Wednesday, April 19, 2017

#SOL17: A New Self-Narrative

(M.A. Reilly, 2017)

Trauma opens up another world to the observer, and thus, in a tragic sense, creates an opportunity to see what would otherwise have remained deeply hidden.”  Ron Eyerman (2011)

Memory is not stable, nor is it singular. It arises in response to need. Sociologist, Sandra Gill, explains that "the past is always a part of the present, yet how it is remembered changes as new needs arise." Her comments resonate as I think about the profoundly different ways I recall Rob's death in this second year.  For example, I recently came across an image I had made of Rob as he was nearing death.  At the time, I didn't recall knowing he was so near death.  Now, I can see how death dogged his features: the change in skin color, the blotchiness, the loosened mouth and slacked jaw, the sunken temples.  I see it all so much more acutely now, knowing that in the hours that followed, Rob would die. The body left behind was no longer him. Knowing this trajectory changes how I remember him and how these memories (in)form who I am becoming.

Part of grieving is assembling a new self-narrative--for me this is one that incorporates the suddenness of Rob's death. Rob went from being asymptomatic, to experiencing a pain in his side, to stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis, a host of medical complications and surgeries, a reliance on pain meds, paralysis, and then death at home within 6 months. I knew bad things happen, but I never imagined such a frightening and speedy death would befall my husband.  I was only 56 when Rob was diagnosed and our son was just 16. It was the end of the summer and I had not imagined my husband would die before spring arrived. I thought the pain he was feeling would likely be muscular and that he would add a pill to his morning routines. It simply never occurred to me that a few months later my husband would be dead.  Even when the prognosis was changes to terminal, I thought Rob and I would have time to say what we each needed to say, to spend some time during those last 3 weeks in more intimate ways. Little of that happened as Rob's deterioration was so rapid.  Further, of those 6 months --100 days were spent in hospitals and the last 20 days of his life was spent at home under hospice care.  Just 2 out of the 6 months were actually spent at home and during that time Rob quickly became less and less ambulatory, until paralysis set in. In the matter of weeks Rob went from walking, to walking with a cane and then a walker, to needing to use a transport chair to paralysis. It all went so quickly. And it is this reality that I now need to integrate into a self-narrative. For now I know that one moment I can be planning a holiday in Maine and the next I am planning a memorial service for a man who always seemed so indomitable.

Losing Rob altered who I am and am becoming. The future we planned is gone. A sense of mortality has been sharpened and this feels even more acute when I consider I am now a single parent to a teenager and my wealth potential has been reduced in half. Gone are Rob's pension and social security. Gone is the wealth he would have generated--wealth we had intended to save for Dev's college payments and our retirement. Now, our son's welfare rests on my shoulders and this too needs to be integrated into that narrative of self.

Grief is never as simple as accepting the reality of a death.  Rather, it is acceptance and the construction of a new self-narrative--one that incorporates these new realities.


Eyerman, Ron. 2011. The Cultural Sociology of Political Assassination: From MLK and RFK to Fortuyn and van Gogh. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Gill, Sandra. 2017. Whites Recall the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham: We Didn’t Know it was History until after it Happened (Cultural Sociology). Springer International Publishing. 


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  2. This.....all of it is all too familiar with a few subtle differences. This day a year ago marks Jerry's diagnosis and tomorrow marks his surgery where we were told they got it all and dozens of times was reminded, "he is not going to die from this." Following the procedure he felt great, then through the summer he was in so much pain and fatigued. "This is not cancer," we were told, so we went down a few too many rabbit holes. On our 36th wedding anniversary spent in a hospital 6 hours from our home (trying to seek expert treatment and answers), we learned that the cancer was in every bone in his body and in his brain. He died 26 days later. Unimaginable. Earlier in the summer we were spinning, hiking and kayaking. Unbelievable. I too am a single parent of a 17 year old with 7 other children. My income slashed in half, but we carry the same bills. All this is so overwhelming at times. I do my best to focus on blessings in the midst of this tragedy. I am so so sorry that this happened to our husbands and to our families. Big hugs.....big hugs. It is just plain sad sometimes.

    1. It is sad and as I read what you have written I realize that it is terrible and common. Rob had neurosurgery 7 weeks before he died. We had been told he could not have the surgery unless he had a year to live. 4 weeks later we would be told he was terminal. I think the doctors simply don't know.

    2. If they don't know.....I think it best to be cautious about what you relate to the patient and the families who hang on every word. I remember trying to read the doctor's body language (expert from Dana Farber) he sighed and blow out through his mouth before he spoke. I knew it wasn't good. He admitted he didn't know. The care in Boston was spectacular. We did not get the answers we wanted to hear, but there was a degree of comfort knowing something!!! We hang onto hope. There are always exceptions....

    3. I was hoping for an exception too. We all were. It still shocks me.


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