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by Frank Schnittger Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 06:45:50 AM EST


My wife, Muriel Boothman, died of cancer four years ago this month.  I've been asked to do a talk on bereavement by the local hospice foundation who are organising an annual remembrance evening for those who have lost loved ones in the past couple of years.  I'm at the "oh shit, what have I let myself in for?" stage of trying to put thumbs to keyboard.  

My only consolation is that I vaguely remember attending one such evening not long after her death.  I was so upset at the time I haven't a clue what that night's speaker spoke about.  No doubt, few will remember a word of what I will say, and yet there is always the danger that I might upset someone even more by making a not very well thought through comment or remark.

I will probably just end up saying a few things about how it was for me.  But I need the comfort blanket of a script in case I freeze, or worse, I blubber on the night.  One of the characteristics of the grieving process is that it is so personal:  You feel that no one has ever gone through the same process as you, and in one sense this is correct:  Each death is unique, and each relationship is unique, and there is no magic formula which can encompass it all.

I'm posting this here in order to "road test" my possible script.  If any of you are angered, upset, annoyed, or concerned by anything I propose to say, please let me know.  I'm trying to be helpful to people at a difficult time, not make it worse.  This should be about them, not about me, but I'm not sure I can talk about this in anything other than a very personal way.  I also reserve the right to edit out most of this diary afterwards if I come to feel that publishing this is all wrong.  Maybe some things are best said in the quiet of the night and should never appear in hard print.

So here goes...

"When I was asked to do this talk, I must admit I was a little taken aback, because, despite what people might say about me, I am not used to talking about things I know very little about.  And that, I'm afraid, is the truth of the matter:  My only qualification for being here and speaking to you tonight is that I, too, have been bereaved.  

And it is an extremely difficult topic to talk about, because it is so personal.  Each of us has experienced it in our own unique, personal way, and no matter how much others may seek to empathise with us from their own experiences, it never quite seems to help that others have gone through a similar process.

How could this have happened to me and to my loved one?  That is the question all of us must have asked at one time or another.  Little matter that we know the world is rampant with war, poverty and disease; that for many, death is an everyday occurrence in their daily lives.  Little matter that we all appreciate that there is a circle of life and that ultimately the wheel turns for all of us.

So I want to spend a few minutes this evening talking about how it was for me, not because I think your bereavement was the same, but precisely because all our experiences are different.  I want to celebrate the uniqueness of our lives, our deaths, and our experiences of the deaths of our loved ones.

I'm sure most of us have heard of the alleged five stages of bereavement:


And perhaps all of us have experienced them to a greater or lesser extent.  But for each of us the experience is different and unique.  I will try to explain a little of how those experiences were for me.

Muriel Boothman was my life partner and wife for 27 years, and the mother of our three absolutely brilliant children.  She was a social worker, community worker, social activist, feminist, and ultimately ended up managing a drug treatment service for heroin addicts.  She helped many people to free themselves from drug addiction, the effects of domestic, physical, psychological and sexual violence, illiteracy, discrimination, poverty and the terrible effect on people's lives and self esteem which these things can have.

At her funeral, and afterwards, many people came up to me to speak about how she had changed their lives.  People who had been sexually abused recovered their love of life, people who had been illiterate achieved university degrees, people who had been on hard drugs went on to lead full lives.  What justice can there be in the world when someone like that dies from breast cancer at the age of 47?

In contrast, I worked in business, and provided for many of the material needs of our family.  I supported her in every way I could, but there was really no comparison between her love of life and her contribution to the living and what I could bring to the table.  When her terrible disease struck, I genuinely wanted to take her place had that been possible.  She had so much more to give.

Being Muriel, of course, she set about dealing with her disease in an incredibly objective and professional manner.  Consultants were harangued if they didn't give her the full facts and all the treatment options that were available.  She went though the terrible trauma of mastectomy, chemotherapy, and every alternative treatment available.

