This is my story of being widowed at 25 and again at 55, and the deaths of my beloved wives—the first in November 1984 and the second in February 2014. It’s not only that I lost both of these women to an early death, but also that these relationships were once-in-a-lifetime love affairs. Becky and Susan were everything to me: friend, colleague, lover, confidante; the person I most wanted to have fun with and the one I wanted beside me in a crisis. These grief experiences were so different and yet similar: one informed by the other, yet each a whole new chapter in my life.
We don’t hear from many widowers, and in most cases we don’t hear about the day-to-day realities of their grief. My perusal of the grief literature revealed that men (and women these days, too) who write about grief mainly write triumphant stories of loss and healing, with wise tips and how-to advice along the way. While healing has its triumphant moments and feelings, the journey of grief is so powerful and fundamental to one’s life and identity that it is never truly done; there is no finish line. I have lost and healed—I’ve lived that story better than anyone else I know—then lost again and, once more, am healing.
I kept a journal after each time I was widowed. Captured in those pages are the lived experiences of love and loss and the jagged journey that is healing. My goal in sharing my story is to give life to the intense and complicated experience that is grief.
I met Rebecca Classen, a fellow college student, in 1980. Within months we were deeply in love. Two years later, we married and moved to Indiana to continue our education at Purdue. We relished every minute of our new life together, with no inkling of how short that life would be. Two and a half years later, Becky died. She was 25.
In 1997, 13 years after Becky’s death, I fell in love with and began dating Susan MacNeill, a professional colleague. We married two years later. Over the next joyous years, we had two children, numerous professional achievements, and a love that connected us strongly and completely. Ours was a forever love—until forever was cut short. Fourteen years after we married, Susan died. She was 50.
Again I had been left behind, a 54-year-old man blessed twice with rare, reciprocal love—and now a grieving, devastated man twice widowed.
What were the odds? How could two healthy younger women die?
I wondered how rare this might be. If you lined up 1,000 people at birth, how many would be widowed before age 30? How many would be widowed by age 55? How many would be widowed twice, once as a young adult and again as a middle-aged man?
* * *
I am a clinical geropsychologist by profession—that is, a psychologist who works with older adults and addresses age-related problems such as dementia, depression, and elder abuse. I am also the director of two research institutes at a large urban university. As a clinical psychologist, I know that the death of a spouse is the greatest acute stress adults experience, even greater than the stress caused by the death of a child. My research into widowhood revealed that the odds of being widowed once before age 25 are extremely small. In his book on the biology of aging, Time of Our Lives, Tom Kirkwood writes about how, during the twentieth century, the likelihood of dying in the first 25 years of life dramatically declined. If you were born in the 1880s, 7%—or 1 in 14 people—would die between the ages of 5 and 25 years. By the 1960s, that rate had dropped to less than 7,000 per million, or 1%—1 in 142 people. Even at age 54, when I was widowed a second time, the percentage of widowed men ages 50-54 was less than 5%. Sadly, I am among the unlucky few in modern times who have suffered bereavement not only as a young man, but in middle age as well.
In the fall of 1980 I fell in love with a Washington University senior, a beautiful, boisterous woman whose laugh rang out like a silver bell on a crisp day. Becky made everyone feel at ease, with her humor and good nature, and she was a friend to so many. She was a swimmer—a vibrant, healthy woman—and I loved her as I had loved no one else before.
I first got to know her on the wall outside the library, where a group of us congregated between classes. She had the best laugh of anyone; it had at least five octaves. She was mischievous, pretending to be a boxer and landing the knockout punch on me, and always talking about toilet-papering a friend’s car. Her interests varied, from auto mechanics to the classics; she loved knowledge and putting things together.
I asked her to dinner, then convinced my roommate to make his special pecan pie. After we had eaten, Becky and I spent the next five hours talking and laughing, on and on. Our friendship blossomed: We shared interests in literature, hiking, and the zoo. St. Louis became our wonderland, and we explored its seasons and sights as we explored one another. After a few months of dating, I told Becky that I loved her. She beamed, but said nothing. She wanted intimacy, but found it hard to trust. Slowly, she let me in and I was allowed to know the sensitive and vulnerable side of this vibrant young woman.
Six months after we began dating, she took me to her parents’ home in northern Indiana. I was intimidated by the large house Becky had grown up in and her family’s wealth. Sensing that despite my feeling vulnerable, I was steadfastly in love with her, Becky chose that time and place to express in words what I had sensed all along and so wanted to hear: “Pete, I love you.” We were sitting on her bed at the time, and I pretended to collapse, exclaiming, “I think I just had a heart attack!”— whereupon we both erupted in laughter. When we returned to St. Louis after the weekend I called my mother and said, “Mom, I’m in love,” and she was thrilled for me.
The remainder of the spring and summer after graduation were a celebration of closeness. We swam, went for long walks, attended ball games, watched movies, shared dinners, and even took a two-week trip to the Atlantic Ocean. Although we mostly played and laughed that summer, we also forged a deep bond and yearned to share our lives. Becky wrote about us in a letter to her college roommate, Mary Norek, and some 30-plus years later, I read what Becky had written:
I had the best summer of my life. I loved my grad party and going to California for a visit with my sister. Coming back to St. Louis and Pete was the best part of all. He had a job as a gardener working in the a.m. with the rest of the time free. I wasn’t looking for work then, just an apartment. We were together 95% of the time. Rather than making us sick of each other, it brought us closer.
A few months later, Becky wrote the following to Mary:
My real reason for writing is to let you in on some news you may be interested in . . .Pete and I are getting married. Yes, ma’am, you read that correctly. Pete gave me a necklace, a delicate gold chain w/ a diamond piece in it. He asked me to marry him & I said I would (only to get a gift, you understand). Seriously, though, the wedding will be June 19 in Elkhart. PLEASE keep that date open. I can’t get married w/o you at my wedding. If you don’t want both my wrath and Pete’s on your head, you’ll be there.
Mary, I am so happy + excited + thrilled + silly. I wish you were here to join in my celebration. I know you’re smiling. Me too! I can’t seem to stop.
In January I’ll be moving to West Lafayette. Good-bye St. Louis. Hello, Pete.
Becky came to West Lafayette, Indiana, where I had started graduate school at Purdue University in December 1981. We were married in Elkhart on June 19, 1982—a beautiful, sunny day. Two years later, in the fall of 1984, we were busy planning our future: I was applying for an internship for the following year, after which I would finish my Ph.D., and Becky, who had decided to pursue a career in medicine, was getting ready to start medical school.
In the 1970s, psychologist Daniel Levinson wrote about men’s adult development in the bestselling The Seasons of a Man’s Life. He viewed the transition to adulthood as occurring across a 15-year period, from 17 to 32, and within that span he described three stages. Ages 22-28 he termed “Entering the Adult World,” during which the man’s major task is to create a new home base that is truly his own. Two key components are required to do that effectively: (1) forming a dream and (2) forming a love relationship(s). Levinson also asserted that a man who is particularly happy during this stage has formed an especially close love relationship with a woman who shares his dream. Becky and I fit right into Levinson’s description of development and adult transition.
I loved coming home to our apartment in West Lafayette. I would swing open the door, usually after Becky had returned from work, and this excited, thrilling voice would call out, “Hey, Pete.” I knew that I was safely home. Becky’s array of skills was impressive, from sewing her wedding dress on our dining room table to building the shelves and bookcases in our apartment; she transformed our one-bedroom student apartment into a spacious, welcoming haven. Even all these years later, I can transport myself back and I’m walking through the living room, turning the corner into the kitchen and putting my arms around Becky, feeling her melt into me and smile with joy.
Only one aspect of our relationship troubled me, and it had nothing to do with Becky: Although her parents and siblings were polite to me, it was clear that they did not like me. I had always related easily to others, cherished close friendships with people both similar to and different from me, and, on several occasions, had been elected by my peers for leadership roles. Almost as soon as I met Becky’s family, however, I began to doubt that part of my identity.
