The day got off to a great start for Marie Roach. For the first time since her husband Charlie’s eye surgery two months earlier, she didn’t have to get out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to give him his daily drops before he left for work. “His words to me as I lay in bed were, ‘Lucky you, you can sleep in,’ ’’ Roach remembers. “Through sleepy vision I could see him smile, lean over and give me a kiss and say that he loved me.’’ Those would be the last words she would ever hear her husband say.
Bees stung Charlie Roach, a local surveyor, while he was working that day. Although he had never previously had an allergic reaction to bee’s sting, he lost consciousness at the job site and never regained it.
“I said goodbye to Charlie in the morning, never knowing how the events of that day would impact myself and my family’s life.’’
The loss of a loved one is always life-changing. But sudden, unexpected loss, like the one Marie Roach experienced, carries with it unique challenges, according to Patti Anewalt, director of Pathways Center for Grief and Loss, part of Hospice & Community Care.
“Your brain goes off-line,” Anewalt says. “Cognitively, you can’t wrap your brain around it.’’
It’s been 13 years since Marie Roach’s husband died, and time has brought some clarity to what was a hazy and dreamlike experience when she was living it.
“I can remember distinctly that feeling of having an out-of-body experience,’’ she says. “Did this really happen to me? There’s an amount of shock that’s deeper and more intense when it’s a sudden loss.’’
‘A happy kid’
Nobody knows that better than Mark Schantzer, whose 21-year-old son Desmond died in 2011 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
“He was a happy kid,’’ says Schantzer. “He had two months left to go to become a diesel mechanic. He already had a job.’’
Schantzer remembers his son spending the weekend putting new brakes and rims on his 2002 Mustang GT.
Sunday night he went out to join his buddies for a couple of drinks, after hearing a reminder from his mom, Debbie, to be mindful of the time since he had class in the morning.
Schantzer remembers looking at his watch at 12:45 a.m. and getting ready to text his son about his whereabouts.
“Then I heard his car, probably a quarter mile away. He had a muffler problem. So I was at ease,’’ Schantzer says.
He heard his son come in the house, go to his room and then leave his room.
Knowing his son was home safe, he says, “I was out like a light.’’
When their son didn’t come downstairs the next morning, the couple began looking for him.
They found his body in their backyard.
“We don’t know why or what happened,’’ Schantzer says. “We don’t know what caused him to take his life. There’s no death like suicide. The pain never goes away.’’
Schantzer and Roach, like countless others, suddenly faced a life-changing reality, a finality they were not prepared for. Their journey following the deaths of their loved ones, like everyone else who has faced it, would be uniquely their own.
But there are similarities in the grieving process.
“The first question is always why,’’ Anewalt says. “Trying to make sense of it goes on a lot longer for a sudden death. People need to talk. They’re needing to try to make sense of it, they need to do it over and over again in order to wrap their brain around it.”
Anewalt says there is a common misconception about grief shared by grieving people and those who support them.
“There are no stages of grief,’’ she explains. “It’s more like three steps forward and two steps back. People want stages because they’re linear.’’
“Mourning is not a process of severing ties to those we love. It’s a transition from loving in presence to loving in absence.”
She stresses there is no timeline to follow, no correct way to grieve. Each individual must find his or her own way.
“I don’t know what you need, but I can help you figure out what you need,’’ Anewalt says.
Pathways Center offers help in the form of individual counseling, support groups and other opportunities.
“Grief is a very primal response,’’ Anewalt says.
“Grieving people always worry, ‘Am I doing this right? Is there something wrong with me?’ They can’t imagine how they’re going to cope. But we’re more resilient than we think.’’
“They come to us feeling victimized and come out on the other side feeling like a survivor.’’
Sudden vs. anticipated
Roach lost her 16-year-old grandson from leukemia only two years before her husband died.
“I’ve had experience with both an anticipated loss and a sudden loss, and have thought about the differences,’’ she says.
“With an anticipated loss, you keep trying to tell yourself there will be a miracle, but you still know deep inside what’s going to happen,’’ she says.
Sudden loss does not afford you the opportunity to psychologically prepare.
And so you’re faced with the question. Why?
“I asked a woman once whose 17-year-old daughter died of cancer, ‘How did you get past the questions?’ ’’ Anewalt says.
“She said, ‘I didn’t. I learned to live with them.’ ”
Living with them means different things to different people.
“Mourning is a process of acquiring skills,’’ Anewalt says. “Often what helps people heal is to find some way to make meaning. That goes back to making sense. What we’re doing is we’re not forgetting.’
For Roach, that means helping others who are experiencing loss. Once counseled by hospice volunteers and staff, she now is the one doing the counseling.
“You can never really understand another person’s loss,’’ she says, “but I can relate to their experience.”
Schantzer has poured himself into organizing the annual Walk for D.E.S. (Detect Early Signs), which raises money for both suicide prevention measures and aids families affected by suicide. He has also taken classes and has become an instructor to help people recognize the warning signs of suicide.’
“We do what we do to hopefully save somebody else,’’ Schantzer says.
“We give back to those impacted by suicide. For funerals, counseling, utility bills, to help them get back on their feet.
“That’s my counseling. That’s what I do. That’s what I do 24/7.”
Making some kind of sense out of sudden death often helps people move on, while keeping their loved ones alive in their hearts.
A quote hangs on the bulletin board in Anewalt’s office. It’s something she reads every day.
“Mourning is not a process of severing ties to those we love. It’s a transition from loving in presence to loving in absence.’’
Finding the best way to do that is a different journey for everyone.