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Grief Woman to Woman

Updated on July 10, 2013
A quiet moment is captured at our ceremony.    copyright 1996
A quiet moment is captured at our ceremony. copyright 1996

I Lost Her to Ovarian Cancer

Fourteen years before I lost Debbie to Ovarian cancer, we celebrated our ceremony of commitment. The state of California did not legally recognize our relationship as a marriage. We could not share in the many rights that heterosexual married couples have. However,our hearts would not allow that simple fact to alter the commitment and love that we felt for one another. Holding her face in my hands, I felt the treasures of her warmth pressing gently to my palms. She was amazing and kind and my wife!

The Wretched Day of Passing Arrives

June 6Th 2008, 11:37 pm. The love of my life passes to a better place as I hold her in my trembling arms. Her “fish out of water” breathing has been the norm for a day and a half now. It is so unbearable to watch. Her loss of bladder control, speech and the ability to move her own body, it is horrifying at best.

I knew the end was coming swiftly. Only able to nestle as close to her as I possibly could to hold her. I softly whispered to her, “It’s okay baby, just rest now, you have fought long enough, no one could have won this fight, you are my super hero.” I watch her struggle to continue the fight, it is uncanny the strength this woman possesses.

Family and friends are at our home offering support and to wish my love farewell; I have never witnessed such a thing. Friends & family, holding her little hand, so frail now, so vulnerable now, so weak. They each tell her goodbye and speak of how much they love her. Laying tightly to her in the hospital bed positioned in front of our living room window, I never thought that ten days ago, when I called 911, that it would be the final 240 hours of her life.

The sun sets on a beautiful life...

photo by India Arnold   copyright 2006
photo by India Arnold copyright 2006

Lesbian Symbol Rings

The ten days in the hospital were arduous and terrifyingly painful for Deb. They had to place a drain tube in her right side to free her lung of well over 2 litters of fluid. Then a talc material was used not once, but twice, to adhere her lung to the wall of her chest. This was in an attempt to prevent more fluid from building around the exterior wall of her lung. Three times she had to undergo the drainage of chest fluid. Three times...I could not have found the courage to face this experience even once.

Deb explained the sensation as feeling certain she was going to die right then and there. She told of the sheer panic in having a lung 're-expanding'; even as her expression spoke louder than those words during the actual procedure, so I am told. You see, Debbie had to be awake for this kind of procedure, why, I do not know. She said she felt as tho she was suffocating and on the verge of imminent death. She maintained her bravery and endured the awful procedure with grace and courage. I can’t recall a situation in my life that took greater personal strength than that which Debbie exuded. I was amazed by her.

Hold on, here I go...

Following my beautiful wife's departure, I wrote an email to our dear friend Sherilyn. She was and continues to be a wonderful friend and more family to me than some of the same blood. She went through the cancer ordeal with us, side by side, by side.

The awareness of the loss spun me into a depression that, two years later, I still battle. This was one of many outburst that occurred as I attempted to deal with the grief and loss of my lesbian spouse. Where do I go for understanding? *Why is my loss any less devastating than that of a Hetero couple? More on this later...(see below, 'Lesbian grief is deeper than Hetero grief')

The email reads as follows;

Hi Sher,

Every so often I seem to lose myself in thoughts of my Debbie. The tears at times seem to rule my actions to the point where I find myself absent of control...I am told this will pass with time. I truly hope this to be true. I expect her to cross a threshold or come through the door or pull in the driveway... I suppose these are things that take longer to forget than others. I am bewildered at just how lost I find myself daily, almost frightening if I dwell there to long.

I hug her jacket or her clothing to find the faint scent of her, but nothing of her hugs me in return,... it's as if my mind believes one thing and my reality has become another. I'm really not so sure I can make it through this pain. I love that woman so deeply that even the inside of my flesh screams in agony at the recollection of her passing. I find my control to be slipping away. My logical mind knows this is just the mourning process, however; my heart does not care what you call it, it only knows it has been fractured, fragmented and turned to dust. Something I have no control over. It just simply is.

