Death of a Spouse
They died from broken hearts.
To the skeptic, “died from a broken heart” is a romanticized line from a fictional fairytale. It’s impossible, they might say, to determine if emotional grief was THE cause of death, which is why — they’d say— a doctor will never write “broken heart” on a person’s death certificate.
The skeptic would be half right. A doctor will never write “broken heart” on a death certificate, but science has validated the stuff of fairytales. It’s called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or stress induced cardiomyopathy . . . it’s a psychosomatic condition or event that occurs when grief, stress, and/or mental anguish causes a surge of hormones, effectively shocking the heart and sometimes resulting in death.
Any funeral director who’s been around long enough has likely seen it happen, usually between a couple who’s been married for a long time and just can’t seem to exist without the other. It’s like the couple has become so close, they’re like siamese twins with shared organs.
The photo that you see is a Sexton placing two urns next to each other in an in-ground Columnbarium. The couple died one month apart from each other. There’s no way of proving stress induced cardiomyopathy was the cause, but they had been married for over 50 years with no kids and little social life. They were all they had and I think it would have been so incredibly difficult if one has lived without the other for an extended period of time.
Guys, love is real. It’s wonderful. It’s heartbreaking. And I do believe that love holds all the mysteries of the universe. It’s holds the past, the present and the future. It holds us together, and it evolves us to be more than the mere animals we are. Love is the magic of the world, but it’s more than magic. If I’ve learned anything, I’ve learned it exists as an actuality . . . and sometimes it exists in our hearts, whatever that means.
My phone rang early in the morning, waking me up to the sound of the coroner on the other end explaining Al Johnson was dead in the second story bathroom and Mr. Johnson’s family was ready for us to come and get him. It was one of those calls that was close enough to breakfast time that I had to stop and think, “Do I grab some breakfast now, or do I wait until I get back from the house removal?” I forget what I did that morning. I probably went with the easy option of a breakfast bar instead of my normal protein and banana shake.
I called Nathan, the funeral home’s apprentice, who always sleeps right by his cell phone. “Hello,” he said before the phone even rang. His voice was groggy like mine had been only a few minutes before when the county coroner had called me and woke me up from sleep. “We have a house call and I’m going to need your help. Second floor. The coroner says it’s going to be a tough one. So eat your Wheaties”, I joked, something that isn’t always a great idea at 5 AM in the morning.
A few minutes later I was dressed and driving over to the funeral with a breakfast bar in my mouth.
Nathan and I arrived at Al’s house to find some EMT vehicles and the coroner’s Suburban. We parked as close to the back door as possible so as to make our removal as short as possible. We knocked on the door and we heard a voice, very loud and very clearly say, “Come in.” It was an odd voice, not entirely normal but human enough that we opened the door. We were quickly greeted by Al’s widow Liz who came to us with arms open for some hugs. I embraced her, she started crying and in between the sobs, Liz told us how she found Al in the bathroom early this morning. “He’d be saying he was tired lately, but I figured it was just this hot weather that was wearing him down” she recalled.
Liz pointed upstairs and just as she did I heard that same weird, humanlike voice from the other room say, “I’m hungry. Feed me.” Liz didn’t comment on the voice so I poked my head around the corner and saw a parrot. He looked at me and repeated, “I’m hungry. Feed me.”
“I think your bird’s hungry,” I said in jest to Liz.
“My bird? No, no. That’s Al’s bird.”
Some of the EMT crew followed us upstairs because they knew that getting Al downstairs wouldn’t be easy. As we were going up, the Parrot kept saying, “Hey, girl. Whatcha doing?” It repeated that phrase at least a dozen times every time it heard us doing something upstairs.
When we pulled Al off the toilet, it was followed by “hey girl, whatcha doing?”
When we slide his body to the stretcher. “Hey girl, whatcha doing.”
And on, and on, and on until we got Al out of the house and into our van.
It was weird for Nathan and me, but for Liz and the family and friends that were at the house, this talkative Parrot seemed a normal part of their life.
Nathan and I came back in, grabbed some paper towels and Clorox spray, cleaned Al’s blood up from where he bumped his head on the sink, gave the widow a hug and that was the end of the story. Al was eventually cremated.
That story happened a couple years ago and it has stuck in my mind because of the Parrot. That was the first and only time there’s been a talkative Parrot involved in a house removal.
Today, we had a prearrangement appointment at the funeral home. I didn’t make the appointment and I didn’t know who was coming in. One o’clock came along, the doorbell rang and my dad yelled, “Caleb! I’m on the phone. Can you get the front door?” I walked down the steps from my office and there was Liz standing at the front door waiting for me to let her in.
