Sunday, March 25, 2012

Grief Lives in the Marrow

I feel it in my bones; we're coming to the anniversary of Steve's death on April 13, 2011. I've had grief experiences before. I know how it feels impossibly difficult at the beginning, then it softens, then it comes in waves as innocent stimuli from the world open wounds that were only tenuously knit together.

Anniversary Phenomenon in medicine refers to that under-the-surface sense that something isn't quite right: a visceral understanding of heightened vulnerability born out of a prior loss. 

In my medical practice, when people are feeling sad/lonely/depressed/scattered/hopeless/"off," I'll ask, "Did something of any particular significance happen to you at this time of year?"

The answer is often, "Oh, was at this time of year when my brother died," or something of similar importance. That's when we talk about the power of grief, and the power of Anniversary Phenomenon.

So, now as we near the end of March, I remember the wound on Steve's big toe: the impossibly large blood blister that appeared the day the elevator door closed on his foot - or maybe, his feet - in the candy-apple red electric wheelchair. It happened on a date: one of our deliciously normal movie dates to a movie and a meal, courtesy of the sometimes uneven courtesy extended by the Access Bus.

I remember the horror as the healing foot suddenly changed: dusky black spreading through the forefoot, lines of dessication along the sole of the devitalized foot.

This photo shows Steve and me preparing for an after-Christmas party in 2009. It was in March 2010 that he had his enormous heart surgery to replace a strangling aortic valve and bypass narrowed coronary vessels. He was terribly sick even in this photo - on dialysis, his heart failing - but he was ambulatory. I love this photo of us working together, to prepare for one of Steve's favorite activities: food with friends on Bainbridge Island.

Brita and I have worked to establish a new normal, and for the most part, I think we've been very successful. But Steve's presence was big in every way. We all miss him.
I know in my heart that he would likely have gotten much sicker, in spite of his valiant struggle and in spite of our cooperative efforts to win him more time. I am comforted by the fact that it is I - not he - who is grieving. At least, we think death exempts us from that piece.

Steve's story: Let Me Go When the Banter Stops: A Doctor's Fight for the Love of Her Life comes out in May. I'm half-joking with friends that I'll promote it with a free box of Kleenex. But then, that would have been a Steve Williams marketing tool!

Take the best of care,
Linda Gromko, MD
Author of Complications: A Doctor's Love Story


  1. Best of luck with this difficult anniversary. The first anniversary of my wife's death was just over a month ago.

    It was good to get to know you a bit late last year. My very best wishes to you. Dave C.

  2. Thank you kindly. If you'd care to share, I'd love to hear. Linda (