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.
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.
John’s death was relatively sudden. Not as quick as a heart attack or accident but not as prolonged as terminal cancer either. He went into the hospital on October 30 and was dead by November 11. Through that week and a half, each day was harder to bear than the one before. I barely had the ability to make it from the hospital back to the house in once piece. Every iota of my being was sharply focused on the crisis at hand. So I was unable to function on any kind of normal level. Here’s some things that helped me get through the final days.
If you’re facing a medical crisis like this, go military: Make yourself the Commander-in-Chief and focus on your war. Everyone’s crucial in a successful army, from officers to privates. I had a tremendous staff of friends who rallied around. Making one friend the primary contact meant that I could funnel updates through her and I didn’t have to repeat the whole story over and over. One friend coordinated food deliveries. One was in charge of helping me to leave the hospital periodically, if only to walk around the block, getting fresh air and some exercise each day. Yet another neighbor helped care for the dogs and the house, ensuring all was well and looked after. And still another friend handled my work load, informing clients and finishing up tasks I left half-completed. I could not have gotten through without my army of support.
It helps if your officers are good at prioritizing and presenting decisions for you to make. You don’t want to have to answer to a million little details. On that same note, prioritize items yourself. Be clear about what you need. Generally speaking, and in the following order, it’s getting food and sleep for yourself, being sure your house and animals are safe (I don’t have children, that’s a different kettle of fish), and taking care of your job and work duties. Unless it’s critical and it’s going to cause genuine long-term damage, go ahead and let things slide. Allow your friends to work how they need to work. If your friends and family make some wrong decisions in their attempts to help, let it go for now. You can always fix things later. You’ll have time.
Regarding phone calls: During these weeks, I would wake up very early, around 5:00 a.m. to get to the hospital in time to share breakfast with John and to be there for morning rounds. I spent all day at the hospital, late into the night and sometimes even longer, depending on what was going on. So when I was able to stumble home I desperately needed to sleep. I grabbed sleep where I could, usually at odd hours, sometimes in the day or evenings. Well-meaning friends calling to check in would often be met with my panicked, half-asleep response as the ringing phone woke me in terror, thinking it was the hospital. Mail is better. E-mail is helpful and I could not only check it at 3:00 a.m. but I could also broadcast major news as needed. Funneling phone calls to a designated friend allowed people to be able to check in when they were able and messages to be passed to me when I could receive them. Remember too that many hospitals do not allow cell phones in the ICU areas so making or receiving calls can be difficult.
Mail. E-mail and snail mail. Write and send cards. They’re appreciated. But please remember. Until the moment death happens—the person is very much alive. If you know the situation is dire and terminal, probably not a good idea to send a “Get Well Soon” card. But a Thinking of You is always good. I was able to read e-mails and cards aloud to John and he loved them. One friend wrote long e-mails about the restaurants she had been to, since she knew John was a foodie. In the last week, he couldn’t speak because of the oxygen but he would scribble notes of thanks back to me.
Drop off books and magazines. Medical crises often involve long stretches of nothing with bursts of intense activity. Getting books or magazines that were easy to pickup and put down was very much appreciated. I like graphic novels, so those were good and I didn’t have to think much when I read them. John loved baseball, so I would read aloud to him from baseball books and that helped to pass time as well as something he very much enjoyed. One friend even brought over Mad magazine, which was fun and silly. Think airport reading—books that don’t require a lot of thought or attention but are lightly distracting from the task at hand.
My friend S. put together a care basket for me that included basic necessities such as facial cleanser, moisturizer, Emergen-C, good green tea, protein bars and the like. It was wonderful. It came in its own basket, so I could tuck it out of the way in the hospital room, and it gave me a way to freshen up that was easy and quick. Believe me, you need it after intense stretches in the hospital.
Long distance? That’s a tough one, it hurts to be so far and feel so helpless. But as long as your friend in crisis is covered with local help, you’ll have plenty to do as time goes by, just try to stay in touch and react appropriately. My amazing friend from my home town helped my mother attend John’s funeral. She also stepped in to manage immediate family needs.
After John’s death, a dear friend from across the country was there the very next day, staying with local friends, helping with day to day necessities and generally managing the flood of household chaos that came during those days. Just having her present to lean on, knowing she would handle anything that came my way and that she would quietly take care of me, was a reminder that I did not have to bear this alone. Others visited a month or so after the funeral was over, which was an invaluable reminder of ongoing friendship.
At the end, when it was obvious John would not survive this battle, I was lucky enough to be able to call in my own General Patton, my avenging angel: my stalwart brother who materialized the moment I needed him most and carried me through the darkest of days. I know I am extraordinarily blessed to have that in my life. There’s only one of him… but I hope you all have someone who can be there for you.
“I don’t know. How long are you going to drag out that ‘we’re married’ thing?”
There’s variations on this theme, ranging from the blunt “Get over it” to the head-shaking “Why is she still talking about the dead guy”? I suppose these sort of comments come from nervousness on the part of the speaker. They don’t know what to say. They’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, so they blurt out this really wrong one. Or they’re trying to mold their world how they need it to be. Or they think if only you’d start dating again, things would be fine. Whatever the cause, it’s going to cause hurt feelings on both sides.
I think others just don’t quite get why it’s still hurting after all this time has gone by. I certainly didn’t understand this before being widowed. Unlike any other loss, this one has been such a profound sea change. It’s not just the grief of losing someone you love—it’s the grief of losing the definition of self you’ve worked so hard to create. You were a wife, a partner, and you looked at the future through that lens. You were entwined in a thousand ways—in bed, financially, sharing a house, chores, meals, vacations… the list goes on. And now all of those are on your shoulders, you’ve got to figure out which to keep, which to carry on, which to drop. On top of grieving.
I feel like a little sea creature that has been through a terrible hurricane, beaten up and tossed up on the land and left in a strange new world. Eventually, the little sea creature figures out the ocean is still there and starts the struggle back to it. That’s where I am.
Another widow pointed out the thought to bear in mind is the storm is now over. Now repairs must be made to all the things that were damaged, broken and destroyed. Now I have to find new things to replace the old things, like the dreams, hopes, and visions for the future and my heart.
The irony is the struggle is not just getting back to the ocean. There’s still storms going on out there—there always has been—and possibly another storm of the same magnitude. Just like the real ocean when I’ll get back into the water and what it will be like when I get back in is completely out of my control. And sometimes, just when I think I’ve made it, the waves toss me way back on to those dunes.
But the ocean is beautiful and necessary and life-affirming. So off I go back again across the sand. It’s been eighteen months since John died. The ocean is a lot closer than it used to be.
My oldest brother died on May 23, 2007, six months before John died. Just out of the blue. Existing one minute, not existing the next. No one saw it coming, most likely least of all him. Turned out his heart just stopped. He was a big man and he did have a big heart in every sense of the word, but we all certainly thought it would be ticking a lot longer than this. He was taking his morning shower and simply. dropped. dead.
There’s no term for “survivor of a sibling” like there is “survivor of a spouse”. Also, no term for what my parents are now. Seems like there should be a word that identifies your new status, “My child has died” or “My sibling has died” in the same way that “widow” now also categorizes me. Odd that there is a word for “divorcee” but nothing to succinctly describe this. Would it all just be too many labels?