New Year Musings on Loss and Life

Note:  This site is not just about policies and politics, though there is plenty of that.  Sometimes we try to move in another direction.  Here is one of those times.  Happy New Year.

By James A. Kidney

It’s not always great to be “cutting edge.” 

Because I am blessed to have been born into and live among people who are also blessed with enough money to be housed comfortably, eat well (sometimes too well!), have good jobs, decent health care and great kids (and their kids: see Facebook), I know very few widowers – none that I can think of – and only enough widows to count on one hand.  This is so even in my late 60s.  Even more rare, I lost my 12-year-old son to suicide over 15 years ago.

I still grieve both Sara and Dan and will do so the rest of my life.  But as time goes on, grief changes its form and intensity.  At first it is immediate loss, the vast emptiness caused by a missed hug, a remembered smile and, always in a good marriage (which I had), the sound of laughter.

Broken cardboard heart with staples isolated on white background It's hard to forget someone who gave you so much to rememberWhen a spouse of 40 years dies, your entire personal history is lost. Or, more accurately, someone to share that history with who also experienced it.  Remember that trip to Blois, France? In 1978, I think it was, when an old priest came out to open the triptych the guidebook said was famous in an empty basement hall, put two chairs in front of it, and gave us a pamphlet he asked us to return?  Or when we had to race down the Sangre de Christo Mountains in New Mexico because of the thunderstorm?  Wow, we were wet when we got to the car and let out a good laugh, followed up with some good red wine. I think that was 1982.  Is that right?

Or, rarely mentioned, how we coped with Dan’s death, recalling that we strengthened each other through our worst grief and intense guilt?  Guilt over what?  No matter.  It can’t be avoided when a child dies.  We survived, and continued to also live a life and raise a terrific daughter of whom Sara is surely proud.

Sure, you have friends, colleagues at work and maybe a child (or two) that you can share some of your memories.  But no one is left who shares them from the same perspective or the same intimacy.  Fact is, most of the best memories involve her.  She is gone.

Intense grief is not just sorrow.  It is living in those memories now recalled only by you, with no one to share them with, except as a narrative, which is likely dull to others.  You live in them not only because they are all you have, but out of a belief that recalling them is a tribute.  Not recalling them would be disrespectful or even cruel.  They absorb you.  They make you cry.  They may bring a smile, but even that also adds to the heartbreak.  Your life is over.  Not only are her achievements of everyday life left only for you to recall, but your own small victories are no where except in your head, all of them probably warranting a gentle correction from your late spouse.

Months pass in this way.  You are going through the motions.  You are lonely, no matter how surrounded you are by people.  Maybe even more lonely around people.  A week after Sara died, The New York Times printed an op-ed from a young widow.  She noted how most of her friends who are couples eased away from contacting her.  They didn’t do so because they were unfriendly or rejecting her.  It’s just that couples think of couples.  That happens, especially when you are unfortunate enough to be on the “cutting edge” of widowhood.

Eventually, you use the modern tools of matchmaking.  At first it is a little exciting to see that someone is interested in your profile.  You meet women around your own age (in my case) and find that nearly everyone has a sad story of one kind of another.  A bad marriage, death, abuse – many sad tales that eventually lead to eHarmony or Match.com.  After a time, going online and meeting new people for coffee or lunch becomes a job without much reward.  You stop going online for a while, then you start back up.  You don’t even know if you really are looking for a new love or just killing time.  You train yourself not to look for Sara on line.  As I told daughter Mary when Dan died, you can’t compete with your dead brother.  He is a Saint.  Just be yourself.  In the same way, you look for other qualities in a woman and expect her to “be her self”.  You find that almost everyone you meet is a decent sort.  But it’s still like a mutual job interview.  And you still find yourself dwelling on your past.

Finally, at the urging of my counselor, I did something extraordinary for me.  I took a cruise.  I resisted doing so.  I had never been on a cruise.  I had no desire to do wall climbing in the middle of the ocean or be with thousands of families on a floating Disney World.  Also, who would I go with?  All the men I might consider as traveling companions were married.  The widows and a single woman or two were friends, not romantic prospects, and might be uncomfortable even with separate staterooms.  I saw myself sitting alone in the ship dining room, or with people also too lonely to speak except in stilted politeness, buried in their own memories.  Maybe I’d spend the trip taking rooms service.

But I did it anyway and it was great.  I found Windstar, which is small cruise ship line.  Only 90 passengers on board for a trip from Istanbul to Athens with daily stops on the Turkish shore and Greek islands. On the first day, a woman my age, also traveling alone, was recruiting singles for dinner.  After three days, there were eight women and me at the dinner table.  (I was the only single guy on the boat.)  I needed a testosterone break and found four couples who welcomed me to dine with them and I made other friends.  The cruise weather was gorgeous and the sights memorable.

I thought of Sara, but had too much to do making a new memory to dwell on those of her.  We had wanted to go to the Greek Islands. We had decided to do so when she recovered from the hip surgery from which she did not recover.  So I did it.  If she were alive, I knew she would want it to be fun.

That was two months ago.  Since then, I have shed most of the intensity of my grief.  I am aware that life will always have new possibilities and new memories as long as I draw a breath.  Yes, there will be times in the pits, and not always because of Sara or Dan, and there will always be occasions when I am caught up with a memory, along with perhaps a tear, triggered by some place, some person, some phrase, some laugh.  But I have a wonderful, resilient daughter who has much of her wonderful mother in her, even if tempered a bit by dad’s sense of humor.  I will be part of her future for awhile, at least in a small way.  I am blessed with reasonably good health.  Lately, I reconnected with one of my online dates from a year earlier, one who always floated in my head.  She was widowed when I was, so we share that experience, but we are making our own.  Who knows what lies ahead for us?

I hope I remain “cutting edge” in this case for a long, long time, but I know my ranks will grow.  Each of you who survive the death of a spouse will have a different experience, but I fully believe that 90 percent of the DNA of grief is the same for all of us.

I hope this little recounting of what is highly personal is neither too maudlin nor too saccharine.  I know there are many books on grief.  I read most of them 15 years ago when Dan died and found them of little help.  Maybe the recollection of a friend, even if just a Facebook friend or blogger, will be a little more personal and a little more useful.

I know I used to say to Sara, “With luck, I’ll go first.”  I did not think I could live without her.  At first, I didn’t, not in any sense of a “life worth living.”  But it is not true.  Instead, I have grown to appreciate that I have what she does not – the opportunity to live more days, create new memories, and live a life that, while surely different than I would have with her, is still fun, meaningful and, yes, memorable.

Please enjoy 2016 in your personal life, regardless of how politics, terrorism and other plights of mankind infect the news.  It is possible to be upset with the world and still love your life in it.  If you have a spouse, it is the time to think every day of how lucky you are – and say so.  If you don’t have a spouse or significant other, then you already may know how full of possibilities life is.  If you don’t, take a cruise!

Happy New Year to all of you!

Jim

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