You’ll never be the same again
Deep, raw, traumatic grief is a foreign land known only to those who earn admission.
I know a woman who is dying of grief. I can’t do anything about it.
I know a man who did die of grief. I couldn’t do anything about that, either.
I am not dying of grief, but there have been too many days in the past year when I didn’t know if I could survive it.
Deep, raw, traumatic grief is a foreign land known only to those who earn admission. Everyone else is an outsider and a pretender. Once in, we recognize one another. “You don’t get over it,” a widow told me. “You get used to it.”
I keep running into widows and widowers. They’re everywhere. They always have been, but I’ve not seen them at eye level. I read obituaries differently now. Now I notice with awe surviving spouses of 30, 40, 60 years. Those grafted lives have been split like a tree hit by lightning. How will they live on? A broken heart is a killer.
What we miss most, my widowed friends agree, is the conversational shortcut. Decades together have built private jokes, pet names for things, years of discussion, shared opinions.
“I’d like to talk to Bill about what’s going on in Russia,” one woman said to me. “I’d like to ask Wayne what he thinks about the new Lincoln book,” another said.
Theirs are the opinions we value — Bill’s, Wayne’s, Joe’s, David’s, Charlie’s, Jay’s.
When widows commiserate with me, I get weepy. “I know,” they say. “It’s been six years (or three or 12) and suddenly it will hit me, and I cry again. But not all the time anymore.”
What I heard is true; the trauma hits like a shipwreck. At first, all we can do is stay afloat amid the wreckage. Grief coming in waves is a common description. Then, the submarine stage when grief is underwater. We’re still feeling the deep-water explosions, but nobody else can see it. For them, it’s over. For us, it’s two cold words: Nobody cares.
It was a big day when I could sit outside in the sun and read. Unintentionally, I lost weight and I got brown. People said, “You look great!” On kind days, I said nothing. On bitter days, I replied, “I guess grief becomes me.”
I wasn’t surprised when emotions became combustible and irrational. Shimmy-shake memories try to find a new place. Sleep is scary, but not as scary as waking. Time is the enemy; the day must be gotten through and then the night. Often, I seem to be waiting, a life on hold. Waiting for what? For this horror to thunder on by?
I didn’t expect cognitive changes. Memory and language come and go like spotty phone service.
I didn’t expect sudden and obliterating fatigue.
I didn’t expect anxiety attacks in the grocery store or the bath.
Sitting in the sun was my version of the nature fix. Month after month I sat under a Chinese Lantern tree. Jay was with me when I bought it, not much more than a sapling. We drove it home in my station wagon and planted it. I planted it. Being Jay, he sat in a wicker lawn chair, drank coffee and watched me do it. Now it’s tall enough to sit under. When Jay left — poof! Gone forever. — the leaves were small and the flowers were just budding. I have watched the season’s resolute march as buds became showy yellow blossoms, then turned into fruit like golden lanterns, then finally a leafless tree with rattling brown lanterns. The cycle of life has not been comforting; it has been enraging.
When the hydrangeas bloomed, I was distraught because life was surging on, pushing Jay farther away from me. One summer’s day I cried when the purple blossom of a Mexican petunia fell off — poof! Gone forever. It’s the big forever part I’ve never grasped before.
What I’m doing now is trying to move from grief to mourning. Grief is immediate. Mourning goes on and on. Freud said it’s hard work, and it is.
Jay died a year ago this month. I won’t get over it. I won’t get through it. I will get on with it.