I used to keep a list of the most outrageous things people said to me regarding my husband’s death. At some point I stopped, realizing that it was not exactly the kind of collection I coveted.
People say stupid things. I know I have. When it comes to grief and loss, we can all be a bumbling stumbling fount of misfires. Grief scares people right down to the core. Don’t even get me started on death…geez, the lengths we go to to avoid it! Grief and loss are just too radioactive to some.
I can now laugh at my husband’s boss leaving my bedroom after a condolence call and saying, “That’s a really big bed for just one person.” A month or two after my husband died, I ran into a high school acquaintance who told me I “was lucky to have had love.” There was a dear friend who criticized what I was wearing…at my husband’s memorial service.
But then there were also people who gave me the verbal gifts I needed desperately. An old friend came a very long distance to take me to lunch. She and I had spent the early 90s taking NYC by storm. It was so very fitting that she was the one to take me back onto the sidewalks of NYC. I choked up as I told her about my fears and anguish imagining his last moments. She told me to stop it, that I was telling myself the wrong story. It was exactly what I needed to hear.
A very young friend, and protégé of my husband’s, managed the composure to tell me to hold onto the tickets I had recently purchased for a performance 5 months after my husband’s death. He looked me in the eye and sternly told me, “You loved ‘Guys & Dolls’ before him, and you will love it again.”
Months later, he, my 4th grade best friend and the couple my husband and I cherished most, joined me at Carnegie Hall for the concert. It was a precious, difficult and very important first step.
I don’t know what the math is. Perhaps for every slight, intentional hurt, and dreadful utterance, there were equal parts loveliness, generosity and wisdom. I certainly recall more of the bright shining warm glow of the latter than the cold and dark of the former.
I am still in the market for wisdom and warmth and am so grateful when it’s offered. In the very beginning of it all, I spoke with a handful of surviving spouses. One generous man spent a couple of hours with me. However, it was not entirely helpful to discover that two years out his entire social network consisted of support groups. I did not want to know that. I also did not want to know that the beautiful woman, widowed young 15 years ago, was still single.
There were (and still are) some widows who found my “getting on with it” attitude downright offensive. Where were the photos of my husband?! I politely explained that I didn’t have photos up when he was alive and did not need a shrine. But really, why explain? The thing is, this kind of loss is as personal as the marriage was. You can’t know anyone’s marriage anymore than you can know anyone’s widowhood.
But still, wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could? What I would give to have someone who really knew, and could really see me, tell me what I need so desperately to hear. Sometimes, in the middle of the night after being woken by what I’ve no idea, I visualize my hair being stroked. My phantom soother holds me and whispers, “It’s okay, it’s all going to be okay.”