I keep hearing how I am simply human and these feeling are to be expected. I find the concept to be trite and truly inhuman. I may certainly be a simple human, however the love we two shared was far beyond that which most know to be human emotion. It had become an entity of it's own creation, even alien to those who simply love one another. The depth is so north of our feet that it rarely remained of this earth. To recall being held in that woman's arms, feeling her body share itself with me, so gracious, so giving, so united, only serves to remind me that I shall never be so safe, pleasured or entwined in love the rest of of my living days.

At this point Sher, I truly know nothing. I don't know if I will see tomorrow, or if I will feel sunlight as before or if I will return to my mind with thoughts which I can comprehend as my own. Without her, I guess it doesn't really matter, without her it is simply existence, waking up and walking through life in some sort of Zombie-esq manner. I just wish I could be with her, next to her again. To breathe deeply-in her scent and see clearly her smiling eyes. Until then, I walk; walk through this place with her name dancing on my lips and her memory playing over and over again in my brain, waiting for the moment when I can join her again.

Deb hard at work for the Sheriff's department transportation unit.    copyright 2005
Deb hard at work for the Sheriff's department transportation unit. copyright 2005

She agreed, which was even more shocking!

The entire horrifying situation came to our attention one evening in August 2007. My wife of 14 years, Debbie, who was 40 years young worked as an officer with the Butte County Sheriff’s department. She was a strong, vibrant, positive, funny and intelligent woman with the purest of heart. She had been experiencing some lower back pains and discomfort in her abdominal area, bloating of sorts. Now, you have to understand that Debbie also carried the burden of rheumatoid arthritis. So, she usually had some intense pain somewhere throughout her body. But this woman went to work everyday, worked overtime and on some evenings at home would work on reports or itineraries for the Officers Association (for which she was president). So, my point is, pain was nothing new to her. She would just power through the day in what seemed to be perpetual motion.

One evening she came home from work with an exceptional pain in her lower back; so much so that she fell to her knees at the foot of our bed placing her head down in an attempt to find some… any relief. Seeing her in this kind of extreme pain was shocking. I immediately insisted that we take a ride to the emergency room right then. She agreed, which was even more shocking!

We drove the block and a half to the emergency room where they got her right in. She was still in her Sheriff's uniform which was like a free pass, no waiting around in the lobby. The place was a mad house. No rooms were available due to the high volume of emergencies that night. Those emergencies included a fatal car accident that took a very young girls life...drinking and driving are a deadly cocktail to be sure. The staff was wonderful and managed to find her a gurney to stretch out on in the hallway. An IV was started so they could administer some pain medication. She claimed she was getting some relief from the medication. But, no matter what she tried to tell me, I could see in her eyes that my sweet, brave wife was still in much, too much pain.

lesbian grief

Equal Human Rights Stickers

Who Hopes For Kidney Stones?

The minutes turned to multiple hours until a room became available. They got her out of the hallway and into a room and started examining her. All of her symptoms seemed to be indicative of kidney stones. So much so, that after she gave a urine sample the staff was certain it was the stones causing the pain. They drew to this conclusion because blood was found in the sample and this is a sure sign that the kidney stones were the most probable culprit...if only . Just one thing the doctor failed to ask about…yep, you guessed it ladies... Deb was on her menstrual cycle and was bleeding. After bringing this to the attending Doctor’s attention and requesting that he do a CT (a scan that shows internal conditions of the body, something like an X-ray), they took her for the “photo session”. After about 45 minutes she came back to the ER room and we waited to see what, if anything was found.

