I knew nothing about the five stages of grief when my husband was alive. May I introduce you to him? Meet Nagrom Morgan Monceaux, an enigmatic African American folk artist who hated the idea of being put into a box. Having grown up under segregation in America’s Deep South, Morgan would later reject the burden of being black, opting instead to see himself as American. Indeed, this was how he was marketed, as the “American Visionary Artist” and, later, “The Great American Storyteller”.
Morgan’s visual stories were historical portraits of American and World History figures, taking his subjects from jazz, sport, opera, religion, politics, dance, and other societal and cultural aspects. Three of his portraits from the Jazz series are in the Smithsonian Institution’s Permanent Collection.
I met Morgan in 2006 at the Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend in Washington, DC. It would be another eight years before I made a move from the UK to wed him. Around 2010 (or was it 2011?), he proposed marriage, and I refused. His response was that he wanted his assets protected. I guess I was to be the big strong daddy who would preserve his legacy for him. He was terrified that his sister was going to come in after his death and take everything away.
I was married to Morgan for a little over three years. And then…
Stages of grief 1: Shock and denial
It happened all too quickly…
The first stage of grief when my husband died was wholly unexpected. The sudden pain of separation from a loved one through death brought shock and, initially, denial. The sudden shock of pain and a refusal to accept that your loved one is really dead.
Morgan had been admitted into hospital with gangrene between his toes. The result, I am told, from peripheral artery disease. Did I forget to mention that my husband was a heavy, heavy smoker? Family and friends gathered around at his invitation. His doctors had given him a few options, and Morgan wanted to discuss them with us all.
- Option one: stop smoking.
- Option two: double amputation.
- Option three: sent off to a hospice to be “taken care of”.
My husband allowed us to be selfish. Unanimously, we all chose life. At least, with a double amputation, he would still be able to paint if not to dance. We had chosen the lesser of three evils.
On his birthday, May 9, 2017, Morgan whispered in my ear at the hospice that the doctors had warned him he would be in more pain than before this operation. He had already undergone several medical procedures in the past. He died on the operating table, apparently, while undergoing another operation. It was 2012, and despite being raised Southern Missionary Baptist, he was convinced that there was “nothing out there”. I felt terrible for the additional pain I had put him through, and to what end?
While at the hospice, Morgan made the decision to come home. He wanted to die at home, among family and friends. He wanted to be drugged up to the eyeballs with morphine so he would be comfortable. At least, that is how we would see it. We had also been sufficiently prepared to watch for the signs of death.
One night as I was tending to him, I whispered in his ear, “Release me from my vow”. Why would I do that? I thought a wise man said, “when a man dies, his thoughts perish”. But what about vows made long before death? Surely, they carry on into other lives, dimensions, realities, spaces until they are fulfilled. These are, after all, thoughts already expressed in words and charged with emotion.
On the evening of May 31, 2017, Family and Friends saw Morgan expelling his last breath, breathing rapidly. Then he sighed as if with relief. I screamed for the pain of being separated. The anguish was, however, brief. I sat down on the stairs, looking at his lifeless body in a daze. He had said in his last public appearance that when he died that he was not coming back. Was he really gone? And had I achieved for him what I set out to do? I had vowed on our wedding day to look after his interests.
The crown of my head tingled.
While I still feel the pain from time to time, there is no guilt. After all, I had already completed the content management system that would catalogue and manage his art before his death. And he was happy with what I had managed to accomplish.
No guilt. Or is there? Before Morgan was admitted to the hospital, I had given him notice to get his house in order because he would not be with us for long. Or was that for me to do? After all, I was his Daddy. He warned me that things would get messy.
Stages of grief 2: Anger and bargaining
Did he say messy?
The second stage of grief often brings anger at being left alone and a survivor’s guilt where you enter the bargaining stage. After all, why should you be left behind? Wishing you had died instead. Or wishing for a second chance.
Our combined focus on marketing Morgan’s art meant that we had neglected the details of how his estate was to be managed. This is my one regret. If I had to do this all over again, we would have strategically planned his estate down to the last minutiae.
