Over the last two months of grieving for my husband, I have been given advice about what and when I should be doing something. It is all well meant but it doesn't fit what is happening inside my heart. The advice I'm being handed is given with such authority and yet, I can't find any personal connection to it, either from me or from the givers of this knowledge. No one that has told me what to do has lost anyone, yet they know what I "should be feeling by now" and what I am supposed to be doing about it to "get over it." What if I don't get over it in the way they are intending for me to do? Just a question. Another question is what defines getting over it?
In the face of all this advice, I have looked for and read books with certain titles to see if I could find something, I'm not sure what, an answer? A guideline? A sentence or thought that sounds remotely like what I am feeling? I am sometimes rewarded with the author expressing something that clicks with me. Sometimes not.
One book spoke of "simple grief" and "complex grief." It explained that "simple grief" can be defined as an expected death such as from a long-term illness. Because of the expectation that survival may not occur, family issues can be resolved, preparations can be made, and though we are never ready for it to happen, the expected death is in a small way easier to deal with though by any means no less tragic. "Complex grief," it goes on to explain, is when the death is unexpected such as from a sudden heart attack, stroke, accident, or from violence. The person was with us and then they were not. There was no warning. Issues were not resolved or even discussed. How the deceased had wanted to be treated afterwards: organ donor, buried at sea, military funeral, buried or cremated. None of these things may have been discussed and it becomes an enormous task to make these decisions, to grapple for any shred of memory of what they may have said in passing or to explain that you're not sure but based on knowing them so well, this is "what they would have wanted." "Complex grief" is said to be much more difficult to live through because the survivor knows they can no longer ask. This emptiness of that particular chair at the table is like a fist on the heart.
The facilitator of the widow's group I sit in with talks about grief work. Working through your grief. Grief is a job that I am not qualified to do. My search through the science of it (counselors' and therapists' books) and through the spirituality of it (faith driven books), and through the personal and existential point of view (published personal journals) has turned up a few common threads. "Don't harm yourself or others." "Allow yourself the time to heal, and it could take months or a couple of years." "Grief is a job and you cannot not show up for work because that is unhealthy. Grief will find you sooner or later."
I wasn't a fan of this next statement. "You will get through your grief and be a stronger, better person for having lived through it." I felt I was becoming a better person for having known my husband. I learned from him. I wasn't afraid of trying anything new with him there smiling at me, telling me I was doing well. He showed me things and let me experience things I would never have done alone or with a stranger such as bouldering at my age with arthritis. He showed me how and I am forever grateful for the pictures I got to take from perspectives I would never have seen. I still want to be a better person but I don't want to think I will be better BECAUSE he's gone. He never held me back.
Only one book suggested this concept as a carved-in-stone fact. "Grief forever changes us. We will never be the same and that is normal." Other books say that those who grieve "will always miss the person who died, but indeed you will move out of the darkness and into the light of a renewed sense of ourselves. You will find that you are not defined by your relationship with the one you lost." I admit at first I felt affronted by this statement and typed here it is taken out of context. I know some people are defined by their relationships, seeing themselves only in relation to who they are to someone else. But to include it in a book on understanding grief, saying that the only way to move past grief is to "diligently work to leave your loved one in the past as a memory of a joyful relationship, but keep moving away so as not to recall them daily" does not work for me right now.
I showed this chapter to a woman I know whose husband died eleven years ago. She told me, "Then I did the whole damn thing wrong because I still talk to my husband every day. It makes me happy to do so. I lived with him, put up with him, and loved him for twenty-five years. I couldn't not remember him every day any more than I could forget one of my kids. Close the book and forget it. Take it back."
And I did. I've decided to not read about grief any longer. If a book catches my eye, I may scan it. If I see that the text brings me comfort, I may read it. If it has a guideline, a workbook, or a timeline, I think I will put it back. I don't know that I will ever successfully finish my grief work by anyone else's standards. I love my husband. I liked him when I met him. I respected him as I got to know him. And I grew to love him deeply. Love is the most powerrful connection we can have with someone. We love them. Excluding any and all afterschool special family dynamics, we love our parents, our siblings, our children, and our mates. We love and when we connect deeply, we love deeply. When they die, that huge part of us dies as well. I feel a little dead inside, detached in a way that I know will not come back. And I'm not really worried about it. It is part of loving someone. It is part of grief.
“The risk of love is loss, and the price of loss is grief -
But the pain of grief
Is only a shadow
When compared with the pain
Of never risking love.” ~ Hiliary Stanton Zunin
When I was in 7th grade, I used my study period to volunteer in the school library. The librarian was a lovely woman named Mrs. Stiles. She had a picture of her husband on her desk in his military uniform. It was an old photo. Over the course of the school year, we talked about all kinds of things and while sitting in her office going over lists of missing books, I became brave enough to ask about her husband's photo. I vividly remember her expression as melancholy. They had been married for just over a year when he went off to Wolrld War II. He was killed in action, she told me. They gave him back to her. That was the way she put it. "They gave him back to me." She buried him. She still loved him. Her answers were short and simple, kept concise for me to understand since I was only thirteen. When I asked why she'd never married again, she looked at his photo and said, "I never loved again. It is my belief I will see him again." Then it was back to business.
It was a small town and I asked my mother if she knew Mrs. Styles. She did. She knew the story. Mrs. Styles did acquiescto a few dates that her family and friends set up for her but, as my mother put it, "she never got over her loss of her husband." My mother went on to say, "She misses him still but she's doing all right."
Back in the dark ages when I was a child, it was all right for a widow, or widower, to continue to miss their spouse. After a few tries, people accepted that Mrs. Styles would always be Mrs. Styles. I don't think anyone gave her a timeline or told her her personal identity was in danger because she kept her married name. I know she never finished her grief work because I went to her funeral several years later and she was still Mrs. Styles. When I passed her coffin to say my good-bye, I saw that someone had put her husband's photo in her hands.
"She has been dead two hours. It is impossible. The words have no meaning. But they are true; I know it without realizing it. She was my life, and she is gone; she was my riches and I am a pauper." ~ Mark Twain
It is generally accepted that Mark Twain "never got over" the deaths of his wife and daughter.