The first instance occurred when I went to Elkhart, Becky’s hometown, with her for her college graduation party, and she left the day before I did. It was one of the longest days of my life: No one in her family spoke to me. When I told her about my experience, Becky was not surprised. She said that her family viewed me as an outsider—and, as such, they would put little energy into relating to me. She also assured me that no else was closer than I to the “inside” of her life. The contrast between her family’s coldness and Becky’s warmth—as well as the welcome I got from her family’s friends at the graduation party—was stark.
On the sunny day that Becky and I married, I had another glimpse of not fitting in. Becky’s father, a physician who was also named Pete, gave a toast. He talked about Becky growing up: her inquisitiveness, her intelligence, and how she almost died as a passenger in a car crash her junior year of high school. He then talked about how he had expected her to come home after college, and how much he had been looking forward to it—when along came Peter. It was said with a laugh and a wink, but it was strange how clear he made it that my love for Becky had interfered with his plans.
The day my “new home base” shattered
In June 1984, Becky’s sister graduated from Stanford and I experienced California for the first time. It was exhilarating. The sun shone the entire five days we were in Palo Alto, and Becky and I did something we rarely did: We jogged together. I usually moved faster, so at home we ran separately. But we were experiencing so many things on this trip and wanted the time together to talk, laugh, and stop and embrace, so we ran side by side. After Palo Alto, we boarded a double-decker train and sat on the upper level as we traveled to San Francisco, where we spent the second five days of our trip with my two California brothers, Tom and Andy. One day Tom took us on an extended walk through the city, and I cherish a photograph he took of Becky and me: We are standing on a hill, and behind us in the distance the spires of the University of San Francisco rise into a blue, sunlit sky. Those 10 days together were energizing, and we created some good memories with my brothers.
The next five months were a series of visits with friends and families. In August 1984 Becky went to visit college friends in Atlanta. In October 2014, we took Becky’s parents to a thrilling college football game, in which Purdue upset the #1 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes by stopping them on a fourth down inside their own 10-yard line. Later that month my college roommate, Danny—who had introduced me to Becky—came to visit us on his cross-country interview trip for a medical residency. Finally, at the end of October, my mom came to visit us and enjoy time with her cherished daughter-in-law, and flew home on November 4. As with everyone else we spent time with, she could see how much Becky and I loved each other. My friend Sue, who was especially close to Becky, later told me, “Becky’s voice and face changed when she talked with you, Pete. She glowed. She positively loved you.”
Nine days later, on Tuesday, November 13, Becky and I talked late into the night, laughing and looking ahead. Even though it was late, I knew that Becky would still be out jogging before dawn; she was disciplined, and rarely missed her workout. I kissed her, rolled over, and fell into a sound sleep. But at 6:47 a.m. I awoke with a start. I was alone—and before I was conscious, I knew: Becky was dead. I felt it: My chest was tight, my arms numb, and my head and heart wouldn’t stop throbbing. A minute later I heard an ambulance, its siren screaming, and somehow I knew that it carried Becky’s body. My love, my life, my young and beautiful Becky had died suddenly, without warning, of a cardiac arrhythmia.
It was November 14, 1984. We had been married for two years and five months. I would later learn that Becky had a condition known as Idiopathic Hypertrophic Subaortic Stenosis (IHSS), which is a form of myocardial hypertrophy of the left heart ventricle. The death rate from IHSS is no different from that of the general population, but strenuous exercise is strongly discouraged.
One of my professors would write about us:
I had not realized it until I had to put down my thoughts on paper, but one of my strongest impressions about Becky and Peter is their sense of a shared purpose in life. I don’t recall that we ever talked about it, particularly, but it was there, it was like some great physical force, such as gravity—you can’t see it, but you feel it and know it, and it holds things together.
I didn’t know about Levinson’s book at that time, so I never asked my professor whether he realized that he had just described a young couple’s achievement of “entering the adult world.” Becky and I had shared a dream and created a strong, mutually enhancing love relationship. But our time as a couple, moving into and through adulthood, had come to a crushing end. How could I keep going alone?
The nightmare begins
November 14, 1984: I am sitting in the emergency room, about to dial the phone to tell Becky’s parents that she is dead. The hospital priest, who was sitting with me, gently advised me how to introduce the topic. “Ask if there is someone with them—that you have some very bad news to share.” I did the best I could, and we got through the call. About three hours later, her parents and their minister descended on West Lafayette. There was no support, solace, or consolation for me; I was frozen in the moment of devastating loss and shock, and they were determined to control what would happen next. “We have to have the service in Elkhart, and we cannot wait,” they told me. And so Becky’s funeral was set for a quick 48 hours later, with no time to absorb or reflect on the tragedy.
At the funeral home the night before the service, I stood on one side of the room, weeping with every person who approached me, and Becky’s family stayed on the other. I was irrelevant to them; I was an intruder. Two weeks later I held a memorial service in West Lafayette, and Becky’s parents came. They wanted to see me for dinner ahead of time. Perhaps now, I thought, we could support each other as a family—as the people who loved Becky the most.
“Will you give us all of Becky’s possessions?” her mother asked. Becky had played the viola, and her mother wanted it—along with the wedding dress Becky had created at our dining room table. She was my wife and part of my soul, yet grief had robbed me of the confidence to fight. I had no doubt that for the first time in my life, I was very much “not a friend to everyone.” Becky’s parents treated me like Enemy Number One.
Then came perhaps the worst blow of all, a tidbit tossed like a grenade. Her father, a physician, told me that no one with Becky’s heart condition (which she had described to me as a minor congenital abnormality) should ever be jogging. He had learned this a full month earlier. Why hadn’t he told her? Why hadn’t he told us? I should have wondered what was wrong with her parents, to keep critical information from her and treat me with such disdain. But in my shock, grief, and depression, I thought, “What is wrong with me that her family dislikes me so much?”
It didn’t help that I felt abandoned by my own family. I grew up in Philadelphia, where I was the youngest of four boys. While my brothers and I were never a tight-knit or well-functioning group, we knew that we loved each other; we also accepted that we were going in different directions. I had been an “only child” my last three years of high school and all through college, as my brothers had, for the most part, left home by then. In 1978, when Tom (my brother closest to me in age) married, and again in 1980, when Andy (my second oldest brother) married, we were all there—but in 1982, when I married, only one of my brothers came to the wedding. I chalked it up to their being on the West Coast and not wanting to spend the money to come. What was parents’ reaction to this? I don’t think it registered one way or the other; clearly, they didn’t stress the importance of sharing milestones.
When I called my mom the morning of November 14, 1984, I blurted out, “Becky just died.” I did it so awkwardly that she thought I was kidding. Once I assured her that I was serious, she began weeping. She called my father, a university psychology professor, and got him out of the class he was teaching. Then a strange thing happened: They decided not to fly or drive out immediately to meet me. They would not leave Philadelphia until the next day. That meant that I would not see them for 36 more hours, and then only after I had spent two hours by myself at a funeral home, weeping among strangers and separated by the length of the room from Becky’s family.
When they finally arrived, my mother dissolved in her own grief and left everything to my father, who made a second strange decision: He explicitly told my brothers not to come to Indiana. He would bring me home to Philadelphia, and they could either see me or call me there. There would be no group of brothers to bolster me and help hold me up, and there would be no brothers present to help me after the service. I don’t think any of us had any idea how much their absence would sear into my soul.
When I wrote about the early days after Becky’s death, the trauma came from her family.
All in one moment my identity, my dreams, my sense of self and purpose were gone, and after making and delighting in a deep commitment and marriage to Becky, it was over just like that. My best friend, my biggest support, my anchor, my love—all gone in one devastating moment. Her parents lived just a few hours from our West Lafayette, Indiana, apartment. They came down, and with their minister in tow, they bowled me over, pushed me out of the way, stepped on me, isolated me, did as little with me as possible. They wanted me to disappear, to be invisible and to do whatever they wanted with Becky’s body and with her possessions. My parents did not arrive until the next day and then late that night and it was too late. I was traumatized by it all. Standing for hours in a funeral home weeping while strangers approached me to offer condolences and Becky’s family stood on the other side of the room. They had to have an immediate funeral (funeral home reception the next night and then funeral on the very next day) and it had to be in their hometown.
