WIDOWHOOD IS NOT STATIC.
IT KEEPS CHANGING, AND IT KEEPS CHANGING US.
IT HAS AN INFINITE NUMBER OF COLORS.
HERE ARE FIFTY OF THEM.
1. I take a lot of deep breaths this time of year.
2. It’s fall, the season inherently bittersweet and elegiac. All that plush color and harvest, all that stunning beauty, some years almost ostentatiously spectacular. All that run-up to the long winter, white, brown, and gray, the small seeming death of each year.
Seeming. Not actual.
3. “The fact of mortality makes loss certain,” writes Adam Gopnik. “For all the ways science and medicine have reduced the suffering that a human life entails, the vector of sadness remains in place. The larger problem we face is not (physical) suffering but sadness, and sadness is caused by the fact of loss.”
4. Fall is also “the season”, my personal one (live long enough, and you, too, may have one) — an annual period of a close-together cortege of losses and associations. David’s birthday, Ned’s and my anniversary, my mother’s death date, my father’s birthday, my birthday, Thanksgiving. Ned’s death date. (“And what are you thankful for?” people commonly ask at this time of year. A good question, appropriate to the holiday. And yes, I always am honestly grateful for much. Yet, the query does comes in the middle of all this. )
I have recited this loss-list before here; forgive the repetition.
5. I remind myself that Halloween iconography, especially the hanging effigies, is not intended to trigger. Not intentionally cruel. I remind myself that I cannot and should not expect the world to be sensitive to people who loved someone who hung him or herself.
That would be like asking that the world be carpeted, so I could walk barefoot.
6. Even the word “trigger” is probably a trigger for those who lost someone they loved to gun-shot, whether self- or other-inflicted.
7. I remind myself that other Halloween-related holidays, like Mexico’s Dia de los Muertes, have an entirely different meaning. They are about getting cozy with death as part of life. About the border between the two worlds, that of the living and the dead, thinning, so spirits can pass over and through to say hello to those still quick.
A sugar skull or bone-shaped cookie, a retablo inhabited by skeletons at work or play, feasting or marrying, the decoration of graves, cemeteries made partylike with family and friends visiting, playing music, eating; the food left on an altars besides pictures of deceased loved ones — these celebrations are not macabre, but integrative.
8. A few months after David’s death, I hand-washed a camisole, put it on a hanger, placed the hanger in a sunny bedroom window, forgot it was there. Started violently when I walked in and saw it, stirred by the breeze, hanging there.
9. In reference to the day someone leaves this world: There’s a single Sanskrit word I much prefer to “death date.” It’s “maha-samadhi,” loosely meaning great, or final, liberation.
Though I’m not sure I believe that that is what death is, or at least, that that is what all deaths are. Still, I like the idea.
10. Unthinkably, in condolence notes and emails and conversations after David’s death, several people said or wrote this to me: “Hang in there.” “Hang tough.”
11. There are often days, weeks, months when grief vanishes. Not the loss, but the grief, the uncontrollable fits and tsunamis. (I am seventeen years into my first widowhood, almost four into my second).
This is the true hope I legitimately extend to those of you younger in widowhood than I am. In these phases, I am un-grief-y, easy in my life. In these phases, it seems incomprehensible that I will be again visited by grief. The particularly brilliant blue of fall skies no longer mocks. The trees — not just red but fuchsia and magenta, not just golden but ochre, orange, yellow — do not seem like sleight of hand, a trick for forgetting that winter is coming. Instead, both are mere neutral beauty, and taking them in often fills me with wonder.
What I mean to say is, I am often happy now. And when I am not, it is mostly ordinary unhappiness, not grief.
But — and this is the sad truth as I have experienced it, and which I must tell you if the other is to have legitimacy — the uncontrollable fits and tsunamis do still come from time to time. And as far as I can tell always will, though the intervals between grow longer and longer.
This is why we get through grief, but not over it. Why we get better, and life gets easier, but we do not “heal.”
12. Last October, I was driving my boyfriend of recent years, the gentleman I sometimes refer to as my Alpha Dude, to the train station here in Vermont. Suddenly he said, leaning out the window to scoldingly address a particular spectacularly scarlet maple, “Oh, come on now, that’s just showing off.”
This still makes me laugh.
13. The geese, the effing geese, honking as they head south.
14. David had just gotten hearing aids, which he called ‘listeners’. We were outside in the garden, this would have been 2009-ish, his depression — the one he alluded to, saying he was “in recovery from” when we first met, had not yet returned. He was newly in love with the world, which had renewed its invitation to him once before I met him, when he got on medication that worked, and was now doing so again, with his listeners, through sound. Crickets amazed him. The frogs, croaking in the pond in spring.
He startled the first time he heard the geese, flying noisily overhead.
