A widow's advice: Honor what was, function in what is
For nearly two months I'd been holding my breath.
My husband, Joe, a strong man, was under siege from lung cancer. The cancer was killing him. Our lives had become a series of lowered expectations: one more day, one more hour.
The clock ran out on one August morning in 1996. At home, surrounded by those who loved him, Joe died.
Without him, I was lost. He was my love, my strength. Joe was part of everything I did, my first cup of coffee in the morning, and my last good night, and dozens of moments in between.
I had to learn to exhale in a world I'd now inhabit without him.
But I couldn't. I wore his sweater, slept on his side of the bed, took secret comfort in leaving his baseball hat on the hook in the laundry room. I told myself I was coping, but when the kids needed something, I panicked: "What do I do?"
Friends had suggested from some experience, "Don't touch the closets, don't remove anything." It's nice to have him there for a while.
One day I had to invade his space and finally gathered the hangers, seeing his outline in every shirt and jacket. I wept giant tears as I imagined Joe saying, hurt and confused, "You gave away all my clothes. I have nothing to wear."
Going through his personal belongings was like invading his privacy. We always respected each other's space and it was disconcerting to me. I also needed to do it by myself and not let anyone else touch his things.
Later came the decision about Joe's ashes. I tucked the box with his earthly remains and those of his dog in his sock drawer. I thought that might make him happy.
Something told me I wasn't doing any of this right. All the books, and some of my well-intentioned but clueless friends, talked about moving on, about getting by. What does that mean anyway? Closure.
But I couldn't even say the words, out loud: My husband died.
What I could do was describe the waves of grief, massive swells of sadness that washed through me without warning and pinned me to the pain of my broken heart. It does not wait, it just comes to get you. I was functioning on two levels.
The grief was always there. I would cry and try to think of Terri and James, hoping we all would get stronger.
My moods bounced crazily. I was sad and felt guilty because Joe was on my mind all the time. The children were trying to deal with their own grief in their way, and mine just lingered, I could not put it behind me.
In time there were many changes and decisions about the house, the future, and understanding my financial circumstances.
I realized we pass through a series of predictable stages of denial, anger and then acceptance. Each one has a different process time for our grief recovery. Our patterns of grief are as unique as our patterns of love.
I now seem to understand I don't need to follow anyone's pattern. I did not have to stop being sad. Not only was sadness OK, it was necessary.
No one can tell me or the kids how to mourn. And it's not self-indulgence, it's not wallowing; it's hanging on to something important.
We should not avoid bereavement. We should embrace it, welcoming our moments of sorrow as a time to reconnect with the person we've lost.
I have tried to instill this to both my children. Grief was not something I'd recover from but an ongoing process, one that lasts -- thank goodness -- forever.
Today the waves of pain are less frequent but no less intense. I cry unexpectedly and then feel better.
I have learned to live without Joe but not to forget him, to honor the memory of what was while functioning in the world that is.
To welcome the sadness that keeps us connected. And realize that having the time together with Terri and Jim to spread in ashes in the Pacific was a comfort to me as I hope it helped both of them. We were able to set him and his dog free.
THE LAST KISS SERIES
■ Patty & Corey: The Heartbreak.
■ Diana & Joe: A widow's advice: Embrace bereavement, don't avoid it A Straight From the Source story.
■ Janice & Joe A story of someday A Straight From the Source story
■ Janice & Joe Five lessons I've learned so far A Straight From the Source story
■ Patty & Corey: The Love Story.
■ Patricia & Tim: A widow cherishes the memories of her warrior A Straight From the Source story
■ Bill & Marian: A love that lives in dreams A Straight From the Source story
■ Dennis & Maggie: I reread her letters, I played her favorite songs A Straight From the Source story
■ Dennis & Maggie: Just Let Me Talk A Straight From the Source story
■ Patty & Corey: A widow wishes she had asked for one more kiss.
■ Patty & Corey: A widow's mission to sustain her husband's barbershop.
■ Donald & Helen: A widower's essay becomes his daughter's short film A Straight From the Source story
■ Susan & Guy: A widow's guide to dealing with the loss of a spouse A Straight From the Source story
■ Ted & Donna A widower's plan to count his blessing at times of deepest grief A Straight From the Source story
■ Fred & Beverly: Unique and Devastating Loss (by Wifeless) A Straight From the Source story
■ Last Kiss Epilogue: Some widows heal from grief by healing others
■ Ken & Michele: A widower's story of a loving couple's life A Straight From the Source story
For more on the series, please click here.