I had assumed that they would be thinking of me, looking out for me, and caring for me. I was dead wrong. The funeral itself consisted of a private viewing beforehand and then a service, in the same chapel where we were married only two and a half years before. I only remember bits and pieces of the day. My most vivid recollection is when just after the casket was closed and people started to leave the room, I turned back to the casket, draped myself across it, began pounding on it and begging Becky to rise up and come out of there. When my sobbing subsided I could feel hands on my shoulders seeking to comfort me. All I could think was “Now, how embarrassing is this?” I got up with as much dignity as I could muster.
I became depressed by the time I left Indiana to go back to my parents’ home (just 60 hours after Becky’s death) and I couldn’t process and use the support and love offered by others. Of course my family and friends tried to reach out to me but it didn’t register. Everyone wanted to talk to me about the future (either how I might never get over this or wondering who I might date next). I hated that anyone felt like they had the right to talk to me about the future. Becky was my world and that had not changed. After Becky’s death the physical symptoms of grief were so powerful and confusing. I couldn’t swallow hardly at all, barely ate, wept, and felt engulfed in shock and despair, alternating so quickly it was hard to predict when things would come or change.
I am fairly certain that Becky’s parents simply assumed that since we had not been married for a long time, Becky had not been as important to me as she was to them. How little they understood—or wanted to understand—the human condition.
* * *
Earlier I described the tremendous gains in the lowered mortality rate of infants and very young children, but there was also a tremendous improvement during the twentieth century in the health of people ages 5-25 due to the increasing ability to treat and prevent infectious diseases. That wasn’t the case, however, when Abraham Lincoln was in his twenties in the 1800s. In Doris Kearns Goodwin’s highly acclaimed Team of Rivals, about Lincoln and his cabinet members, she describes something I had not seen in print before: the potent effect of losing one’s spouse or love interest during the “entering adulthood” phase of life. Salmon Chase, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, lost his wife during childbirth when he was 23. He wrote to friends, “I feel loneliness the more dreadful, from the intimacy of the connection which has been severed.” His wife’s death, according to Goodwin, shadowed all the remaining days of his life. Lincoln himself lost his first love, Ann Rutledge, from typhoid fever when he was 22. “In this sad world of ours,” he wrote, “sorrow comes to all; and to the young it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares.” Years later he wrote about Rutledge, “I did honestly and truly love the girl and think often—often of her now.”
* * *
Searching for Becky
John Bowlby, a famous developmental theorist, wrote about the strange process of searching. A mother squirrel, for instance, will continue to look for her lost young long past any reasonable hope of finding it. My searches for Becky were vivid, both through dreams and actual excursions. During the first weeks after her death and continuing throughout the first year, I had a recurring dream about her. I can visualize it clearly, even 31 years later. It is a beautiful day, sunny and warm with no clouds in the sky. I walk out of our apartment house to a parking lot that leads to the main road, Wabash Avenue; that was the street we crossed on our daily jogs before heading up a steep hill on a street named Waverly Drive. In my dream, as I step into the parking lot, I see Becky at the top of the hill. She waves to me and smiles, and I am about to cross Wabash to meet her. I take one step into the street, and Becky falls down dead in front of me. I awake frightened and breathless: She had been so close, and I had been powerless to get to her in time.
My second most vivid search came one month after Becky’s death, when I went to St. Louis as the first stop on a three-week trip to interview at internship locations across the country. St. Louis meant Becky for me, and the memories were overwhelming. I arrived a day early, on an unseasonably warm day in December, and that evening a friend and I went to the university. I walked the entire campus remembering Becky. Two hours later, when we were done, I began to sob. I realized that my search had failed: Becky had not materialized. In my writing from that time, I described my restless searching:
I felt sad, downhearted, blue, uninterested and incredibly restless. I just wanted to keep on the road, on the move, keep driving, and keep looking for the next place to visit where things would be ok. I visited five different places in two weeks and all of them were strange; I was strange. I could not decide what I wanted to do or when to move on. The first place I visited ended with this comment from my prospective supervisor: “My worst fear is losing my wife. I don’t know how you are surviving.” I decided right then that I wasn’t coming there for internship.
The trip ended shortly after New Year’s, and so did my restlessness. I was in Atlanta, visiting Becky’s dear friends Sue and Jeff. Sue and I had also been friends in college, and after Becky’s death I connected even more closely with them; they were exceptionally supportive and nurturing. I called my father from their apartment, and during that conversation my restlessness ended and was replaced, as Sue described it, by the loudest, most devastating sobs and the words, “I cannot go back to my apartment alone again; I can’t do it.” How I wish, in retrospect, that Dad had said to me, “Don’t go back, Peter. Come home. We will figure this all out here.” Instead he gently encouraged me to withstand the onslaught of the early stages of grief.
Suffering is a state of heightened awareness and emotional anguish. But the grief came in waves, then receded. A good cry helped to push the waves of deep sadness out to sea and settle me again. After my January phone call to my father, my head and heart came together. There would be no more searching for Becky; she was lost, and my world was empty. My feelings weren’t totally selfish, though; I remember having great empathy for all others who were suffering. I spent time thinking of them and praying for them and understanding that for the first time, my insights into their anguish were not simply intellectual; they were deep feelings of empathy.
My life became almost monastic during the eight weeks between early January, when I returned to the apartment, and mid-March, when I went to Philadelphia for spring break. Each night I would meditate about the suffering of others and be grateful that I now had this knowledge. But there was another part of me, an uglier part, brewing as well. While I was at my parents’ home, they were mostly absent; inexplicably, they decided to work the entire time I was there. I sat in an empty, cold house for the week. It was lonely and it was awful.
I do not know whether it was the visit or just the passage of time, but I returned to Indiana angry. It showed up first in our weekly pickup basketball games. Basketball was (and is) a huge part of my identity; I love and am good at it. At first, I played superbly; my shooting was almost perfect and my defense inspired. Soon, however, I was beginning to jaw at my opponent—“You can’t stop me, so don’t bother trying,” I once said after scoring three straight baskets. It escalated each week: “I own you, man.” “You can’t touch me and you can’t score on me either, so lie down.” I spent probably four or five weeks like this—great playing, but with an increasing edge to me and to my game.
My friend and basketball buddy Harold was worried. “Hey, Pete,” he cautioned me, “calm down a little. It’s a pick- up game.” But I couldn’t stop; it was almost as if stepping on the court put me in a trance. Finally, I came up against the wrong guy. I was still playing well and scoring a lot, but I was having trouble stopping him. So I started playing dirty. He went up for a jump shot, and I pushed him. “Foul!” he called.
“You’re going to call that?” I asked, looking at him with contempt.
The next time he was in position for a rebound before I started moving him back. “Foul” he called again.
“What the hell?” I yelled. “Look, if you can’t play the right way, don’t play.” He began to move forward to grab me.
Harold intervened. “Get the hell off the court, Pete,” he said, and took my opponent aside to calm him down. The incident broke my spell and I stopped the trash talking and dirty play on the court. I realized that Becky’s death, her family’s behavior, and my family’s physical absence in my life had all played into my anger.
I came back from my mid-March visit determined to try to socialize. A friend, Katherine—who was six years my senior and had been in some of my graduate classes—invited me out to dinner. We had a nice time and I thought it was fun, but no big deal. She pursued me, however, and two weeks later, on our first real date, we saw Witness. The movie is about Amish culture, and in one scene an Amish woman is setting the table for a meal after the burial of her young husband. The scene could not have lasted more than 30 seconds, but it gripped me. I told Katherine about my reaction, and she listened quietly. Later that night she told me she was going to quit smoking because she wanted to date me, and knew I would not be interested in getting involved with a smoker. We began to date, and all seemed well.