When it became clear that these treatments had failed, she set about dealing with her own impending death in an incredibly clear and determined manner.  She stopped all except palliative treatment and insisted on returning home from hospital.  On no account was an ambulance to be called.  She wasn't going back to hospital under any circumstances.  Our children (then aged 14, 18, and 20) were kept fully informed.  All the paperwork regarding wills and provision for the children's education and future had to be fully completed.  

I went along with all of this, of course.  It was important that her wishes be adhered to in every respect.  But really, I didn't believe for a moment that she would die.  Someone with so much life in her just couldn't be put away.  Right up to a few days before she died, she was still listening to other people's problems, eating out at a friend's house, and making sure I was on the ball with all the things that had to be done for the children.

In retrospect, I think my state of denial was a very important part of helping me cope with the situation.  Whatever happened to Muriel, I wasn't going to be complicit in the process.  THIS WAS NOT HAPPENING AS FAR AS I WAS CONCERNED.

Muriel and I had an absolutely fabulous relationship since the time we first met.  Friends couldn't believe how two such stubborn, strong willed, and sometimes awkward individuals could get on so well.  We never had a serious disagreement.  We even managed to do many of the things both of us wanted to do in our all too short time together.  And yet I felt incredibly guilty when she died.

It should have been me, of course.  She had so much more to give.  I wasn't present at the moment of her death.  I was too busy looking after all the friends who had called to the house.  We never got to finish writing down all the childhood stories she wanted to preserve for the children.  I have such a terrible memory for things that happened years ago, no matter how exciting at the time.  I wasn't going to be much of a substitute mother for my children.

My children handled it much better than I did, of course.  They seem to have inherited her calm assurance and determination to get on with their lives no matter what the obstacles.  

In retrospect, I can see my denial of her dying process as very important for my own self preservation.  If I could feel so guilty at her death even though we had had such a brilliant relationship, how bad must it be for people who are bereaved in much more difficult circumstances - people who have lost a child, people who lost someone in an accident, due to violence, due to poor medical treatment or people who have lost someone they had a bad relationship with and about whom they felt guilty in any case?

Whoever decided that Muriel should die did so against my absolute opposition.  And still I felt guilty.  I hadn't a clue as to what more I could have done, except spend more time with her in the last few days - but then I didn't accept that these could be her last few days.

The denial, guilt and anger have now gone, and every bargain I ever made was broken.  But I was saved from depression by her love and that of my children.  I will never accept that her death was part of any process I had anything to do with, but that is only as it should be.  We do not own each other, however much we might love one another.

Muriel is dead for 4 years now.  The kids have gone on to ever greater things.  I have gotten on with things as best as I could.  Muriel would have been quite cross with me for not moving on and doing more.  But then we always respected each others space and our right to do our own thing in our own way.

Life goes on, we all move on.  But Muriel will live in our hearts for ever.  I hope that is the way things will be for you.  There is no such thing as a good death, although no-one would have wished Muriel to suffer on as she did for much longer.  But all we can do is honour our dead by getting on with our on lives as best we can - and by making the best of the opportunities we get but perhaps don't deserve.

Tonight is about celebrating those whose lives have been lost, and about reaffirming our commitment to making the best of those lives we have still got to live.  Muriel would have kicked my ass big time if I had allowed myself to wallow in grief, guilt, anger, self pity or resentment.  I'm not going to give her that chance!

