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Writing About 'Bad Stuff'

“Nothing bad can happen to a writer. Everything is material.” ― Philip Roth

I’ve always loved that quote because, as a writer, I thought I would have some sort of immunity to bad stuff because I could write about it and somehow having bad stuff as grist for the mill would act as a buffer between me and the bad stuff.

However, when my husband received a diagnosis of terminal stage four colon cancer I could not write. The last thing I wanted to do was write. All I wanted to do was move. Run. Be active. Exercise.

I knew if I sat down at that keyboard, all the bad stuff would overwhelm me.

So, for eighteen months I couldn’t write a single word.

My beautiful husband passed away sixteen days ago and for the first time in what seems like an eternity, I sit in front of the computer, open a blank page in Word, and start to write.

In my office, the gentle snoring of my dog, Maggie, and the racket of the lorikeets outside my window takes me back to the time when writing flowed and life, although not without its challenges, was sweet.

How do you deal with the loss of a life partner? Someone who has been your constant companion for thirty-five years?

I’ve lost my parents, parents-in-law, brother-in-law, all of which are sad pivotal events in anyone’s life; but losing a life partner feels different.

My sister-in-law recently lost her husband, and now her beloved brother. Such grief. Yet the world goes on around us as we try to come to terms with the depth of our loss.

It sounds funny to me; ‘I’ve lost my parents.’ ‘I’ve lost my partner.’ Like I’ve misplaced them somewhere. I tell neighbours and acquaintances, ‘I recently lost my husband,’ or ‘Sadly, Bruce passed away.’

I’ve been tempted to simply say, “He’s dead. Died two weeks ago.” That’s the reality. I don’t want to shy away from it. I want to do a Star Trek’s, Doctor McCoy: ‘He’s dead, Jim. Dead.’

No, I haven’t misplaced him, lost him, he’s not departed, gone, slipped away, given up the ghost, kicked the bucket, didn’t make it, breathed his last, is resting in peace, met his maker, or is in a better place. He’s dead. Jim. Dead.

I know that the above euphemisms are used for many reasons; to avoid being blunt and offensive, for protection, out of partial denial and to offer spiritual comfort, and for those very reasons I will resist the urge to channel Doctor McCoy.

However, I found the euphemisms used in the healthcare setting to be patronising and confusing. I understand doctors may want to deliver bad news in a gentle way to soften the blow, but for me it only served to prevent us from fully understanding the situation. I found that healthcare practitioners seemed to have very little training on how to cope with the emotional impact of caring for patients who die. Everyone tip toed around the subject, and it drove me crazy! I’m sure the unclear language contributed to Bruce’s denial and non-acceptance of his terminal disease. Maintaining a positive, fighting spirit is one thing, and we had that in bucket loads, but euphemisms prevented him from reaching a place of peace and acceptance.

For example, the doctor said to Bruce, ‘You’re not doing so well. We’re going to give you some medication to make sure you’re comfortable. Is that okay with you?’

If he had said something along the lines of, ‘I’m sorry to tell you this, but your time is now limited. There is nothing else we can do for you, other than manage your symptoms to keep you pain free,’ Bruce may have been better able to process and accept what was happening to him and come to terms with it.

From my research, I now discover that EOL (End of Life) has become an issue around the world, and organisations have been established with the purpose of guiding people in talking about death and dying and breaking down the taboos associated with it.

In our case the choice of words by medical practitioners prevented us from having more meaningful, end of life conversations. It certainly stopped Bruce coming to terms with the inevitability of his death, and thereby denied him the precious gift of acceptance and of spending his last days on earth more fully in the here and now.

Considering my experience, I’m amending Philip Roth’s quote to:

‘Bad things can happen to a writer, but the good thing is, eventually, everything is material.’ ~ Ingrid Fry


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