I thought I had the anger issues under control until my mother came to visit in May 1985. During that visit she met—and did not like—Katherine; to be fair, she saw that I was getting in too deep too fast. But she handled it by telling me that I was “dishonoring” Becky’s memory, and after that we barely spoke for the rest of the weekend.
Two months later, while in Philadelphia for a brief period before I left for my internship, my brother Andy invited me to his home for dinner. “Pete,” he told me, “hold onto your family—it is so important.” My next words were ones I would deeply regret; they crushed our relationship for almost 15 years. I pounded the table and screamed, “My family? Where the hell were you when Becky died? When I was all alone?” For many years, I would alternate between being angry at others and angry at myself. Andy later told me that not going to Becky’s funeral was one of the biggest regrets of his life.
Eight months after Becky’s death, I moved to Gainesville, Florida, for my clinical internship—and the worst year of my life. Nothing even comes close to it, and yet I refused to seek help or change course.
After I went away during the summer, first on vacation and then to move to my internship in Florida, all of the façade of doing okay come apart and the depression took over. It all came crashing down on me in Florida. I cried; I was incredibly sad. I would drive into work in the morning, park on the gravel lot where the interns parked, sit looking at the chicken coops that were surrounding the lot, and it would take at least 5 minutes each day before I could will myself to get out of the car and go inside. Work was ok and kept me occupied but it was not busy enough for my active mind. I’d go home, watch some TV, try to write, try to exercise, and just notice how empty my life was. How rejected I was. None of my friends kept up with me, nor did any of my family call, nor did I really make new friends although I liked several of my colleagues and they were incredibly nice to me. I did not face the fact that I was depressed. I had a second cousin living in town and he urged me to get some help but I did not. I was so stuck, so lost, so scared and so miserable. I just kept trying to get past it one day at a time.
Before my move to Florida, Katherine told me that I was her last chance for a committed relationship. I left town feeling both that Katherine was a responsibility and that I was not going to disappoint her; my magical thinking told me that staying committed to Katherine might make up for not saving Becky. We lived apart during my year in Florida, but somehow stumbled toward marriage. We talked on the phone and visited, but nothing brought us closer; we largely remained strangers. Katherine worked at Purdue, but told me that she would move anywhere my career took me. We got engaged in January 1986, but two months later I wanted to call things off.
My doubts about the relationship peaked just as I was making the best decision of my life since marrying Becky. It concerned my career, but it also had a vital effect on my healing—because my decision launched a career that would soon become a source of stability, friendships, identity, and even nourishment. In other words, I started growing again, and after my long emotional winter, I was finally coming back to life.
Levinson’s second stage of adult development is “the Age 30 Transition,” during which finding a mentor is important—and although I didn’t realize it at the time, when I met Jeff Barth in March 1986, I had embarked on the next stage of my development. I now had a direction and a future. Jeff was the Acting Director of Psychology at Western State Hospital in Staunton, Virginia, where they had an opening for a director of geriatric psychology. Within the first 10 minutes of my interview, I knew that I wanted to work with him and benefit from his wisdom and experience. So I did: I moved to Virginia, and I threw myself into work. Jeff mentored me, and, by his example and dedication to his craft, he showed me what it took to become a professional and advance in the field. When I first came to work for him, Jeff believed in me much more than I did in myself. Then he did what mentors, if they’re really good, do: He broke it all down so that I would know, on a tangible level, who I was and what I could accomplish.
After meeting Jeff and accepting the job, I had a new sense of life’s possibilities. I was also ready to end my relationship with Katherine—and then her mother died of a massive heart attack. I spent the next week taking care of Katherine and becoming part of her family; her father was long since estranged, but she had a brother and sister, both married, who repeatedly told us not to postpone our plans due to their mother’s death.
Now, even more deeply entangled in a relationship I did not even want to be in, I made the worst decision of my life: I married Katherine on August 30, 1986. Despite our lack of closeness—or even knowing each other well—marriage offered some of the things I had lacked in Florida. Writing about this period now, I had to admit to myself that my downfall was allowing my fear of remaining alone to overcome my certainty that the marriage would be a mistake. I knew I shouldn’t marry Katherine, but I didn’t tell anyone that and I didn’t seek support to change it; I thought my loving ways would make it all work out.
Our unspoken agreement was that I would be allowed to work as hard as I wanted, and thus a career was born. I also spent a lot of time by myself during my four and a half years in Virginia, hiking and walking. I explored the streets of our little town, Staunton, which I loved, and hiked on Blue Ridge Mountain trails and along the Skyline Drive. Mostly, I walked and hiked alone. I also shot baskets at the Mary Baldwin College gym in Staunton for hours at a time, and again, I was mostly alone.
During those solitary times I thought of Becky and how she would want me to live my life. I hated the idea that I was her legacy and I was failing. Four years after her death I wrote Remembering Becky, which was my best piece of writing ever. I described our love affair, her death, my mourning and that of others who had loved her, and my struggle to best my own demons. I sent it to the Washington University alumni magazine, and they liked it so much that they sent a photographer to take pictures of me and get some of Becky. After the article was published, I presented it as a paper at a national conference on death.
In my article I described going through Becky’s clothes and finding, at the bottom of the pile, the sweater I had bought her for our first Christmas when we were dating. It was too small, and yet she had saved and savored it. The next speaker at the conference, a woman who had had multiple abortions before someone helped her decide to go through with her pregnancy, spoke about the little sweater she had knit for her daughter during that time. Afterward, we hugged each other and cried.
I was asked to submit my paper to a journal on death and dying, and they published it in 1990. Friends of Katherine’s who had read it took me aside and said, “You are still so in love with your first wife—how is this going to work now?” Still, in spite of everything, I stayed in the marriage.
In January 1991 we left small-town Virginia for the gritty city of Detroit, which was a perfect fit; it felt a lot like my hometown of Philadelphia. My career took off in my new job, and my ambitions soared. Our marriage, in contrast, floundered. One part was a success: We had a daughter, Emily, whose arrival brought me back to life. I also had the good fortune of living close to my lifetime friend John, who was in graduate school in nearby Ann Arbor. Between my times with him and my love for Emily, I began to want more than just a career; I began to want a full life. I did not know what that would look like, but I was becoming more distant from Katherine as I focused on myself and on Emily. I decided that I might need a new job, but instead of taking any of the out-of-town offers—none of which suited me—I decided to stay put and focus on my own personal growth. I also decided to separate from Katherine.
When I moved out in April 1997, Becky had been dead for a little more than 12 years—and yet I knew that I was, in a large part, moving out so that I could finish the healing process and finally get on with my life and my dream. I knew this because when I moved into my apartment with Emily (who, because Katherine and I shared joint custody, would be living with me half time), I never looked back at my failed marriage. Instead, I looked back to Becky.
My mantra became, “I have known a better relationship. I lived with better, and I will again.” I surprised myself by tastefully decorating my apartment; Becky’s roll-top desk, in the living room, was a focal point. On the flat surface at the top, I put two pictures of Becky and one of us together. The middle picture was taken at a family reunion a few months after our wedding. She is with my parents, wearing a green dress I had proudly chosen and given to her and she had loved. On the left, in the first picture taken of us together, she is wearing a red-and-white checked shirt—appropriate for a Hoosier, I thought, since those are Indiana’s colors. To the right was one of the most relaxed pictures I have ever seen of myself: Taken the summer after graduation, we are smiling and tan, and beaming in one another’s company.
I felt like I had been freed, and because I had time without the responsibilities of parenting Emily, I could resume looking for chances to socialize. I went to the art museum and movies, and canoed with John. I could feel myself re-emerging: I was laughing more, having more fun, and relishing the experiences life had to offer.
It was spring when I moved into my new apartment, and I came alive along with the budding flowers and trees. I had been dormant for many years, and I was ready to discover new dimensions.
