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 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: 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. I was doubled up on the blue-and-white checkerboard kitchen floor, heaving with sobs, the only sound in that quiet dark night, in the house og such long silences, now that Ned was gone from it forever. The cat blinked at me.
This was occasioned by a post I came across on Facebook today, from a friend I have yet to meet face to face. She wrote about the current phase of her grieving, saying:
“I share this, because I want you to know it apparently happens in grief. Even two years down the road. This is a new stage. This is 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 journey, the next adventure with friends. I am the one getting in touch with friends to go eat, or spend time together…usually the life of any party. (But) Right now, I have no desire to be out and about…. just don’t feel I have anything to share, contribute, or offer the world at the moment. 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 my situation, 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 the 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, either. I consider my Facebook friend generous in her decision to engage in truth-telling in this public manner. I try to do the same.
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 will die before the other.
And that 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 today can expect to live, on average, to age 86.6. That means, again on average, a woman can expect to 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, and at a time when it is highly unlikely that she will find, or desire, another mate.
Of course, those statistics are mere averages. My husband died at 46. I was widowed at age 49, sixteen 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.
And how do you average and actuarialize widowhood when the marriage is of a same sex couple?
But if there is a way to be prepared for widowhood (or to bear witness and consolation to those who are going through it), it certainly begins with what my courageous friend did in her post on Facebook: talking about it 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 death, has long since gone back to their normal lives; how could they not? And yet, especially if the marriage was a good and lengthy one and the death was sudden, the widow is still so very, very far from “normal.” And indeed, as I discovered with that leathery avocado egg, the normal she had has vanished and will never return.
And whatever the new normal may turn out to be, it’ll be some time before it gradually begins to make itself known.
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 sixteen years down that road.
Here is what I wrote in a comment on her post.
“It was six years after Ned’s death before I felt recognizable to myself. I was ‘high function.’ I think very few people had any idea how bereft and at sea I really was.
“When I did finally come back, although I was recognizable to myself, I had become a different self. Grief does not leave us as it has found us.
“And it takes its time – its agony is so freaking monotonous. Grief cannot and will not be hurried.
“No matter how much others love us, unless they have been through it – it meaning the loss of a beloved partner with whom one shared much time – they are in incapable of understanding it; it is that altered a state, discontinuous with ordinary reality. Not because our friends lack empathy, but because grief is unimaginable. Literally, one cannot accurately imagine it. The roughness and inexplicability of the inner terrain that we traverse while grieving cannot be imagined until you yourself have traversed it.
“My dear friend, whatever you need to do, whatever you may feel or not feel at any given moment, is part of that terrain. You will eventually be happy again, at least, as for all of us, at times; but somewhat back 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 side by side with loving again in the youth of old age, I will miss Ned forever. And I am never unaware of grief and loss – which probably does make me treasure the moment more, and not in a superficial greeting card kind of way.
“I sometimes say, of myself now, that I am a happy soul residing on an aquifer of grief. I wish you courage, persistence, and self compassion as you travel this terrain. “
I am, it could truthfully be said, one of the lucky ones: impossibly, I love and am loved again.
I had long felt capable of loving, but I did not think I had the capacity to be “in love” again; I felt, definitively, that this had died with Ned.
Maybe eight months into it, I said to the current man in my life, “You know, the last time I fell in love I was 24. I have no idea what falling in love at this age might feel like, when one is steadier, and has more of an identity and a sense of how things are. But I think maybe it might feel like this.”
He said, serious, urgent, “What would make you know for sure?”
I thought about it for a long time. Then I said, “I guess I do know.”
We lay there, then, quietly, in the late afternoon sun, his arm snaked around my shoulder, my head on his chest. Close to each other, close to mystery.
A related story I wrote for AARP’s #disruptaging campaign: Sex as a Death-Defying Act. If you are over 60 and think it’s over for you sexually, especially if you have been widowed, I beg you: please read it. And if you like it, please, please leave a comment below the article on AARP’s website… this will encourage them to cover this topic more. It was pretty edgy for them!
If you are looking for a place to explore grief and grieving that goes far beyond the simplistic and inaccurate “stages of grief” model, I suggest Refuge in Grief: Emotionally Intelligent Grief Support , a resource-rich website which truly delivers exactly what it says, with compassion, thoughtfulness and wisdom.