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I’m A New Widow, Grieving In Coronavirus Is Complicated

"My world had fallen apart and shortly afterwards the rest of the world followed suit."

From the moment doctors told us that my husband, Cam, had a bizarre type of cancer, I began to play out the disease in advance. His was the terminal kind, already spread from his gallbladder to his bones, when we were given a hazy “it could be months”.

When I had pockets of time to myself, in hospital waiting rooms or when he was asleep at night, I frantically researched the expected trajectory of his illness. In my quest for certainty I pencilled a date in my mind, that he would be dead in six months – in October, somewhere shortly before or after his 34th birthday. I asked doctors what they thought could happen. Opinions varied from sudden and dramatic, to long and drawn out. I played out all the different possibilities, painting in my imagination what it would look like and how I would act. I saw him get weaker and struggle to eat, planned the time we had left and pondered what to do next. 

We live in the age of mindfulness, but I don’t do that well with being in the moment. My mind has always raced ahead; even in my writing I can picture the published article long before I’ve got the first line. Many of us plan ahead and take comfort in certainty. Who can blame us? From when we’re very young we’re taught that life works in certain and predictable ways; that dessert follows dinner, work hard at school and get a good job, choose a healthy lifestyle and you won’t get cancer (and certainly not at 33). Even in grief we’ve developed stages, to be worked through and ticked off – first comes the denial, then the anger.

olivia jordan
Olivia Jordan Cornelius (Credit: Supplied.)

Cam’s birthday in October was beautifully spontaneous and smooth. We slipped out of the hospital to the beach, forgetting about cancer for a while over his favourite grilled vegan sandwiches. He died several months later than I calculated, as I lay asleep in bed next to him, peacefully and unlike all the scenarios I had imagined. When my grief hit, it also did not go to plan. I shattered through the so-called ‘stages’, and added a hundred more. My world had fallen apart and shortly afterwards the rest of the world followed suit. I was being asked to grieve during coronavirus, to nurse my heartbreak in uncharted times. My pain was heightened by isolation and any fragile sense of security I had left was threatened by a pandemic changing by the minute.

I never saw coronavirus coming. My imagination didn’t stretch that far. If it did, it would predict that grieving in isolation would be impossible without the comfort of my friends, a gym, or cinemas in which to suspend time. Surely there are things you thought you couldn’t live without either, but here we are a few months in and for the most part still standing, though not unbruised. 

Lockdown has been tough, long, and lonely. We have all lost something in this time – some of us big things, like our jobs, and some small reliable things like a weekly yoga class. There has been so much grief to go around, and we’ve all had to find a way through with new routines and different expectations. I live in quiet days in which I process my emotions, broken by a phone call with a friend or a breath of fresh air and a jog. Some of the things that have been lost now won’t come back, for others the verdict is still out. It is a time full of questions without clear answers. A time when we are having to let go of certainty and do the best we can with the extraordinary and unpredictable each day. 

This week, I had an email from a former colleague of Cam’s who shared a photograph of him in the film studios he worked at. Even when he was sick, weak and crippled by chemotherapy, he would wake up, make a peanut butter jelly bagel and head to work. He never gave up. I can’t fully comprehend how he did it or what it must have taken, but I can read his expression in that photograph. It says through his light smile and strong eyes that he’s not giving it all to cancer, nor playing out a future that has not yet happened. He is owning his creativity and that moment. 

None of us know how or when coronavirus will end. I can’t predict what my grief will look like tomorrow, or in a year. The future is uncertain for all of us, but I’ll try and approach it by being a little more Cam. It means weathering the worst storms by gathering what you’ve got now and keeping going. Perhaps that’s my own brand of mindfulness after all.

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