It was on June 28 last year when her life turned upside down.
Susan Ellison, 58, a native of the British midlands, was puttering around the hillside house in Sherman Oaks that she had shared for more than three decades with her famous (and pugnacious) 84-year-old writer husband Harlan Ellison, best known for his science fiction. He had dubbed it the Lost Aztek Temple of Mars long before suffering a stroke in 2014 that left him bedridden.
“I’m an insomniac and he was still asleep when I checked in on him early in the morning,” she recalled during a telephone conversation. “Then his therapist came,” and found him unresponsive.
“I thought he’d go kicking and screaming, but he died quietly. And I thought I’d be a lot more prepared,” she continued. Instead, she said, “I essentially shut down. He gave me a terrific life and he loved me completely. But I gave my life to him and now I don’t know who I am anymore. I have to find out.”
The experts say everyone reacts differently to a profound loss.
Conservative author and humorist Burt Prelutsky, a columnist for Patriot Post and writer of TV episodes ranging from “Dragnet” to “Diagnosis Murder,” threw himself into his work after the Jan. 14 death of his third wife, Yvonne, who succumbed to cancer at age 81. She had been in the hospital for a week, and he knew her death was imminent. Even so, he wrote in his column, her passing “felt like a ton of bricks had landed on me.”
These days Prelutsky, 79, is missing his wife’s laughter and paying her bills. “Yvonne’s death doesn’t dominate my life, but with all the crap (banks, credit card companies, Social Security, material goods, etc.) it comes damn close,” he said in a series of emails. “Did I mention that I had to deal with selling her car that I was still paying off?” he added in our exchange from his North Hills home. “That tied me up for days. They never mention any of this in those heart-tugging dramas about people losing their spouses. I don’t know when people have time to grieve.”
Yes, death is expensive and inconvenient in America.
Several experts I spoke to say that there is no timetable for how long the grieving by survivors goes on, dismissing the ”five stages” — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance — cited by disciples of the late Swiss American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler Ross from her groundbreaking 1969 book, “On Death and Dying.”
Bereaved people “just don’t go through one (phase) and then you’re done with these emotions and you don’t feel them anymore,” said Ahmed Kauser, PhD, a clinical psychologist and director of the Simms/Mann-UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology. “It takes a lot longer than people think. There’s a lot of intensity in the first year — around birthdays and holidays. It’s very cyclical.”
There are numerous support groups in the Pasadena area, many of them free, such as an ongoing group that meets Monday evenings at 7 p.m. at All Saints Episcopal Church at 132 N. Euclid Ave. Cabot & Sons Funeral Home at 27 Chestnut St. has compiled a partial list on its website cabotandsonsfh.com/resources/grief-support.
Mountain View Mortuary, Cemetery and Crematory at 2400 Fair Oaks Ave. in Altadena is planning to hold its first gathering with “coffee and conversation” for relatives and friends of deceased loved ones buried at its cemetery sometime around Memorial Day, said Funeral Director Donny Dormody, who is also a writer and actor.
“It will be a get together to share family stories and you’ll see people from all walks of life,” he said. “They’ll walk around the cemetery and see the tombstones and it will be consolation that they’re not alone in their grief. I don’t think it should be doom and gloom. The trend is to be celebrating a life.”
As for when it’s a good time to attend a continuing grief group, one seasoned group leader believes the newly bereaved should take their time before joining up.
“Anyone who has experienced the loss of a significant loved one knows they’re not ready to enter a group process” right away, asserted psychotherapist Gloria Lee, who heads two free six-week bereavement groups each year at St. Bede the Venerable Roman Catholic Church in La Cañada Flintridge. (The next one starts Sept. 18).) “Most have so much paperwork that it’s overwhelming. A few have tried to start with a group but soon realize that their level of concentration is almost zero and they aren’t able to assimilate any information or be able to listen about someone else’s loss. They just need to hibernate for a while.”
Indeed, a 73-year-old lifelong Pasadenean who was widowed early in November asked that her name and that of her husband’s nursing home stay out of this article, stating that what happened there was “just so personal.”
She was more comfortable describing how she withstood the enormous costs that arose from her husband’s 17-month stay at the nursing home while suffering from Stage 4 Parkinson’s disease.
An elder care lawyer she retained helped her get him qualified for Medi-Cal before he completed his first 100 days at the nursing home which was covered by Medicare. “Then Medi-Cal kicked in, paying a share of the cost and I paid a share each month.” She noted that Medicare, Medi-Cal and Anthem Blue Cross paid for his hospital stays. “Basically, I learned how to protect our assets within the guidelines of the current system.”
Pasadena elder law attorney Christopher B. Johnson recommends that surviving spouses make sure that their health insurance actually covers itemized expenses so they don’t wind up paying all of a deceased partner’s bills. “Sometimes the bills may not be accurate,” he said. “(Spouses) should check first before they pay after a death when things are mixed up and a lot of things should be covered and a lot of times they can be negotiated.”
When it comes to payment for nursing homes, Johnson said that Medi-Cal can “make all the difference” in defraying those costs. However, Johnson notes that the state will try to get repaid “for what they put out on Medi-Cal,” so he suggests recipients put assets like a house into a “living trust” for protection.
He said spouses without assets can file for bankruptcy to extinguish debts and still keep Social Security benefits which are “not-attachable” and are protected under federal law.
No such scenarios faced La Cañada Flintridge widow Wesley Bartera when her husband Ralph, a retired civil engineer and scientist, died from a heart condition on May 21, 2018 at 82. “Every asset we had became mine,” she said. That included the two-story house they lived in since 1963 with their three children.
Bartera, 81, a musician born in Mississippi and a former owner of a La Cañada Flintridge food business, lives alone now, calling it a “tremendous adjustment.”
She joined a weekly spousal loss group conducted by Jennifer R. Levin, PhD, a Pasadena family therapist specializing in grief counseling. Bartera said a yoga teacher recommended Levin after she had tried several groups that didn’t work out for her.
But she said Levin’s group has been helpful and she seems open to new possibilities now, taking a trip to Ireland recently. “I discovered the world is full of loving, caring people who will give you a hug or whatever you need. I go to the symphony in town. I play the piano. I go to plays. All of these things are part of the world and the world is beautiful.”
Sometimes, she admitted, the feelings of grief are devastating. Then, as if remembering her yoga classes, she said, “You just have to breathe in and breathe out and the feelings go away.”