When I was first widowed, my overriding thought was that I couldn’t survive it, and I did not wish to. But the thought that I couldn’t go on without him was simply not true: it felt true, but it wasn’t. I had gone on without Andrew, to my dismay and surprise. Losing him hurt beyond any sort of pain I had ever felt or could have imagined. I hated it, but it did not end my life; it ended that particular chapter of my life, a chapter I liked a great deal, a chapter I thought would be the whole story.
Death is a letting go, not only of the person you loved, but also of the person that you were and the life you imagined you would have. It is a compound loss that pushes you into the pot of reality where youthful fantasies are boiled away. But in facing the pain and disappointment of a new reality, one begins to find solid ground. You can’t build a new life until you root yourself in the reality of where you are in that dark night of the soul, and begin to marshal your inner resources.
It takes enormous strength and courage to go through this process and to do it well — which is to say, fully, completely, and with some amount of grace. Grief and mourning are universally unwelcome guests. They are the family you can’t stand, the ones you hope will never visit. But they always come and they stay far longer than you would wish. They upend your routine, shadow you constantly, make it difficult to breathe, to eat, to sleep, to focus on anything but their noxious presence.
As with many unwelcome things, however, grief and mourning come bearing gifts — gifts you do not receive unless you tolerate their long stay, unless you sacrifice yourself to their fierce demands. It’s imperative that you let your emotions rip while they’re fresh, while they’re bubbling over and tearing your insides apart, to get it out while it’s raw and everyone is gathered around you, ready to hold you and feed you and cry with you. If you do not invite your grief in when it first arrives, it will sit at the edges of your heart and fester and rot. It will steal your life.
It’s entirely unnatural not to grieve. Repressing powerful emotions serves only to shove all the energy that is hemorrhaging out of your soul into a small, dark corner of your psyche where, one day, it will seep out and throttle you, which is precisely what happened to me.
I did not know how to grieve, how to express my many confused thoughts and feelings at the loss of my father. My grief was locked into a few minutes of a cold December afternoon, watching my brother place the box containing my father’s ashes into the ground. I took my suffering and balled it up, tucking it in a dark corner of a deep cabinet. I did not integrate my sadness and pain, did not make meaning of it. I cried a lot over the years, but that’s not the same as grieving. Grieving is a working through, a metabolizing of emotions and the new reality of life without the beloved. It’s feeling. It’s washing the bones.
Lacking any intimate or ritualized guidance through my suffering, grief and mourning took up residence at the edges of my life, reminding me of their presence through depression, anorexia, chronic loneliness, perfectionism and the pernicious need to have someone — anyone — in my life to make me feel whole.
Andrew’s death pushed me right back into my ungrieved loss, his sudden departure mimicking my father’s. The blow reopened the primal wound, making it wider and more apparent, exposing what I had hidden away. I had to see what was waiting for me. I needed to unearth the bones, and weep.
My sadness did not entirely dissipate as I poured over these runes, but my fear did; so too the wrenching, all-consuming pain. My father hadn’t left me, nor had Andrew; they had died, and that is a very different thing. They were following the course of their own, fateful trajectories. The fact that I was subject to the fallout of their journeys was not accidental, but neither was it personal.
Their deaths changed me, affecting me in ways subtle and profound, but so had their lives changed me. Finding this less personal perspective completely altered my experience of loss. I was still part of the drama, but just one of the actors, not a one-woman show.
Coming into awareness of the interconnectedness of life and abandoning the idea of coincidence for the more encompassing concept of synchronicity lifted an unseen weight from my heart, shifting me out of fear and victimhood. Not only was I not the next Job: I was, in truth, very fortunate; fortunate to have had the experiences I had, as wrenching as they may have been, because traversing that terrible terrain had led me to this moment. I wasn’t special or singled out or destined for a life of loss. My world was contained within greater worlds, a Russian nesting doll of realities. I had no idea what was next, but I was ready to simply allow it to happen, whatever it was.
Excerpt from Washing the Bones: a Memoir of Love, Loss and Transformation, to be published Summer, 2013.
My beloved husband died 1st April 2013, I miss him everyday, I try to keep busy. I notice everyone
seems to have an opinion about his death which was very peaceful. I have had the comments to move on, hes dead
to get over it.
He had been ill on and off since he was 14 but maintained a happy outlook until death sweeped in when
he was 55 years old.
I am glad I was with him in the ICU and I helped wash his body afterwards, actually his head as the nurses
did their medical stuff. I feel so lost and alone. My 3 children who are 20,19,17 dont seem to understand
my pain, sure they are sad at the loss of their Dad but cant understand what going on with me.
I just lost my husband and partner of 19 years 3 weeks ago today, on May 19th. I was home in Kentucky and he was in upstate NY visiting a friend. My husband had some health issues, but he was stable and improving. I was not able to be with him when he passed, and his death is still under investigation. The man he was visiting, whom he thought was a close childhood friend, along with my husband’s own son and daughter in law are suspected. I am finding it hard to completely grieve, because my husband would still be alive if not for the events involved. I find myself clinging to the anger I feel at having been robbed of our plans and dreams, our lifetime together. It has been impossible for me to find any peace or closure. My husband was robbed of jewelry he was wearing, including his wedding ring. His wedding ring, my symbol of love. I feel so alone, but know I am not the only one to have lost him. I am close to his daughter and his other son, and they are angry as I am, and also devastated as I. How can we find closure and peace knowing he should still be alive, and that someone took his life along with his personal items that hold meaning to us?