Grief is unique with a life of its own. It is not merely a phase but transformative
This essay is very personal. It centers on my grief that resulted from the death of my beloved wife, Linda. Grief is a constant in human life, but I find that it is banished to the outskirts of conversation. It is unpleasant and so it is something we prefer not to talk out about and seldom do. Yet because grief is overwhelmingly born in private, I feel it is something we should be able to shre with others and it is arguably important that we do. This is my effort, but I suspect it will not be my last.
It is more than six years since Linda, died. We were married for 37 years and lived together for four years prior to our marriage. Linda came with six young children and raising them together was a mainstay of our shared relationship.
Linda’s death came quickly and unexpectedly. Her death was not an easy one. We were vacationing in London in July, 2015 when she became ill. I took her to the local hospital and the next morning she suffered a stroke which I witnessed. She was brought to Charring Cross, a large public hospital on the other side of the city. I was very hopeful when she regained speech and mobility in just two days days, and I was committed to dedicating myself to her recovery after we returned home. Such was not to be. On a morning I arrived, her breathing was very labored. And then she suffered a cardiac arrest. Her face froze. It was horrific. I witnessed that, too, and that image has been a source of trauma. By the introduction of a desperate measure she survived, but the damage was done and it was severe. Linda was left totally paralyzed except for the movement of her left leg and arm. She was aphasic.
She was in a coma for 11 days. When she emerged and was able to breathe on her own, some consciousness remained. When she was wasn’t asleep she could respond to my asking her whether she was in pain by moving her head back and forth. Fortunately, she almost never was. Behind her radical incapacity there remained a person, but how aware she was of what was happening to her, I will never know. Though Linda was clinically almost dead, with every major life function gone, through the extraordinarily meticulous and compassionate care of the doctors and nurses at Charring Cross, every life function, except for the neurological, was brought back to normal. We were able to return her to Hackensack Hospital by air ambulance, where she stayed for ten days. Linda died on August 31, 2015 at 3:05 in the afternoon at the Marie Claire Hospice in Saddle River, New Jersey. I was holding her hand when she took her last breath. It was a Monday. The underlying cause was pancreatic cancer.
As mentioned, six years have passed since Linda died, though it feels more like six months. Memory closes the gap of time. Time heals wounds; some but not others. Life is multi-tiered. My outer life for the most part has returned to normal. I can work. I can socialize with others. I can laugh. I sometimes project onto others that they most probably conclude“I am over it.” To the extent that my projections are correct, I remain vexed. I am not over my grief, and I suspect I never will be. Grief is not merely a period of sadness one passes through to emerge on the other side as one was before. It is transformative. Since Linda’s death my grief, my inner life, are not the same.
Grief is a unique phenomenon, different in its character, I believe, from others emotions. It feels more as if it were a fact of nature having taken up residence in one’s body and has a will of its own. Grief often emerges as a result of associations, but often I will be overcome with feelings of sadness that come unbidden.
After Linda died, I had a strong interest in hearing how others experienced their grief. I still do. I consulted self- help books, but found them universally unhelpful. The only book that resonated with my feelings and, to that extent provided some solace, is a short text, “Levels of Life,” written by the British novelist, Julian Barnes.It has three brief chapters and can be read in a little more than an hour. The last and longest deals with his grief he experienced at the death of his wife of more than 30 years. In it he makes the point that grief can be analogized to a disease. He notes,
“Studies of cancer patients show that attitudes of mind have very little effect on clinical outcome. We may say that we are fighting cancer, but cancer is merely fighting us; we may think we have beaten it, when it has only gone away to regroup. It is all just the universe doing its stuff, and we are the stuff it is being done to. And so, perhaps, with grief. We imagine we have battled against it, been purposeful, overcome sorrow, scrubbed the rust from our soul, when all that has happened is that grief has moved elsewhere, shifted its interest.”
