“I can’t see the future, but I do things everyday to keep going.”
Joe is 66. He lives in a pleasant neighbourhood, however the silence in the house is deafening since his wife Melita passed away in October 2015. Joe cannot see an end to his grieving, and partly doesn’t want to as this would mean erasing her from his memory. He is continually looking for signs that Melita is still around.
Melita was diagnosed with lung cancer in November 2011, a shadow on her lung was discovered after a routine X-ray. Sixteen years ago, she had Leukaemia, and was cured thanks to a graft from her sister’s bone marrow. Soon after Melita’s latest diagnosis, Joe left his position as an accountant to care full time for his wife. He has since retired. He has a weekly routine that helps him get through each day. Most days he walks to her resting place, a tranquil walk through fields to a beautiful small church on the top of a hill.
“Last year I had an operation on my knee, and heard so many stories of people never recovering from surgery and thought I had better get everything in order if I die. I made a new will; and my other request was to have a simple service and my ashes interned with my darling Melita. I have no problems with dying, the pain of living is too intense. It’s only the ‘how’ of dying that I’m scared of.”
Joe’s household had been a traditional Indian household. Joe was the breadwinner - his role was to provide for his family. His wife stayed at home, raised the children and ran the home. Joe retired as an accountant soon after the diagnosis, so he could care full time for his wife. Now that she is gone, he is learning how to take care of himself.
“My role was to earn money. I never put a foot in the kitchen.Melita cooked everything. I’d come home and dinner would be ready. She taught me how to cook, because she knew she was going to die. She even designed the garden in a way that it would only take me 15 minutes to get it ready! She left me with a support network. She used to go to the cancer help centre to meet up with a group of women going through the same thing. They’d talk, share notes. She told them; ‘Look after Joe when I’m gone.’”
“All I have to cope with now is me, and that makes it easier. Before I used to feel so powerless, there was nothing I could do to help her. I was just witnessing this beautiful human being losing everything.” “I recently started to use a slow cooker. It’s brilliant! You just put everything together, and when I come back home it’s ready. It doesn’t taste too bad.”
Expect a miracle or accept the inevitable
When Melita heard she had only a couple of months left to live, she started to get things in order. She seemed to accept her death from the beginning. Joe wanted to keep fighting. He was unable to accept that his wife was dying. When Joe was caring for his wife, he had a hard time coping emotionally and couldn’t speak to anyone about his pain. He wasn’t offered any support and struggled trying to take care of his wife who had previously taken such good care of him.
“Acceptance might’ve given me the right support before. But even though you know what can happen, you just can’t accept it, so you won’t reach out for help.”
“Up to the funeral, you’re busy preparing, you don’t have time to think about much else. She was a fantastic wife! She did everything right. She did her own church service booklet, she chose the church she wanted, she chose her resting place. She wanted her whole treatment donated to science so that people coming after her will hopefully benefit from the trial drugs she was on. She was a highly organised person. She wanted to make sure that everything was done properly. Even in the course of her illness of four years, she never cried once. I remember one day, we were walking down the street. ‘You never showed any emotion, any sadness’, I said. ‘Joe why, what do you want me to do? Do you want me to start to break down and cry and get everyone down, or would you rather I just get on with it?’ That was her attitude! Even towards the end. ‘No Melita, we’ve got to expect a miracle!’ I found a little card on the street that said ‘Expect a miracle’. And I thought God was speaking to me. It became my mantra. Towards the end she was so angry with me: ‘What, expect a miracle?’ By then she was ready to go. And I was trying to keep her.”
“The way Melita passed was just the most beautiful death. If I could only get 5% of that when I die, I’d be very blessed. We didn’t know she was going. But we were at the hospital. At about 6pm she took a turn. Her breathing became very heavy. I nipped out, don’t know why, and then she called ‘Where’s my Joe?’ She’d never call me ‘My Joe’. By the time I got to her, she was starting to go. But I held her in my arms, and I said; ‘Melita it’s OK, It’s OK, it’s OK.’ I had to do that. She was just lingering.”
