I’m sure you have heard the marriage advice “Don’t go to bed angry.” Resolving spats before bedtime is the advice offered by almost any long-married couple. What happens when differences can’t be resolved? When the night comes when, through fluke or chance, the marriage ends through a sudden death and there are no more bedtimes together?
One couple had lived by that piece of advice their whole marriage, yet despite their love of 24 years, through college, children and careers the last words were full of venom. Bridget told me that she could not forgive herself for speaking harshly to Anthony, that she would give anything to take those words back. They spent the Saturday afternoon like so many other days, puttering around the house, deciding to tackle repainting the guest bathroom—a project Bridget had wanted to finish for months. Mid-makeover, Anthony had tripped on the paint can, spilling latex lavender all over the tile floors.
Bridget told him this was just like him, clumsy, and when he offered to go to the hardware store to replace the paint, she said it was typical for him to do anything to get out of cleaning up his messes. He apologized and offered to stay and clean, but she told him to get out. He left, and she scrubbed the floor, fuming. She finished up the floor, expecting him back any minute. She wanted him to find her there, on the ground, so he would see what a mess he’d made and feel guilty.
Finally all the paint was cleaned, and he still wasn’t back. She figured he was wasting time at the store, getting materials for another project, or checking out new lawnmowers they didn’t need. After an hour and a half, she went the deck to read, figuring if they were going to spend the evening painting she might as well enjoy the beautiful afternoon. She got lost in her book, relaxing in the gorgeous spring sunshine, and barely heard the sheriff knock on her door.
Bridget wondered if Anthony were upset about what she had said. If her words had contributed to the car accident. Once the shock had worn off, and the funeral planning and visits from family faded, she found herself dwelling on their last conversation. She wished she could have told him he was a good man, that she appreciated him working with her instead of watching baseball, that she loved the home they had built together, that she loved him. Instead her final words, “Get out!” woke her up in the middle of the night, sobbing and wracked with guilt.
Bridget began to heal when she cracked open her old journals, some she had written in since the beginning of their courtship. She cried over the memories of falling in love, and read through her entries from their early years together. She was surprised how many pages she devoted to arguments, how many tearful entries were devoted to parsing who said what, and guessing hidden motives.
When she looked back on their marriage now, she remembered the intimacy, the inside jokes only the two of them really got. She missed and remembered his hugs, feeling embraced and totally safe, like the whole world was just the two of them, and couldn’t remember any of these silly quarrels and blowups she’d gone on and on about in her journals.
She said, “After reading about all of those fights we’d had, I realized my final words were just part of living with someone, were normal, and not a final verdict on our love. Rereading my journals, I remembered how much he loved me. I realized if the situation were reversed, I would want him to remember all of sublime moments together—the birth of our sons, sunsets on Myrtle Beach, the moments we held each other up. Those final words were just, maybe, 35 out of millions. I will hold those millions in my heart.”
Bridget knows that the road to healing is a looping one, with no clear map. She sometimes finds herself on the same roundabout she did immediately after Anthony’s death, and when she does she says she tries to journal and do active grief work: “I realized that feeling guilty was sometimes strangely preferable to the black emptiness of grief. I had a focus for my anger—myself—instead of all this undirected rage at the universe, wondering why a wonderful man like Anthony had to die so young. Finally I realized that I could experience these feelings of anger, confusion, sadness, without hating myself. I am a widow too young, I have reason to be angry and bereft without adding self-hatred into the mix.”
Six Things to Remember
- Resolving grief takes time. Research shows that the height of depression for loss of a spouse is 6 months and further resolution takes as long as four years.
- Journaling about your feelings can be healing.
- Joining a support group such as www.soaringspirits.org where others have also suffered the death of a spouse can be healing. Finding a community of others experiencing similar feelings can give voice to your emotions and let you know you are not alone.
- Telling friends or safe people about your guilty feelings can help put things in perspective.
- Recognizing that feelings of anger are normal can be a relief when a partner dies.
- Evenings can be lonely. Log on to www.opentohope.com and read articles, listen to radio shows and watch videos of others who have suffered loss and have again found hope.
Remember, we all make mistakes. It sounds cliché, but your loved one would not want you to feel guilty. Regardless of personal beliefs, in all of the stories of near-death encounters, I have never heard one where someone says they were intently focused on brief words of anger. Angels sometimes appear, but never have I heard of someone who replayed an angry text or fraught conversation in those final minutes or microseconds. Overwhelming love is the most common emotion, and the one that will be our guiding light.