When I met Susan in 1992, she was one of many clinical psychology students in the doctoral program at Wayne State University. She was also an intern at the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan (RIM), where I was the training director. We liked and respected each other, but she saw me as a faculty member and a much older man, and I saw her as a gifted student who was passing through on the way to the next phase of her career. Given what was to come in the years ahead, it’s hard to believe that there was nothing unusual in our relationship at that time, but there wasn’t. We didn’t socialize together outside of work, and there was no hint of romance. In 1993 Susan left for a geropsychology internship in California that I had recommended to her, since we shared a strong interest in working with older adults.
Three months later, out of the blue, I got a call: One of the scheduled speakers at a conference was ill; could I come to San Francisco and give a talk? I agreed, and presented at the conference, which was being hosted by Susan’s internship site. One evening we went for a walk and had dinner together, and our relationship shifted: It was still chaste and proper, but we were now more like peers and soon became friends.
The next year, during Susan’s postdoctoral studies, a position for someone with geriatric expertise opened up at our hospital. I stayed out of the recruiting process, as I did not want to influence Susan one way or the other. But she got the job, and as soon as she arrived we began working together on research, teaching, and presentations. We walked together during the lunch hour, discussing our research and work, and slowly I got to know more about her personally. She was from Spokane, Washington; she was also the only daughter of four to pursue a graduate degree and the only one to move out of the area. That weighed heavily on her, as she felt that her sisters no longer included her in their conversations and trips. As I learned more about her courageous journey to graduate school and Detroit, I grew to admire her. At that point, her plan was to save money and find a job in Seattle.
Susan and I began hiking together regularly after I separated, and after a few of those hikes we began to date. My pictures of Becky were still in their places on her roll-top desk, and remained for a few months after Susan and I had been dating regularly. I told her that I was finishing the healing process, and she smiled and said that that was fine with her. When I finally felt that it was time to remove the pictures, Susan asked me why. I was finished, I told her, with that part of healing. I was also ready for her pictures and our pictures to adorn my desk. I was astonished by how much Susan understood my healing—and how easy it would have been for her to feel threatened or assume that I was not ready to date her. Instead, as she told me later, she knew that I was totally in our relationship—totally present, loving, and never veering away from her.
I felt as if Becky had handed me to Susan and given her blessing to our life together. My dream had truly resumed, with a life and home full of love and friendship. My mother particularly loved Susan, and supported my new relationship the way she had supported my relationship with Becky. Susan and I played tennis, went running, watched movies, shared novels, and reveled in the companionship and love that fulfilled our every sense. We also worked together, which drew us even closer. We were a great team: We published many articles, and our research yielded important findings about and approaches to the assessment and treatment of older adults.
We also shared a sense of play and adventure. When we were at a conference in San Francisco, we walked seven-plus miles across town from Chinatown, across the Golden Gate Bridge, and into Sausalito, where we ate dinner and ran to catch the last ferry back to San Francisco. In Cincinnati, after her board exam, I found a bed and breakfast with a feather bed, and we had to tear ourselves from under the covers to make it to our meeting. While there, a large pond had frozen and we created a game that we would play years later with our children: ice bocce, using sticks instead of balls. We also loved to hike together. When hiking once in Saugatuck State Park, which spills out onto the shores of Lake Michigan, we came across some beautiful dunes. Susan looked up eagerly, and I said, “Well, let’s go up and check out the view”—which we did, then ran down the dunes, laughing all the way.
We married on a sunny day in late September 1999. People rarely saw us when we weren’t caught up in talking together. I was exposed to so much through Susan—the opera, old and new movies, and her favorite musicians, such as Allison Krause and Martin Page. She was a loving stepmother to Emily, and we went on to have two children together: Thomas in 2001 and Sophie in 2004.
After Thomas’s birth, I came to understand more deeply how precious Susan’s influence on me would be. Perhaps because I was aware of the added responsibilities and loss of freedom in our relationship, I—not Susan—experienced postpartum depression. I became short-tempered, tired, and unhappy. After a few weeks of this Susan took me aside and said, “Peter, you need some help; this is a relapse of your depression. I think you need some medication.” If it had been anyone else, I doubt that I would have listened. But I trusted Susan’s judgment so much that not only did I listen, I got a referral and an appointment within the next week. I began taking antidepressants, and my mood lifted almost immediately. The depression never returned to that degree again, even after I lost Susan to cancer.
We dated more than any married couple I have ever known. Each Saturday we got a babysitter, and from late fall till spring we went to dinner and a movie. From spring to early fall we played tennis or hiked and then had dinner, dashing into a Starbucks to change before heading to a scrumptious dinner. Our dates were like mini-vacations, so thoroughly did we leave everything behind and spend the time connecting with one another. We also traveled together—at first to conferences and on vacations, and later, after having Thomas and Sophie, we went away for two long weekends a year without the kids to places where we could hike, be by the water, and spoil ourselves in the nicest bed and breakfast we could find. Jeff Barth—who had now become my dear friend—told me many times that he had rarely seen a couple who were so well suited to one another, and my mother described us as one of the happiest couples she had ever known.
Cancer comes into our life
Susan’s oldest sister died in the fall of 2009, 18 months after being diagnosed with breast cancer. When Susan relayed this news to her doctor, she ordered not only Susan’s yearly mammogram but an ultrasound as well. Even though her breast cancer had probably been growing for almost two years, no mammogram had detected it. Thus cancer, in the form of metastatic breast cancer, came into our lives suddenly, with a 5 cm tumor in one breast and a 3 cm tumor in the other—and almost no symptoms.
Nearly half of all women have dense breast tissue, and the detection of cancer in dense breasts using routine mammography is only 27-30%. Despite having tumors in both breasts, as well as her bones and liver, it took an ultrasound to find it.
We both wrote about the day we heard the news. Susan wrote the following:
I have been diagnosed with stage IV metastatic breast cancer, with mets to bone, hip and liver. Beginning June 9, my life feels it has no longer been my own. Starting that day, breast biopsies were done. The first biopsy felt like the beginning of a gradual violent assault on my body, with painful injections, odd loud sounds, and technicians pushing as hard as they can on my body to stop bleeding. I was asked several times if I had any questions, and could think of none. Finally, I asked the one question that needed to be asked: how likely is it that this is cancer? The ultrasound technician calmly stated that “it has all the earmarks we look for in cancer.” The realization slowly spread over me like a gray cloud that this was bad, really bad.
I left that day in tears and feeling more alone than I have ever felt in my life. Peter was out of town. We had planned to talk every morning and evening, as he would be in lectures and workshops all day for the next two weeks. Despite all this, for some reason, he had a break and decided to call, just as I was leaving the hospital. In tears I recounted the morning. The tone of my voice and the details convinced him to drop what was a very important opportunity at Harvard and come home that night. He has been my rock, so supportive since.
This is how I described that fateful day:
Sitting in Harvard Square having lunch and thinking about the last lecture I just heard on risk management at universities. This is going to be a challenging course, I told myself. I was at the Harvard Management Education program for mid-level university administrators. Two and a half days in, I was eating by myself because I wanted to give Susan and our daughter Emily a call. Emily was downtown and was going to be meeting Susan for lunch after Susan’s routine medical appointment. It was a beautiful June day at Harvard; sun, low humidity, warm but not hot. I called Susan’s phone, smiling to myself that they were having lunch somewhere while I had signed myself up for this exciting but challenging experience. “Peter,” she answered the phone. I didn’t need to hear another word. I knew I was coming home that night on the first plane I could catch. “Oh Peter, I think this is bad,” were her next words. Susan was not at lunch with Emily. She was in the lobby of the hospital where she had just had an ultrasound and the technician giving the exam gasped and blurted out, “Oh my Lord”.
I could share many things about living your life while stage IV cancer takes its toll on a loved one. I am amazed at how much living we did during those 44 months. How we kept getting closer mentally, physically, and spiritually, and how little it mattered whether Susan had hair, or breasts. All that mattered was the bond that grew stronger and more resilient as Susan’s body weakened and began to let go.
