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.
“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.
It’s a legitimate question. Admit it, you’re curious too. What did John die of? It’s okay. I’d want to know if I were you. It’s usually the first thing people ask. Generally, if people didn’t know his background, I simply say “sepsis after a short procedure” or “pneumonia”. Both of which are true. And honestly I think that’s all people really want to know.
However, it unfortunately tends to opens up in me the need to qualify that simple answer. And for someone to die under the age of 90 from pneumonia, it always makes people want to know more. With his extensive medical history, it seems like his death would have been obvious and not such a surprise, but I just didn’t think he couldn’t also beat this one. It did not occur to me—or to John—until the bitter end, that he had won those earlier battles but we were about to lose the war. I’m fairly certain my audience doesn’t want that much detail. But I’ve caught myself going off far too long answering the question.
What’s difficult about this question is that it’s such a natural question for us to ask one another. Why would any young person die? It’s not in the natural scheme of things. So we want to know. We’re concerned and we’re curious. Totally understandable. We want to know what happened. There’s nothing wrong with that.
About a month or so after John’s death, I was in the bank, transferring some certificates to my name. The bank manager came unglued when he learned that John was my husband. He thought it was my father. To my surprise, he asked question after question, “What happened? Why did he get sick? When did it happen? How old was he?” He seemed genuinely shocked that anyone young could die. I’m not sure which age was his cut-off point for not being horrified. 60? 70? 80? Would it have mattered if it was my father? My brother? I could have thrown him that one as well, but my brother and I did not hold securities jointly. So he didn’t get to be surprised by how young my brother was.
I don’t mind answering the question, even though it’s complex. My brother’s big heart simply gave out one morning, so that was an an easier answer to give when I was asked about his passing. Many young people die of cancer, ALS or other common diseases. Those are also easier to answer.
But I can see that some widows might have a very hard time with the question. What if it was an accident? The natural follow up question to that: What kind of accident? It could be hard to answer, especially for a new widow or if it was a complicated accident. What if it was something even more difficult? Homicide? Suicide? Those then beget even more painful questions and both the widow and questioner get backed into a bad conversation.
I’d think the best way to find out the answer (again, I totally understand wanting to know) is to first say something neutral, like “Oh, I’m so sorry. He was such a young man.” and see what her reaction is. If she’s up to talking about the cause of death, then you’ll probably be able to tell or even just listen. If she’s not, well, either you’re going to remain in the dark or you’ll need to go ask someone else.
Do be gentle with the question, especially at first. Be ready for whatever door you might open up‚ the example being me telling you more than you want to know. Be careful of what you ask for.
And to my fellow widows: know that your friends are not being morbid or trying to make you talk about something you don’t want to. They are genuinely trying to express their concern. If you don’t want to talk about it, make up something neutral and non-committal. Have a convincing easy answer in the bank. “It was a sudden illness.” Then change the subject. “How ’bout them Mariners?” If you’re willing to talk about it, then go right ahead. It’s your call. Do thank them for their concern either way.
Okay, if you’re still curious I’ll give you, Dear Blogreader, the full answer to “What did he die of?” question below. If you don’t want to know, then here’s a link to the New York Times, which is a lot more interesting anyway.
Get comfortable, it’s long.
When you met John, you’d notice he was quite thin. But other than that, even after he needed full crutches and could barely walk, unless you were a medical professional you didn’t really see him as being sick. Or a medical marvel, which he was. He lived his life with a ferocious intensity that overshadowed any physical frailties. He worked a full ten hours the day before he went into the hospital. He was still expecting to get out of the hospital “next week” four days before he died, sending e-mails to colleagues to that effect. He fought until the end and he always wanted to live.
Here’s what was on the death certificate.
a) Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome and Sepsis and Acute Renal Failure
b) Sepsis secondary to Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) procedure
Other significant conditions:
Congestive Heart Failure (CHF) and Pulmonary Fibrosis and Radiation-induced Fibrosis
Manner of death: Natural
I didn’t have an autopsy done. Why bother? As my brother pointed out, he’d bamboozled the medical community since 1970. Why give up his secrets now?
Here’s more. It doesn’t even mention his most debilitating issue, the degenerative disability based in his spinal cord—radiation-induced lumbosacral plexopathy—that was increasingly painful and destroying his ability to walk. He was in a great deal of pain in the last year or so.
He had the CHF because a severe pneumonia six years earlier put too much strain on his already strained lungs. He needed the ERCP procedure because his liver was heading into certain failure since the main duct was blocked. Turned out it had been blocked twenty five years earlier, during emergency surgery to save his life when he was bleeding out due to a ruptured duodenal-aortic fistula. In that surgery, parts of his stomach, lots of his intestine, his duodenum, and assorted endocrine parts were removed. And as it turned out, they sewed up his primary liver duct into the resectioned gut, which is why his liver went into failure years later which required the ERCP to try to open the duct that set off the sepsis that killed him. The 1983 surgery also caused chronic rapid gastric emptying and severe hypoglycemia that caused diabetic-like symptoms.
Oh, and all this started because he had widely-metastasized testicular cancer in 1970. Back when young men did not have much of a chance of survival. He had mixed tumors, including carcinoma, seminoma, choriocarcinoma and embryonal carcinomas. John was lucky enough to be in Houston, where M.D. Anderson doctors undertook a (then) radical approach to treatment involving multiple chemotherapies—including vinblastine, bleomycin, platinum, cisplatin, fluorouracil, and others I can’t recall. Those chemo treatments in varying forms lasted six years. The heavy cobalt radiation treatments lasted a year. The surgeries included unilateral orchiectomy and nephrectomy, RPLND (retroperitoneal lymph node dissection), including removal of many more lymph nodes reaching up into his neck. All that radiation, all those toxic chemicals, all that surgery. They saved his life but they ultimately killed him… thirty-seven years later.
