The Sympathy Note

The Sympathy Note

Write it. Do it now. Don’t put it off, but even if you have put it off, go do it now. I promise that the widow still will be thrilled to know someone still cares. It doesn’t matter how far away from the death it is. It’s never too late. (more…)




August 21. September 15. November 3. November 11.

All these significant dates. August 21 would have been John’s 55th birthday. He never expected to make it to 50, let alone to 53, so each passing year beyond that auspicious number was a miracle and astonishment.

September 15 will be our nineteenth wedding anniversary. November 3 would have been my brother’s 57th birthday. And November 11 marks the second year John has been gone and I have been the Practical Widow.

I don’t dread the arrival of the dates nearly as much as I did the first year. I braced for them as if a hurricane was arriving and I guess in a way it was. But each day ticked by like all the others, I was sadder than usual but each day came and went. Those days were sharp reminders of what had happened the year before.

This year, I’m more melancholy. Rather than the oppressive grief of the first year, I’m experiencing a lot more of the smaller moments. Perhaps I’m just less weighed down and can see them now, whereas before I was overwhelmed just getting through each day. It’s the tiny passing changes that are so hard now. John would have liked the new fence I put up in the back yard. He would hate it that I’ve etched huge scratches on the side of my brand new car because it’s a little too big for the garage. He would have liked the new stop light at Greenlake Way and the one on to Aurora southbound, because it’s easier to turn left during busy times. (Not that anything ever stopped him from driving way too fast and bitching about the other crappy drivers.) He would be so proud of Harry and what a gorgeous sweet dog he’s grown into and what good friends he and Betty are. Jim would have enjoyed the Cleveland Cavalier’s run for the championship and he would have been terribly proud of me going to graduate school.

My birthday is November 13, two days after John’s death anniversary. I suppose that will always hang over the date. I’m happy to be reminded I’m alive each year and I feel obliged to live a full life on John and Jim’s behalf. So I keep trying.

For each date, I do work hard at planning something meaningful. For our wedding anniversary, I take myself to the Mariners ball game and buy the best seat I can find, which is easier both when you are buying just one seat and when the Mariners are the worst team in baseball. It’s like a date with a ghost, but it’s where I’d rather spend the day. For the birthdays, I’ve planned long hikes with the dogs, it’s lovely and it gets me out without having to force social behavior.

When I was anticipating the first anniversary of John’s death, a Jewish friend suggested following the Jewish tradition of a gravestone unveiling. It was an excellent idea, especially since we had planned to bury some of John’s ashes next to his mother and father in Texas. His brother and I spent months planning a small memorial at the grave side and a Texan-sized barbecue at the family home afterward. It gave me something to look forward to that was meaningful and significant for that day, gathered together those who cared about John and let us all sit around in a much more relaxed atmosphere than the funeral and tell tall tales about him. It was the perfect solution.

I must say however, it was thoughtful of John to die on a national holiday, which gives me a day off each year to think of my own fallen veteran.

But if you can’t go to the funeral…

But if you can’t go to the funeral…

Always go to the funeral. Spouse, parent, sibling, friend, dog—it doesn’t matter who died, it means a lot to the bereaved if you show up at the funeral. You don’t even have to say anything, you can just go in, sign the book and leave. They can’t really remember who’s there anyway, but it’s so comforting to see that someone cared enough to show up for a few hours.

But if you did know the dead guy or their nearest and dearest but can’t go to the funeral (and sometimes you can’t for a variety of good reasons) please do take the extra effort to do something else.

Allow me to throw in a side caveat here that there were several people at the funeral who hardly knew John. One man even earnestly explained to me back at the house while he had only met John once, he was now sorry for that because John seemed like such a great guy. Let’s just agree that’s one of the Top Ten Things Not To Say To A New Widow At The Funeral. You can say it later, but what the heck are you doing at the dang funeral if you didn’t even know the guy. Let me hasten to add that he didn’t know me any better. I was bewildered as to how to reply, “Well, yeah, he was a good guy. Thanks for coming. Do you need a name tag?”