I was so attuned to Susan that just a few months before she died, I wrote this in my journal:
Day to day the ups and downs, ins and outs, struggles seem the same as last year. But there is a huge difference! The cancer is so much more formidable; lurking around every corner with labs going in the wrong direction (transfusions), white counts too low for chemo and oh yeah, PET scans showing a significant amount of cancer in the liver (5-6 lesions). In short, we are on a path towards Susan’s decline and early death.
Susan, our three children, and I went to see the movie Saving Mr. Banks on Christmas Eve 2013. We all loved it. Susan made Christmas Day and Christmas dinner special, and then she went to bed. She stayed in bed a lot between Christmas and New Year’s. The damage to her heart from chemotherapy, which had been discovered the previous August, was now worsening.
January 2014 was one of the coldest and snowiest on record. I could see that Susan needed more of me, and so on several days I stayed home with her, including the Tuesday five days before her death. The kids were at school and we watched a movie, and then she took a nap and I lay beside her. “Don’t give up on me,” she said, apologizing for how tired she was.
“I’ll never give up on you, Susan,” I replied.
That Friday, February 7, I had just gotten home from work around 5:30 when I got a call from Susan, who was dropping Sophie off at a sleepover; she was short of breath, she said. I picked her and Thomas up, dropped Thomas off at home, and took Susan to Harper Hospital in Detroit. I got her into the emergency room, left to park the car, and when I returned she told me that her heart rhythm was out of sequence and 12 doctors and nurses had been frantically working on her. She stabilized and was moved to a regular floor, where she passed the night without incident.
I spent the next day with Susan at the hospital. She wasn’t getting any better, and in the late afternoon they decided that she needed to be on a floor where she could be more closely monitored. Even so, we expected that she would go home in a day or two. Instead, at 5:41 p.m. the next day—Sunday, February 9—she was dead. When I had said a last goodbye and relinquished her body to others, I left the empty room to drive home in darkness, dreading what lay ahead.
Breaking the news to Thomas and Sophie that their mother had died was the worst part of that bleak day. Sitting on the sofa, just the three of us, I told them about the day and about Susan’s death. They sobbed, keening with grief, for almost two hours. Then I said, “It’s time for Downton Abbey, so let’s watch.” Nudging them back into a favorite weekly ritual helped, and when the show ended, we went to bed and slept.
Their teachers and principals had been well prepared, and the next day, Sophie and Thomas went to school as usual. Staying in their usual routine, combined with my consistent presence, seemed to help a lot. Two months after Susan’s death, I wrote the following:
There is a hidden, constant stress living with the knowledge that your mother has cancer and will not be cured. It is always there, and you are always vigilant. Sophie, who did not sleep through the night the last 8 months of Susan’s illness, has slept well every single night since Susan died. Thomas has also slept well.
Winter ended and spring came, and Thomas and Sophie did very well—although almost every night, Sophie would dissolve into tears at bedtime; on a few occasions, she crawled into bed with me because she couldn’t sleep.
I spoke with Emily—who was 900 miles away in her final semester in college—several times during the last weekend of Susan’s life. It would be particularly hard for Emily; many people were insensitive to her grief, since Susan was “only” her stepmother, and I was less available to her that at any other time in her life. Still, she came home nine days after Susan’s death and we all moved together through the sad work of mourning and saying goodbye.
Our real challenge as a new family of five would come the following winter, when sibling rivalry arose among the three of them. For now, though, we were united in our grief and concern for one another.
On February 22, 2014—44 months after Susan’s cancer had been discovered—I stood at a pulpit before more than 300 people and delivered her eulogy. “Susan was a cancer survivor,” I began, and for the first and only time during the eulogy I stopped, the tears right behind my eyes, and wondered whether I could go on. But after a moment they receded. Here is part of what I said about Susan’s cancer and courage:
“Susan’s breast cancer was only discovered after it had spread to her bones and liver—despite her getting a mammogram every single year since she turned 40. We were fortunate to get excellent care from Dr. Michael Simon at Karmanos, whose words became our mantra. We came to his office panic-stricken and he said to us, calmly, “No one is dying today.” Susan decided to retire from the work she loved and spend her energies and time with her family and at treatment. She was constantly under treatment for the 44 months she survived. In all, she underwent five different chemotherapies, two courses of radiation, surgery, T-cell and biological-agent treatments. Until very recently, if it wasn’t for the loss of her hair, you would hardly know she was in treatment. We hiked regularly—6, 8, 10 miles at a time. She volunteered at school, and spoiled us at home. Susan’s courage and strength were illustrated in a fall 2012 Free Press newspaper article along with her beautiful picture. She was inspiring to so many. She was inspiring to me.
“Facing death from cancer for 44 months could be terribly anguishing. Susan and I found the Karmanos Ripper program helped us to enjoy the quality of our life together and gave us the courage to face Susan’s death. About a year ago, Susan asked me to have a joint meeting with the Karmanos social worker Kathleen Hardy. Susan wanted to talk about her wishes for dying: what the children would and would not see; what life would and would not be like for them after her death. She prepared her family for her death in a gentle, considerate, and loving way.
“In return, we stayed by Susan’s side and I had the gift of talking to her and holding her hand in her final minutes of life. Susan died peacefully and without pain on Sunday, February 9, after a very brief hospital stay of less than two days. She began the day that would end in the ER and the hospital with good energy. She got a shot to strengthen her bones, went shopping, and drove Sophie to her sleepover.
“Susan embraced each day of her life fiercely. She did this for me and for her children. She did this because she was one of the great people in the world, a person who spread good feeling and gave off an uplifting life force wherever she went. We will carry this example with us all the days of our lives.”
Early Days of Grief
The day after Susan died, I took Sophie and Thomas to school and welcomed the arrival of an old friend. My college roommate, Danny—who had been with me after Becky’s funeral—had retired two months earlier, and called to say that he could come for two weeks. He was my chief support in those first days—not only a steadfast friend, but also an excellent cook.
I did not rush the process that was unfolding. First, I planned the memorial service for 13 days after Susan’s death, which allowed me to take care of things one step at a time and to write the eulogy I knew I wanted to deliver. From Thursday through Sunday, Danny and I hosted a celebration of Susan’s life. My parents and all of my brothers and their spouses and many of their children came, along with Susan’s mother, two sisters, and brother. My closest friends were there, including Jeff Barth, and my “second parents” from Syracuse. They had been good friends of my parents, and we had remained close, even after their friendship with my parents had waned. Susan’s closest friend from graduate school, Colleen, and her husband, also came. I did my share of crying, but also my share of laughing and enjoying. The support and love that embraced me, including from those I worked with, was tremendous.
Then everyone went home. Well, not everyone; my dear friend Bruce (whom I had once mentored, just like Jeff had mentored me) stayed for the better part of two weeks. That was invaluable: I needed him, and he was there. His caring presence lifted me, and when he left I felt that I was ready to begin managing things by myself. Most importantly, I had hired a nanny and was ready to go back to work. I also arranged to take a leave of absence in the summer, so that Thomas and Sophie would not spend that first summer without Susan alone.
Searching for Susan
During the first months after Susan’s death, I relived the day she died over and over. I was again searching—not for Susan this time, but for whether I had done the best that I could have for her.
Sundays were the hardest. Each Sunday, for several weeks, I relived the events of Sunday, February 9—my last day with Susan. She didn’t speak to me, smile at me, or even look at me that day—but then again, she couldn’t.
Around 9:30 p.m. the night before, when I had returned home after a long day at the hospital, we joked and laughed on the phone. I had just avoided a huge backup on the interstate only because the snow had forced me to stay in the extreme right-hand—which, as it turned out, was the only lane that could merge onto local lanes before the three-mile backup due to a jackknifed semi. Susan was laughing, because after a day of little to no action they seemed ready to treat her more aggressively; for some reason, they couldn’t stabilize her.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, sweetheart,” I told her, “and hopefully you can come home on Monday.
“I love you,” she said.
“I love you, too, Suz.” At 8:35 a.m. on Sunday, an hour before the sitter was due to arrive so that I could go to the hospital, the phone rang.
