Embracing grief wholeheartedly

by Donne Davis

The first time I met Sonny Davis, I told him a bold-faced lie! It was November 1967. Sonny was taking bridge lessons. “What a coincidence,” I heard myself say. “I’m a bridge teacher! Where are you taking lessons?”

The following week, I showed up at his class and stood in the doorway of his classroom. The teacher invited me to take the only empty seat – right across from Sonny. His mouth dropped open. I’m sweating bullets wondering how to confess I’m not a bridge teacher. The cards were dealt and I asked sheepishly, “Are aces high or low?”

Sonny and DonneThat was the start of our 50 years together. We got married six months later. Our relationship may have started with a lie, but from then on we never kept a secret from each other.

Sonny was a Renaissance man – a rocket scientist who worked on unmanned space flights to Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars, an artist, and a truly empathic listener. A man of few words, he shared his wit in cartoons.

In 1989, Sonny’s kidneys failed. After four years on dialysis, he got a kidney transplant that lasted nine years. When it failed, he started peritoneal dialysis. In 2006, he received a kidney from a living donor that lasted the rest of his life.

Transplant recipients take immunosuppressants to prevent rejection but that make them vulnerable to infection. Sonny had pneumonia four times and developed COPD. In 2018, he became reliant on an oxygen machine.

Despite health challenges, we planned to celebrate our 50th anniversary at a spa in Napa. But that morning he was so short of breath, I took him to the ER. Instead of champagne and caviar, we toasted with apple juice and Jell-O.

His health continued to deteriorate, and on September 12, 2018, we started his care with Mission Hospice. Just five days later, I was holding his hand when Sonny took his last breath.

A few weeks before he died, I asked Sonny, “How am I going to live without you?” 

“You’ll be fine, Donne. You’re strong and you love life too much to be sad.” I was terrified of living alone for the first time in my life.

After Sonny died, I embraced my grief wholeheartedly. This was the biggest learning opportunity of my life, and I used every resource Mission Hospice offered. 

My grief counselor, Erin, came to my house every Friday for 10 months. I joined several support groups, including the one specifically for those who have lost a spouse or partner, and took Isabel’s “Writing through Loss” workshop twice. By surrounding myself with people who understood loss, I learned so much.

Sonny and DonneAs the weeks went on, I noticed tiny steps of progress. I found joy in my day; I stopped saying “we” and switched to “I;” I didn’t cry when I said, “my husband died.” 

Focusing on my grief has given me confidence. I’m stronger than I ever imagined. I always relied on Sonny to pat me on the back. Now I do it myself.

I don’t dwell in the past, wishing for what I can’t have. Of course I have wonderful memories, but I focus on the present and feel gratitude for what I do have. I remind myself I had 50 years with a man who adored me. 

If you’re grieving, embrace your grief wholeheartedly. Being alone with your grief is the hardest – I encourage you to reach out for support. You’ll discover just how strong you are.