And I hope that is how it will be for you, in a couple of years time, when the immediate pain has dulled.  Yes, life does go on, we all have to move on.  But we have to do so in our own slow and different ways.  We do not own our loved ones, and they do not own us.  The best we can do is remain true to their memory in the way we live our own lives - and make the most of the lives we still have.  That is the least we can do for those who do not have that gift of life any longer.

and a wonderful diary. Thanks for posting it here.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 06:53:34 AM EST
I think you should not change one word of the text - it is very touching and does great honor to Muriel.
by Fran on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 07:06:52 AM EST
That should be fine as a talk. It reads excellently.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 07:21:29 AM EST
Thank you for sharing this. I think it's a good speech and I don't see anything in it that needs changing/softening.
by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 07:48:46 AM EST
It's excellent, Frank.  Thank you.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.
by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 07:53:22 AM EST
It sounds real and natural, so given the event, it will be helpful for everyone.  If very recent survivors attend, they will be hard pressed to concentrate throughout, but they will be touched by a particular phrase, or other and that's natural.

As you mention, I also consider that shock and guilt are steps in the grieving process, which we recycle sometimes by the hour, during the worst parts.  It seems impossible to see a particular stage as you go through it, until several years later.  

You are doing a good thing, very well!  

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.

by metavision on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 08:08:42 AM EST
Heartfelt and true, Frank, thanks for letting us in.

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Ana´s Nin
by Crazy Horse on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 08:29:11 AM EST
I'm a tough old bird, but you brought tears to my eyes; something that rarely happens. Thanks for posting this Frank.

Hey, Grandma Moses started late!
by LEP on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 08:33:05 AM EST
Many thanks for all the kind comments, which are very reassuring.  I find that when people are upset it is very easy for them to take a particular comment out of context, or misconstrue its meaning, and I was afraid my draft might be construed as bragging in some way - "look at how well we handled it" etc.  I was very fortunate in many ways, and I have no doubt that many people present will have had a much more difficult time of it.  I don't for a moment want to suggest "I know what you're going through" but I do want to show that there can be light at the end of the tunnel.

"It's a mystery to me - the game commences, For the usual fee - plus expenses, Confidential information - it's in my diary..."
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 08:36:24 AM EST
brilliant, simple and strong.

you were truly blessed to know and love her, and you communicate this beautifully.

it sounds like she has left quite a living legacy, especially for such a brief life.

moist eyes, grateful heart, thanks.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 08:47:06 AM EST

Yep, Mary McAleese, the President of Ireland formally dedicated and names the drug treatment centre she built up after her.

"It's a mystery to me - the game commences, For the usual fee - plus expenses, Confidential information - it's in my diary..."

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 09:05:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Very moving and I'm sure it will touch others as it has those here, and help those going through the same kind of experience.

My big loss, many years ago now, was my mother, who also had cancer and died relatively young. She was a wonderful mother and very well liked by those who knew her. It hit me very hard; as the eldest child I had been quite close to her - she even asked me one day if I thought she should leave my father! Quite a shock, especially at 12 years old. She didn't - and when we kids left home they seemed to be happier. Sad that it wasn't for longer. After the worst was over I found reading about bereavement, the denial, anger etc. helped, and later I gave some evening classes on it to share what I'd learned.

Good luck with the talk - I'm sure it will help some people.

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.

by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 09:00:34 AM EST
Frank... I've read your diary twice now. I'm still rather lost for words to express what your piece has channelled for me.

Four years ago, I lost my father, after a year long fight with lung cancer and brain metastasis. The second I got the news about the cancer, I knew my life was irrevocably going to change, even while I would deny it to myself until that final, decisive phone call on an early Saturday morning. My life and the person who I am have not been the same ever since.

Every death is unique - but those touched by death are not left the same. Those touched by death also cross a boundary. Of all my friends, there was only one with whom I could truly connect, share the words and silences that I needed. Because he had lost his father when he was 16 years old - a senseless, out of the blue death. He knew. Those not closely touched by death can not comprehend. They cannot, and it's their blessing. Similarly, this friend's mother and my mother have grown very close as well.

Perhaps I am just trying to say that, exactly because you're to address this at such a deeply personal level, you've written what everyone also bereaved will immediately know, understand and feel.