We were hoping for the kidney stones, but we didn’t want to miss anything that may not be the stones. The wait was rather lengthy and as it often does, boredom and impatience start to creep in. I tried to settle down and regain proper direction as to why we were in the ER. The noise and playful antics of the young couple across the hall from us became distracting. The longer we waited the more difficult it became for me to hold my tongue and simply continue to wait. I really didn’t want to upset Deb, but I gotta tell ya, I truly wanted to give these two a lesson in proper ER etiquette. But, going 'off' on them could have caused Deb stress and that would just be self serving on my part. So, I cooled my jets and let it go. We continued to wait...

A LGBT family isn't so different after all!
A LGBT family isn't so different after all! | Source

"Bedside manners? We don't need no stinking bedside manners!"

The Doctor returned to the ER room where we were waiting. His once curt and ‘angry guy’ personality had subdued to an arms folded, shoulders raised and head down demeanor. This was quite obvious and had me instantly on alert and caused me to shift forward in my chair. Deb was medicated so she was less aware of his Mr. Hyde to Dr. Jeckle transformation. With guarded posture he blurts out with no bedside manner,

“The specialist reviewed your results and found that you have huge masses that look like ovarian cancer. You have to get in to see a specialist immediately because you need treatment right away.”

The recollection of my response is blurred, but I believe it went something like this;

"...Wait", "...what?", "Huge masses of what?", "... Cancer?", "... Ovarian?", "Specialist?", "...You're kidding right?" , "...It was just Kidney stones when you were in here last time!",

"...Oh my God, Ovarian Cancer."

My mind swayed to the thought,

"where is this guys' bedside manners?"

Then, what I imagine to be a shock induced reaction, I spouted out,

"Bedside manners? We don't need no stinking bedside manners!".

To which the doctor responded,

"Someone will be right in to give you some information",

and he shot out the door. Our lives would never be the same or as beautiful again .

Portraite in February 2005   Photo by Dean Gurr
Portraite in February 2005 Photo by Dean Gurr

Just her eyes locked on mine...

I had in the same moment encountered my deepest fear as well as the pure courage. Fear twisted around where I stood, pulling me to my knees. I knew this to be the end of everything important in my life. Yet at that very moment, the deepest bit of myself found strength and capabilities beyond that which I believed to possess.

My breathing became constricted and consciously voluntary as I strained to hold back tears which at the edge of my eye lids seemed to weigh a thousand pounds. They were jumping off and conspicuously trailing down my face. I struggled to swallow the missing moisture within my mouth. The visceral response my body encountered brought with it bartering and the desire to convince myself that, “Ovarian Cancer”, was not the diagnosis just given to my beautiful wife.

As a screening within my mind takes place, I saw the actively bright and crystal clear future we had planned together now fading to a low grade black and white 1930’s circa flick, as it slips its reel and tangles around and around the projector sprocket as the knowledge of cancer sinks in. The many years to grow old together,… the promise to always be by each others side,… the immense desire to simply fill the years with endless caresses and a plethora of passion..., gone. A love story for the ages, or so we thought. Cut short by a beast which lurks in the shadows, lying and teasing and murdering its prey with absence of compassion. A flurry of infestation not unlike that of Locusts during a feeding frenzy. What’s left behind is the desolate shell of a woman, my wife, who once was and is no more that which she chose to be.

Her eyes locked to mine and mine to hers. The attempt to reassure one another was thick in the room. We both were aware of the others disbelief. This moment, this very moment a shift in dynamics took place. No words spoken, none written, not a gesture in play. Just her eyes locked on mine in a silent wordless conversation that searched for any way out. This changed the rolls of our existence as humans forever. At that moment we were no longer within our bodies. It seemed as if what breathes within us had lifted free of our carcasses and was now observing from a suspended location above all others in the room. In my heart the cancer had already taken the wind from her sail, worst of all, I had no idea how to help her and I certainly couldn’t make it all go away... if only it were that simple.