Back to alternatives. Two dear friends lived on the East Coast, so due to the travel constraints just couldn’t make it out in time. In the overwhelming swirl of events, it would have been nearly overwhelming anyway. Being the widow also means being the hostess to a certain extent, your friends naturally want to spend time with you and be as helpful as they can. But you don’t always have the time or ability to spend time or extend the emotional energy when you’re under siege.

So my New York friend wrote me a lovely sympathy note and told me she would be planning a trip to visit me within the next month. And sure enough, three weeks after the funeral, she arrived Kleenex in hand and ready to make casseroles. We sat together talking about John, reading over the cards and letters that had come in. She helped me get the house reorganized and talked over work issues with me. She was just there for a few days, but it was a lovely, meaningful visit.

Three weeks after that, my DC friend arrived for the weekend. She went with me to John’s office to help me clean that out and to figure out what to do with it all when I got it all home. And she too sat with me, laughed, cried and talked over memories. She had recently lost her father and we shared our grief together, which served to reinforce the great love that had been left behind.

Seeing these friends at a quieter time, when the maelstrom had settled was quite a gift. Although I was still in a stupor, they granted me the time to talk over what I had just been through and they listened with love. They reminded me that distance didn’t matter. It took a lot to get them to give up precious vacation time, to leave their own lives and families just to come and show me they loved me. That’s quite a gift and I was grateful for it.

Closer to home, there were friends who also couldn’t make the funeral. One couple took a weekend day and came over to see what needed to be done around the house—we went through the house making lists for repairs or upkeep maintenance that needed doing. Although John was disabled, he couldn’t do the physical work but he always knew what was going on around the house, what needed fixing and how to do it. His last weekend at home, we installed a beautiful dining room light fixture he had given me for our seventeenth wedding anniversary. I hadn’t the foggiest idea how to install a light fixture and didn’t understand how the electric system worked, so John sat in a chair, drinking a beer and directed me step-by-step. The installation worked and the light looks terrific. It was a fun project. But now I didn’t have someone to tell me how to do things.

Since my friends knew home maintenance—at least the husband half did—we went over the basics of the house, where the water and gas mains were, how to turn on and off the furnace, how the water heater worked, and we re-labeled the electric circuit box. I couldn’t have done that alone, in fact, I would not have known where to start. It was an empowering day for me that was also a perfect way for my friends to show me they were still an essential part of my life.

One friend I knew only casually called to ask me out for coffee. She suggested the day, time and place—small but critical details, since I was in no condition to make decisions on my own. She showed up on time, came in to the house, took me out and we had a nice time talking about lots of things, John included.

Going to the funeral means you take the time out to share memories with your friend. Most importantly, it shows the widow there is a network of love and support out there, that she is not alone. So you should always go. But if you absolutely, positively can’t, make the same gesture another way. Take an afternoon, an evening, a weekend and show up. Be present and listen. Let the widow babble senselessly for a while, let her cry on your shoulder, let her do what she needs to do for a few hours. Time is a great kindness.

Allow me one last warning to help steer you through the waters of Doing The Wrong Thing: Try not to show up at the widow’s doorstep all at once just after the funeral, then leave her alone for months and months. That’s a classic dilemma and that’s another post.

When does the tide start to turn?

When does the tide start to turn?

To continue my oceanic metaphor, I was reflecting back on when the tide of grief started to turn, or better put, when the undertow stopped drowning me. A loss of this magnitude is so ridiculously out of control, it turns your every moment into turmoil. And the place where you turn for comfort—your home, your family—is what’s most undone. When does that all come back under your control?

Well, let me just set the record straight and say, I have no idea. I thought, like so many other life events, that I would get over it, time would heal the wounds, things would be better, and all those  things we say to one another in our helplessness to fix this sorrow. What I’m finding is that none of it is true. There is no better, there is no healing, there is no over it. But…

I can say that I do not feel the bone-crushing weight I was carrying last year. I don’t know if its because I’m stronger or the weight is lighter, and honestly I don’t really care which it is. I am glad that it’s lighter, however it got that way. Here’s some things that are easier: I can come back home to the house alone and find it the place warmly welcoming again. I am able to do house projects that make me feel good, even if I have no one to share them with. I look forward to my next day, and not just because I can get back to bed and escape into sleep. I like listening to music again and can finally concentrate enough to read a whole book. Little things, but they’re making a difference.