Thank you.

by Nomad on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 10:01:07 AM EST
I think I'm probably a little bit older than most here, so I've been through this mill a number of times.  Both Muriel's and my families went through a very bad patch with a lot of people dying from cancer etc.  When my father was on his last legs I was expecting a call any time.  I was working and staying in a hotel in London at the time when a call came to my hotel room from my brother very early in the morning.  You can imagine my shock when he told me that he had very bad news, and it was not about my father.  My oldest brother had died from a severe asthma attack - asthma of all things.  What made it worse was that his daughter, my God child, and a trained swimming coach/life saver was alone with him at the time, and she couldn't save him.  There is not a lot you can say to her after that.

"It's a mystery to me - the game commences, For the usual fee - plus expenses, Confidential information - it's in my diary..."
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 10:54:43 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Your diary makes me wonder about so many things, like "do people like Muriel have some inner sense that they don't have as much time as the mortality tables suggest, and does that spur them to leave a legacy such as Muriel's in as short a span of time?"  Or is it simply true that "only the good die young"?

Muriel was very lucky that her partner enabled her to devote herself to improving the lives of others.  Patrons have a necessary and significant contribution to make to the world.  Your love and support of Muriel flowed through her to others, and those others will build on that.  

This site is blessed with many lovely members.

Karen in Austin

'tis strange I should be old and neither wise nor valiant. From "The Maid's Tragedy" by Beaumont & Fletcher

by Wife of Bath (kareninaustin at g mail dot com) on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 10:01:16 AM EST
Wife of Bath:
"do people like Muriel have some inner sense that they don't have as much time as the mortality tables suggest, and does that spur them to leave a legacy such as Muriel's in as short a span of time?"

I have often wondered that as well.  I was always known as a bit of an impatient rebel and a radical in the context of Irish business and society, but Muriel sometimes took my breath away with the sheer audacity and single mindedness with which she pursued her goals.  Where I would look for a compromise on the principle that one step backwards which enabled two steps forward was a win, she simply wouldn't take no for an answer on the principle of "why walk when you can run"?

Once the local council threatened to close a voluntary citizen's information she was running on the grounds that two out of thousands of leaflets there didn't specifically rule out referring a women for an abortion abroad if that was what she wanted (non-directive counseling).  It never occurred to them that she wouldn't simply do what everyone else in Ireland did - keep the leaflets under a counter.  Even letters to the Attorney General requesting requesting her prosecution wouldn't budge her.

She wouldn't have gotten half as much done had she adopted the usual softly softly approach.  People in authority looking for an easy life knew it would be much the better option just to give her what she needed.  (I did rather enjoy drafting quite a few letters, petitions, reports etc. on her behalf - there are an awful lot of very creative ways in which you can suggest to people that cooperation is in their own ultimate best interests!)

"It's a mystery to me - the game commences, For the usual fee - plus expenses, Confidential information - it's in my diary..."

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 10:41:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
This is very beautiful and touching.  I hope you deliver it just as you've written it.

"I said, 'Wait a minute, Chester, You know I'm a peaceful man...'" Robbie Robertson
by NearlyNormal on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 10:38:39 AM EST
Very well said. It should help the people you talk to.
by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 02:00:54 PM EST
I agree with everyone else, so I won't repeat. I just have one suggestion: that you give a little thought to this:

people who have lost someone they had a bad relationship with and about whom they felt guilty in any case

It's not that there's no truth there, on the contrary. But I'm trying to imagine myself saying that to a group of bereaved persons and not being sure whom I might be hitting hard without meaning to. And perhaps then finding myself acting as a lightning rod. I suppose I'm thinking that it's a bit close to group therapy, and that's not what you're setting out to do.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 03:08:40 PM EST
Fair comment.  Dodgy  one that. I was just trying to make the point that even having had a very positive relationship with someone - who even had a very positive attitude towards confronting the issues of impending death - doesn't render you immune from feeling very bad about what happened and how it happened;  That just because you feel very guilty doesn't mean you have any reason to be.  I toyed with the idea of introducing the notion of survivor guilt, but that runs the risk of trivialising the whole thing because it is often used in a humourous context.

