Our beloved partner is no longer on earth.
And now it’s the holidays.
Sometimes other people, not realizing they’re doing it, ask us to dress grief up in party clothes.
We may even ask it of ourselves.
But we don’t have to do it.
In the fall of 2004, my friend Kay’s husband, the love of her life, left this world after a long illness. Kay decided to keep their tradition, and so, three months later, without her Richard, she went to the annual extended family Christmas weekend celebration they’d always gone to together, at the family lake house.
If you’re a fellow widow, you will understand how surreal those days were for her that year, how deeply out of place she felt. How she went through the motions, physically present but not remotely there.
“But you know the really weird part, Crescent?” she asked me later, shaking her head, still deconstructing that bewildering weekend. “I was actually in every single group photograph at the time they were taken. I stood with everyone. I smiled. I saw the flash. But I don’t show up in any of the photographs. Somehow, photographically, I am literally invisible. It’s like I wasn’t there.”
Because she wasn’t.
IT’S NOT “THE MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR” FOR EVERYBODY
Holidays: ignore them, adore them, participate in them or abstain. But there they are, making us take note of time’s wheel, unceasingly spinning in one direction only.
Holidays tell widows what every day after the death of our partner tells us: that what is impossible is true, that the wheel will continue turning, even after the person most central to our lives is gone. That while nothing in our lives is the same, the world will continues to act as if it is. Mail still arrives, and bank statements. The cat still needs to be fed, the dog walked. Dust accumulates under the bed we will never again share with our partner.
But though every day tells us this, holidays do so extra-loudly.
Like every aspect of our lives, widowhood shifts our observance of the holidays, cleaving before from after. We used to do the holidays in a certain way with our beloved partner, then he or she died: tectonic alteration, unacceptable fact we are asked to accept over and over. Holidays ask us to accept it with additional burdens, specific rituals, behaviors, and expectations.
Our first Thanksgiving without her. Our first Christmas without him. Another Chanukah without her. A third New Year absent him.
No matter how we, as widows, choose to mark or attempt to ignore holidays, these days will almost surely be grief-filled.
We can, however, worsen the grief (by trying to pretending it away). Or, depending on how willing we are to feel and sit with our sorrow, we may take a few baby-steps towards integrating loss, love and life: with our lives as they are now, as they will become. Although it may not feel like babysteps, or integration.
What makes the holidays so hard?
Obviously, we can’t do them the way we did when she or he was alive, even if we continue some of the outer forms. And whatever we may eventually find or grow into for future holidays has probably not yet revealed itself. And the future refuses to be hurried. And that’s hard.
Obviously, too, enormous pressure bears down on us from many directions. Celebrate, “count your blessings.” Be thankful. Be jolly (or “holly-jolly”), happy, merry, bright.
And, consume. Buy, decorate, drink, socialize, give. (The importance of “Christmas shopping” to retail means that we are pressured relentlessly to express love, joy and peace, ineffable qualities that are not and never can be material, through the purchase, exchange and consumption of material objects.)
But underneath these lies the mother of all holiday pressure: the holidays in particular ask us to feel and be something other than what we feel and are. At this time.
And our culture, addicted as it is to positivity, self-improvement, fixing things, and feeling good, really doesn’t deal with grief well. On many fronts, others find what we are actually feeling unacceptable, and so there is created an even larger pressure — and this one is usually unstated — to fake it.
This puts the widow on a collision course with her or his world. Grief makes others uncomfortable. Those who are grieving are the ultimate “buzz-killers” (though, really, it’s not us; and it’s not even mortality; it’s the society-wide inability to look at mortality). But, feelings, as we’ve said, want to be felt. And of all the emotions humans carry, grief is most unyielding on this point. Grief simply insists on being felt.
But during “the most wonderful time of the year” (as the Christmas songs set on repeat, everywhere from gas stations to beauty salons ceaselessly remind us), we are asked to not feel our grief. And if we can’t not feel it, we are asked (usually indirectly) to pretend.
WHAT’S YOUR PRESSURE?
The pressure to not feel what you feel comes from many sources. Some is familial, some societal, some religious. Some comes from friends. Some, from within.
