“Anger, Denial, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance” is a really bad name for a law firm. Can you imagine the poor receptionist who has to rattle that off every time the phone rings? If you are not familiar with the 5 Stages of Grief, courtesy of Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, perhaps you’ve heard those five words spouted by daytime talk show hosts. (My first exposure to them was via the film All That Jazz, but I’m a bit of an odd duck.) This poker hand emotion summation has been as quoted as it has been misunderstood. The stages; anger, denial, bargaining, depression, acceptance, reference the typical response to being diagnosed with a terminal illness. It is not about grief or loss but about how one deals with their own imminent demise. If you’ve mistaken the Reaction 5 as being about losing someone, you’re not alone. There are many mental health practitioners out there who don’t know the difference either.
Semantics, you say. Or perhaps you’re thinking “potato, potahto” Or perhaps you’ve stopped reading this altogether. Let’s pretend that you’re still with me.
The difference is critical if for no other reason than loss does not follow a predictable trajectory. No one has (or probably ever will) collected any data that results in a bereavement proclamation such as the Reaction 5. There are simply too many variables. At what stage of life is the survivor? What was the relationship between survivor and deceased? How did the person die? We could go on and on. Being told that one’s expiration date is imminent is much more clear. The Reaction 5 is to the idea that “I’M GOING TO DIE!”, there really are no other variables, and after stage 5, you’re done. Let’s keep in mind that this is not a competition between the terminally ill and the bereaved. I merely would like to share how the bereaved are ill-served by the Reaction 5.
“Time heals all wounds” is as much a big bag of bullshit as “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”. Time changes all wounds. But every day, week, month, or year will bring a new reminder or old anniversary. Triggers don’t disappear they just get more stealth. The rawness ebbs and the fog and terror abate but that is not the same as healing. The healing a wound metaphor is at best meaningless and at worst offensive. You’re not getting over a break-up or a job loss. The hole in your life and heart doesn’t come together like gathering clouds. Life changes, and the heart never forgets. No matter how much time passes you will also be your deceased child’s parent or partner’s spouse. You don’t “heal”. Don’t even get me started on the “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”. That rubbish adage is as ridiculous as bird poo on your head or rain on your wedding day being good luck. If this were true we’d all marry in the rain forest. It’s just the malarkey we throw around in our attempt to make people feel better during a crap time. What doesn’t kill us can leave us seriously damaged.
The thing about these platitudes and the misuse of the Reaction 5 is we’re telling people how to feel. I know how hard it is to come up with anything sincere and useful to say when someone is in a fresh hell. I have held a friend whose child was killed and felt nothing but impotent. I have listened to a childhood friend whose wife had just died and desperately scrambled to say something hopeful. My telling him that it is a journey of discovery and not a process of stages was not what he needed in those moments. He needed me to listen and to say that it will get better. I told him it does and I was not lying. It does get better, but it doesn’t go away. Life changes (with or without loss) and the human spirit is not designed for sustained, permanent grief. We are wired for recovery. Our bodies recharge with every good night of sleep and we seek nourishment several times a day. We go forward, like sharks. If we’re lucky we discover new sources of joy and beauty and perhaps even peace.
I don’t think I actually know anyone foolish enough to ask me when I’ll be over my husband’s death, but I’ve had the answer queued up just in case: When I stop getting mail addressed to him.
My favorite bits of mail addressed to him are the ones marked: “URGENT”. Sender, I’m calling hyperbole on that. I find the credit card offers amusing, in a sinister sort of way. I like to indulge in the dark fantasy of me engaged in risky or nutty behaviors. Imagine the grief induced spending bender I could go on with all those credit cards and their ridiculous $25,000 limits. Crikey! I’ve also been known to let out a titter or two when receiving life insurance offers in his name. My doorman no doubt has wondered at what my “ship has sailed” mutterings at the mailbox actually mean. Some of these communications to (versus “from”) the beyond have been jarring if not deeply upsetting. I’ve had more than one conversation with development officers explaining; “the customary reply to my news is to offer condolences!” I mean, if you’re going to ask for money from people, particularly dead people, you best learn some social niceties. The other day I received an email addressed to him (odd but true). It was from an NPR affiliate asking for money. My husband and I had not lived in listening distance to the station for fifteen years, so the solicitation was odd to begin with. I hit reply and asked to have my late husband’s name removed from their list. Clearly I unleashed a beast, because I then received several more emails also addressed to him. I replied to them all before I considered that a high school intern was probably manning the mailbox. This morning first thing, I emailed the director of their development office and zippity zappity do, he immediately apologized and took care of it. He was professional and human; a breath of freaking fresh air (get it? Fresh Air!) well done NPR, it’s only April but you’re in the running for 1st Place. (For those keeping score, the loser was determined very early this year: my wedding photographer, also a former colleague, Facebook messaged me asking if my husband and I would like to buy the negatives of our wedding photos. Upsetting? Sure, but not as gut wrenching as when I explained that he died and the response was: “They’re $250.” Duuuuuuuuuuuuuude.)