I am certain that the many words thrown at us, survivability percentages, and test results; none of which offered any reassurance, were the cause for the odd reaction we encountered. What lingers with me to this day is that I was overcome by my inadequacies to save the woman I love. 10 months later while lying in my arms, her mother holding her hand, our home filled with friends and family from all walks of life, Debbie took her final breath. The reality is that, from a medical stand point, no one was able to make any difference . From a personal stand point, my heart weeps when I recall that very fact...

Deb's favorite self portrate taken in the balcony doorway of our stateroom while cruising to Mexico years prior to her cancer diagnosis. (Debbie on the right)  copyright 2004
Deb's favorite self portrate taken in the balcony doorway of our stateroom while cruising to Mexico years prior to her cancer diagnosis. (Debbie on the right) copyright 2004

*Lesbian grief is deeper than hetero grief

Okay. So here we are. The, “More on that later” part…” The real reason for this article. When I lost Debbie to Ovarian Cancer 10 months following her diagnosis, I was frozen in time. I had this wonderful family and circle of friends for support (which many LGBT don’t have). But, the issue of grief was out of their scope of knowledge or ability. And besides, they were contending with their own grief when Debbie passed away.

Grief was something I knew nothing about. I had no idea how to grieve (Yes.You have to learn how to grieve). I had to do some research to discover what to expect and where to begin. I knew that when you went to build something, a house, a contract or a future, you needed to have materials and tools to build with. These same requirements must have held true with grief, or so I presumed. I had to acquire the materials and tools to complete the grieving process, hell, to even start the process. Having the gift of knowledge along with the proper tools would allow me to set sail in a healing direction. Thus, the search began.

"Just keep breathing"

I discovered that to some extent, we naturally go through the phases of grief. But, if we plan to come out on the other side of grief somewhat congealed, we need tools. The best and first tool I acquired during that time was a three word sentence given to me by Dan Young, one of Debbie's good friends and a sergeant she worked with at the Sheriff's department. It was the day before we took Debbie home to complete her journey here on earth. Dan walked me through the hallway of the hospital heading for the elevator. As Dan and his wife Janice stood with me waiting for the elevator in the Hospital hallway, the fear and uncertainty welled up and flowed over into an emotional panic. Words burst out of me with their own agenda aimed right for Dan,

"How am I going to live without her? What am I supposed to do?"

Through tough guy dampened eyes, He simply Told me,

"Just keep breathing."

Wow. What a huge statement that became over the next two years! That simple concept seemed so ridiculous and stoic, yet became the mantra that brought me through the worst moments. To this very day those three words keep my sails full and righted toward continued healing.

lesbian grief

Lesbian Widows: Invisible grief by Dr.Vicky Whipple

And So, I Just Kept Breathing...

I found out some interesting things during my healing process. For example, while doing some comparisons on how women grieve, I discovered one very liberating and still surprising fact.; lesbians' grief is deeper than hetero grief. Everyone seems to be aware that when a straight woman loses her husband of many years she is in anguish. How much he meant to her is clear by the title of husband attached to the relationship. That he was the love of her life and the one true thing she could always count upon, it is implied. Now he is gone and her broken heart lingers battered yet unashamed. Her community understands when she begins to shout of her loss atop a mountain or even at the town hall meeting. On the other side of the coin (or On the other team), when a lesbian loses her female companion of many years and she feels all of those same emotions and anguish, she is supposed to grieve quietly. Everyone knows the two were “together” and that she surely feels badly, but she is supposed to keep it to herself or only talk to her family and close friends about it. It is as if she doesn't have the ‘RIGHT’ of full disclosure. The community knows them as a couple, but they just don’t want to talk about it (unless she's out of the room). The comparison is rarely noticed or spoke of socially. Yet it is as loud as a clap of thunder when one of our own; a lesbian, grieves in silent exclusion.

"We are simply being our human selves, lesbian humans ...a deeper sect of our species...high-bred, if you will."

