It was maybe three weeks after his sudden death; the first time I had been alone in the house, without someone staying over.
At perhaps three in the morning, I realized it had been awhile since I had eaten anything. I thought, with a kind of detached, looking-down-on-myself kind of logic, ‘Perhaps you should eat something, Crescent.’
I opened the refrigerator. More disorientation: people had been bringing food non-stop; I wasn’t eating. It was full, but unfamiliar. There was even a mason jar, politely labeled, of homemade turkey-sausage gumbo, from someone who obviously cared for me but didn’t know me well enough to realize I had not eaten meat in thirty-some years.
I closed the refrigerator door.
‘You really should eat something, Crescent.’
I opened it again, determined to find something. I opened the vegetable bin.
And there was a… what was it? An object the size and shape of an egg, leathery, black.
I took it out and gazed at it, resting it in my palm. Really, what was it? I looked at it for a long, long time, as I stood in the kitchen in the middle of the night. The cat, who had been asleep, stirred and joined me in the kitchen.
Finally I realized it was a very, very old avocado. I had no idea when it had been placed in my fridge, or by whom.
I walked over to the blue compost bucket by the sink and dropped it in.
And heard myself think: “Boy, I sure will be glad when all this is over and things get back to normal.”
And then realized: No. He is dead. Things will never be normal again.
The cat gazed at me. For I was suddenly on her level, no longer standing but doubled up on the blue-and-white checkerboard kitchen floor, heaving with sobs. The only sound in that quiet dark night, in the house of long silence, now that Ned was gone from it forever.
About a year ago I read a post on Facebook, by a friend (she allowed me to quote her, but prefered not to be named). She is a fellow-widow; we have yet to meet face to face. She wrote about the then-current phase of her grieving, her need for introversion:
“… it apparently happens, even two years down the road, this stage…. This stage: the ‘stay at home, don’t want to see anyone, or do anything’ stage.
“As any of you who know me, know, I am usually always ready for the next trip, the next adventure with friends. I am the one getting in touch with friends to go eat, or spend time together…the life of any party. (But) Right now, I have no desire to be out and about…. don’t feel I have anything to share, contribute, or offer the world. So, if I don’t get in touch for dinner plans, or I don’t seem myself, please try to understand.
‘I think one is kept in a state of shock for a long, long time after the loss of a much-loved person. I now see that shock wears off gradually. I don’t know when I will be ‘back to myself’ and ready to face the world, but I know I will be.
“I will continue to use (Facebook) to share this, in the hope it will help someone else who may think they are feeling something no one else has felt. I, personally, didn’t know this came with grief.
“Oh, and if your advice is “Make yourself get out and go….” just hang on to that thought and don’t share it with me. I would if I could.”
I would if I could.
You can’t hurry love, Diana Ross used to sing. And because of this, you can’t hurry grief, which is one face of love. The grief journey has neither time-frame nor map.
My Facebook friend was generous in her decision to engage in public truth-telling. I try to do the same, for the same reason.
Widowhood is not a skill any of us are taught. Perhaps there is no preparation for it. But at least, we ought to be prepared for the fact that it is almost certain for half the people in any partnered relationship: one person dies before the other.
The odds are likely, in heterosexual couples, that the survivor will be female. According to data compiled by the Social Security Administration, a man reaching age 65 today can expect to live, on average, until age 84.3, while a woman turning age 65 can expect to live, on average, to age 86.6. That means, again on average, a woman will live two years and three months as a widow: to endure seismic change at a time of life when her health and perceptual abilities may already be changing; at a time when it is highly unlikely that she will find, or desire, another mate. And how do you average and actuarialize widowhood when the marriage is of a same-sex couple?
Of course, those statistics are averages. My husband died at 46. I was widowed at age 49, seventeen years ago, from the man I would certainly have called my soul mate and with whom I expected to spend the remainder of my days and nights.
But if there is a way to be prepared for widowhood (or to bear witness to and consolation for those who are going through it), it certainly begins with what my courageous friend did in her post on Facebook: talking transparently. Explaining, in so far as possible, what this constantly-changing-but-always-difficult state called widowhood is like.
I well remember how hard it was at two years after my husband’s death. Of course, of course, everyone who was there in the immediate aftermath of his death, had long since gone back to their normal lives; how could they not?
