Twenty(!) years ago my best friend died. It was a sudden death and I learned about it weeks later from an email. The loss was profound and the way I learned of it distressing. My beautiful, strong and vibrant friend was very important to me. We never dated but had agreed that come age 40 if we weren’t married to other people…you know how that promise goes. He never made it to anywhere near 40, and I married. But he was my BFF before BFFs. We had great adventures together and I’ve no doubt we would have had many many more. I can still hear his self-assured voice coaching me as I climbed astride a motorcycle for the first (and last) time; “Keep your spine aligned with mine.” I can see his face, when I stepped out of the dressing room in a see-through honeymoon nightgown and told him “avert your eyes but tell me if you like it.” My memories run like a video montage. I actually have him on video. He arrived at my upstate wedding at the last minute. I refused to walk down the aisle until he arrived. So there he is, ducking (he was quite tall) into the tent as the musicians vamped.
When I first read the email informing me of his death I thought it was a vicious joke. I called his office and no doubt traumatized his sobbing assistant. My husband rushed home from work, I looked at him and said; “I think I’m okay with him being dead right now, I’m just not okay with him being dead forever.”
I thought of that sentiment this weekend. My husband has been dead for over four years. I sense people’s impatience (including my own) with my grief. I don’t spend my days wringing a handkerchief or visiting a grave (not that there’s anything wrong with that.) But once in awhile there is a trigger, say a beloved celebrity’s death, that will send me ’round the bend. I’m not willing to bogart a P.T.S.D. diagnosis, that would not be fair to true sufferers. However, a trigger is not just the usual crap we all deal with from time to time. A trigger will cut you off at the knees. It will bring your emotional self back to the beginning. It’s exhausting and defeating and utterly galling. There I am feeling as if I’ve got a handle on this thing called widowhood and BAM! “Not so fast girly, it’s me, your trigger!” – it’s best to picture a cartoon character similar to that little Bill that became a Law. So there I am triggered, treading water as tidal wave after tidal wave rush over me. I am all alone in my sadness as no one, and I mean no one can really understand. That reality compounds the loss of the one person, the only person who ever really saw me and understood me.
I’m not sure which is sadder; the trigger or the loneliness. Explaining my grief to people is exhausting and so sad. I don’t want to teach people how to be empathetic or how to be a friend. To me that’s like having sex with an inflatable doll. What’s the point?! So when I was mired in my sadness this weekend and heard; “are you okay?” from a couple of friends, I was reminded of what I said twenty years ago…My husband is still dead and I’m not okay with that.
I don’t advertise my sorrow (uh, yeah, unless we’re counting this format) but still it shocks me that people assume I’m A-okay. I mean, I do alright a lot of the time and I seem to be getting the hang of this self-care thing, but come on…My husband died. Without any warning whatsoever. In public. I think it’s safe to assume that I’m not 100% all the time.
It more than shocks me when those who know me don’t seem to see me; it hurts me. It’s a reminder of how solo I really am. My husband “got me” all the time, sometimes before I did. So when those close to me are careless or clueless or flat out impatient it hurts my heart.
This morning a close friend sent me a photo of a bench I had paid to dedicate (to my husband) a few years before he died. My friend is visiting the institution which houses the bench (my husband’s place of work and my alma mater). I replied to my friend’s text that I was surprised they hadn’t removed the bench (considering how brutally they treated both me and my husband’s memory after he died.) My friend’s reply? “Ha ha ha ha.” Not; “I hope this photo wasn’t upsetting” or “Should I have not sent the pic?” Nope. “Ha ha ha ha.”
This afternoon I heard from a distant relative to whom I’ve always felt close. She called because I had answered her Facebook message thusly; “No I won’t be traveling to the town where I met and married my husband and never will as it is much too sad for me and might be traumatizing. I also have no interest in attending a party thrown by and for a parent who has ignored me for the past 4 years. I’m sorry to sound so harsh, but ignoring your widowed daughter is harsh.” I had assumed she was calling to say; “OMG of course, I understand. That was a bit thoughtless on my part. I’m sorry.” NOPE. She clumsily asked how I was doing and I said something like; “it depends.” She responded; “But your Facebook photos look so happy.” Huh? What? Shall I start posting photos of me watching When Harry Met Sally and sobbing uncontrollably? How about a few status updates of; “In bed at 7:30 clutching my stuffed rabbit. LIFE IS GOOD!” I prefer to use Facebook to share pleasant things and discover who has political views I find unforgivable. But Facebook aside, does this two time cancer survivor not understand grief and survival? Granted she’s in her 60s and never married and the “Ha ha ha ha” friend is in his early 30s and never had a partner. But…I guess there is no “but” is there? That’s really it, huh? Some people have empathy and some people don’t, and some people simply don’t have the life experience to fake it.
But still. It hurts my heart to not be seen and I’m tired of explaining. Explaining is draining. I would rather use my energy trying to find happiness or peace.
“You have to have a funeral!” The indignation was tinged with hostility. Her words still hung in the air as (mercifully) an actual friend shut her down; “Brenda doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want.”
It was sweet, my friend putting the Barbie girlfriend of my husband’s friend (who was not invited to my home and really had no business being there only hours after my husband’s death) in her place. Great Neck Barbie (as my husband and I had called her) was one of the few fellow Jews in my home at that moment and was well-versed in our tradition of speedy burial. This isn’t to suggest that she had any business telling me what to do however. But I did hear her and her subtext (“you are a bad Jew and a bad wife”).