“Mr. Lichtenberg, we have some news about your wife. Her heart stopped, and it took us some time, but we got it going again. She’s now on a breathing machine.”
“How long did it stop for?” I asked.
“Oh, six to seven minutes.” I knew then that this would most likely be Susan’s last day alive. My heart raced as I ran downstairs to grab our estate-planning document, with the section on Susan’s health advocate and wishes. I told the neighbors why I had to leave; could they keep an eye on Thomas and Sophie until the sitter came? Later they told me they had no idea what I had said to them. I asked Thomas and Sophie to shovel the driveway while they waited. As I drove down the interstate, I called my attorney on his cell phone to ask which documents I would need to use.
I got to the hospital, and when I saw Susan I knew that this would be a long and sad day. Her left side drooped, and her face showed signs of stroke activity. We had both worked on a stroke unit, and knew this sign all too well; it was her biggest fear. An hour later I called and asked my minister to come be with me. Right after she arrived, the cardiologist told me that the entire left side of her heart was gone. There was no hope.
No other doctors came to see me. We waited in the empty waiting room, just Reverend Mimi and me, talking about Becky’s death, meeting Susan, and what my life had been like. I called Danny—who is a cardiologist—and asked him, “What do I say to these doctors so they’ll hear me?” He told me that they needed to use lots of morphine so that Susan would not suffer. We finally got to the ICU doctor, and after his initial protest that they were going to bring Susan “back,” I showed him a paragraph from our advance-planning document, which she had written and signed: She wanted to be taken off artificial life support.
I sat with her after the breathing apparatus had been removed, talking to her for the 22 minutes she had breath left. I kissed her forehead and let her go. “Suz,” I said, “get the hell out of here before that crazy doctor comes back.” She died a minute later.
Now I relive my feelings about being with Susan as she died. Could I have brought her back? Could I just make it so that she had awakened, and we could have died together? Could we at least have talked together until she died? The butterflies in my stomach, the call to action, the worry, the fear. The end of the road of cancer. All of this I relived each and every Sunday. “I miss you, Suz,” I would say to myself. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t save you.”
Although I wish I could have saved Susan—as I wish I could have saved Becky—I did not suffer the guilt or self-blame and anger that I had when Becky died. I was lonely, though, and I wrote about it:
The biggest part of my grief now is the emptiness of my world without Susan, the heartache I feel, the pit in my stomach when I think about living on without her, and the worry of drowning in sorrow. I seem to be resilient to date but this stage feels dangerous, as if one day I will find myself too isolated to make connections, too lonely to relate to others, and too heartbroken to feel and express my gratitude for my life; for what others have given me since Susan’s death and for how much of a better and changed person I am due to my life with Susan. She truly changed me. She helped me to open up; to trust myself and to have confidence that I can do it all.
After Becky died, my dad gave me The Courage to Grieve by Judy Tatelbaum. She highlights the need to get out of denial and realize that the relationship with your loved one is gone. In 1984, after Becky’s death, I had tried to do that very thing—to not let Becky remain a strong presence in my life. I ran from my grief, and only later realized that Becky’s presence was in fact a gift of grace. I needed it to heal, and throughout the 30 years I’ve lived since, I needed it stay with me in different ways.
I was determined not to make the same mistake again. I wrote this mantra two months after Susan’s death, and would read it many times during the months to come:
I am not alone. I am never alone. Susan is with me always. It was real. It was ideal. It was true love and a fulfilled love and friendship. Becky is also with me. My mistake after Becky’s death was feeling that what I had was all gone, feeling desperate. I was starting to make the same mistake. Then I realized that Susan is here with me. She is inside of me. She is the calm in my soul, the joy in my life. I live for her, and for Becky. I live with purpose, with zest and with joy!
Susan’s death, although untimely, was not totally unexpected, and my searching for her differed from my searching for Becky. One example of this was a dream I had about Susan within the first month after her death. She was sitting on the floor of Sophie’s room, reading a book while Thomas and Sophie listened from the bed. I came into the room, and in her lilting, loving voice that reflected her warm smile, Susan said, “There you are. I was hoping you would come in here.” I awoke immediately, glad that she was happy—but aching for her living presence.
The summer after her death, I took Sophie, Thomas, and Emily on a five-week trip—three weeks out east, visiting family and friends, and two weeks at Manistee on Lake Michigan, in the same condo complex we had stayed in as a family ever since Sophie’s birth nine years earlier. Between the first and second trips, we came home to replenish our supplies and catch a breather. Immediately on entering our home, I longed for Susan to greet us and welcome me home. I ached for her presence and for the life we had shared, and in Manistee I was keenly affected by her absence.
The next and most dramatic stage of my search was thinking, “Well, OK, I gave Susan all of myself when she was ill—but did I really make her happy when she was well?” That question haunted me until one day, six months to the date of her death, I found several computer files that I had missed before. In one of them she had written about our life together.
On meeting you at conferences: I remember seeing you when you came to Palo Alto. Again, I remember the dress I was wearing—blue with a big belt—I had a waist then! You offered to take me to dinner—as you did with all your past students. We took a walk outside the hotel, and I believe it was then that I looked over at you, with the wind blowing your hair just a bit, and that’s when it hit me—you were not 50, but closer to my age. Maybe I mix up the dates, but I very, very clearly remember the feeling—like that “student/professor” boundary we had built just fell down—and here is the very handsome, funny, kind, brilliant, young man . It didn’t change how we interacted—still very polite, kind and very safe, professional boundaries—just a growing awareness of who you are. Through all of this, I just knew that whenever I was with you I smiled more, laughed more and just generally felt good.
Remember the conference in Seattle (I was at TIRR)? I knew you were going to be there and kept an eye out. I had taken a walk—gotten myself a bit lost on a beautiful sunny day. Was feeling good as I walked back into the hotel, and there you were sitting on your own—a rare event for you in those post-doc applications days, “Dr. Lichtenberg!” The throng of young women forever chasing you through every conference certainly saw you for who you were—an amazing, handsome, kind, successful and yes—brilliant young man.
I know we both smiled our biggest smiles and my heart immediately warmed. And, even then I know what I was wearing—my favorite skirt and silk blouse. I can see now that despite our boundaries and most appropriate behavior, I still strived to look my best for you. It was at that conference that you were sitting down on a sofa with several of us standing around. You took my hand and said “We miss you at RIM. Colleen said an image flashed in her mind of you on bended knee, asking me to marry you. I DON’T THINK SO! I said.
From our first movie—Chasing Amy—I have so many memories of our time together. I have such amazing memories of that first trip to the Park House in Saugatuck. What a perfect vacation. I know I’ve told you this, but you truly were the first person I’d ever spent time with who was so totally into having fun, exploring, laughing and enjoying. Do you remember how we ran in the mornings, hiked and climbed sand dunes all day and made love all night? I was exhausted and fulfilled in every way by the end of each day!
Working with you was so amazing. You gave me such confidence in my work and I’m so proud of the research we did together. In my reflections on our life and work together, there has never been a time with you that we weren’t laughing, talking, enjoying.
On being married—has it been 12 years? Where did the time go? When I think back, we really adjusted to so many changes so quickly. I love our new home and spending time with you. It was so fun to travel and explore together. Being in love and married to you has been the easiest thing I‘ve ever done.
I know of very few people whose marriages I really admire, and I believe with all my heart that the union you and I have created is one that is seen only rarely in this world. That you found that twice says so much about the man you are. You have been so willing to share yourself and your life with me. You have accepted me with all my shortcomings. I’ve never been a good cook or homemaker. I’ve never been easy going. I know I’ve become a tad needy over the years. Sorry about that. I hope that I have been as supportive to you as you need me to be. That said, I love being with you. I know both of us love being in our house and having it look nice, but neither of us is into “stuff.”