And yet, especially if the marriage was a good and lengthy one, as ours was, and especially if the death was sudden, as his was, the widow is still so very, very far from “normal.” (Though if the death happened when a couple was not resolved, or if the death was long, painful, and drawn out — these too bear their particular sharpened sorrows).
The normal the widow had has vanished and will never return, as I discovered with that leathery avocado egg. A truth every widow crashes into hopelessly, over and over again.
And whatever the new normal may turn out to be, it’ll be some time before it gradually begins to make itself known to the widow.
A long time. Often, years.
As my friend felt called to witness “what apparently happens in grief even two years down the road,” so did, and do, I, almost seventeen years down that road. That is why I started Widowhood Wednesday, and why, when I see the topic surface on Facebook, I always try to answer with transparency.
And on Facebook — unlikely campfire around which so many of we humans gather these days — I see much transparency on the subject of widowhood.
Last week I quoted a post written by writer Jane Yolen, a real-life face to face friend. A different widowed friend, Kimberly McKittrick (a former architect now becoming a therapist), again a friend I have yet to meet face to face, writes often and beautifully, with astounding heartbreak, of the loss of her beloved Paul.
Facebook, as is its way, recently tossed up a random “memory” to Kimberly, meaning a post of hers from some years past. Its selection was this, from three years earlier: “What do you do with your life when you lose the person you love more than anyone or anything else in this world, the person who felt the same way about you? Paul died five months ago, and I feel no closer to being able to answer that question today than I was the day he died.”
Brave Kimberly approved its reposting now, adding this: “Thank you Facebook (I mean that seriously) for showing me this today. Three years later, I am doing something with my life that I love, something that I couldn’t have imagined three years ago. Thank you, also, to the family and friends who commented on this post three years ago. Reading your comments again, I was able to feel – perhaps even more than at the time – the love with which I was and continue to be surrounded.”
Yes. Yes, yes, yes.
Here is what I commented on the post of my friend who did not wish to be identified:
“It was six years after Ned’s death before I felt recognizable to myself. I was ‘high function.’ Few knew how bereft and at sea I was.
“When I did finally come back to a recognizable self, I was different. Grief does not leave us as it has found us.
“And it takes its time – its agony is so freaking monotonous. It cannot, will not be hurried.
“No matter how much others may love us, unless they have been through the loss of a beloved partner, they are in incapable of full understanding. It is that altered a state, discontinuous with ordinary reality. Not because our friends lack empathy, but because grief is unimaginable. The roughness and inexplicability of the inner terrain we traverse cannot be imagined until you yourself have traversed it.
“… (W)hatever you need to do, whatever you may feel or not feel at any moment, is part of that terrain. You will eventually be happy again, at least, as for all of us, at times. You will return somewhat to whatever was your default emotionally. I can tell you truly that I am a happier and more whole person now than I was as my young self, with the man I adored and who was the love of my life — at least, my early and middle-aged life.
“But side-by-side with that, and by loving again now, in the youth of old age, I will miss Ned forever. And I am never unaware of grief and loss. Does this make me cherish the moment more? It does. The knowledge of mortality is ever-present. Mysteriously, I think it has softened me, formed me into a kinder, better, more forbearing person. ”
Here in Vermont, on the quiet hilltop on which I reside, I sometimes calm myself by going outside, standing on the lawn, and looking up at the stars, exceptionally clear from here. This reminds me how small my life is, and how vast and still the universe. So does the proportional brevity of my individual embodied life makes me understand the privilege of having it (for a little while) at all.
And my goodness, to be sharing it – again! – with someone I love and admire, who loves me, here in the middle of our 60s, as I am! I just don’t get bent out of shape about much, and certainly not with my guy. How could I, given our impossible good fortune? I remember the carelessness, sometimes, with which I assumed Ned and I would go through time, the inevitable taking for granted, the occasional bitchiness of a too-young-to-have-been-tried wife. I cringe. My present partner got a much kinder mate, I think, than Ned did. The new, improved, 2.0 version. But there are no do-overs after death. I have to release that cringe, let it compost into the ground from which my present self grows.
Dear fellow widow, I wish you courage, persistence, and self-compassion as you travel this terrain. And I wish you the occasional glance up, up, up to the stars. I wish I could say, “He’s up there watching you,” but I don’t really believe this (though if you do, and if it gives you comfort, all the more reason to look up). But I do know our lifetimes are small and short; that we loved and were loved, and because of this, lucky and unlucky when that ended. And I do know that those stars remain there, glittering, inviting us to notice them while we still can.