Archive for the ‘grief’ Category

Be Ginger Rogers: how to talk to widows and others who are grieving

31 July 2010

This essay aired 30 July 2010 on NPR affiliate 88.1 WVPE. 

 

“The middle of the produce section was not the place that I wanted to perform my dance of grief”

 

I am here today, dear listener, to help you better understand how to talk to a person who has had someone very close to them die. It is not an easy task because everyone who mourns mourns differently and has different needs from their social encounters. I offer you this suggestion: be Ginger Rogers. Ginger Rogers did all that great dancing with Fred Astaire, but in high heels and backwards and with a smile on her face.

This means that the person in mourning is Fred Astaire to your Ginger. And you need to follow their lead, hyper aware of every nuance of the encounter: listen closely to what the person is saying and try to discern where they want the conversation to go: are they pushing here, pulling there. I cannot emphasize enough the need to mindful of the direction they are taking you, not the direction you want to take them.

I say this because two and a half years ago we learned that my husband had cancer and in October of 2009 he died. And because he was well liked by many in our large circle of friends, acquaintances, and colleagues, there was a tremendous outpouring of support and sympathy from the Michiana community. But at times this outpouring became almost too much for us to bear, for every time we went to the grocery store for months afterwards, even as recently as last month, we would run into people who hadn’t seen us since he died and who were eager to express their sympathy. This may sound cold, but we had been living with the illness and death for so long, and often we would run into two, three, four people we knew at the grocery store who would, of course, want to know how we were doing, and we just didn’t have the energy to keep condoling every time we went out.

We craved normality and a break from our sadness. We just wanted to go to the grocery store and have it be a fun outing. Instead, the face of almost everyone we ran into fell when they saw us. I so appreciated the friends who followed my lead when I chirped that we were doing great and who didn’t press us with a second, more serious, “But how are you all doing.” The middle of the produce section was not the place that I wanted to perform my dance of grief, describing my insomnia (or worse, my children’s insomnia) or the crushing pain that feels as if it is reducing my bones and organs to the ashes that my husband’s body has become when the enormity of his absence does sometimes compute for me and I feel utterly bereft.

Going out in public became particularly difficult for my children. To be reminded continually of their loss, to be asked constantly to condole and grieve, to have friends only be sad with them became extremely trying and they would often excuse themselves from these conversations.

We began complaining too much about this until we started reminding ourselves that this wouldn’t be happening if so many people did not truly care about us. This became my mantra to myself and my children until one day I finally realized that these friends were also grieving Scott’s loss, that they missed him and were working through their grief as well, a grief they had in common with us.

So, what to do? Be Ginger Rogers, beginning with my friend April’s advice: smile warmly and say “It’s good to see you,” or make some other positive acknowledgment of the person before you instead of the loss surrounding them. Save the grief talk for a private moment. or, better yet, write a note to your friend. My favorite notes, the ones I absolutely treasure, are those from people who described how evident Scott’s love was for me.

Sometime this past spring I read a letter in the newspaper from a woman who complained that no one in her community would talk to her about her husband’s death, not even when she would bring up the topic. I was immediately struck by the very opposite experience this woman was having. But then I realized that she had lost her husband twice, both in her home and in her community. I have the solace of knowing that if I need to talk about Scott or my pain, there are so many of you out there ready and willing to dance that dance with me. In high heels and backward.

Husbandless Wives

12 June 2010

This essay aired 18 June 2010 on NPR affiliate 88.1 FM WVPE.  

 

 

 

“She…held it to the v-neck of her blouse which she pulled down a bit and to the side, and revealed an elaborate tattoo which replicated the picture in the photo. She confided to us that she had had the artist add some of her husband’s ashes to the ink.”

I recently traveled out of state to the university where I earned my master’s degree 22 years ago to begin a program for an advanced certificate of study.  I learned a staggering amount about rare books and paper in the two courses I took over a two-week intensive session.

But the biggest lesson I learned began on my first day back in that beloved University town where I met and fell in love with my husband 24 years ago.  I had dinner with his mentor, a woman who from that time onward took great pride in his professional accomplishments and who loved him like a son.  This was also my first opportunity since his death to talk with another widow.

As we were comparing stories, I noticed that after more than thirty years of widowhood, she still wore her wedding band.  This surprised me, though I understood.  I myself have not been able to remove mine nor to change my status on Facebook. I have told myself that I can wear my wedding band as long as I still feel so married.

When I returned to my hotel that night and went to the bar to cash-in my coupon for a complimentary drink, I struck up a conversation with the bartender and two sisters in their sixties who had very recently attended a family reunion in Mishawaka.

After talking quite a bit about how much the Michiana area has changed in the decades since the sisters had grown-up here, they started asking me questions about myself.  When I disclosed that I was recently widowed, the bartender, who also wore a wedding band, told us that she, too, was a widow of 12 years.  She reached down into her purse,  took out a black-and-white snapshot of her husband taken sometime in the mid seventies, held it to the v-neck of her blouse which she pulled down a bit and to the side, and revealed an elaborate tattoo which replicated the picture in the photo.  She confided to us that she had had the artist add some of her husband’s ashes to the ink.

I was flabbergasted.   Unlike a wedding band that is easily removed, she had marked her heart as his for the rest of her life.   This woman was not much older than me, yet by indelibly marking herself with his image, she had closed herself off from falling in love again.  For what man would make love with a woman with a 2 by 3 image of her dead husband staring him in the face?

I learned that night that I will not be wearing my wedding band for years to come because I want to be open to the possibility of love, and maybe even marriage, again some day.  But doing so means letting go of my beloved.

Grieving is a process of many big and small goodbyes.  Every day during my two weeks in that University town where we fell in love,  I walked through the quad,  back and forth from the parking lot to my class room, avoiding a certain path.  It wasn’t until I left my last class that I was able to walk on the sidewalk where Scott first told me he loved me, the moment, in my heart, that cemented us together.  Just ten months ago we had stood in that same spot, celebrating that first declaration of love, kissing, crying, holding each other very close.  Eight weeks later he was dead.

I breathed in deeply as I walked through that precious space on the sidewalk, as if I could breath Scott in through time and into my soul.  I said a goodbye.

Alone.

He was everywhere and nowhere.