Do you remember we drank champagne and made love in the living room that first night the sale was complete? Did we really do that? One of those silly champagne glasses broke over time, but the other is still in the cupboard. I believe you and I have been consumed with each other for 12 years. Even our rare arguments have been all consuming! I don’t recall any specific arguments in detail. They have been so infrequent. I know when they do come they arise from fear, and when you and I come back together again and work together, all the worries and insecurities seem to disappear. I cannot imagine another course for my life but being with you, by your side.
My search ended that day. I found the greatest gift that Susan could ever have left for me—this incredible story of us. I had made her happy, and I wanted her happiness to be part of my legacy to her. I used her joy and Becky’s joy, turned to colleagues who were gifted in writing and design, and wrote a brief biography of each of these extraordinary women. From now until always, I hope, whoever receives the endowed scholarship I created in Susan and Becky’s names at Washington University will see their pictures and read about their lives.
My grief after Becky’s death was tormenting. Although my grief after Susan’s death was deeply sad, and the gash in my life huge, I was able to maintain a sense of health and wellness. A few months after her death, I wrote:
In my mind they are sitting together, like sisters, smiling and contented. Neither needs to be afraid anymore, and both have passed through this mortal life. Becky, 25, 5 foot 3 inches tall with swimmer’s muscles, a laugh containing at least 5 octaves, was blonde with thick, somewhat short hair when I first met her. She actually loved me—imagine that. We dreamed of a long, happy life together when we married 3 weeks after we each turned 23. We were happy; incredibly so. It was amazing, the power of love in bringing joy to one’s world. Two and one half years into our marriage, Becky died suddenly and unexpectedly, while jogging.
It took me a full decade before joy came back to my life. Not with the woman I married, but with my newly born daughter—I did everything for Emily and in return she thawed my frozen heart. I healed; really healed. And when I was healthy I got out of that marriage and into an incredibly joyful one with Susan, who was 34, 5 foot 3 inches tall, with strong arms and legs. We hiked, swam, ran, explored and she actually fell in love with me. Incredibly, Susan befriended Becky’s memory. “It is part of why I love you,” she said. I tried to honor Becky in the professional and personal accomplishments of my life, including loving again and marrying.
It is inconceivable that for the second time in my adult life, separated by 29 years (17 of which were amazingly happy ones), I was widowed. Susan, a poster woman for the limitations of mammograms (which she got yearly), lived for 44 months with stage IV breast cancer. She lived courageously, actively, full of strength, love, and joy. Until six weeks before she died, the rhythms and activities of our relationship changed very little.
I wrote a eulogy for Becky 25 years after her death and sent it to some family and close friends. I wrote a eulogy for Susan 7 days after her death, and after editing it for 2 more days delivered it to a packed church 13 days after her death. I spoke, in parts of the eulogy, directly to our two children now 12 and 9 years old. When Becky died, I was a shattered and traumatized young man who did not know how much support I needed, or how to ask for it. When Susan died, I was surrounded by family and friends; I was the host of the informal celebrations of being together. I knew I needed lots of support and I got it.
To deliver Susan’s eulogy without tears or a choking voice, I had to visualize Susan and Becky waving to me from across the Delaware River in upstate Shohola, PA. Waving and smiling, “We are here. We are with you. We will never leave you,” they said. I had another image: me walking down a sidewalk under a spring canopy of green leaves, holding Becky’s hand in my left and Susan’s in my right. We were all smiling, but Becky and Susan were looking across at each other, behind my back, grinning. Susan used to tell me, “I’ve had many conversations with Becky; I ask her what to do with you!”
Lessons from grief
Healing from grief over Becky and Susan was different in each case, partly due to my age and stage of life, but also because of how they died, the resources available to me, how I was perceived by others, and my ability to assert my wishes. But the feeling of all-powerful grief was the same. Although I reject any idea of knowing what might be good for others who are suffering from loss, I offer the following observations about the things that helped me grieve. Six months after Susan died, I wrote:
1. Don’t underestimate the power of loss early on—have someone with you during the end of your loved one’s life or soon thereafter.
2. Have the right person stay with you after the death. This will not happen automatically—you must ask for it. You might, as in my case, even discuss it ahead of time.
3. Plan and be prepared. Young, old, it does not matter . . . What do you and your loved one want at the end of life and after? How much have you planned for your family and your financial future? If not, do so.
4. Arrange the funeral or memorial service the way you want it and let others help you with the final details.
5. If you have children, find a way to keep the same routine, and keep them in their routine.
6. Communicate, communicate, communicate—with the children’s teachers and principal, with your neighbors, friends, and family—especially during the first month.
7. Find a professional, skilled in dealing with death and dying issues, who can listen and help accompany you on your journey. Off-time deaths—those that happen when it is not in the expected order (such as both Becky and Susan’s death)—cause a lot of internal disturbance and questioning. This professional becomes more central after a few months have passed and others in your network have moved on from the loss.
8. Think about how you want to talk about your loved one and do so. I found it awkward to talk about Becky, but have continued to bring Susan into my conversations, and that feels a lot better.
9. The journey of grief will bring you in touch with your frailties such as overpowering sexual desire, facing your own mortality, and a search for how well you upheld your part of the relationship with your loved one; try to view this as a journey of growth and exploration, no matter that it is totally unwanted and often very painful.
10. Keep notes and/or letters/pictures, etc. that you can read and reread (or look at). Affirmations from your loved one are a powerful force in healing.
11. Welcome as much experience of gratitude as you can. Grief is lonely, and it is often depressing and accompanied by anger at others “who don’t get it” (and they don’t—they can’t). Gratitude is a powerful healing force that allows you to live in the present more of the time despite your tremendous loss. I had much less gratitude in the weeks and months after Becky’s death than I have after Susan’s, and it has made a real difference.
12. Know what depression is, and how it differs from grief and how its symptoms can overlap with grief or co-exist with grief. Depressive states, which can be experienced not only as sad and tearful or angry, but containing self-recriminating thoughts, long-lasting feelings of failure, and hopelessness, need to be treated. I struggled with this after Becky’s death, and at 6 months after my loss I quietly slipped into a depression after what I (and others) thought had been a period of good healing. I have had my moments, hours, and even days of this dark thinking after Susan’s death, but I have been much smarter about combatting these, and as a result can feel myself starting to experience some real healing—a state I did not find until four years after Becky’s death.
Images of Grief
After Becky’s death, the ocean served as my metaphor for grief. Acute grief is often described as coming in waves like the ocean: Sharp, cresting waves that carry you to despair are replaced by calmness or even comfort as you are borne safely to land and the wave is pulled back to the sea. As the shock wears off, the experience feels more like being blindfolded in the ocean—not knowing when the waves will hit, and when they do, feeling too weak to swim to shore.
Several months after Susan’s death, I described my grief as like being on a mountain face, holding steady as long as I didn’t look up or down—but then, when I looked up and couldn’t see the top, feeling sadness and pessimism descend on me. A few months later, I felt that I had made it to the top of the mountain and was surrounded by rock, with unpredictable, powerful storms of grief that would blow in and stir up my agony yet again.
It wasn’t until I wrote this story, 19 months after Susan’s death, that I realized that my grief, for both Becky and Susan, was more like being covered in snow and pinned down by the cold and ice. Slowly the snow melted, so that my head and arms were free. I was euphoric, and assumed that I had survived the storm much more easily than I had expected to. I didn’t think about or allow grief to be on my mind—and then, when I thought I was about to become even freer, a new storm came in: The boomerang of grief. The sun came back, though, and once again the snow melted, and this time I completely emerged from the snowdrift. I wasn’t a new me or a different me; I was the same me, the me that I recognized—spirited, curious, living with zest, and feeling good about who I was and who I could go on from there to become.
Grief knocked me off balance with fear, sadness, despair, and pessimism. As I re-emerge, my feet are firm on the ground and life feels familiar; I feel familiar. I can feel my life force growing, my curiosity returning, and my desire to relate to others strengthening. I am healing! Yes, I carry scars, reminders of deep wounds that could be reopened, but I can live with them. The scars are one part of who I am, symbols of loss—but, more importantly, of the love that has filled my life to the brim.