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Despite complaints, widow’s loss is very real

Q: My cousin had a terrible marriage to a very difficult man and she complained about her husband until the day he died. Do I even need to send her a card? And if yes, how do I say anything nice about the dead husband?

A: Yes, send a card.

Guay Tippett, a Spokane marriage and family counselor, says: “Regardless of the character of the deceased, or the nature of the relationship, the attachment and loss for the widow are real and deserve acknowledgement.”

Your cousin may need more support than a friend who loses a spouse she genuinely liked and loved. A complicated marriage often leads to complicated grief.

As Tippett explains: “While it is possible to experience some relief with the death of a partner, there can be increased guilt related to the grief, as well as exacerbated anger. Sadness can manifest for multiple reasons: loss of hope for reconciliation, loss of quality of life over many decades, and/or loss of the dream or fantasy of the potential of the person and the relationship.”

The widowed in unhappy marriages often keep their complicated grief private. Your cousin might even feel ashamed to feel grief, considering how much she complained when her husband was alive.

Celebrities have been more open about this unique grief.

Singer and actress Cher, for instance, had a messy breakup with Sonny Bono in 1975. Yet when Bono (who had a happy marriage after Cher) died more than 20 years later in a skiing accident, Cher delivered an emotion-filled eulogy. She has said that Bono’s death is “something I never plan to get over.”

In your condolence card to your cousin, don’t mention the relief you think she is feeling. She might deny it. Or gloss over the relationship’s hostility.

“A not unusual response, though often baffling for friends and relatives, is the idealization of the partner as a defense for the painful mixed feelings of loss,” Tippett says.

Also in your condolence card, pick out one positive characteristic about your cousin’s dead husband and then elaborate. Was he a good cook? A handy fixer-upper? Did he have a nice singing voice?

As your cousin mourns a man she seemed to hate – yet stayed with to the end – she will appreciate your simple remembrances of this complex person.

Q: Should you visit someone when they are dying?

A: Our own attitude toward death and dying strongly influences our decision to visit or not visit a dying person. So examine your feelings. If you are anxious or fearful, you could communicate that anxiety and fear. Working through your own feelings will make a visit comfortable and meaningful.

Hospice chaplain Debbie Hutton, of Olympia, says, “I hear so often the comment ‘I want to remember them as they were.’ This (attitude) is very hurtful for the dying person. Visiting a friend or family member is a gift of time to share memories and gratitude for a relationship, a time for healing old wounds, a time to say ‘goodbye’ for both.”

A dying person may need rest, but still be able to converse, make decisions and enjoy some of their favorite activities. An actively dying person may have only a few days or hours to live, be unable to communicate and must depend on others to decide who visits.

If you want to visit, always call and ask permission. If someone requests that you stay only 15 minutes, stay only 15 minutes. Time becomes precious when it is slipping away.

Washington Post columnist Marjorie Williams, who died of cancer in 2005, wrote about the freedom that comes when you are gravely ill. You can finally say no to requests for your time, she pointed out in her book “The Woman at the Washington Zoo.”

“If you have ever told yourself, breezily, that life is too short to spend any of it with your childhood neighbor’s annoying husband, those words now take on the gleeful raiment of simple fact. The knowledge that time’s expenditure is important, that it is up to you, is one of the headiest freedoms you will ever feel.”

Actively dying people must rely on gatekeepers to determine who visits. So call, and be very specific. A helpful request might sound like this: “I am John’s co-worker, we’ve worked together for 22 years, and I want to stop by after work, stay for 30 minutes to sit with him. Will that work?”

If your offer to visit is refused, be gracious. Do not say, “I know John would want to see me.” Send a card instead. Reaching out to dying people is a gift directed by their wishes not yours.

Time shared with a dying person offers sacred moments for them and for you. Transcend any hesitation you have to reach out. Offering compassion amid suffering seldom brings regrets, but missed opportunities do.

Catherine Johnston, a health care professional from Olympia, and Rebecca Nappi, Spokesman-Review features writer, welcome your questions about what to do in times of illness, dying, death and grief. Contact them through their blog at endnotes.

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