WHAT TO DO WHEN THE REGULAR PARADIGMS DON’T WORK
Most of us, before widowhood was thrust upon us, gave little thought to what that state would actually be like. And when and if we did try to conceive of it, most of us got it wrong.
” … In the version of grief we imagine (before we are widowed),” writes Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking, ” the model will be ‘healing.’ ”
Didion was shocked to find that that model did not apply. So was I.
So, I think, are many widows.
Why doesn’t ‘healing’ work with widowhood?
BECAUSE, IT WORKED BEFORE, RIGHT?
For isn’t “healing” the resilience story? The much-loved, hopeful, often true, relied-upon tale: hard times, pick-and-shovel work, eventual triumph, overcoming long odds and setbacks for an ultimate win?
The loose outlines: something difficult happens to you. You mourn, process, cry. You work. This work is not easy; maybe, in doing it, you break out in welts, get cold sores or shingles, lose friends, go bankrupt. But you keep going. You don’t give up. You talk it out, with friends, in therapy, to God. Maybe you write about it, or paint, take up meditation, make amends, lose 50 pounds, go back to church or walk away from religion altogether. Maybe you join a 12-Step Program, move to the San Cristobal Mountains. Maybe you report an abuser from your past to law enforcement.
But you keep going. You reach for, and gradually gain, understanding, insight, maybe self-forgiveness. You learn to call what befell you by its correct name. Perhaps you confront others; almost certainly you confront yourself.
You do your work, whatever the work is, given your particular set of difficulties.
And time passes, doing its work.
And then, usually by increments (though sudden epiphany is not unknown), you find you are “healing.” And then, “healed.”
You’ve made peace with your personal dark night; its evil, unfairness, cruelty or incomprehensibility no longer have you by the throat.
And, best of all, now comes the positive Hollywood ending we all love and which often has truth to it: you are not just “good as new,” you are better for having endured! “Yes, it was hard, but if XYZ hadn’t happened, I never would have ABC’d….”
We all know this story. We all love this story! Many of us have lived some version of it, and watched our friends live it. We’ve read about it in books, seen it in movies and on the evening news. We believe it, and in most cases with cause.
Thus it was natural that Didion and I and many other widows (including, maybe, you) would suppose that “healing” would get us through widowhood-grief.
And it was also natural that we were shocked when it didn’t.
And that it didn’t only added to that terrifying befuddlement common to widowhood, especially in its early phases: disorientation, being in a strange, rough, unfamiliar country, where the language is unknown and even the most basic verities are unreliable.
So why doesn’t “healing” work with widowhood?
In my own life, previous to widowhood, “healing” had worked miracles for and with me, allowing me to overcome a series of adversities (of course, every life has them).
Here are some that were once mine, some of the large-seeming ones in the first three decades of my life:
* A childhood with an erratic alcoholic father and a mother who for many years enshrined victimhood.
* Being raped at gunpoint in my late teens.
* Learning in my 20’s that I’d never be able to bear children.
None of these, at the time I experienced them, were walks in the park. But I was released, in time and with work, from the psychological bondage all of them had left me with. I was eventually ‘healed.’
How do I know? I rarely even think about these former-traumas. I have to dig to even remember them, and while I can, and can recall both details and that I felt pain and fear back then, when I do, there is no resurgence of those feelings in the present. I no longer feel pain or fear.
(In the case of my parents, these days there is even a certain amount of finding the more outrageous pieces of that screwy childhood interesting and even hilarious, not tragic. Presently, I’m very glad they were my parents. Too, some of the family shenanigans, though difficult at the time, made for great stories. Plus I believe that “nothing is wasted on the writer.” And, too, both my parents did some work on and healing of their own selves in their later lives. But I digress.)
The point is, in each of these three instances, the resilience narrative worked. And each time it did, though perhaps I did not see this fully at the time, I grew.
I grew in the skill of how to heal, learning the process of working through stuff. I grew faith in that process, having experienced it. I grew to believe in eventual good outcomes, as long as one didn’t give up. And in discovering greater resiliency than I knew I was capable of, I grew in compassionate enthusiasm — I became a great encourager of potentiality in others, helping when I could and cheering on and being present for friends, family, and students as they faced hard times.
Over the years, the freedom all this gave me, the access to parts of myself I didn’t know I had or was capable of having, filled me with awe, humility, and faith.
If that’s not healing, I don’t know what is.
So why doesn’t it work with widowhood?
A VANISHED CO-CREATED LIFE
If someone breaks a leg, you can legitimately expect that s/he will heal. But if a leg’s been amputated it cannot heal, because it’s not there anymore.
Widowhood is an amputation, not a break.
Yes, theoretically you are still complete, it is only (only!) that your partner has died.
But when your spouse dies, what’s lost is not only (only!) your beloved, but the whole co-created life of a marriage. Which was your life too, and which has ended.