These communications are amusing or distressing depending upon where I am and what they are. When I’m sad and feeling small and alone, seeing his name stings like a back of the hand across my heart. It feels like a cosmic confirmation that the world doesn’t care. There are times when I’m feeling strong and hopeful and it still stings as it’s a reminder that I will forever be his widow. But there are times when I’m a bit numb, a shadow me, when it doesn’t exactly hurt. It’s more like when you run your fingertip through a candle tip; ah yes, I felt that. Other times, I just have to laugh.
While I never run to the mailbox hoping for a piece of mail addressed to my husband I have no doubt that some day I will and it will be in vain.
My husband’s birthday is in a few weeks. I’m not yet sure if I’ll acknowledge it in any way. The first year after he died I spent weeks, if not months, strategizing how I’d observe the day. I remember a well-meaning person telling me; “planning is a good coping mechanism”. But it wasn’t about that. Planning birthday celebration has always been important to me and at least half the fun. I grew up in a house where birthdays were a big deal, he did not. I loved planning small surprises and meaningful celebrations and presents for him. The last few years of his life I had designed the perfect decadent birthday breakfast. Watching his delight at I placed the “challah french toast nutella and jam sandwich with homemade syrup” I would grow giddy. So planning how I’d honor his first birthday after his death was more of not being in any hurry to relinquish that particular joy. Which is why just four months after his sudden death, I dressed up and took myself to the Bemelman Bar for a drink. I sat in a corner sipping a glass of champagne, a jumble of anxiety and sadness. Within earshot was a young woman celebrating her 21st birthday with her parents. I did not burden her with “OMG it’s my late husband’s birthday too!” but took delight in the observation nonetheless.
Since that surreal first year, I’ve made less of an event of his birthday. I do remember cringing one year as I realized I was consummating a new relationship on my husband’s birthday. (By the time I realized the supreme tackiness of it, it really was too late.) I like to think I evened the cosmic score by making him a birthday cake last year (but who am I kidding; I was the one who ate the cake!). I suspect that this year on his birthday I’ll be at the dentist getting my new crown. It’s kind of funny considering how dental work played a minor recurring role in our relationship. When it became apparent we’d be getting married, I sat my future husband down and said; “I need to tell you something; you are signing on to HUGE dental bills for the rest of your life.” One of the first presents he ever gave me was while I was recovering from oral surgery. Perhaps as the hygienist straps on the nitrous (yes I get nitrous for every single procedure, did you not read that part about the dental bills?!) I will think; “This one’s for you, husband!”
If I’m not nursing a nitrous hangover, I suspect at the very least I’ll pour a drink and toast to him. So much has changed in the past five years. The first and the fifth year have been life altering. Truly. I do not recognize my life from two years ago any more than I do the life six years ago. My husband is part of my life now in a way he never was. I talk to him and think of him constantly. It’s not a Vaseline on the lens kind of view of him. I think of him the way he really was. I cannot conjure what he’d think or say about all things, but it’s surprising how many I can. There are many areas of my life in which I feel confident and am my best counsel. But there are some that make my knees buckle, and I ask myself WWHD (what would husband do). I freely admit to narrating some of life’s most joyous moments to him as if I’m watching a play seated next to a visually impaired friend. He’s a genuine part of my life now. Like an imaginary friend. I did not see it coming (like his death) and never dared to wish it, but am delighted beyond measure. This is the sixth birthday since he’s died, but the first that I’ll truly feel he’s with me.
Nine years ago on this date, I awoke in the middle of the night knowing something was very wrong with me, by daybreak I could barely move. My husband was on a business trip and we’d just moved to our apartment building three months prior. I knew and had no one. My only thought was the walking of my dog. I called down to the front desk, gasping in a whisper; “is there anyone who can walk my dog?” I think I heard laughter. I got myself and my dog downstairs and held on to walls and wrought iron fences as we slowly made our way down the block. I had to rest every few steps.
My brother agreed to do that evening’s walk and my husband was home by the next morning. Later that next day, I sat in a doctor’s office silently crying and panting as she told my husband she refused to treat me as I belonged in the hospital. My husband, defying his lifelong need to be liked by strangers, explained that I would never agree to that. He was still recovering from the devastating hospital borne infection (C.Diff) and was still injecting himself with blood thinner from the post-surgical blood clot the hospital staff missed. I had been his caretaker and advocate and the experience left me even more distrusting of hospitals, if such a thing were possible. The doctor very reluctantly stuck an agreement with us: we were to call her every four hours for forty-eight hours with a temperature update.
