I intended to visit my husband’s grave this morning to mark the exact one-year anniversary of his death. Mother Nature had different plans. Another major summer thunderstorm rages, blowing branches out of trees and sending us thunder claps that cause my dogs to scurry for protection under the desk.
I intended the cemetery visit to be another ritual good-bye; a remembrance of his life that I would mark symbolically by placing flowers on Marshall’s gravestone. Yet I know that he is not really in that grave. His spirit is with me. I sometimes talk to him and even occasionally see him walking down the hallway of our house; just a fleeting impression out of the corner of my eye.
Perhaps it would be better to mark this milestone by doing a personal inventory, asking myself if I have progressed in ways the grief experts say this process should go.
Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, one of the nation’s premier experts on grief and founder of The Center for Loss and Life Transitions, explains that the difference between grief and mourning is as follows: Grief is how you think and feel after someone you love dies. Mourning is the outward expression of those feelings.
Dr. Wolfelt also explains that there are six reconciliation needs in the life of every mourner:
- Acknowledge the reality of death. To that I would admit that the first thing that popped into my head was the song from the Wizard of Oz when the wicked witch is killed under the falling house. The munchkins sing that she is “really most sincerely dead.” My husband is not coming back to mow the yard, to have a cup of coffee with me every morning, to watch a movie and eat popcorn or to take a trip somewhere that we dreamed of going. He is most sincerely deceased and I sincerely miss him. I have discussed the day and moment of his death a few times with my sister-in-law, who was traumatized by being with us. I have replayed the scene in my head, in my journal and in a book I’m writing to help other surviving spouses. I have shed buckets of tears while praying for the repose of his soul, yet thanking God that Marshall is no longer suffering.
For months I did not want to face the reality of his death, sometimes choosing to imagine him coming through the door or picking him up at the hospital to return home to recuperate from multiple maladies. But I think I can cross the death reality check off my mourning list. It happened, it’s a road he won’t be returning on and it will be time someday for me to travel that same path.
- Embracing the pain. Now this is a number I can’t in good conscience cross off just yet, even though it’s been a year. In fact, I have spent an entire lifetime avoiding pain, numbing out, afraid to be engulfed by emotions I can’t control. What if it kills me? What if it hurts too much? My pain threshold is pathetic, leading me to reach for pain killers at the first twinge, or for something to eat at the first hunger pang. I need to take to heart Dr. Wolfelt’s advice that doing well with your grief means becoming well acquainted with your pain. Okay, so I let a little of it leak in, in manageable doses, while trying not to be too full of self-pity. But what can one expect of a woman who does not really allow the full impact of a divorce to hit her until a full year after the court date when she hears her ex- introducing his new wife? With that modus operandi, I should be feeling the edge of the widowhood knife real soon now, unless I run the other direction, which I’m good at.
- Remembering the person who died. Last week I stumbled across some photos that were stored in my Dropbox file of a vacation that Marshall and I took with his sister out west. There we were, arms around each other, with our backs to Grand Canyon. It was wonderful to see the photos and a great memory. It reminds me of the need to do a more systematic memory voyage through photos as a way to create another memorial of our 21 years together. I planted a living memorial in the back yard and I had already done a written account of our fun and funny times together in a memoir I published in 2014.
In remembering my late husband, I must admit that not all the memories are good ones. We had tough times, we argued, we inflicted and suffered some permanent relationship scars. But there is no longer a need to hold on to the negative. After a death, we can acknowledge the effects of the wounds we bore from each other, but must push them to the back porch of memories. I will now dwell in the front porch good times and focus on his positive traits, on all the things he taught me and how he ultimately made me a better, stronger person.
- Developing a new self-identity. Dr. Wolfelt says that our self-identity undergoes a change when someone we love dies, because part of that identity comes from our relationships. I am here to attest that I am a totally different person than a year ago. I no longer have a husband who is ill to provide an excuse for getting out of social engagements or for not maintaining and cultivating friendships. Consequently, my social calendar is now almost too full for my own sanity.
In addition, prior to becoming a widow, I dreaded regular weekly visits with my husband’s stepmother in a local nursing home, only going out of sense of obligation. Conversations with someone who has dementia are difficult and strained at best. But after Marshall’s death, I took on Rosie’s Power of Attorney, as she has no family members left to do so. In accepting that responsibility, suddenly the visits became less strained and I was able to replace the sense of obligation with a tender mercy and kindness that I hope someone will show to me if I find myself in a similar situation someday. I know that my visits bring her a bright spot in a dull day, even is she asks me five times in five minutes if I got my hair cut again.
- Searching for meaning. This is the part where a widow finally confronts her own mortality because her longtime mate has “bought the farm” (his favorite saying for death). This is the mourning stage where we search for new meaning and purpose to life. I am fortunate to have found that new meaning. I jumped into a church community with both feet, signing up to sing in the choir, offering to publish a newsletter and sponsor memoir writing seminars. I became a regular Sunday worshiper, finding an outlet for my emotions in a beautiful liturgy and a social network in my fellow church members. That also led to intense study of my faith beliefs, the beauty and value of its doctrines and to a new regular practice of prayer. That prayer practice forms the fabric of my daily routine. If I can’t have a prayer and meditation hour every morning, something is just off and the day doesn’t go smoothly.
My husband’s death forced me to find a spirituality that he tried to teach me with his example of generosity and of love for God’s creatures. He always encouraged my connections with extended family members and reminded me to call my mother frequently when she was still alive. These are lessons and examples I will always follow now. They give meaning and form to my new life as a widow.
- Receive ongoing support from others. Dr. Wolfelt asserts that the support we receive during our grief journeys will enhance our capacity for healing. That must be why I have done so well because I have friends who have come out of the woodwork to support and encourage me. My brothers and their wives are wonderful and contact me frequently just to check on my well-being. A high school friend has provided his insights and shared his experiences of the grief process and given me hope for coming out the other side in one whole piece. My son is a phone call away and will help at any time. I have new friends and old who know how to divert me and support me. And, while the process of writing does not count for the “others” category, the ability to express my emotions on paper has been a key factor in the mourning process. What would I do without my journal?! I’ve barely missed a day of writing in it since Marshall died and it is so helpful to re-read the entries of the past year to see how far I’ve come and how I’ve handled the moments when loneliness and fear threaten to take over.
What a year of ups and downs this widowhood process had proven to be! The take-away for me has been a feeling of growth in wisdom and experience, love for others and a new gratitude for the gift of life. I think I’ve finally grown up and learned who and what I am. I can only hope to enjoy the good, if subdued, feelings that come with that before I have to face any more good-byes of people I love.