You lose the two-person pet-language (“Oh, little Rumple-Pumpkin!”). You lose the encyclopedia of shared referential personal history (“Remember that time when we were driving to Iowa and we stopped for that picnic lunch and we inadvertently screwed up the duck-blind those hunters had set up?”).
You lose your daily, monthly, annual rituals. ( Knowing that, when he says, “Guess what I saw at the Farmer’s Market? The first new-crop apples!” he means, “And so soon you will bake the pie with the walnut crust, while I make the vanilla bean ice cream, just like every October.”)
You lose the individual knowledge your partner carried. (What were the Quicken passwords? Which glass place did she take the car to for repairs when a pebble cracked the windshield?). You lose the vast taken-for-granted particulars of working partnership, the who-did-what of a help-meet; shopping, cooking, vacking, changing the oil, putting up storm windows, calling the guys to pump the septic, cleaning the heating vent filter, remembering birthdays and allergies and vaccinations. (Do you have it in you to keep his beloved aged incontinent dog, the one that tolerated you but adored him, the one to whom he administered daily shots and monthly baths, the one whose rheumy eyes he wiped, the one who smells, the one he cleaned up after? The one who clearly now grieves, in his doggy way, maybe as much as you do? How can you possibly have him euthanized? But the dog is miserable, you’ve never been liked getting shots, you find the idea of giving them impossible. Even if you weren’t already on your knees with all the other inconceivable responsibilities that have now fallen to you, could you, would you, should you, are you able to take on the medical care of a grieving old dog? But it’s his dog, and you share grief… what, oh what, should you do? And then there is the question you will never say aloud but ask yourself in the middle of the night — why isn’t “being put to sleep” an option for you?).
You lose many of the roles you had. You lose identity, routine, the particular rhythm of days, even predictable arguments. You lose, probably, financial resources and income (Can you afford to keep the house the two of you lived in? Do you want to?)
You lose a shared future, or the assumption of one.
When a partner dies, this deeply dimensional shared life is not broken. It’s amputated.
The root word of “heal” is the Germanic hailaz, “to make whole.”
After an amputation, by definition you are not whole.
You will never have both legs back. And it’s almost certain that you will never not wish you did have both legs back.
While you, the amputee, may adjust to a prosthetic, become heroically functional, come to peace with loss, create a happy life — that life will be a new one, not a healed version of the old one. There is phantom limb pain, excruciating not just despite, but because of, what is not there any more.
That is the reason why the “healing” narrative does not work in widowhood: some losses are permanent and catastrophic, no matter what we make of them.
Joan Didion lists some of the other suppositions we probably had pre-widowhood:
“… the worst days will be the earliest days… that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place… We have no way of knowing that (the funeral) will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion.
“Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) of the unending absence that follows…”
See, with widowhood, you can do everything right, take every single step you’ve used before to heal, take every single piece of good advice you’re offered, and you still don’t get the triumphant answer, the ultimate win. You do not, will not, cannot get the partner you loved back.
Unending absence. That is the non-negotiable fact that every widow crashes into, over and over, time after time.
PS: IF NOT HEALING, WHAT?
Yet, there is legitimate, non-Pollyanna cause for hope: I say this especially to those of you who are young in grief.
Yet how, if one does not and cannot “heal”, is this possible?
I think there is a different model of the slow process of becoming who you will be now, in the life that is not your old life, but is yours nonetheless. A model more accurate than “healed.” Briefly — for this is a whole other post — it is the twin ideas of integration, and composting.
Everything, including every phase of widowhood and grief, though it cannot be healed or gotten over or speeded up, goes willy-nilly into that heap of life-experience which makes you you.
Like a garden compost heap, with its grass clippings, manure, kitchen detritus, is piled up together, to slowly decompose. It’s a process you can speed up a little by turning over these materials from time to time… but just a little. In the end, though, all that material becomes humus: rich, dark brown soil, which can go into the garden, which can nourish new generation of grass and chickens and vegetables. Life and death turn out to be as inseparably intimate as love and loss.
You were loved; you grieve… you had, you lost. This is part of your psychological, emotional, spiritual compost pit. These things are combined, and cannot be uncombined, because that is the nature of our existence.
Here is what I think, dear widow. From our personal compost, we grow our new selves. We do not “get over” loss; rather our deep sadness and ache becomes part of what and who we are and will be. We do not “heal”; we compost, and through that, we integrate our pain and missing, and we go on. Sometimes, to grow a new life.
It is fall as I write this; I don’t know in what season you will read it. But for now, I pick you, my dear fellow widows, a nice summer bouquet, picked, one July, from my Vermont garden.
I know it may hurt your eyes to look at beauty. But I am only offering them metaphorically, of course, on the page and screen.
And so, though you cannot “heal” the old life back, a new life does exist for you. It’s probably unformed and unknowable at present, but it will, in its own time, be revealed to you and created by you.
And there, this bunch of flowers will wait, staying fresh and ready when you are.