Family Caregivers often flinch at gaudy window displays of Valentine's Day cards and chocolates. Walking past those drug store windows is like sneaking a glimpse in a window best avoided. The window that reveals a happy scene Before Everything Changed. Before the horrible injuries or devastating illness. We caregivers train ourselves to scurry past that window of the mind containing memories that evoke grief, or might lead to unrealistic expectations now.
One year after my husband Alan suffered a severe anoxic brain injury following a massive heart attack and cardiac arrest, we began a completely new marriage. Every part of our lives was feverishly directed towards Alan's recovery and rehabilitation. Alan had surpassed the rehabilitation staff's expectations in every area, and we were determined to make a new life and marriage with meaning and purpose.
And yet, even Alan's progress didn't take away my sense of restlessness, of something left undone. On the surface Alan looked like nothing ever happened. He walked the same, dressed the same, even made the same facial expressions. But in truth he was a man with an injured brain, whose every physical action and cognitive effort took enormous concentration and coaching. Parts of Alan's personality had survived, and the newer parts were becoming familiar. We were reconstructing our life together, learning to take small steps forward when every part of our world was drastically changed.
I was aware, in ways that others could not be that he was totally changed as my husband. So much of the mutuality was gone from our marriage. We were partners in healing Alan, but not in many other ways. He knew me in relation to how I cared for him and how we had fun together, but he really didn't know me as a person.
My soul howled with loss. I struggled with the confusion and unacknowledged wounds of ambiguous loss every day. Alan could not understand it, and would be terribly hurt if I told him about his absence in my life. I needed to do something to heal myself and live fully in our present life.
What I needed was a bridge between what I now experienced as my first marriage and second marriage to the same man. I needed to say good-bye to My Alan, to set his spirit free from any hold my yearnings and false hopes might have on him. I sensed that an act of deliberate letting go would free me to fully embrace and commit to my love for this new man I called Another Alan. I needed to open up to receive his love in different ways. I was ready to move into the next phase of life.
The power of therapeutic rituals
I have always loved to create rituals for myself, friends, and therapy clients. Special ceremonies to mark transitions, life events, personal milestones, and the endings that precede each new beginning. So I created a ritual to simultaneously commemorate my first marriage to Alan, and mark the death of that marriage and the husband I knew best. I also wanted the ritual to bless the beginning of my second marriage to Alan as he was now.
Over the preceding year, Alan and I had spontaneously exchanged new words of love and commitment. We even called ourselves newlyweds in the world of brain injury. Alan felt secure and happy most of the time; I was the one who needed a formal
Ceremony for a Second Marriage.
The most powerful and healing rituals take place in the presence of kindred spirits who can bear witness, offer strength and compassion, and share their own journeys of transformation and resilience. I was most fortunate to be joined in my ritual by my friends Gail and Marla.
On a beautiful summer day, my friends and I conducted a solemn, mournful, joyous, life-affirming ceremony that honored the life Alan and I shared until his brain injury. The combination of words, treasured objects, and actions let me release false hopes and grieve what could not be. Only then could I embrace the uncertainty and miracles of moving forward with love.
Although Alan remained at home, I invited him into the space by showing Gail and Marla his photograph in the double-sided antique locket he had given me years earlier. Alan's face beamed with joy right after saying "I do" at our wedding in 1987.
The full ritual is detailed in my memoir, Professor Cromer Learns to Read: A Couple's New Life after Brain Injury. The new vows I wrote and recited seem like the most important part of share with you on Valentine's Day. First, I pledged new promises to Alan:
"Alan, I vow to love you with the fullness of my being every day for the rest of our lives. I will help you recover in any way I can. I will make sure you feel my love in every tangible way. I will see all of who you can be with my eyes wide open. I will celebrate our interdependence, our mutual need for each other. I will be your memory, and continue to weave stories of our past life together, as well as what we did ten minutes ago. I will not let you or others forget how unique and phenomenal you are as a person right now. I will treasure you, adore you, laugh and make love with you. Together we will create many sources of joy and fun."
And this time I made vows to myself as well. I said:
"Janet, I vow to love you in all your frailty, vulnerability, mistakes, and courage. I vow to forgive myself for the mistakes I will make in this new terrain, and to ask others for their forgiveness. I will try to give myself the time and space to reflect, understand, integrate changes, and feel love. I will do whatever it takes to keep myself whole. I will now put aside the constant apprehension of this past year, and give myself over to the fun and joy that Alan and I often share. Someday I will write a book about our journey to give hope and sustenance to others on this path."
Why don't all brides and grooms make vows to themselves as well as to each other?
At the end of the hour-long ceremony, I tucked a recent photo of Alan inside my locket. This photo was taken at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, when Alan's face was thin and grey but a vibrant life force shone through his blue eyes.
"I have been given two perfect husbands," I said.
As the sun set, I drove home to my groom Alan convinced that I had cared for myself and our marriage in an elemental way. I doubt that I could have given myself freely to Alan and his ongoing needs if I had not taken the time to commemorate all that we had lost, and embraced the wonders that now flourished. Over the next few months my restlessness settled and my commitment deepened. Whether our rituals are consciously planned or serendipitous, it is so life-sustaining to find ways to honor the monumental transformations that catastrophic illness brings to our lives.
My ritual was completely original, but I often recommend this book to those interested in creating healing rituals.
1. Imber-Black, E., and Roberts, J. Rituals for Our Times. (1998). Jason Aronson, Inc.