Essays of the Dying: Grief Therapist David Malham

The New York Times recently published a moving essay by the grief therapist David Malham. The seventy-three-year-old Malham has been recently diagnosed with ALS. He begins his essay:

I would not have chosen A.L.S. at the Pick Your Disease store, but there are worse things that can happen and worse ways for a life to end. The very fact that it was happening to me and not to my family was itself a relief. Navigating one’s own pain or fear is much easier than navigating a loved one’s.

Malham says he turned his back on saying “no” and asking “why me?” Instead, he asked, “what now?” He found himself comforted by the fact that he had a good life, and a loving family. He doesn’t want to die, he said, but it isn’t fair for a man to cry foul when he has had such a good life. What most worried Malham was that his wife would be alone. A worry he conveys with humor:

I became preoccupied with how she would manage a post-David existence. True, she’s always been the one who handled the bills, balanced the checkbook, managed the investments, addressed maintenance issues (her father introduced her to the mysteries of things mechanical and electrical), kept the house organized (parties and special occasions are planned with the attention to detail Rommel displayed in his desert campaign), and all the while prepared terrific meals. Yet I couldn’t help thinking that not since biblical times has woman had so laudable a husband.

Concerned about his wife, Malham began a “strategy of pre-emptive therapy.” He told his wife stories of widows who thrived. But soon she began to resent the stories, telling her husband, “Stop it. If you die before me, I will grieve and I will survive. If I die before you, you will grieve and you will survive.” This brought about a revelation to Malham: “That’s when I finally accepted that trying to protect her was not only wrong, it was impossible. Grief, after all, is the price we pay for love.”

He now knew that his wife would grieve no matter what, but she would survive because she was resilient. “That’s not to say it’s a quick and easy task. It’s not that grieving suddenly ends and the person forgets and moves on. No, what happens is that a weight that initially feels unbearable becomes, in time, manageable. The grief becomes compact enough, with the hard edges removed, to be gently placed in one’s heart.”

You can read the entire essay here.

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