“Hey, Caleb!” she said as she gave me a hug. It took me a minute, but my mind started to piece everything back together. I remembered the call. I remembered Al on the second floor. And I remembered that Parrot.
I sat her down and we started chatting while we waited for my dad to finish his phone conversation. Dad was the one who was going to make the prearrangements with Liz.
“How are you?” I started out.
“Good! Do you have any whiskey?” she asked. “No,” I said, “but do you need some?”
“Oh, my. I could use some. This whole thing of prearranging my funeral has all my memories of Al coming back to me.”
We talked about Al for a minute or two and then I brought up the bird.
“Oh, God. She said. I love and hate that damn bird. That bird was Al’s for 15 years. He got it after he retired. That thing came to mimic all of his sayings. Everything like, ‘Can you turn the TV on, honey?’ ‘I’m hungry, feed me’ (which Al said as a joke), ‘Come in’. The bird even knows the right context for its sayings. Like if I’m upstair working on something, Al would say, ‘hey girl, whatcha doing?'”
“I hated that damn bird for 15 years, but now it sounds like Al, it talks like Al and it’s a daily reminder of Al. Al’s soul is in that damned bird” she joked. “As much as I’ll enjoy the peace and quiet when it dies, I dread that day.”
A minute later, my dad walked in, the conversation changed and I walked out of the room.
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Having just arrived to work, I walk into the office and found a paper tablet with the inscription, “So-and-so is at the Brandywine Hospital. Released. Coroners Case. Autopsy.”
I loaded the pickup van, stopped at Dunkin Donuts on the way and a half-hour later I was at the Hospital. I went through the normal procedural paperwork, and got back to the morgue where the security guard awaited me. We pulled the stretcher out of the fridge (the gentlemen had been dead since Sunday [the family had only called us this morning as they awaited the autopsy]) and unzipped the bag.
I didn’t know how he died and wanted to look at him to make sure there wasn’t an obvious and horrific cause of death. He was autopsied that much was obvious, but no abrasions or other violent injuries. And he was young. I couldn’t tell how old he was, but I knew he wasn’t much older than me.
I called dad and let him know that if the family wanted embalming, that embalming was possible. That call proved useless as I arrived to the funeral home before the family arrived at 11 and in the end they would choose cremation. I unloaded the van and awaited them to show.
The widow and her mother came through the door. And we found out the deceased was only 36 years old. Five years older than me. Too young.
My phone started ringing. I went back to another room and answered it. It was Nicki, my wife. “Can we come to the funeral home and show Pop-pop Jeremiah’s Halloween outfit?”
I thought to myself, “Well, the family is here. And Pop-pop is meeting with the family, but why not?”
“Sure”, I said. “Bring Jeremiah over.”
A couple minutes later and Jeremiah was coming through the front door with his dinosaur outfit on. And all of a sudden he was the center of attention. The widow and mother came over, he smiled at them, they smiled back and their eyes started to tear up. They laughed. Jeremiah laughed. More tears. Their mind had momentarily forgotten their grief, but their body had not.
Tears were all they had.
A smile from a dinosaur allowed them to relax enough to cry.
As the tears rolled down their checks, and as Jeremiah’s smiles waned, they remembered. Small talk ensued for a minute or two. Small talk isn’t natural around death.
They looked at my dad and he ushered them back to see their deceased beloved a last time before I took him to the crematory.
You walk into a house full of fresh grief. It’s fresh because the death just occurred. Your best friend’s husband went out to the bar last night, drowned his hard day in hard drink and he never made it back home. Fresh. Because both you and your friend have never experienced death this close.
You open the door like you have so many times before, but this time the familiarity of the house is unexpected different, dark and lonely. What once housed parties, life and love now houses something you’ve never known before. Like a river, everything is in the same place it was when you last saw it, but this home has changed.
You see your friend’s children sitting on the sofa, staring into space.
You ask them, “Where’s your mom?”
And as you reach to hug them, they snap back to reality and whisper, “Upstairs.”
Each step brings you closer to what you know is only an apparition of your friend. The nerves build. Fear begins to build. You repress it as you ready yourself to meet your closest friend who has all of a sudden become someone you may no longer know.
“Can I come in?” you ask. No response.
You push open the cracked bedroom door and see the body of your friend collapsed on her bed, with used tissues surrounding her like a moat.
