Put yourself in this scenario: Your name is Judy. Your husband’s name is Bob. Together you have discovered Lake Chapala in central Mexico (for Bob it is “love at first sight”) and there you have recently purchased your retirement home, where “One entire sliding-glass wall opened onto a view of the lake … and palm trees … spilled down the mountainside into the village.”
Enthusiastic, you both return to the states to sell most of the contents of your house in California and to pack up for the move to your dream home in the tropical mountains of central Mexico.
Bob has irritating pains in his legs and has been tired and listless. You, Judy, in late August take him for medical tests, and the results will be available the following Monday.
On Monday, your van is fully packed and you are ready to head south of the border when the test results arrive: Bob has liver and pancreatic cancer and has only a few months to live.
Three weeks later, on September 18, 2001, Bob passes away at your home in California.
One of the last things he said to Judy was “I think you should go ahead and go down to Mexico.”
Lessons from a Grief Diary by Judy Dykstra-Brown and Anthony Moriarty, Ph.D., is the story of one woman’s grief and how Mexico helped heal her.
“By November 28, I was sitting in Mexico in a house totally devoid of furniture and appliances, surrounded by mounds of books, art supplies, four Walmart folding canvas chairs and a mountain of plastic storage boxes. Among them were Bob’s clothes, books, tools and art supplies that had already been packed up in our van before we learned of his illness and that I hadn’t been able to bring myself to remove.”
Letters from a Grief Diary is a collection of hundreds of journal entries, dated from September 3, 2001 to September 18, 2011, organized chronologically into chapters. In each chapter Judy’s journal entries are followed by the commentaries of clinical psychologist Anthony Moriarty, Ph.D., who became fascinated by the private material Judy had provided: “She wrote the following material as the events unfolded during this very stressful time in her life. In the beginning, she had no intention of sharing her thoughts and feelings with anyone other than a good friend or two, and certainly never thought her words would be made public. The result is a record of what she felt and thought before her thoughts or feelings were altered or amended by reflection.”
The first half of the book is about the final days and then death of her husband Bob, a difficult man much of their years together: “I have to remember that there were always two Bobs and that the nasty one was sometimes more in evidence than the loving one. It seems the more I do for him, the more the nasty Bob comes out. That was always true. This is very tricky. How far do you let someone go, taking into account their pain and the fact that they are dying? Should they get away with anything they wish?” The first half also covers the memorial service and the myriad of emotions that Judy must struggle with in the weeks that follow Bob’s death.
The second half of the book finds Judy in her new home in Mexico beginning her new life.
Judy, on her first night in Mexico, exactly two months after Bob died, writes: “For some friends, it seems impossible that I have chosen to mourn Bob totally alone in this place where no one knows him; but for me it seems appropriate. Here, dead loved ones do not vanish into a void.” She adds a note to this long entry: “I must say that after so much sadness, angst, emotion and responsibility, the simplicity of my life in Mexico was a welcome change. Some things were harder, but the number of things to be dealt with was fewer. I had no furniture, no friends, no clubs to attend to, or people to care for. Here I could immerse myself in my writing and in observing this strange new life around me.” As she begins to settle in, Tony comments that “From total exhaustion, she emerges with a new sense of vitality.” He adds, “We watch her shift from what was lost to what has been gained.”
Judy also comes to realize that exploring retirement destinations with Bob was a wonderful thing: “That time in Mexico was probably the happiest eight weeks of our marriage.”
But she also remembers some lines from George Bernard Shaw’s play, Man and Superman, “Even the death of someone you love brings with it a certain satisfaction of finally being done with them.”
She is ready for a new life.
“Yes, I have lost my life’s companion of 15 years, my art collaborator, my loyal supporter and the love of my life. But I’ve also lost my severest critic, the man who for 15 years usurped my side of the bed, and the man who criticized my healthy cooking and left his shoes strewn like unstrung pearls throughout the house. I can stay up all night writing or reading or watching movies with no guilt. I can cook and eat exactly what I crave, have friends over whenever I wish and use every inch of closet space for myself.”
Note: At the end of the book is an appendix of useful information by both Tony and Judy, “Suggestions for Handling Grief.” Judy’s last suggestion, Number 16, is this: “Finally, post this quotation somewhere where you will see it every day:
‘When one door closes, another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.’ Alexander Graham Bell”
Following this appendix is another appendix, “Further Reading Recommendations,” in which Tony briefly discusses books like The Truth about Grief: The Myth of the Five Stages and the New Science of Loss by Ruth Davis Konigsberg, who draws highly critical conclusions about the work of Kubler-Ross and about the funeral industry that “strives to maintain the myth of grief, as it is popularly defined.”
‘Lessons from a Grief Diary’ by Judy Dykstra-Brown and Anthony Moriarty, Ph.D.
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