Got all that? Good lord! No wonder he’s dead.
Did you really want to know all that? Probably not. So now you see my dilemma with the question. It either doesn’t say what happened or it’s far Too Much Information. Next time someone asks, I’ll still say, “Pneumonia”. That’s close enough.
[side note: John’s cancer treatments, in much less intense dosages due to the damaging side-effects, eventually became standard protocol for testicular cancer. John’s survival meant they were on the right track to helping others with this cancer to beat it. In 1970, the chance for survival, let alone complete remission, was next to nothing. Now, it’s considered a treatable cancer if caught in the early stages. Hardly short of miraculous.]
Yes, this gets said to new widows. I’m always temped to answer, “Are you offering some more?”
But that doesn’t get either of us anywhere. Remember, the most likely subtext is, “I know this is a huge change in your life and suddenly your income has dropped by half. I hope that it does not adversely affect you. I hope you’re still secure enough and you don’t have that additional worry hanging over you during this difficult time.” That or they are just nosyparkers scouring for idle gossip.
Good intentions aside, it’s simply not a question to ask. Unless you had that kind of relationship with the couple before one of them died and you would sit around together talking about your respective incomes and savings investment plans. Even then, it’s still not a question you should be asking. My estate lawyer told me hair-raising stories of other widows who discovered their spouses had secret credit cards and accounts maxed out to tens of thousands of dollars. Fascinating, but still none of my business.
I also had more than one neighbor come by the house after John died. (Neighbors, no less. Not even strangers!) I thought to offer condolences. Silly me. After a short while, they pulled out their business cards—they were Realtors! And wanted my listing. It’s like a call went out, “We Have Widow! She’ll be selling soon!” Sadly for them, I had no intention of moving. It’s the equivalent of ambulance chasing—it’s hearse chasing.
In many forms, the question does get asked. Instead of the clever quips I would later come up with (at 3:00 a.m. after the opportunity had long past) I generally answered, “Thank you, I’m doing okay.” I figured that was generic enough and they just wanted to know that I was alright.
It’s not like they’re going to do anything about it. Why give them the satisfaction of gossip. Let them make up their own.
Yes, it’s hard to go through a divorce. Yes, it hurts. But it’s not the same.
This gets said surprisingly often to new widows. The fundamental difference, even if the divorce happened out of the blue and without your approval—you’ve got a live person to be angry at, to rail against, to work out the final details with. While I’m generalizing here and everyone’s situation is different, I expected my marriage to go on. Then, it was over. And I could not even pretend I had options. It. Was. Over.
Let me assure you that John and I did not sail in undisturbed marital seas. We had a rough time of it for several years. John had affairs because like the crow with the shiny thing, he just couldn’t pass up foolish attention and I simply got fed up with it. In fact, I did everything I could to get him to leave. I made him move out of the house and we separated for nearly a year. (While we had deeply painful struggles through this time, we nonetheless spoke every day either on the phone or in person. Always about some trivial thing. We truly loved one another, despite this, well, rather fundamental problem of him having these ridiculous affairs. But that’s another posting.) Ultimately, we chose not to divorce. Or rather, since I’m the survivor here and history belongs to the living, I chose not to divorce him. He clearly wasn’t leaving.
Anyway. We reconciled. We worked hard at it. We loved each other even more for having fought it out and won. And I know not every couple does. Still, even at the worst of times he was there. Now he’s not. It’s not the same at all.
What can you do instead for the widow if you’re the divorcée? Take her out to dinner. Drop by for coffee. Bring her to a party. Get concert tickets and go together. Go for a walk. Invite her into your book group. Set an exercise goal and work together toward it. You know how it feels to be newly single and how hard it can be. Go show her how it isn’t so hard. One single friend of mine came over for dinner and we had a great time learning about making easy dinners for one. Teach her some of your hard-won lessons. Teach her how to be single again.
Just don’t compare how you got there.
This is insanely depressing. Surprisingly, some widows say it to new widows. You’d think they’d know better.
Perhaps it is meant to pose the question, “What is with you widows and flogging this whole grief thing? Why on earth are you still talking about it?” I’m not sure. But if it’s said to a widow within a short time, let’s be conservative and say a year, it’s horrifying.
I met several other young widows after John’s death. Those who were most helpful acknowledged how badly I was hurting and instead of yet another aphorism about Time Healing All Wounds, acknowledged the seismic life change. Some sent me books that had helped them to get through, for which I was deeply grateful. Most just nodded and listened.
The ones that Did Not Help were those who outlined in detail the agony they were still going through. I think that would be easier for me to take now, a year out from the loss, but did these people completely forget what it was like to be newly widowed? Have they forgotten the intensity of feeling you’ll never come up out of this crushing grief? That hope is lost?
I got “fixed up” with one widow a week or so after the funeral. She spent our hour together detailing every moment of her husband’s death. Once she had finished with that, she mournfully spoke about how empty and lonely her life continued to be without the husband. Even her daughters were of little comfort and nothing had changed for her since his death—and it was five years after his death. I could barely stand upright. By the time I escaped it took me days to even consider talking to someone else again.
So I offer up this little prayer:
Please don’t let me do this to someone who is experiencing a new loss. Please help me to offer comfort. Please let new widows know that the bone-crushing grief will get easier to handle although it will not disappear. Help them bear the struggle one small step at a time. Please let me—and others in grief—learn to keep moving forward and embrace love in all its forms. And please let the Mariners have a winning season this year.
The Practical Widow