Looking at the Other Side of Grief | May Jones | TEDxGreatHillsWomen

Looking at the Other Side of Grief | May Jones | TEDxGreatHillsWomen

Translator: Tanya Cushman
Reviewer: Ellen Maloney A powerful, hollow-eyed monster, dark and foreboding, lived with me for a while. It lurked in unexpected places: sometimes in the sunshine when the flowers bloomed
and the air was soft and warm, sometimes in the crystal moonlight
of a cloudless winter night and sometimes in the chaos
and tumult of a storm. It pounced when I least expected it – when I was the most unprepared, the most vulnerable. It left me feeling defenseless
and weak in its presence. In her book “The Year
of Magical Thinking,” Joan Didion refers to a vortex
that held her captive in the same way that this monster held me. This vortex, this monster is grief. I was a freshman in college,
just a little bit over 17, when I met the man who was my soulmate. We felt that connection immediately. He was dashing, handsome, charming, witty, kind, smart, generous, loving and courageous. Soon, I began to define myself
in terms of our relationship. I was his girlfriend; I was his fiancée; I was his wartime bride; I was his wife. We shared an equal marriage, delighting in watching our three children
grow into caring and successful adults, working to make the world a better place. We doted on our grandchildren. He made sure our honeymoon did not end even in the case of wartime
absences and injuries, child rearing, job losses, financial challenges and his increasing medical issues – first Parkinson’s Disease and then
an aggressive form of prostate cancer. I understood that diagnosis. I heard those doctors say
there was no cure, no chance of remission. We might have one good year. He accepted and made his peace with that, only hoping to avoid
lengthy, excruciating pain as that cancer metastasized to his bones. I pretended to accept the prognosis, but in my secret heart of hearts,
I was Cleopatra – you know, the queen of denial. (Laughter) I was his nurse. We did have our good year. His rapidly declining health
and rapidly increasing pain came after that. Our children, family and friends
supported us in every imaginable way. Finally, because he wished
to remain at home and die there, we called in hospice. And on September 24, 2004, he could take no more, and he passed away. For a short time, I was caught up
in planning his memorial, writing thank-you notes and all the things that go
with the death of a spouse. But then the monster moved in. I was empty and weak; I could no longer appreciate beauty. I felt guilty if I enjoyed a bird song
or the sweet, salty smell of the marsh. I walked the beach that we had shared, lost and desolate. I wandered through our house,
searching for someone who was not there. The monster waited in every room. For a while, the monster held sway, but then, gradually,
I tried to fight back. We had enjoyed do-it-yourself
projects around our home – we were affectionately known
by our children as Bailey Co. So I decided to become a volunteer
with Habitat for Humanity. I read books written by other widows
and by experts on the grieving process. I attended grief group support sessions. I journalled. I went on mission trips with my church. My friends and my family
were always close by. I told one friend that frenetic activity
was a great way to avoid that monster, but without his defining presence,
I was floundering. I needed a new way
of determining who I am. A friend of mine, also a widow, had gone back to the seminary
where her husband had studied. I thought about going back
to graduate school to get another degree, but that didn’t quite seem to be
the answer for me. I was raised on a small family farm
in South Carolina. When I was very young, Rachel Carson had just written
“Silent Spring,” and my mother forbade the use
of DDT or any herbicide on our land. Because of her and my father, my love of and appreciation and desire
to preserve our natural environment is practically part of my DNA. I knew that the VA –
the Veterans Administration – describes Agent Orange as being a causal factor
in a long list of illnesses, including prostate cancer
and Parkinson’s Disease. He had been exposed
to Agent Orange in Vietnam, and I saw the direct link between that deadly chemical
and his death at age 66. So it seemed natural to me
that I do something to stop the use on American farms
of these toxic agrichemicals that are similar to Agent Orange. After my parents’ deaths, our land had been leased
and planted in cotton and soybeans, two of the crops on which
these chemicals are excessively used. So, as I became passionate
and more informed about the use of
these horrible substances, I decided to farm organically. I reclaimed our land
from the chemical farmer, and in doing so, I began
to reclaim myself from that monster. Farming takes me back to my roots. There is satisfaction and solace
in planting, harvesting – weeds, bugs and all. I don’t even mind that my manicure now
is dirt under my fingernails. I love watching the chickens
and the cats and the dogs and all of their antics. I find peace and solace in the actions
of the cows and the horses. I enjoy watching my family and my friends as they learn about the satisfying rhythm
of the farm and its animals, in every day and in every season. I am a farmer. That powerful, painful emotion – grief – that sharp sorrow caused by loss is a part of our human experience. Neither inactivity nor frenetic activity can still that vortex
or cage that monster. Turning deep grief
into strong passion and purpose can give us the momentum
to move into a freedom we can celebrate. And now, in the sunshine when the flowers bloom
and the air is soft and warm, in the crystal moonlight
of a cloudless winter night, and even in the tumult
and chaos of a storm, I am free to feel joy once more. (Applause)