“What’s that?” he asked me. Amazed, looking around for the source of the sound.
“Geese,” I said, pointing upward. He followed my finger, and gazed up at them.
Then, with a shrug, David said, “Honk if you love Vermont.”
15. This also still makes me laugh. Then, usually, it makes me cry, or feel that prickling, tightening in my throat.
16. Every time.
17. And there are a lot of geese flying south this time of year.
18. Before his depression returned, he was a funny guy, was David. Affectionate in his way, and devoted. As I was to him. He was well-known as a film-maker, but that was far from his only gift. And that kitty pumpkin David carved one year, the last year before depression finally and permanently took him down, that pumpkin kitty which we set on the porch of my mother’s house, and which was the talk of Elm Place? That pumpkin was a work of art.
19. Both of them — my mother, Charlotte, and David, my partner of ten years — were alive then. Neither of them are now. Both of them leaving life in her house, the house in which I grew up.
20. Charlotte in her own bed, left as easily as a leaf falling from a tree. She was 98, one of the last leaves still clinging stubbornly to the sturdy oak of her generation, a brown leaf still affixed, right through the winter. Then, one day, she let go.
21. Three months later, David left life there too. Hung himself in her basement.
22. After I found his body there, I never spent another night in that house.
23. Who was it who said to me recently, “I’m still pissed at him for doing it there,” ?
I said, “But he knew that house was going to be sold. Better there than the house in Vermont.”
Whoever it was — and why I can’t I remember? — said, “Yes, but he knew you would be the one to find him, didn’t he?”
24. Every death leaves the survivors with unanswered, and unanswerable, questions.
But a death like Charlotte’s (natural, at 98), leaves so many fewer questions than David’s (suicide, at 74), or Ned’s (bicycle accident, at 44).
25. Ferncliff, the crematorium near my mother’s house.
There, on November 25, 2013 (my 61st birthday) I escorted her box, which was made of cardboard, and set on a wheeled table, through the open, hinged door, into the built-in concrete oven. My hand was the last to touch that box, and by extension, her body in it.
And then, a kind Latino man who worked for Ferncliff, a quiet man of gentle mien, gestured towards a switch, like a large light-switch, to the right of door. (When I had escorted Ned similarly, back in Arkansas thirteen years earlier, there was no such switch).
I understood I was to flip the switch. I understood that this would initiate the flames.
I touched the switch, depressing it.
Three months later, walking David’s box at Ferncliff towards the oven. Thinking, “David! Did you know I was going to be doing this for you when we were here for Charlotte?”
The kind Latino man had retired by then. I missed his calm presence. How compassionate he was, without saying a word.
26. After Ned’s death, Charlotte said this to me, and I still think of it often, seventeen years later:
“Because you and Ned loved each other so much, a part of you died when he died. But because you and Ned loved each other so much, a part of Ned is alive as long as you are.”
27. I used to hold the belief “Everything happens for a reason.” What a comforting belief I found it! For years! It was just like being rocked in a cradle. If it happened, and if it had a reason, this belief meant I needed to A) live with it, accept it, approve it even if I couldn’t understand it, and B) figure out that reason, so I could learn what “plan” or “lesson” the Divine had custom-crafted especially for me.
I apologize to any of you who still hold this belief, and enjoy that untroubled, or less-troubled, contentment I once enjoyed, too. And I respect why you would want to hold it. I know what I’m about to say may seem harsh.
But I promised, on these pages, as much honesty as I have about widowhood and how it affects a person. And losing this belief was enormous for me, difficult and fundamental. It shifted my foundations, and it has for a number of other widows I have walked with.
Now “everything happens for a reason” looks to me like infant theology, not tenable for eyes-open adults.
In fact, it now seems to me almost obscene in its unintentional cruelty and narcissistic arrogance.
28. Because things happen, period. Whether or not they do so for a “reason” (reason meaning intentional, meaningful, carrying a personal message for us) is unknowable.
Because while wanting to believe that there are such reasons for the cruel happenings of this world, and believing we can therefore know that reason, is natural, a basic human question which arises out of inquiry, it is not a question with a definitive human answer. Any supposition about what God’s, or one’s Higher Power’s, “reason” for something happening (assuming that is a God or Higher Power, or that you believe there is) is, is purely speculative.
Or, as some would say, faith-based. And others, a fairytale we tell ourselves because randomness is too awful to contemplate.
29. It was Ned’s death that, for me, burnt that belief to ash.
30. And I mourned this — “Everything happens for a reason” —as a loss too. I had loved that belief. I had loved the feeling of certainty it gave me, a certainty I now recognized as illusion, or wishful thinking, or magical thinking, or a misplaced form of control. I could no longer hold “Everything happens for a reason” with integrity. I missed it.
31. But out of its loss, I gradually found and built a new foundation: less elegant, less simplified, but with the large advantage of being undeniably true.
