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.
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 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.
If you’ve lost your partner, there’s a Being The Widow category. Here, I ruminate on coping with death and loss and share all kinds of things about being single again in Newly Single? Surprise! And something I wish I had known more about when I was newly widowed was things people say to you. I would have appreciated bracing for a few of the doozies. (They really happen!) I might have been more open to the depth of feeling hidden behind the words.
If your friend has become widowed, there’s a Being The Widow’s Friend category. And there’s the Top Ten Things Not To Say To A New Widow, hopefully providing perspective on both sides of the death fence. Look around and see what resonates with you.
Everything here is written in the straight man/woman marriage, feminine form, such as “she”, “widow” and “husband”. You can alter it however best fits your needs. John and I did not have children, so I don’t speak to being a newly-alone parent. I can’t even imagine what that’s about. If you are, I hope you’ll start a blog for those like you, or add some thoughts in here.
Most importantly please, if you’re in too much anguish or feel so overwhelmed you can’t go on—seek professional help immediately. It really does help to talk to the pros to get you through the darkest times. Believe me, I’m no professional anything. Honestly, this is what I am and when you get down to it, anyone can do that. Go to the ones who know how to help: talk with your doctor, clergyman, therapist, support group… whatever gets you through.
Or join in and blog alongside me. There’s plenty of room. Let’s try to help one another.
—The Practical Widow
Today I was walking my two marvelous dogs around a very popular local lake. Despite the spring rain, there were lots of others sharing the path on bikes, or with strollers or their dogs. When passing a woman with a young playful bulldog who wanted to come visit my dogs to play, she began loudly scolding the bulldog to “Leave It” instead of acknowledging me or my passing pups. Think about that: Leave. It. What is “It”? Me? Or my dogs? We’re sentient beings, we’re not Its. As if we were turds or contagious. Some popular dog trainer, maybe those damn monks, told everyone this is what to say to dogs to get them to leave an object alone, irregardless of the situation. And now every dog owner is bellowing “Leave It” at their poor dogs and innocent passers-by.
During a Delta Dog therapy training session a few years ago, our trainer pointed out if you are bringing your dog to visit a patient who might have food in their hands, yelling “Leave It” to the dog makes the person feel even worse than they already do. These people feel like objects in the first place, now they’re getting it confirmed by some dog owner who won’t acknowledge them using the proper pronoun. A much better alternative was to teach the dog “Not now!”
Doesn’t that sound better? A small shift in semantics but it’s so much nicer. It’s more respectful to the person and to the dog. It’s a gentler thing to say and it holds the faint whiff of hope: Puppy, you can’t have that particular thing now, but maybe, if you’re extra good, you can have it later! Think how much better it sounds to the person behind the object—they get to be included in the conversation, “Okay, the dog can’t have this now (but maybe later!)” instead of “I must be some thing so awful even the dog must avoid me!”
Where does this come into The Practical Widow BlogLand? Because it’s important to try to recognize how our words are being heard. Despite our best intentions, we may be meaning one thing and saying another. I’m sure the young girl with the bulldog did not mean to say “Leave those disgusting objects alone!” but that’s a bit how it came across. I’m certain that those who ask widows “Was there life insurance” or say “Mrs. X has been widowed for years and she’s still not over it” genuinely mean well. Perhaps they mean to say, are you doing okay or you’re not alone in extended grief. And maybe it’s not a good time for me to haul the dead guy out at the party, even though I might be feeling bad at that moment. Do I need to be the Debbie Downer?
Maybe we need to think whether the right thing to say is, “Not now”.
I hasten to add that you—and I mean you, you and you too—must acknowledge the death and give your sympathy if you haven’t done so already. Do not think “I’m just bringing up bad memories.” You’re not, you’re being a good friend. Acknowledge it and move on. Never just pretend it didn’t happen. Never ignore it. She will not think you’re being kind to her feelings, she will think you just don’t care. And I presume you do, or you wouldn’t be reading this.
You don’t get to be a widow without a dead guy. So if you plan to be a good dead guy (and one day, we all shall be filling that particular role) it’s going to make it far easier on those left behind who love you. Do a little planning ahead. It helps a lot.
Have a will. Keep it up to date and be sure your loved one knows where it is. Make it as clear and extensive as you can think of. Ours was a very simple “I love you will”, essentially meaning everything that was mine went to John and everything of John’s went to me. If you have a more complicated situation, the more clear you can make your will the better. And the cheaper the attorney fees will be to settle your estate.
Keep your papers in order. Having all your accounts in one place and the paperwork all together, even if all just shoved in the same filing cabinet, makes things a world easier and eliminates any unpleasant surprises.
Have medical directives. This is so important. Even though John’s final illness took its own obvious course, it was enormously comforting to me to have his medical directives there to read, clearly outlined. They didn’t specifically apply in his final illness, but it helped a great deal anyway. I knew that I was addressing his medical care in line with what he wanted, he had said to me, “You’ll know what to do”. But to have written proof to that effect helped even more. You too might have talked about it in some abstract sense now and then. There’s always the chance that family members will passionately disagree about “What He Really Wanted”. Having it in writing will make it significantly easier on all concerned. We were lucky as we were all in agreement, in fact, the three people he named in the directive were there at his bedside but his wishes in writing were still a great comfort to all of us.
Don’t have bad secret stuff. Fortunately for me, all John’s affairs had been aired out in the open and I knew about his past transgressions. He was a scrupulous keeper of sentimental items, so had kept all kinds of… well, “evidence”. It had all come out during our marital woes and I had asked him to dispose of everything, but still I worried about going through his things after he died. As luck would have it, the only such things he kept after our reconciliation were sentimental items about me and our life together. That was a great relief. Besides, you never know who is going to paw through your things after you die. Try to only leave things that are how you would like to be remembered.
Good secret stuff is okay though. Part of dealing with enormous loss is the recognition of the transient nature of everything except for the love you shared. None of the stuff matters. Still, discovering sweet or funny things about John long after his death is lovely. He stashed baseball cards everywhere, it’s fun to find them. And he left a playlist on his iPod filled with songs named “Songs A. Should Like.” It’s like a lullaby to me now.
Pretty damn inconsiderate of him to die when you get right down to it. But I did appreciate that he left his life in order. It made it easier to shoulder the stuff alone.