Comments (8)

  1. My husband died from Agent Orange, too. He had Multiple Myeloma for eight years. We were married for 20 years. It has been almost four years since he left this earth. I still feel devastated. My dog had very bad reaction to some anesthesia this past week, and I could not take her home with me. I immediately lost all of my faith in an afterlife when this happened. She is okay now, but I wonder how I would have been if she didn't fully recoverer. My therapist tells me that I am getting on with life because I have had a hip and shoulder replacement. She says that I am funny, strong and am moving forward. I want to scream at her, "I am at the top of a slippery slope. I can easily fall down the suicide side". I stay here because I have a daughter, who is 36 years old, and has had diabetes, since she was 2. She is married, so her husband and I are the only family we have. I lived in SC for about 7 years. It is a beautiful state. I love animals and would love to have a tiny farm, with chickens, dogs, cats and all that goes with it. Working outside has always been my escape. Round Up is Agent Orange, so obviously our government still allows it and is able to sleep at night. I wonder who is being paid off. I tell people that our government, during the Vietnam War, murdered my husband. They did not test Agent Orange. They did not care one bit. All the people it was dumped on is unimaginable. I think about going to a 55+ community in Ponte Verde, Florida sometimes. I do not have any family who understands what it is like to lose the one man you love. They don't want to understand or even imagine it. I love the beach and it feeds my soul….literally. Ponte Verde, FL has a beach six miles away from where I would live. My daughter is in TX, and I have lived there, too. It is flat, dusty with very little beauty. I feel like a duck out of water. I know the monster you speak about. He follows me everywhere. The doctor was not going to operate on my second hip because he said that I am too emotional. I told him that that is my genetic makeup. Your idea of a farm and gardening sounds wonderful to me. However, I am not a loner and I do not have many friends anymore. They have all died. I lost my friend, Susan, last Thursday to ALS. She was a widow, too. We understood each other without even speaking about our husbands' death, although we did. I miss her terribly. Her last words to me were "Tell Claudia that I beat her". She was being funny because we wondered who would see our husbands first. I am not sure what I believe anymore or what is true. I will just have to live with that. I wish I knew someone like you that I could talk to. I had another friend, who was 30 years older than I. She lost her husband, too. She is no longer here either. How I wish I could speak with her. She was so insightful about family and love. I am going to be 65, but I tend to get along better with women who are not my age. Go figure. Thank you for your talk. It reached a part of me that very few people understand.

  2. Tears. Dr Santimoy Dasgupta (June 16, 1939-March 28, 2018). My sage, my dad, doctor, journalist, communist.

  3. My father passed away from cancer on February 10,2019 age 57.

    I love this talk. Very beautifully spoken.

  4. My mother passed away on March 27 2019 this year… 3 days before her birthday…

  5. I can sure relate to this! Lost my husband in April.

  6. U R so great lady listing and carying so much u spoken v well hi ladies listen to her Thanks for true story

  7. I lost my dad to Prostate cancer on May 8th 2019. Grief is normal. it's inevitable.

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