Even the impersonal, economically driven pressure to consume has a painful emotional component in widowhood: for many of us may well be deep into dealing with questions of his or her stuff, what should be given away or thrown out, and when. In such a state, the thought of accumulating still more material objects may fill us with horror, as does the enforced cheer and crowds at the mall.
But even if we put our feet down and resist shopping, buying, giving, widows are also pressured personally, often, by friends. And that’s harder to resist.
TIDINGS OF DISCOMFORT
Because most of our friends are well-meaning. Their intentions are kind, mostly.
They are worried about us. They “don’t want us to be alone for the holidays.” They want to know if we are getting enough sleep, or if we are sleeping “too much.” They tell us to “take care of ourselves.” (Which means, in this context, exactly what?). They say, “You have to eat.”
They say, “He wouldn’t want you to feel this way.”
They say, “It’s been over three years!”
They say, “Just come out for an hour, one hour. If you’re not comfortable, I’ll drive you home.”
None of this lets you just hang out with what you feel, with who you are now. And it trivializes and minimizes your egregious loss: if a party to which you wear a red-and-green plaid velvet skirt and drink mulled wine could “cheer you up”, well, you lost a set of car keys, even a job… not a life-partner.
On the other hand, threaded among this may also be the perplexing opposite: friends who drop you utterly. If this happens, it will often be with “couple friends”, dyads you and your partner knew as another pair. So unthinkable are your present circumstances and reality ( see “A Widow is a Reminder“) that some of such friends vanish. Driven away, one supposes, by an atavistic fear: maybe it’s catching.
Given how uncomfortable the pressure to socialize is, you would think this would be a relief, and in some ways it is. Yet it is also confusing and hurtful: part of the deep surreality that pervades early widowhood.
Now. Some friends do get it, and bless them bless them bless them. They neither pressure you to celebrate nor drop you, but hang out with you, walk with you a little ways. In one of our next Widowhood Wednesdays, I will tell you the story of such friends, one in particular.
But for our purposes here, and because I wish to call a spade a spade here, those of us in the Club No One Wants to Join must accept that many friends simply are not going to be able to go the distance with us at this time. They may love us, but this is hard to get right: to know how to be with a grieving friend if you yourself have not been bereaved.
In a wholly different way than it has us, the death of our partner has befuddled our friends, too.
Family are another tangle of mixed-up, often excruciatingly contradictory, pressures.
Widows who are the parents of young children feel the pressure to make the holidays both normal and special for their kids. How unbearable this is, the widowed mom-or-dad, bereft her- or himself, probably not able to even begin to grieve fully solo, because s/he was too overwhelmed in trying to protect and salve their bereft, bewildered children.
In fact, everyone who was related to your partner had their own unique relationship, good or bad, with him or her. Had their own sets of feelings.
Young children, teenage children, adult children. In-laws, your late partner’s siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents: all of them are also contending with the loss of the person you lost. The same person, though someone very different to them than to you, his/her spouse. Issues of control, money and inheritance, of who has the “right” to remember him/her in what way (and who does indeed remember him or her correctly), matters that were unresolved, arguments over his/her possessions (sometimes, even, his or her very ashes!) — all of this can surface. All of this on top of whatever scratchiness may have been there all along.
And some of it is frankly crazy.
And most families have at least one self-dramatizing narcissist, who will make her/his reaction bigger and more important than yours, even if your spouse saw that relative maybe once a year, after which you inevitably heard him/her say a dozen times , “Well thank God we don’t have to deal with him for another year, what a jerk.”
All this as you may still be trying to come to grips with the most basic fact: he is gone. She is not coming back.
Of course, as with friends, there are some family members who do get it, who love and support us respectfully, who do not deny the mysterious, vast somber terrain we now tread. Some even walk with us part of the way from time to time. Bless them. Bless them.
But, in my experience, again, they are the minority.
EVEN NOT OBSERVING IS OBSERVANCE
Perhaps you and your beloved partner jumped right in and reveled in this season joyfully, either privately or with family or friends. (For 29 years at your annual big party he made the eggnog his grandfather used to make; for 29 years the two of you had a quiet New Years, with champagne and potato chips.)