You tip-toe into the room, slowly sit down on the bed, and not sure if she’s awake or asleep, you reach for your friends shoulder and begin rubbing her back. Her blood shot eyes open, look at you and then, they slowly look through you.
You fill the weird silence with an “It’s going to be alright”.
“It’s not”, she whispers. “I’m alone with two kids and no job.” Her voice suddenly raises as anger courses through her body, “Why the f*** would he do this to me?”
The curse word chides you into recognizing that you’ve not only misspoken, but you’ve spoken too soon, so you decide to wait in silence. She starts to cry. You respond to her tears with your own. Even though you want to respond with words, you know this isn’t the time for words. There’s no perfection words here. There’s no perfect anything here. And so you wait.
You stay. Listen. Silence. You take her pain into your soul. Hours pass. She rises out of bed and makes the children dinner.
You’ve spoken, not with words or advice; not by trying to solve the problem; nor by placing a limit on your time. You’ve taken the uncomfortable silence, allow the grace for tears, for brokenness; you’ve allowed yourself to sit in the unrest without trying to fix it.
With your presence. With your love. In your honest acknowledgement of real loss, you’ve spoken the language of grief.
Although the language of grief is usually spoken in love, presence and time, sometimes it’s spoken in words. And when it is, here are five practical “do”s and “don’ts”
1. At least she lived a long life, many people die young
2. He is in a better place
3. She brought this on herself
4. There is a reason for everything
5. Aren’t you over him yet, he has been dead for awhile now
1. I am so sorry for your loss.
2. I wish I had the right words, just know I care.
3. I don’t know how you feel, but I am here to help in anyway I can.
4. You and your loved one will be in my thoughts and prayers.
5. My favorite memory of your loved one is…
Today’s guest post is from Brenda Lee. This post was written on November 11th, 2008 … two weeks after her husband’s death.
I kind of feel guilty saying this, but overall, today was a good day. Despite not wanting to get up this morning (facing the official 2 weeks since…), I eventually got my bum moving and went to lunch with a great friend. Afterwards, I went to the interview and it went surprisingly well. I have no clue if they’ll hire me, but they’re flexible with when I want to start. The only concern I have is I think it’s only 20 hours instead of 24, which means I may not qualify for benefits. So…we’ll just see what I’m offered and go from there.
Tonight I got out of the house with a friend for coffee and it was just GOOD. One vice I have picked up is a new coffee addiction, but I figure that’s better than any of the alternatives!
Pray for Linda as she had a rough day and really needs support. We all have bad days and good days, and, of course, they aren’t always going to correlate.
I’m very adament about taking my own timeline on things. After discussing everything with my friends today, I am on the “right” track. The fact is, for the past 4 months my minute by minute job was taking care of Kevin. That WAS my job whether it was official employment or not.
My life is gone. I don’t say this to sound hopeless, because I am not hopeless. In fact, for whatever reason, God handed me a clean slate, a new life. As much as I want my old one back, I don’t have a choice. I no longer have a job, a home (that’s “mine”), a husband, a routine, even my car is different. The only thing I have left is faith, family and friends. My triple f, which is helping me immensely.
So, for me to go to a “routine” and “get back in the swing of things” isn’t going to happen. There is no SWING OF THINGS. As I said, I am hopeful, but it’s not going to be easy. Everything I do from here on out is new and different and will take even more time adjusting to. Starting a new job is NEVER easy, let alone when you’re an emotional basketcase and a new widow. In time, I’ll want to find my own place, in time, I’ll have a new routine. In time.
So….in time, this will happen. But I’m not going to rush it. I’m going to take weeks…maybe even months to “get back in the swing of things”. I am putting this out there because for me, finding a job, a “routine” isn’t really helpful to me right now. It scares me to death, and trust me, I’m finding things to fill my time with. I don’t have an immediate need to go back to work, to set a schedule. My immediate life right now is getting through each minute and doing things for myself.
..and that’s what I need to do. So thank you for respecting that and giving me this time. Thank you for allowing me this because this is all I need right now. Faith, family and friends. Everything else will fall into place as it is supposed to, and I’m not going to rush a thing.
So..it’s been a good day. And I pray tomorrow will be as well.
Brenda Lee is a freelance writer and blogger whose topics include travel, events, and businesses in central Pennsylvania. Widowed at just 24, Brenda is now an advocate for sarcoma cancer, and is working to change how society discusses grief and accepts those grieving at an early age. She is an award winning writer and is currently editing the first draft of her memoir, “Keepin’ it Kevin” detailing her love and loss story.