I'll try and find a more positive way of saying it.  I can only imagine what its like to lose someone because of crime, negligence, suicide, or if you had just had a major row with them.  A friend of a friend hung herself after a nasty family row.  I can't imagine how that family could ever recover.

"It's a mystery to me - the game commences, For the usual fee - plus expenses, Confidential information - it's in my diary..."

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 03:22:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm forwarding the link to a friend who lost her mother from cancer about a year ago now, in the hope that she will send it on to her stepdad.  He's been through a lot of the same pattern -- the blessed denial that kept him functional during her final illness, the guilt and overwhelming grief after her death, and so on.  I think it might help him somehow.

I only wish that Ingrid (the lost mum) had been able to have her wish to stay out of the hospital;  but her pain at the end was so severe that treatments which were legal at home were no longer effective (don't get me started on US drug policy) and she had to be rehospitalised to get adequate pain mitigation.  She died of heart attack while in drug-induced coma, basically;  possibly the best ending that could have been hoped for, but I wish she had been spared that last ambulance ride...

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Sun Mar 2nd, 2008 at 09:58:25 PM EST
Glad if it can help in any way.  Yep - our house began to resemble a pharmacy with OxyContin and other controlled drugs required to control the pain and nausea.  I have to say I cannot fault the much maligned Irish health service in any way, but we were helped by having medical specialists in the family who knew how to work the system.  But the key thing was that Muriel dealt with her disease on her own terms - medics were there to help, but not to control.  I hope I don't have to go through what she went through, but I'm damn sure I will do it on my own terms when the time comes.

"It's a mystery to me - the game commences, For the usual fee - plus expenses, Confidential information - it's in my diary..."
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Mon Mar 3rd, 2008 at 03:45:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
This is a wonderful diary and thanks for sharing it with us.  I've no doubt it will help those who listen, in some way. I hope that the process of putting this together has helped you also. I'm sure it wasn't easy.
by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Tue Mar 4th, 2008 at 06:02:53 AM EST
One thing you say:

...and yet there is always the danger that I might upset someone even more by making a not very well thought through comment or remark.
really brought back some memories for me, for in fact,I've been in that audience you've been in too, and can remember two occasions where this precise thing happens. I know it's just a stage of guilt to get angry about such things, but it's funny how memories of really inappropriate dialogues revolving around grief are themselves vivid too.

Your text is perfect.

In fact, it is better than perfect, because it is good not just for a grieving audience, but actually would be also quite good for those preparing for grief, and this is no mean feet.

Do let us know how your dialogue goes. This is one thing I don't think I'd have the strength to do myself, eight years after..

The Hun is always either at your throat or at your feet. Winston Churchill

by r------ on Wed Mar 5th, 2008 at 08:30:25 AM EST
In Ireland funerals always take place within a couple of days and postmortems are only carried out in the case of suspicious deaths - and even then its all happens very quickly - its all a bit of a blur really, but neighbours and friends rally round and help to organise everything.

I once put my foot in it with a colleague in England.  I was trying to schedule a meeting a couple of weeks ahead and he said that didn't suit because he had to attend a funeral.  Quick as a flash, and without thinking I said - God! Who's going to die?  Fortunately it wasn't a close friend or relative that had died and he saw the funny side of it (I think...)

The Remembrance evening won't be until the end of next month, and there won't be a formal discussion on afterwards, though some people may come up to me afterwards and say a few words.  If I feel its worth reporting on here I'll add another comment - or maybe publish a new Diary if this one has been archived - although I don't want to labour the points already made.  Many thanks for your kind words.

"It's a mystery to me - the game commences, For the usual fee - plus expenses, Confidential information - it's in my diary..."

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Mar 5th, 2008 at 12:28:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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