Finding the confirmation in writing that lesbian grief is deeper than hetero grief was a revelation. I wanted to feed on that information for days. You see, Deb and I were very 'out' and proud of our relationship. We never hid who we were together. So, I was really confused when suddenly, other than with her family or mine or with close inner-circle friends, I had to be something we never were, silent. I discovered in reading a book by, Dr.Vicky Whipple, Lesbian Widows: Invisible grief , that the fact of the matter is that two women in a committed relationship have deeper more connected lives.

According to Dr. Whipple's book, therapists have said that Lesbian relationships are too close, too enmeshed. But, this is when compared to Hetero couples. She continues by making the point, that the simple fact is, two women have a richer deeper more intense relationship than do Hetero couples. This is not pathological, but rather more satisfying to the women.

In Dr. Whipple's book she states that one Nation wide study concluded that 95% of lesbians who participated in that particular project expressed hope that they would grow old together with their current partner. This is a very clear reason why the news of a terminal illness or death of a lesbian partner is so traumatic. Thus, we are not being over dramatic or emotionally unstable. We are simply being our human selves, lesbian humans...a deeper sect of our species...hybrid, if you will.

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Surely a Social Condition in Their Eyes

In further pursuit to understand my loss, I tried attending a grief counseling group. I called local grief counselors and agencies to find a group that would be starting sooner rather than later. A very nice therapist called me back and conducted a phone interview and invited me to join a new group. I asked questions and intensely expressed my concerns regarding being the only gay subject within the group. She assured me that I would be welcome and that grief is grief no matter who you are. She also promised to maintain a great level of awareness about the problems that could arise during a mixed group (me being the only 'mix' on the list). Feeling as if the situation sounded pretty safe and might be worth a try, I accepted her invitation. I got directions from the therapist after she reassured me my grief would be sympathetically received in this mixed group.

The following Thursday I went to my first grief group. I could barely inhale without my throat constricting. I attempted to hold back a wealth of tears while the involuntary gasp of breath heaving out of me as I tried to conceal the pain became more difficult to restrain. I sat quietly listening to these many women speak of the loss of sons, brothers and husbands. It was very clear that they felt great heartache and deep grief. But, the reality was that my grief had no place among these women. I had no doubt that my “friend” could not be compared to the fact that they had husbands, or shared a blood line with there deceased loved-ones.

My loss was surely a social condition in their eyes.

"... the loss of a lesbian lover? Those relationships don't last, right? It's just sex, a one night stand, friends with benefits? It’s not like they were married!"

But, damn-it! We were married in our hearts and as closely defined to marriage as the state of California would legally allow. Simply because the state we live in calls it domestic partnership, doesn’t make it any less committed than legally recognized marriage. It was and is committed. We devoted our hearts, our minds and certainly our lives to one another for a lifetime, even one that is cut short by cancer. We wanted to be together so badly that we were willing to do everything we could to make it clear that our committed lesbian relationship went above and beyond that of most others. I wanted to shout this loud and clear for these women to understand. However, my heart could not bear the possibility of causing any further anxiety for these saddened few women. Their troubles were many and their pain was as big as the gap between our understanding of one another that evening.

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I was in the Wrong Place!

"...the things they were speaking of were minimal, petty things that held no value..."

Once I realized that my grief was as great, even greater than that of the women in group counseling, my healing began. The way they spoke of economic concerns, organizational issues and pandering topics... I could barely breathe. My comprehension became alive. Even as my heart was still dripping with the bleeding anguish of Debbie's death, the things they were speaking of were minimal, petty things that held no value in my mind. I realized I was in the wrong place and began a fresh healing journey.

The realization that Hetero women and Lesbian women grieve differently was etched into my mind well before I ever read Dr, Whipple's book. I just had no idea it was anticipated, quantified and happening to me. The very discovery was digested through my experience that evening. I knew this would be my last grief group with these women. The first step to understanding that we lesbians grieve so vastly different than Hetero women, more deeply, even purely, brings me peace. It also brings with it a little hesitation to try this measure of love once more on this ever healing heart.


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