I have always been susceptible to people’s directives when it comes to social behavior. I was raised by non-practising Jews who adhered more to the Beat credo than the middle-classness surrounding us. In other words; I have always felt a bit clueless. I am in a constant state of observation and if someone tells me what to do, I tend to take it into consideration. But in this case…there was no way I was having a funeral just days after learning of my husband’s death. I had been to two Jewish funerals during my entire lifetime and knew and felt nothing for the tradition. I’m not sure how, and had met the man only twice, but my rabbi showed up in my bedroom the next day. He sat with our small group the day after, prayed and had us all speak. It was powerful and beautiful and all the service I needed.
I don’t know how it happened, perhaps it started as a way to get people to stop asking? But I began to plan a memorial service. I think the service occurred only six weeks after his death, but it feels like it took months to plan. I have planned events professionally many many times. Dinner for 1,000+ in an airplane hangar? No problem. Multimedia musical productions? I got that. I’ve worn headsets, carried walkie talkies and know how to run a light board. But planning my husband’s memorial was the most difficult and ridiculous thing I ever had to do. It was difficult because I was shattered and had to produce an event! Yes: produce. I had no script or even a freaking mood board. All I knew was what he didn’t want (i.e., no children, cremation, no marker). Other than that I was completely on my own…to produce an event that meant nothing to me, nothing to him and caused me heaps of anxiety. A date had to be set for those flying in. But how do you set a date when you can’t get the venue or singer to commit in a timely manner? It was so stressful and so unnecessary. My life had just imploded and I’m dealing with caterers?! The service itself was beautiful and devastating. I soldiered through greeting people at the reception. There were people who I did not like, including those who had treated me terribly during the past six weeks. My husband’s boss attended; the man who refused to retire him retroactively (even though my husband was past retirement age and that common practice would have enabled me to have a modicum of security.) My husband’s family was not there. Did they not know he had converted to Judaism years before his death? Was a trip to NYC simply out of the question? Or is it just that death is really not that much different than life? – Those who are there when it matters are there when it matters.
The relief I felt when it was all over is indescribable. It truly felt like a second trauma. I was still so very shattered by his unexpected death and have always been a very private person. Having to produce such an event and then having to be the center of it all was excruciating. I regret succumbing to the pressure. I do. When I think of it my stomach lurches. I know it was “the right thing to do”, but so what?! I put myself through such agony for other people. It was utterly unnecessary. That small “service” my rabbi conducted in my living room was all I needed. The beautiful obituary I wrote with his and my closest friends was more than enough of a tribute. I did it because I thought I had to. I thought I owed it to his employees, colleagues and former students. The truth is that not only didn’t I owe anyone anything, but the responsibility really was his. If he had wanted it to happen he would have planned it. I know this now. I know that I am not his living memorial, his Mrs. Norman Maine. But during those first few months I was still holding on. I still wanted to be his wife. I know that now.
I used to keep a list of the most outrageous things people said to me regarding my husband’s death. At some point I stopped, realizing that it was not exactly the kind of collection I coveted. People say stupid things. I know I have. When it comes to grief and loss we can all be a bumbling stumbling fount of misfires. Grief scares people right down to the core. Don’t even get me started on death…geez the lengths we go to to avoid it! Grief and loss are just too radioactive to some.
I can now laugh at my husband’s boss leaving my bedroom after a condolence call and saying; “that’s a really big bed for just one person.” A month or two after my husband died I ran into a high school acquaintance who told me I; “was lucky to have had love.” There was a dear friend who criticized what I was wearing…at my husband’s memorial service. But then there were also people who gave me the verbal gifts I needed desperately. An old friend came a very long distance to take me to lunch. She and I had spent the early 90s taking NYC by storm. It was so very fitting that she was the one to take me back onto the sidewalks of NYC. I choked up as I told her about my fears and anguish imagining his last moments. She told me to stop it, that I was telling myself the wrong story. It was exactly what I needed to hear. A very young friend, and protege of my husband’s, managed the composure to tell me to hold onto the tickets I had recently purchased for a performance 5 months after my husband’s death. He looked me in the eye and sternly told me; “You loved Guys & Dolls before him, and you will love it again.” Months later, he, my 4th grade best friend and the couple my husband and I cherished most, joined me at Carnegie Hall for the concert. It was a precious, difficult and very important first step.
I don’t know what the math is. Perhaps for every slight, intentional hurt, and dreadful utterance, there were equal parts loveliness, generosity and wisdom. I certainly recall more of the bright shining warm glow of the latter than the cold and dark of the former.
I am still in the market for wisdom and warmth and am so grateful when it’s offered. In the very beginning of it all I spoke with a handful of surviving spouses. One generous man spent a couple of hours with me. However, it was not entirely helpful to discover that two years out his entire social network consisted of support groups. I did not want to know that. I also did not want to know that the beautiful woman, widowed young 15 years ago, was still single. There were (and still are) some widows who found my “getting on with it” attitude downright offensive. Where were the photos of my husband?! I politely explained that I didn’t have photos up when he was alive and did not need a shrine. But really, why explain? The thing is, this kind of loss is as personal as the marriage was. You can’t know anyone’s marriage anymore than you can know anyone’s widowhood.
But still, wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could? What I would give to have someone who really knew, and could really see me, tell me what I need so desperately to hear. Sometimes, in the middle of the night after being woken by what I’ve no idea, I visualize my hair being stroked. My phantom soother holds me and whispers; “It’s okay, it’s all going to be okay.”