Or perhaps your practice was to ignore the whole thing as much as possible. Yet even people who don’t celebrate the holidays traditionally do “observe” them, in the sense of noticing them. (Going out for Chinese food every Christmas Day is as much a tradition for some as roast goose and plum pudding is for others).
Your social relationships, as a couple, may have been nourished by familial love and affection, enjoyment and friendship. Or, they may have been driven by duty and toxic obligation, or characterized by distance. This continues to play out, or heighten, after a death.
Other people may not be able to be honest with you about this, but at least you can be honest with yourself. Or you can try to be.
Especially if you are in early-stage widowhood and the partner who has died is someone you loved deeply and unambivalently, you are in pain (ambivalent love has a separate set of burdens and sorrows, but generally, the more joyfully you loved your partner, the tougher grief is).
You can’t unfeel the pain, nor can you hurry it up. It is going to take its own bitter time, and it will not leave you as it found you.
And it is certainly not going to go on vacation so you can have a nice Christmas.
And while you may feel you owe the well-meaning ones your presence as reassurance that you are okay, you don’t, actually.
And, you are not okay, and to pretend you are only worsens things. You owe yourself only this: whatever is the best way for you to get through it. This is rarely big noisy socializing. The death of my husband and later, partner, taught me to think long and hard about accepting invitations. As grief counselor Meghan Devine writes, “Remember that ‘no’ is a complete sentence.”
Though this may sound stark, for most of us it is far more soothing to stay at home, where, if a grief tsunami hits, we can sob unobtrusively, and not have to worry about anyone or anything except how the hell we are even going to take one more breath in the face of this enormous pain.
It is a special kind of hell to have to pretend celebratory normalcy, as our well-meaning friends attempt helplessly to comfort us , and we feel doubly or triply bad: because we have to fake it, or because we cannot fake it.
Compared to this, sitting alone with the pain of your loss, even in a dark house, is so much more comfortable.
But the noisy denial of death and grief does not only come from outside. The trickiest piece is, we do it to ourselves sometimes.
We are not immune to magical thinking. As we try to come to grips with the unthinkable, our unconscious, as well as our conscious, works overtime.
My dreams, after Ned’s death, kept coming up with alternative scenarios, outcomes. Which collided with reality devastatingly.
Here is a poem I wrote about one such dream.
This dream led me to say yes to an invitation my conscious self had said no to. The party, my first public appearance in that small town since his death, was grim for me, people clamming up or bursting into tears when they saw me, or flinging their arms around me.
But coming home was worse.
This poem may be hard to read. As it was to live through.
But I am posting it here for two reasons. First, to say again that not all the pressure and denial is external; that some of it comes from within — to say this by way of whatever preparation I can offer, a map to the strange, bewildering country of widowhood.
And secondly, because living through the agonies, including this one, including my friend’s discovery of her invisibility in that first year’s Christmas pictures… all of it turns out to be part of the process by which we integrate the great loss of our great love into our next life.
For death, and grief, are inseparable from love. All are part of life and loving, and they come only on their own terms.
DREAM, DECEMBER 30, ONE MONTH AFTER YOUR FATAL ACCIDENT
We knew you had six months
to live. How calm we were!
No tumors, amputations,
hospitalizations; no burning drips,
emaciation. Just fact:
the running out of time,
but known, a set amount.
We moved through the house, sorting.
You were wearing
that big texture-y white shirt,
black jeans. You gave me
the Quicken password, the
safety deposit box key.
You promised, within these confines,
that there was nothing to fear.
“It won’t be unexpected,
you’ll know. For instance,
you won’t walk in and find me
dead. As for that
New Year’s Eve party, you
should go. I’ll be here
when you get back.”
I went. You weren’t.
This post is part of Crescent’s Widowhood Wednesday series. It is the first of several on the November-December holidays.
The image at the top of this post dates from the days when Crescent and Ned owned an inn, Dairy Hollow House, in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Every Christmas for about a decade, CD hand-decorated dozens of personalized gingerbread cookies for incoming guests — a tradition she walked away from long ago. Photographer unknown.