'Plastic Smiling' My Way Through the Process of Grief
“You Look Pretty”
I opened my eyes and realized it was 6 a.m. I had allowed myself a few hours of sleep between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. and yes, I felt guilty for closing my eyes even briefly. My role as wife to the man I married and loved for years now needed me to be his caregiver. I look outside and see what appears to be normalcy for everyone else, but in my house, although there are children here, it is complete silence. It was like an evil daily vigil… I don’t wake the kids, instead I walk to the doorway of the room where my husband slept. I would wait at the door and watch for the rise and fall of his chest.
Is there breath? Will he open his eyes today? Or will I have to face his death?
I had to endure the impending reality that I am watching him pass away… slowly… daily. Most days I sit next to him and watch him, mixtures of love, fear, grief and anger all at once. The lively active man who was active duty Navy and a leader in government — both careers which took him away from us constantly — was finally home. However, this time he could not enjoy us or even fill us with anything. The cancer was killing him and I hated the whole thought of it.
How could it be? I eventually got to a point that I was finished with asking why, but resolved to wondering when? I wondered, when was he going to finally leave us for good? Our life was filled with goodbyes, some sweet and some bitter. I resented his commitment to everything else, only to realize he was gone so much so that he could provide the life that gave me the ability to stay at home if I chose, along with all the perks. Now, I was angry at me too for not realizing his love was one of providing and not of presence.
In November of 2015, he took his final journey with a bittersweet farewell. His last words to me were, ”You look pretty.” The truth was, I did look pretty. My husband needed to see me look as normal as possible. On that last day I put on a good front with nice clothes, hair, perfume and red lipstick. I faked my way through it, but inside my soul was so broken. It was a big charade. There was nothing pretty about what I felt, the hole in my heart and the anguish of the sound of my children screaming in my head. It is a sound that will haunt me for the rest of my life. I looked pretty to help him transition, he needed to see me as an assurance that I would be OK. I was anything but OK.
Living through the trauma associated with grief is a unique experience for each person. By definition, trauma is essentially an emotional response to a distressing event. Grief is correlated with trauma. I experienced what is known as complicated grief, meaning the loss is debilitating and distressful even after several months or years. There is a process of grief, or what is known as The Stages of Grief. The anticipated stages of grief are: 1. Isolation/Denial, 2. Anger, 3. Bargaining, 4. Depression, and 5. Acceptance. However, my process was a complex mixture of sadness, anger, raging, depression and “plastic smiling” my way through the process. Sadly, I watched my adolescent twins go through the same jigsaw-maze of emotions. Mad, sad, acting out and fighting with each other while getting good grades and faking happy with their friends.
From Trauma to Triumph
All will grieve and all can heal as well. My journey is a continuous one. However, I find peace and healing by working with others in processing their pain. I meet weekly with individuals, groups and families that all need help. Through my work as a public speaker and licensed psychotherapist with a specialty in grief, stress and trauma: my pain has purpose. Yes, I am a widow — but not in an ordinary sense. My current status is that of a survivor of loss, trauma, and grief. While I navigate the new journey, I devote myself to aiding others as a licensed psychotherapist, creator and host of “Dr Sarah After Dark,” which is a mental health awareness TV show, and work at a private counseling practice in Virginia. I speak to large groups, facilitate workshops and consult on the topic of grief. My advice to others is to first and foremost, locate a trusted therapist to guide you in the healing process. A second step is to allow yourself time and patience. Nurture yourself, and don’t rush the process. Lastly, finding your passion and source of joy in whatever form that works for you. Each day of the journey brings the needed change to move along from pain, trauma, grief and loss to triumph.
Getty image via AaronAmat