What about her operations?" I squeeze the steering wheel and remain silent. "C'mon, don't clam up on me now!"

Bingo. "Yeah, I've got feelings! Like when I think of hospitals I'm scared. After every one of the operations Sher looked like she was dead or dying. White lips, matted hair, slurred speech. She wore pain on her face. White-smocked doctors walking around like they were gods, cutting open my wife and setting her back up, making the obligatory summary speech to me in the waiting room, always saying things went great, acting like they had swooped down from heaven to save the damn day." 75 mph. "At least Sher was asleep during a lot of that crap! I'm the good little boy who had to sit in those putrid waiting rooms with my little laptop computer so I could write how wonderful it would be when the royal doctors would get done and everything would be like the old days. Pecka pecka pecka peck peck."

"Now we're getting somewhere," John said. "What has it really been like?"

"For years nobody has asked that question! Everybody wants to know how Sher is but what about me, dammit!? Hell, we were always going to be so independent. For months we had people bringing meals, sending cards, watching kids, scrubbing toilets. I thanked them for doing it but hated them having to. Then they wanted to give me money. I didn't need their damn money! I needed Sher to get well and I needed to let my own guard down—always acting so cool, so in control, so strong. I am just plain pissed!"

We top out at 90 mph and all is quiet for a minute. Then I take a big breath, the breath of a prisoner set free.

A few months pass. Sher and I now often stay up to talk, sometimes taking fifteen minutes apiece to describe thoughts and feelings uninterrupted. One night Sher says, "I haven't wanted to tell you this, but I found a lump on my breast and will have it checked."

I don't say a thing for a minute, but I'm thinking: I knew this medical marathon would end with the Big C—cancer. The thought that Sher will really die invades my brain. I have a strange urge to admit my feats but decide the Dr. Gloom approach is inappropriate.

More seconds tick by. Then I crash through old barriers.

"I'm scared, Sher I'm scared they will find cancer and I'm scared you'll die." She looks stunned. Oh man, I blew it!

Then she says: "I'm glad you told me because I feel the same way. Now I don't feel so alone."

I listen, I talk, I feel, I live.

A week later we find out the lump is benign and we celebrate one day of victory.

by Gregg Piburn

Elizabeth Taylor Issue 1995

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Interview with Elizabeth Taylor

Americans with Disabilities Act