It took me six months to fully recover from that pneumonia. A dear friend who had not been well for awhile succumbed to the illness as I emerged from the fever. Her funeral was my first time leaving the house. A month later my 12-year old bichon, overcome with a discomfort he couldn’t communicate, hid under a table and died a week later. 2010 was by far the worst year I had ever experienced. The pneumonia changed my body and mindset. My friend was far too young to die. And our dog was the best thing that had ever happened to us. It wasn’t my first time at the tragedy rodeo, but this particular trifecta was so dramatic and happened so rapidly. If anyone had told me; “oh honey, it’s gonna get so much worse.” I would’ve checked myself into a facility until it all passed.
The fact is that those advertising disclaimers are true: past performance is no indication of future outcomes. An awful childhood, doesn’t protect from crap things happening in adulthood. Misery is not metered out. There is no suffering or trauma quota. And there’s no healthy way to get more resilient or less human. The best one can hope for is to become laser focused on the light in one’s life. If I can focus on what I do have, while periodically admiring the scenery of my past life, I’m okay. Every night I have thoughts of gratitude, the first thing on the list is always the same: I am grateful that my dog is healthy and I am strong.
This is a difficult season for many. Whether your life includes grief, loss or run of the mill disappointment, being barraged by messages of joy, family and abundance can be oppressive. Recalling shared traditions and past celebrations can be a punch to the lonely gut. For me this is the winding down of a breath-holding four months. Of course I miss my husband and our winter rituals. I can recall our first New Year’s Eve: we had been dating for three months and had gone our separate ways for Christmas (he on a divorced dad guilt fueled trip to Mexico with his adult children, and me on a grandparent pity paid for trip to Florida) and planned to reconnect on New Year’s Eve at his house in front of the fire. I don’t recall the food or beverage but I do remember the music and his face as he explained how illuminating our separation had been to him. He told me he loved me and immediately began to plan our wedding. It was a marriage-long thorn (that I repeatedly thrust) in his side that he never properly proposed. But the truth is, New Year’s Eve always have felt like the anniversary of a proposal. But even with that wonderful and heartbreaking memory, the last week of the year is easier for me than the four months prior.
Each September I brace myself for my holidays (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) without him. Some years I simply pretend they are not happening which is really challenging when you live in New York City! Just as I’m catching my breath from the loss of my family of choice and a family of origin that does not engage in anything remotely traditional, my wedding anniversary occurs! Yay! If I’m particularly unlucky the weather is exactly as it was that gorgeous fall day. No one acknowledges the day (even those that wore matching clothes and walked down the aisle with us) and it just may the loneliest day of the year for me. But wait! In just a few weeks it’s my birthday! (There’s a reason the month was dubbed “Brentober” in our house.) My husband made a big deal out of the whole thing. Dare I admit that for the last ten years of our marriage there was a small gift each morning of the month? We’d spend my entire birthday together, even if that meant me accompanying him on business trips. For the last few years we dined in the same restaurant, that has mercifully closed. Quite simply, it was really fun. There has been kindness and even some festivity on my birthday since then, as well as the self-awareness that I’m a grown-ass woman and can celebrate myself. But still…And just as I’m finishing off the birthday cake the yarhzeit (anniversary of his death) arrives and then Thanksgiving (unless I’m really having a shit year and they land on the same day.) It is lonely and horrible and terribly terribly sad, but I get through it. So you see, by the time “the holidays” come along, all I’m really seeing is the light at the end of the tunnel.
It helps that Christmas isn’t really my holiday and I feel perfectly comfortable being an outsider on that day. My family of origin did not go to the movies or have Chinese food (Jewish Christmas Day rituals), in fact one side of my family had a Christmas tree and presents. My husband and I did celebrate the holiday for about ten years, and I cherish those memories. But I do not feel left behind (as I have since September). I watch my favorite Christmas movies, decorate with a few snow-globes and feel grateful to be warm, safe and still here. New Year’s Eve stings a bit for the memories it conjures and the reality that it’s a very romantic night. However this year I’ll be doing something completely different. On New Year’s Eve I will be on a plane, headed to the beach with my 5-pound rescue dog. It will be an adventure (I’ve never flown with a pet, and he’s never flown!) and most importantly, something completely new. My hope is that I will be so focused and busy that there won’t be time to reminisce. The plan is to awake on the first day of 2019 with the sound and smell of the ocean and the warmth of a snuggling pup.