I, too, have found that grief has this independent character. It’s often said that each person grieves in his or own way, and this is, no doubt, is true. I have long abandoned a commitment to doctrinaire psychological norms. We are all different, and we all bear our idiosyncrasies. We all develop coping strategies to winnow as much satisfaction and happiness from life as we can. What works for one may not for others. This stance has broadened my compassion, my tolerance and has caused me to abandon judgment when it comes to the ways in which people adjust to the emotional and psychological challenges of life. This certainly is the case as it pertains to grief. I don’t believe there is any dogmatically correct way to mourn the death of a loved one. As noted, there is no place for judgment here, nor does the grief-stricken need to offer apologies. Julian Barnes seems to adopt this stance of openness when he asks the most fundamental question – “Here is the final tormenting, unanswerable question: what is ‘success’ in mourning? Does it lie in remembering or in forgetting?”
In concert with my previously stated observation that grief acts independently of our will and intentions, my response to this question has been made for me. In mourning the loss of my wife, I cannot help but remember. We were partners for 41 years and she remains deeply internalized. Our marriage was one of intense engagement, mutual support, love and devotion. Much of who she was I have incorporated into myself and with her death part of me has been cut away, yet paradoxically remains.
What I miss most are not memories of good times we had, or specific occasions. It is much more indistinct but pervasive. I miss most of all a sense of her presence. The home, and much of my daily life also, feels empty as if the oxygen has been drained from it leaving a vacuum. The absence of a companion to share my thoughts, interests, joys and complaints on my arrival home is an irreplaceable absence, and frankly, feels unnatural. And, of course, defines loneliness.
There are memories. But each thought of her presence immediately invokes thoughts of her absence, like two sides of the same coin. They are bittersweet. My daughter bought me a Nixplay. It is small electronic screen that is positioned on a table next to the couch where I spend much time. It displays more than a thousand photos, most of Linda, which automatically scroll through it. It is just in the last year when viewing these photos that a sense of happiness has begun to supersede the sadness occasioned by Linda’s absence. But truth dictates that memories of happiness are a thin replacement for happiness itself.
Gone yes. Yet in a certain sense Linda continues to exist as an active force in my life. I think of her continuously. I can hear her voice, extending encouragement but also checking my behavior she would disapprove of. Before I act, I often ask myself what she would do and I borrow from her values and wisdom.
Needless to say there is much joy in my life, I have not been passive, I spend good times with my children and grandchildren and have wonderful and meaningful experiences with kind and caring friends. But even here, my outreaches and experiences are transformed. In a certain undefinable sense my partnership with Linda provided a foundation I stood on as I engaged life’s experiences and gave them a subliminal unity. That foundation is gone and so my experiences feel more episodic, detached, and less components of a continuous whole that are sewn together by my marriage which was a constant. Such relations are satisfying in themselves but now subtly different.
There is great sadness in the irretrievable fact that she is gone and can longer experience life. I feel for her even though she is no longer literally here. It also occasions what I can only refer to as survivors’ guilt. Linda loved her grandchildren and they were sources of very vital joy. I feel overwhelmingly sad that she did not live longer to witness and feel the pride of their accomplishments. And I feel the unfairness of the reality that I am here able to engage those experiences that death has deprived her of.
I can no longer care for Linda, but I keep her close by caring for the things that she cared about. I feed the birds in the winter. It was her hobby and I continue to enjoy them as she and I enjoyed them together. I make sure that our cats, which were hers more than mine, are in good health. Linda took leadership in maintaining our home. Though not fanatical about it, she ensured that our home was neat and clean and in good repair. I have taken up that concern and made it my own. It is not only what I want, but it is a way of respecting what she valued, and so acting is a source of satisfaction.
Linda was an eminently practical person and had insights and skills which I lacked. Grief by definition partakes of sadness. But out of that sadness there are also feelings of gratitude. I am immensely thankful for who she was, for sharing her life with me and gifts she has left me that have made me a richer, better person.
Linda is buried in a small cemetery in Newark. I feel the importance of visiting her grave twice a year, once around the anniversary of her death and then again near the time of her birthday which is in early January. Sometimes my children join me. I know she is not there nor do I need to visit the cemetery to remember her. That I do every day, But it feels to me like the right thing to do; an act of reverence that sets aside a special time to commune with her memory undistracted by the regular demands of the day.
As noted, grief moves and changes course as it will. The loss of my beloved wife will always be with me. How could it not? But in time, I am confident that breezes will blow and I will find the resources to meet the challenges life places in my path and perhaps I will be taken to new places.