32. “How can I make use of what has happened? ” That is a question a human being can both ask and answer.
I cherish this question.
I ask it of myself often.
33. And speaking of theology: why the eff don’t people who are attempting to console others who have suffered grievous, non-negotiable, disorienting, devastating loss, keep their effing theology to themselves?
Never, ever offer verbal or written condolences that assume a shared spiritual viewpoint unless you are positive there is one. And there is almost no way to be positive about this, even if you have gone to the same church or meditated together for decades.
34. Someone actually said this to me after Ned died: “I guess God must have needed him worse than you did.”
35. Like if I had been more whiny, insecure, needy, clutchy, God would have said, okay, Ned can stay on earth awhile longer?
36. Even if this were so, who would want such a God? Who could find comfort in such a theology?
37. But my own theology does say this: choose love.
In whatever way you can. Friendship love, dating again love, passionate sexual love, loving a pet, loving nature or grandchildren or the Earth (which desperately needs activist-lovers at this moment if it is to continue, but I digress). Loving, even, getting into bed between clean, line-dried sheets. Loving the way sunlight slants through the window and falls on a bowl of honeycrisp apples.
38. Despair will sometimes make choosing love seem impossible, maybe for a long time. Grief drains so much, including the capacity to imagine that it might ever be “better.” Because after all, since he or she cannot return to life, how could it be “better”?
Grief is an eclipse in the totality zone, a shadow so dense all light is blotted out. Easy to believe the sun, obscured, might no longer be there. That all light has ended permanently. But the blocking factor moves, and it turns out the sun was there all along, and not just for other people, but for us. It was just not available to our sight for awhile, understandably.
Is that theology? At least the eclipse part isn’t, it’s natural science. It’s true whether you believe it or not.
But light as metaphor, light as love, okay, that’s theology-ish.
And I believe it. Having said, “Keep your theology to yourself,” I hope this does not give offense.
39. “To love less in order to lose less seems like no solution at all, ” continues Gopnik. ” … but to see loss squarely” (as an inherent condition of life) “sounds like wisdom.”
40. “Lots of different stuff from lots of different places which we drink and think and do can help us manage.” More Gopnik.
41. Grief is individual, after all.
42. Because grief is one face of love. Because every marriage or relationship is different, and so is the widowhood which follows it, as well as the particular circumstances of the death.
So amen to the “different stuff” Gopnik references.
Whatever works. Whatever helps you through widowhood, especially in early-stage grief, however long that is for you, as long as you can hold it with integrity, do it or think it or take it.
43. What I call “early stage grief” ? For me, I would say I resided in that awful state for five or six years after Ned’s death, long after I appeared functional to others.
After David’s death?
Maybe five months. I hate admitting that. I squirm inside saying it.
44. And, this is not because I had “been through it once.” Of course there was some commonality, but those two experiences of widowhood and grief were far more different than they were alike. Different both circumstantially, and in my emotional response. In what I felt was required of me, and where and how I felt helpless.
45. Maybe it was because Ned was deep in life and wanted so much to remain in it.
One of the ER nurses who was working the night he was medi-vacked in, said something to a friend of a friend, and it got back to me.
“All of us who worked that night were just wrecked by it. He fought so hard. His heart stopped and restarted three times.”
Sometimes this comforts me. Sometimes it wrecks me, too.
46. And David didn’t want to be here, or his disease didn’t want him to, or made it impossible for him to stay.
Because, and I come back to this, too, over and over, and most “suicide widows”, I think, do: Did David “take his own life”? Or did depression take it, the final theft after robbing him a little at a time for years?
47. Or maybe I just didn’t love David as much or as well or as deeply or as something as I did Ned.
I hate that too. It seems one more heartless and disrespectful cruelty to David, as if how heartless, cruel, and disrespectful he was to himself were not bad enough.
And it makes me ask unanswerable and pointless questions.
Pointless because whatever the degree of inadequacy with which I loved him, I did love him.
Pointless because it always comes out the same way, which cannot be undone: he’s dead. He killed himself.
48. Gopnik continues: “Sometimes it helps to dwell on the immensity of the universe. Sometimes it helps to feel the presence of ongoing family and community. Sometimes it helps to light a candle and say a prayer. “
49. And, “Sometimes it helps to sit and breathe.
50. I take a lot of deep breaths this time of year.
This post is part of Crescent’s Widowhood Wednesday series.
The quotes from Adam Gopnik appeared in American Nirvana, which appeared in The New Yorker, August 7 & 14, 2017.
The illustrations above are from the website Mexican Sugar Skulls, which explains a great deal about Dia de las Muertes, and offers gorgeous Mexican folk art and other items related to this holiday.
The photograph below is of the pumpkin kitty carved by the late David Koff, in 2012.