WHAT DO WE DO WHEN, IN THIS SEASON OF RENEWAL,
LIFE STILL FEELS LIKE A LIFE-SENTENCE?
HOW DO WE GRIEVE AT A TIME WHEN EVERYTHING (EXCEPT THE PERSON WE LOVED) SEEMS TO BE COMING BACK TO LIFE?
Easter. Passover. Spring. The days lengthen, grow warm. Everything seems to come back to life.
Everything, that is, except the one we loved. The one who died. Everything except the life we had with him or her, and who we were in that life. Everything except our hope, optimism, ability to anticipate the future with anything but dread.
Often spring is a time in the year’s cycle when widows may, again, feel powerfully disoriented and out of step. Not only is everyone still living ordinary lives, but the natural world itself appears to be full of hopefulness, lovely new beginnings, second chances. All things we do not feel.
What do we do, when, in this season of renewal, life feels to us like a life sentence?
HERE’S WHAT WE DO
We feel what we feel.
We do this even though it seems unbearable. Yet we bear it.
We do this even though it seems never-ending. Yet, though grief never exactly ends, we accept that it may — eventually, far too slowly — transform over time.
And it does.
Here is why I can legitimately hold out this hope: I speak with long-haul authority. I was widowed for the first time almost two decades ago. And, having resided in the state you, perhaps young in widowhood, may now be occupying, this is the promise I can give you: it does get easier. There is an eventual transformation.
And sometimes the transformation is as profound as winter becoming spring.
But this promise comes with a proviso: grieving cannot be hurried or predicted. This transformation is not linear. And it is unpredictable —you have insights and there seems to be some relief, grief letting up a bit. But then it returns vengefully, howling.
In my view, for grief to move and transformation to come takes a long time. Takes as long as it takes (each case is different, but my in own, it was gradual… it took six years for my new life to truly arrive, for me to again feel fully recognizable to myself inside).
And because this process is so astoundingly painful, bearing it even a day, let alone for years, feels too long. I know the idea that it might take this long is understandably daunting to you. I know, too for many it will not be nearly so long as it was for me.
But however long it is for you, I urge you to have hope. To keep walking.
Dear fellow member of the Club No One Wants to Join: I am so sad with and for you. I wish your situation was otherwise. I wish circumstances had not led you here, to this page.
Have courage, alongside your grief. Just the fact that you get up every morning now, given how overwhelmingly alien your life may feel to you at present, is, I know, courageous.
I know you may feel flattened, overcome by the waves of feeling. I know despair, numbness and terrifying uncertainty are not strangers to you.
But eventually you will find that you are bigger than these feelings.
You will get through this.
Just not as soon as you’d like.
THIS TIME OF YEAR
Of course, too, in some religions, resurrection itself, the victory of life over death, embodied in a savior, is explicitly celebrated this time of year.
But even for those who hold this belief, and for those who believe they will see their beloved partner in the afterlife, that partner cannot be resurrected here and now: not physically, not in this life, not as our darling present-time companion or lover. He or she, the living, breathing, laughing, picking up a screwdriver and fixing it or saying “Ssh, ssh, it’s all right”, or finding us lust-worthy long after the world in general has counted us out of the game — that she or he, stubbornly, through no fault of her/his own, is gone and stays dead.
And there is nothing we can do about it.
And we miss him. We miss her.
And over and over, we keep hitting up against the terrible immutable fact of permanent absence.
LANDSCAPES OF BEREAVEMENT
Widowhood is tough in its early stages, every day, day in, day out. But because all holidays echo the recurring stirred-up thoughts of how we observed – or didn’t- those times with our beloved, they can thus be extra-tough. And for some of us, these spring holidays, with the leitmotif of renewal (physical or spiritual) can make these particular ones still harder, in widowhood’s early years.
After all, winter, long, gray and cold, matches bereavement’s interior weather. The deep dreariness and seeming death of December’s landscapes, with its monochromatic palette, aligns with what many of us experience emotionally in widowhood.
You would think, then, that we’d feel a lifting of spirits in spring, wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you suppose that, logically? Daffodils and croci have, after all, pushed through the snow. Bushes burst into fireworks of blossom. When we go on the daily walk we may have to force ourselves to take, the air, sunny and blue-skied, is fragrant with bloom. Wouldn’t, shouldn’t, this cheer us? Give us hope?
For some widows, maybe. But oh, tricky, cunning grief! For other widows, spring feels even more cruel than winter. Precisely because it does not echo what we feel. Every tulip and forsythia spray is a personal affront, a con game — because of its contrast to what we now feel and know. We see the beauty and renewal, but find ourselves unable to participate in it (about which some of us feel guilty — we should be happier! we should “get over it” ! — as if things weren’t bad enough).
As widows, especially in the first few springs after his or her death, everything in the now-bright vernal world around us, is discordant with the desolation of our inner lives.
In spring, this contrast can break us over the rocks.
GRIEF AND SEASONALITY
Especially if you are in early-stage widowhood, and the partner who died is someone you loved deeply and without reservation, you are in pain, no matter the season (ambivalent love has a separate set of burdens and sorrows, but generally, the more joyfully and easily you loved your partner, and the more ways you were connected, the tougher grief is).