No one there to listen
During Melita’s illness and after her death, Joe fell out of touch with friends and family. He has two sisters who live close by and he sees them regularly. One son lives in New York and the other lives in the UK. He is not close with Melita’s family. There were family issues before Melita died, and her sisters didn’t see her in the year leading up to her death. On Sunday he goes to church. Even though his faith gives him comfort, he doesn’t speak with anyone from church.
“85% of our friends and family have gone since Melita died. We used to be popular, went out dancing all the time. I can’t dance without her. But it’s OK. It’s too interfering, trying to update all your friends.” Indian families think they’re the expert – they were just trying to tell us all the time what to think, what to do. They have their own agenda. It was very hard, and very upsetting to us. They’re gone now, I don’t hear from them!”
“What could’ve helped? Just someone to come over and listen. Just to sit and ask questions. Not a counsellor – it could just be a volunteer; someone who’s interested. It would’ve helped with the healing. Help to keep her memory alive. It gives me great comfort when people talk about her, acknowledge her. Some people who come over don’t ask any questions about her! Like she’s dead, gone, finished! That makes me so angry, it’s pure ignorance. I’m not going to educate them.”
No ‘how to deal with loss’ handbook
Joe has tried different types of counselling and therapy, looking for a way to deal with his loss. But nothing seems to give him the answers he is looking for. Slowly he is realising there are no answers, and there might not even be an end to grief. Joe feels the right kind of support is missing. He wonders if he could use his experience to help other men to cope.
“All this talking doesn’t solve the issue. The issue is how do I deal with this loss? I don’t think anyone can give you the support. Yes, they come and listen to you, and yes they will bring religious things into it. I had a load of counselling sessions at St. Christopher’s Hospice and I had Cruse [the Bereavement Support Specialists] come here. But they don’t have any answers. I can’t say it helps. Nothing really gives me support.”
“I know nothing. The experience of loss is so personal. I thought I was an expert on everything, but now I know nothing. There are so many shades of grey. I didn’t know what was a normal way of grieving. I was brought up by my mother – my dad passed away when I was nine months old. She only died in 2014, she was 92. I was brought up with loss, but I couldn’t understand it. My mom would still cry 23 years later. She never stopped grieving.”
“You look for detailed road-maps that say: ‘This is where you are.’ I’ve looked all over the internet, read so many books. All I wanted was someone to tell me what book to read, what routine to do. If I could do that every day for so long then the pain would go away. But it doesn’t work like that; grief is like a person, it’s different each day. You don’t know how it will react that day. Once I get over this, when I find a way of dealing with it, I’d like to tell other men about this. That there is no book, there is no plan. And help them to find their own way of grieving. I want to facilitate the healing process. Men don’t talk. I think I can help them! I can explain my pain and what helped me; trying to keep her memory alive.”
Her presence is the only comfort
Joe keeps looking for signs that his wife is still here. This is the only thing that gives him comfort. There are many coincidences he takes as signs – like premium bonds sent to him on his birthday from her account, or white feathers which fall in the garden. We are sitting in his living room and Joe is half way through a sentence, when he suddenly jumps up and calls out ‘Look! Do you see? There’s a feather!’ He is certain they come from Melita, as she used to collect feathers before she died. Joe hates being home alone, because he notices Melita is not there anymore. He has no trouble sleeping. When Joe closes his eyes, it’s like she’s right next to him. The place where his wife is buried is a beautiful idyllic place; an old church located on a hill. This is the place he goes when he feels most distressed.
“My only place of comfort is coming to her grave. My mother’s ashes are also here. And there is a piece of my sister’s grave next to it as well. My three women together.”
“I can’t see my future. My future was built around my wife and my children. And you let go of your children and you think that the wife would always survive the husband generally. For Melita to have gone, every day I question God and ask why. I don’t talk like she is gone. I just can’t come to terms with the fact that she is gone forever! I go away and then I think, ‘Yes I can cope with this, I can do this!’ And the moment you put the key through the door, and you hear the silence, then you realise she’s never coming back. That’s what I can’t understand.”