My husband had a stroke seven years ago which destroyed speech, all of the use of his right hand, and some of the power of his right leg. Fortunately, his cognitive ability was unimpaired.
We were forced together to find ways in which we could understand each other, and new ways in which to express our love.
As we had prayed together every 47 years of our married life, I looked first at prayer to see whether it could provide a link, a new way of communication for us.
I used ‘Celebrating Common Prayer’ published by the Society of St Francis, which followed the Churches year, and had different services each day for morning and evening prayer. I sat beside John so that he could see the text as I read the prayers. I knew he could still read from his attention to the many cards which we had received from friends.
He joined in with his speech, which I believed was composed accurately in his head, but which came out garbled, but with the correct rhythm. Sometimes the ‘correct’ words like ‘God’ or ‘Father’ would chime in.
These times were very important in many ways. They were a great strength to me, that we could share the agonies of this time with our Father. I think they were equally important to John, as he would point at the Prayer Book when he wanted its prayers in the evening.
Also, I began to realise that prayer was the bridge between John and myself. Without the possibility of the daily conversations which we used to have with each other when he was well, I could have felt very shut out of his present life. Instead through prayer I felt that he and I were still close to each other, although I was not able to care for him under the same roof.
The use of symbols was another way in which we could still relate to each other. In the early weeks after the onset of his stroke, he was at a very low level of consciousness. I let him finger my wedding and engagement rings and I talked about how we had chosen my engagement ring in London, and how much I had cherished it.
Next I took into the hospital for him a handholding cross, which had been carved in Palestine. I had given it to him about a year before and it usually lay on his study desk. He clasped it in his good hand, and I knew he recognised it. As his level of consciousness grew, he made it clear that he would like me to take it away.
Music became a very important vehicle of affection between us. His musical taste had changed. He used to enjoy the symphonies of Shostakovich, but now he found them too loud and shrank from them. Instead, he often selected from early church music CDs which I brought in. We both sighed with pleasure as we listened to the Allegri ‘Miserere’
John was still able to sing, even though he couldn’t speak. When singing he usually used the correct words. So, we sang hymns together as I pushed him in a wheelchair around the lovely grounds of the rehabilitation centre. I remember singing ‘Praise to the Holiest in the Height’ under a cherry tree as it was the period of the sanctification of the author Cardinal Newman!
This singing was good for John’s vocal cords, but it was also a form of conversation between us and God.
John moved after about 10 months in rehabilitation to a nursing home. At times my energy flagged, and I did not know how to keep our hope alive. I asked a friend who had cared for her husband for 22 years how she had done it. She replied, ’We still have our moments of grace Jean. Even though now Francis (her husband) is in vascular dementia sometimes in the evening when I read him a prayer by Jim Cotter from his ‘Prayers for the Night’ Frances will show clearly that he has heard the prayer.
This phrase ‘moments of grace’ helped me considerably. Although sometimes I felt overcome by the demands of a situation, if I stopped to look for these moments of grace, I realised we still had dozens of them. We still kissed and hugged, we still laughed together and with friends, we still listened to music together, we went for outings and we still prayed together.
A Time to Say Goodbye
Many friends have told me that they wished they had told their partners that they loved them before they died and that they had had the opportunity to say goodbye to them.
My husband John lived for nearly three years after his first stoke. I did not know then how much time we would still have together, but as the months moved on, I began to draw together the memories of our life together, and to say ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you’ to him.
I used photographs of favourite holidays and a diary that he had kept of all our visits to Canada. I used favourite music and I talked to him about many things.
I reminded him of the phases of his ministry, of his beloved parishes, of his work as Chaplain to local government, and finally his work as Adviser in Ministry to the Bishop of Lichfield concerned with its in-service training for both laity and clergy in the diocese.
I thanked him for all he had given to me; so much encouragement and love and nurturing. I thanked him for the many travels we undertook together. I recalled the satisfaction and joy we both shared as we jointly ran courses for all the clergy in the Lichfield diocese in understanding the Myers – Briggs Theories of Personality.
This was in the last years before retirement from Lichfield.
I thanked him for our children and through them for our beloved grandchildren. I thanked him for the lovely homes we helped to make together, and for the hospitality we shared there.
I thanked him for our sharing in membership of the Iona Community, which brought so much richness to our whole family as we shared in pilgrimage together.
There was so much to thank him, and God, for in our life together.
Living under Grace
At first when John was ill, I felt that he was the sufferer for whom I must intercede, and that I was the one who was well. However, as the months grew into years, I felt a profound change. I realised that we were both suffering in different ways, and that I needed to ask for God’s help and healing for us both. It seemed to me that we were two people living under grace through a very difficult time.
At one stage, the situation was so painful that all I could pray was ‘Lord have mercy on us.’ Over and over again I prayed this, not because I believed that God had brought affliction on us, but because I believed strongly He could bear our sorrows, and would never desert us. I do not think in my personal intercessions that I have prayed like this before.
Learning to relate to the Communion of Saints
After John’s death I asked a few wise friends how I could continue to have some kind of relationship with John. One of his ex-curates told me that in the Eucharist you are as close as you can be to Christ, so it is in the Eucharist that you are also close to the Communion of Saints.
I found the Eucharist in the early stages of John’s illness to be the time when I felt most tearful and most conscious that I was partaking when he was no longer either presiding or kneeling beside me.
As he improved and I was able to take him back to church, I no longer found the Eucharist as an occasion for tears, but rather a very intimate, sharing and comforting time.
Now he is dead I do not weep at the Eucharist. I try to imagine what the banquet in heaven is like for the saints. I pray for John although he no longer needs my prayers, and I also add other special petitions.
I think that tears in my situation in a time of loss were often a form of conversation. I couldn’t talk about loss, but I could cry. These tears were in a way the opening up of my heart to God to ask for his consoling.
The use of Ritual
I find it helps me in my grieving to have some rituals connected with our marriage and life together.
When I visit his grave on anniversaries, I take a specially selected stone from Iona which I tuck under the tombstone, as a sign that I have visited.
I light candles in places like Durham Cathedral where he was ordained, and I note his daughters and the grandchildren are also lighting candles in his memory.
My birthday I try to celebrate with a friend as I cannot any longer celebrate it with John. On the day which would have been our Golden Wedding, he had died three years before we reached it, I went to Edinburgh Botanical Gardens to walk with a friend, to admire the flowers, to talk a little about our husbands, she was a fellow widow, and to lunch.
I find it helps me to think that I am still part of one family, one member of which is in heaven, while my daughters and I, my sons in law and our beloved grandchildren are here on earth.
I am comforted by a strong belief that in some way my spirit may meet John’s in the kingdom of heaven.