So better isn’t better, it’s seeing the world through new eyes and finding how lovely it still is. The healing isn’t really healing. It’s more about being at peace with the wound. I didn’t wake up one day and realize, oh I don’t feel so bad anymore. It was more about looking practical widowhood in the eye and thinking, ok, I can take this one tiny step forward into a life I didn’t ask for but got anyway.

I’m stuck with it any way you look at it, so here goes.

The Ring Cycle

The Ring Cycle

The wedding ring issue. What to do, what to do?

John wore a ring that we bought together, engraved with our initials and the date of our marriage. At some point in the ICU he was puffed up with fluids. One of his marvelous nurses suggested that he take it off while he still could, since she would have to cut it off otherwise. I don’t think he ever removed his ring, even during his idiotic affairs. I slipped it on my own finger, since we didn’t want to lose it—and there it remained for quite some time.

It’s a dilemma to know what to do with the rings. I didn’t remove my wedding ring for a good long time, in fact for nearly a year. I experimented with putting different rings in place of my engagement ring, although I had also done that when John was still alive. Around the date of our wedding anniversary, I bought myself a strong gold necklace and put his ring on that, along with a gold charm of the Space Needle and a gold charm of the state of Texas given to me many years ago by a dear friend. The three symbolize the journey of our life together—we met in Texas, we parted in Seattle. At the same time, I shifted my own wedding ring—which had been my grandmother’s, engraved with their initials and their wedding date in 1918—to my right hand and it feels right there.

The other day, I was chatting with a widow friend who had celebrated her 50th wedding anniversary in October of 2008. Her husband died in March of 2009. Three weeks later, she was playing bridge with some friends when one suddenly said, “Oh, I’m so pleased to see you’re still wearing your wedding rings!” Three weeks after he died, following fifty years of marriage. For heaven’s sake. Was she supposed to take them off the minute he died? What for? To signify her single-hood? To catch herself another man? Just because she wasn’t technically “married” any longer? I’m certain that the rings were the last thing on her mind, but even if they weren’t, she can wear whatever jewelry she wants, widowed or not. And that particular jewelry, symbolism aside, had been on her hand for fifty years, longer in the case of the engagement ring! I’m sure it didn’t even cross her mind until someone pointed it out. That’s a shame.

Another friend had divorced her philandering husband and flung her rings from the deck of a Washington State Ferry into Puget Sound. Sounds cathartic, doesn’t it? She was, of course, smart enough to remove the diamonds first. I think there’s a certain anger toward the symbolism of the rings which happens in divorce but isn’t there in the case of widowhood. I was certainly disgusted at the rings when John was the one doing the philandering. I can understand wanting to fling them into the deepest, coldest water I could find.

But as it is, I still wear rings on my left ring finger. I just like it. Partly, it reminds me of the idea of being married and everything that meant. Symbolically, like a nun. But truthfully, I have several lovely rings and only have two fingers they fit. One of them is the traditional wedding ring finger. So there you go. If you want to know my status, well, don’t be afraid to ask. But you should know what the answer is: I’m a widow. I’m no longer married. And I wear lots of rings.

UPDATE: July 2009—Oddly, I’ve developed some arthritis in the middle joint of my left pinky finger. Many years ago, I sliced the side of it open on some glass and had restoration surgery done on it, which has probably accellerated the inevitable arthritis I’ll be getting in all my joints. But the joint has become somewhat sensitive and was rubbing against the ring I was wearing on my wedding-ring-finger. Therefore: I had to remove the ring. Perhaps a sign of some kind? A goose from beyond to remove the symbolism? Just getting old and creaky? Who’s to say. At any rate, I’m now ringless on my left hand and my joints feel better.