I am a destitute widower in America, except for the kindness of a stranger I had met shortly after meeting Morgan and whom I had befriended. We will call him John. If it were not for John’s presence in my husband’s life, I would not be here now. I would probably be back in the United Kingdom (God forbid). In any case, I am still a little angry with myself that I had made these choices that led to my being here in this situation.
From time to time, I catch myself asking: “If I had to live this aspect of my life over again, would I have done things differently? Would I have made better choices?”
I am convinced that even if I had made better choices, I would still somehow find myself in my current situation. Just better prepared.
Stages of grief 3: Depression
“…we are still alive.”
After anger and bargaining come the third stage of depression, bringing with it boredom and loneliness. You find ways to keep busy because you realise you are alive and, yet, feeling empty, and you need to fill that empty space with something, if not someone.
Depression has been ever-present with me since my teenage years. I have since learnt to embrace it, befriend it, even have conversations with it.
When depression rises, the Jester in Me counters with a song. Usually, a mashup of someone else’s. Or else a tune I just cannot get out of my head. As I am writing this piece, that tune is Dave Pearce’s “Absolute Euphoria”. I unite my Self with the universe through music and dance, and I give the orishas, my amazing inner team, a party.
There are no right or wrong ways to deal with grief. So I’ve been told. On the one hand, I could allow it to swallow me up, and I become a non-entity. On the other hand, I could embrace it as an ally because this ally would have something to teach me. There is yet another hand to this thing, saying do whatever it takes to feel good.
It was like the night in 2006 when Mom phoned while I was in Paris to tell me that Dad had died from an abdominal aortic aneurysm. I was playing with one of my hot French f**k buddies at the time. I simply said to Mom, can I call you tomorrow? I then hung up the phone, had a good cry and proceeded to have the best sex I had ever had in a very long time. How are you these days, my friend?
Stages of grief 4: The upward turn
How are you these days, my friend?
At some point, you must realise that you cannot be grieving forever. Grief will swallow you up, big Daddy. Grief will cripple you, too, if you’re not careful. You have got to snap yourself out of it. This is when the journey upward out of the depths of depression, despair and loneliness must begin.
I have an internal team of my creation that I look to for helping me handle grief. The King (masculine, solid energy, very decisive); The Queen (Jamaican, strong feminine energy, very assertive); and The Jester (play-fool, musician, the one who can often speak truth to power). Others in the team include a Scientist, Doctor, Teacher, Counsellor, and Coach. In fact, I was to discover at some points that this team of mine is much bigger than I could have ever imagined. And I AM in charge of this army. Or, at least, I believe I am.
Stages of grief 5: Acceptance and hope
I AM in charge of this army.
In this, the final stage of grief, you accept the fact that your loved one is no longer in your life and that they will never be coming back. But, depending on your belief system, you might even consider that you will see them again someday. And that gives you hope.
It has been four years since Nagrom Morgan Monceaux died at around 8.35pm on May 31, 2017. I have seen him in my dreams quite a few times. On the first occasion, he burst into my bedroom, happy that I would do something to protect his work and legacy. In subsequent dreams, he simply stood in the shadows, watching, saying nothing.
Occasionally, I feel the crown of my head tingling. Is that a sign from him? I was at a family dinner before the pandemic began when the host showed me a new blue cobalt urn. My head tingled then, too, and Morgan’s ashes have now been transferred into that vessel. I do not see him in my dreams anymore, although I believe we are both still keeping our vows.
I have accepted that my ‘boy’ is never coming back. He has, I suspect, moved on to bigger and better things. So, yes, I am stuck with an archive full of his life and works, which are a constant reminder that, somehow, Morgan is still all around me. But I am still here. Through the power of my holy, eternal, uncreated spirit, I am triumphant over grief.
Yes, I move between anger and acceptance now and again. Memory of the double amputation of Morgan’s beautiful legs, and later, the sound of rapid breathing as he passed away, still brings me to tears. I have thought about getting myself grief counselling. But I feel now that any more therapy would be surplus to requirements. On the other hand, it helps to talk. It helps to write. And yes, I am hopeful.
- Brook Noel and Pamela Blair’s compassionate grief recovery book is highly recommended: I Wasn’t Ready to Say Goodbye: Surviving, Coping and Healing After the Sudden Death of a Loved One.
- You may also enjoy our 21 Tips to Improve Your Mental Health in Tough Times.