You can’t unfeel this pain, nor can you speed the process. It is going to take its own bitter time, and it will not leave you as it found you.
Whether through matching or contrasting the seasons, whether through daily bleakness or pressurized holidays with their inevitable memory of what they used to be versus what they are now, grief sees fit to keep on reminding you of what and who you lost. Over and over.
This is repetitive. Not fair. Excruciating.
And it seems to last so long. You understandably wish you could hurry the whole thing up. If you are someone who is used to just making up your mind and getting through things, grief’s obsidian immobility is disorienting, shocking, perplexing. Why can’t you just move on?
But moving on, through will-power and effort, with a predictable time-line, is not how grief works.
And I ask you to consider this, from someone who did finally pass through the early years of grief into a hard-earned, different, but happy life — grief is working.
Though it doesn’t feel this way.
Every terrible, seemingly endless stab and reminder you experience, the deep longing in the face of his or her unbroken and forever silence, day after day? All those tears, from that limitless aquifer? All the what-ifs, why-didn’t-I-s, if-onlys?
I hate to say it, but that’s how grief is working.
SOMETIMES, SAY YES TO SAYING NO
So. There you are in agony, and flowers are blooming and wrens are building nests. And, well-meaning, kind people are inviting you to Seder or Easter dinner. They’re worried about you. “We don’t want you to be alone for the holidays. Come join us. ” They love you. They’re concerned.
You love them too, probably, and you appreciate their outreach. But right now your love and gratitude towards them may be so heavily shaded by grief that it feels abstract, even burdensome.
While you may feel you owe your presence as reassurance to them that you are okay, you don’t, actually.
When you are not okay, it’s a special kind of hell to feel like your only choice is to either A) pretend that you are okay or B) feel like you are bumming everybody else out and ruining their day. But these two hells, at least, are avoidable.
It’s not your job to soothe everyone else.
Grieving is your job now.
When you are in early-stage grief, or if you find yourself having a particularly tough day, even if it comes up for you last-minute, you have a choice: stay home. “Thank you, but I need to be by myself today… I appreciate your asking, but yes, I’m sure about this; I need to be alone.”
Thinking long and hard about whether to accept invitations, or accepting them and then changing our minds at the last minute, may sound stark or crazy.
But it may, at times, be the greatest kindness we can give ourselves.
There are days, for most of us young in widowhood, when it’s far more soothing to be in the familiar, contained world of our homes than out in the larger world. At home, 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.
As grief counselor Megan Devine writes, “Remember that ‘no’ is a complete sentence.”
You owe yourself only this: listening to what you’re feeling at the moment and then paying attention to that, choosing whatever is the best way for you to get through it.
These emotions, and the reality underlying them are so big. Grief, no matter what else you may be doing, is for most of us almost full-time employment for awhile.
UNDER THE SEEMING, IT’S ALWAYS WINTER, ALWAYS SPRING
Whether the season matches or contrasts with what you are feeling, the fact is that under the seeming death of winter, life is going along. And under the seeming resurrection and bursting forth of spring’s renewal lies death, which is also, always, going along.
Life and death are intimate; as inseparable as, it turns out, love and loss.
“Grief does not obey my will and stay out of sight,” writes Elaine Mansfield, in her memoir Leaning into Love. She’s describing her second year of widowhood. “It will not go away… Vic’s death devastated and initiated me. I learned without doubt that life brings suffering and change is inescapable. I walked to the Gateway of Death and paused there. Then Vic went on without me.
“I can’t see life singularly now. Life and death stand side by side, separated by only one inhalation.”
Widowhood asks us to look at this terrifying reality, about which the usual human habit is to have ignorance or amnesia, close up. Accepting this universal truth is, to my mind, the toughest task being human asks of us.
Winter looks like death. Grief feels like the end. And he, or she, is dead. But you are not.
And that life, the one you shared with her or him, and cherished, is also still dead. But your life is still alive, and in it are the seeds of your new life.
This new life, it’s true, is (terribly) without the physical presence or him or her.
But this new life may also be rich with other things and people and callings, with joy and discovery and surprises — you just don’t know what and who they are yet, nor when they might germinate.
There are times when getting through it, no matter what the season, is all you can do.
And, until this phase transmutes to the next, that’s enough.
This post is part of Crescent’s Widowhood Wednesday series. These posts appear each month, usually, though not always, on Wednesdays, and certainly not every Wednesday. Occasionally, too, there’s a post by a guest contributor.
In all, we explore the questions raised in this and other posts: how other people were or were not present for, and what helped, or didn’t help, us get through grief and loss. What do we wish people knew? How can we as a culture do better at understanding and preparing for this passage?
The photograph at the top of this post is a rain-beaten but still lovely tulip, taken in the spring of 2018, in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
The photograph to the left is of Crescent’s husband, the late Ned Shank.
It was taken in about 1996. Ned is in the kitchen of Dairy Hollow House, the country inn the couple co-owned and ran for eighteen years, in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Breakfast was delivered to inn guests daily, in a large basket. On Easters, Ned delivered breakfast as a rabbit.
Now, back to the present.