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Working through grief

July 2, 2009 - Betsy Bethel
Grief is a strange thing. I go to a lot of funerals because people hire me to play the bagpipes. I am almost always touched by the services and wish I had known the person before he or she died. I also often am impressed by the minister's words of comfort as he or she quotes appropriate Bible passages and assures the mourners of the promise of a new and glorious life beyond this one.

Now that I am facing the death of a dear friend, however, that comfort seems to be eluding me.

My friend, Derek, is a high-spirited native of Glasgow, Scotland. He is 52 and serves as our pipe band's leader. Mustachioed, wiry and hilarious (if you can understand him through his thick brogue), he is a master level piper and a fantastic pipe major. He really has whipped our band into ship-shape since taking the helm last September.

At the end of January, the cancer was discovered. It was in his bile ducts and throughout his innards. Stage 4. Nothing to be done. In May, however, he underwent a mega-dose of chemo. It may have helped shrink the tumors, but a few weeks later, he developed deep vein thrombosis. A week after that, he had a heart attack. The following week he came to band practice looking jaundiced and completely worn out. He had no appetite. He was functional, he admitted, only because of the oxycodone he had been prescribed. A few days later, high doses of blood thinners he was on made him bleed through his skin. He went back in the hospital where they tried to stabilize him. A week ago today, he was released to a hospice house.

I've seen him three times since then, and each time he was markedly worse. Last night, he could not talk or open his eyes. I held his hand and talked to him for awhile about whatever came to mind. He grunted when I said goodbye.

When my grandmother died suddenly of a heart attack in 1991, it was a shock like I'd never experienced before. It was crushing, suffocating, unimaginable grief.

This is so different. I am fortunate that this is the first time anyone I've been good friends with has suffered with terminal cancer. It's the first time, in fact, a good friend of mine has been this close to death.

I feel I have been grieving since I first learned he had cancer in January. It's a less intense, come-and-go, shadowy kind of grief, like the hide-and-seek game the sun plays with the clouds on the hills and braes of Scotland. Shining moments of clarity and happiness are clouded over in an instant when dark reality hits.

They say it's easier to let go when you see Death pulling someone farther and farther away over time. They say it's better when the long suffering ends. That it's a relief. The wonderful thing about hospice care is you have the peace of mind that the patient is comfortable and not suffering. He is dying peacefully. But I can still see that it will be a relief for Derek when it is over.

It's easy to type those words and to accept them when the minister speaks them at the funeral of a stranger. But now that it's my turn to grieve, my heart, mind and soul are resisting. Derek is only 52. He has two young adult children and an 11-year-old son. He has so much to give! I am finding it difficult to accept that his end is so near.

Writing this is helping me to begin the process of acceptance, however. A change has come over me as I have typed these words. I can see now that relief really will eventually come for those Derek is leaving behind.

I feel like there's a boulder on my chest, and suspended above it is an even larger rock that is waiting to fall. When it does, when Derek moves from this life to the next, the boulders will crash into each other and break into a million pieces, causing sharp pain at first and perhaps even resulting in some bleeding. The constant pressure and anxiety will be gone, however. And I will cherish the scar or two that remain as reminders of my friend.


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