lessons of widowhood

A Facebook friend posted today in memory of the anniversary of her first husband’s death. As I was skimming through the replies, another widow commented that you never forget.

That’s not true.

The anniversary of my first husband’s death was a month ago. I completely forgot about it until I say my friend’s post today.

Oh, I didn’t forget that he died. In fact, last night I was thinking quite a bit about his illness because of news I received about the spouse of a young woman who is like a niece to me. The similarities took me back a bit. But I didn’t remember the anniversary until today.

I didn’t know how to feel about this. I suppose I should feel terrible, but that’s not really how I feel. Not guilty either because going on with your life, and really being present in it is, in my opinion, the only healthy option.

But I have a lot of widowed friends, and I am privy to some of the ongoing grief they share online. Years and years after the fact, and even being enmeshed in new realities, they never let anniversaries roll on by.

I checked the calendar to see what was going on that week. Husband was away. Teen had first semester finals. My mother was struggling a bit because one of my younger siblings moved back in with her after their life fell apart. I suppose these are reasons for forgetting the day I had a husband die on me. It was quite a while ago.

Does it count that he pops up in my thoughts at other times?

I will guess that some of you would say no. Anniversaries are extremely important mile-markers for most bereaved. Like the memorials they set up virtually and in real life. Like the graves they visit. But, I don’t do any of those things either, so I suppose this is just one more thing to chalk up to me just being me.

People still read my old posts on grief. The dating ones more than others, but one of the questions that comes up early after a loss is “how long?” How long will this misery dog me? Will I ever be happy? Or even just feel okay and not relive the agony multiple times a year for the rest of my life?

I still don’t know how to answer  beyond assurance that for the majority of people, grief ends. Missing probably never ends for most people. Missing and sadness are not grief. And for some people, new chapters in life can offer as good or better lives.

I am okay with having forgotten. It’s a first. There’s always firsts with widowhood. So many firsts. This one I wasn’t expecting however.

My mom discovered the grief books that Rob and I have on the bookshelf in our living room. They are IKEA, very lovely floor to ceiling of my childhood fantasy sort of thing – the shelves, not the books. The books were never part of my little girl dreams although curiously, all my Barbies were widows. Vietnam war widows. And that’s because I wasn’t allowed to have Ken dolls and so I improvised with my brother’s G.I. Joe’s, but there is so little you can do with Joe – dressed in camouflage as he was – but send him back to the jungle, where he inevitably died because Walter Cronkite told us every night at dinner that it was a tragedy so many men were dying over there.

But the grief books. Just two made the trip from Iowa with me – my favorites – C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, which is beautiful and moving and so very true, and I Am Grieving As Fast As I Can, which seemed geared more to women older than myself with children grown but I liked her tone and optimism. I don’t recall Rob’s books. Mom hasn’t read them – yet – and might not because I got her Broken Open (which I had heard was good) and is chomping at the bit to get her hands on Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking.

Since she has been here, reading about grief is about all Mom has done when we were at the house. She holes up in the living room or upstairs in the bedroom or hides on the deck – anywhere she can be alone. She finds even light conversation going on while she is reading to be the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard.

I have not really let myself be drawn into a grief/widow conversation with her. I am not comfortable at all being the mentor in this area and am done with the idea of mentoring in general. I have come to believe that the grieving will go and do as they will regardless and the best thing is too simply smile benevolently, nod and be around later for the debriefing.

” A year from now I don’t want to be one of those women who is still tearing up and choking whenever she mentions her husband,” she told me.

I tried to tell her that it’s all relative and that if one makes up one’s mind to move on then that’s what happens – more or less – but that we really can’t stop the “tearing and choking” sometimes.

She didn’t want to hear that and changed the subject. But she is seven months out and change. She is at the beginning of make or break and I am not going to discourage her. This is a crucial time and one is what one believes oneself to be – eventually.

Mom is from the camp of “pre-grievers”. Care-takers of loved ones with long term, and usually terminal, illnesses will often say they did some of their grieving along the care-taking route and are more anxious earlier on to get back to some semblance of their former selves and lives or to build new ones.

Pre-grief is a controversial topic among the widowed and many will flatly claim that it is nonsense and those who subscribe to the theory are grief avoiders. First of all, no one can avoid grief and second, it’s a tad presumptuous to define someone else’s experience of loss based solely on your own experience. I personally believe in pre-grief because that is my experience and I know I am in the minority because in our society admitting that there is nothing that can be done medically and preparing for death instead of engaging in pointless and quality of life ending interventions is what most people know of as “normal”. And finally, anticipatory grief is a real and recognized by medical and mental health professionals, and in my opinion is not given its due because we are a society that thinks death should rarely be happening except at the golden age of 90 or so and with loved ones gathered for a final Kodak moment – and maybe there are balloons and fluffy puppies to hand out after with the cake and ice cream.

Right now Mom is plowing through Broken Open, which I only gave her because I’d promised to find the Didion and didn’t. I knew the stories and “suggestions” would be taken too much to heart, but I can’t fault her for wanting to move on. She gave up a lot of years to Dad’s drinking and then his illnesses. She should move on and as fast or slow as she pleases, but she isn’t going move beyond the teary eyes or the sudden loss for words or the memories that pop up like word bubbles over cartoon characters heads. But she’ll figure that out. Everyone does.