“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.
Growing older never bothered me. Well, that’s not entirely true: I had a terribly anxious time turning 21. I felt that once one turned 21, everything counted. I was now formally an adult. Never again could I hear; “well, whatya expect, she’s just a kid.” Though truth be told, no one had ever said that. Growing older suited me. I was born middle-aged and was delighted as my body caught up to my psyche.
I did have a troubling relationship with the passage of time while I was married. My husband was significantly older than me. Our birthdays and new years reminded me how limited our time was. The idea of living without him was intolerable. I’ve been without him for over five years and I was right. It is intolerable.
Friends and the world at large suggest that getting older is a nightmare; a blow to vanity, ego and mobility; moaning and whingeing of sagging skin, creakiness and dryness whirl around me like white noise. It strikes me as no different than complaining about menstruation. It’s nature. What is the big deal and more to the point; what is the alternative?? Getting older doesn’t bother me in the least. I have a treasure trove of amusing and delightful memories that serve as a riveting mental documentary. I’ve seen things and done things and gone places. I feel no urgency, no pressing need to accomplish anything. I don’t fear running out of time. I aged out of the most compelling choices ages ago (i.e., F.B.I. agent, astronaut, chorus dancer, mother). I take each day as it comes, delighted to discover how it unfolds.
I will never be young in someone’s eyes again and that hurts. But it is nothing compared to the pain of losing the keeper and creator of my most precious memories. I am the sole repository now, and when I die (hopefully in my sleep at a very very old age) the memories of the best of years of my life will die as well. And that is nature.
Newly widowed I experienced terror and trauma in waves as frequent and powerful as a category 3 hurricane. For almost a year, I would avoid walking under scaffolding or air conditioners, so afraid of the unexpected. Over the months and years my terror and trauma changed flavors and frequency but has never wavered in its intensity.
I went through a period consumed by thoughts of illness or accident that I would be forced to suffer alone. I changed dentists to avoid dealing with my lifelong Achilles heel taunted by memories of my husband by my side. I changed gynecologists to avoid being splayed in the same stirrups I was the moment my husband died. For the first year or two, I heard all financial and legal professionals as disembodied Oz voices amidst white noise. I couldn’t make any but the most cursory and urgent decisions.
It’s been over five years now. I’ve lived in my most recent home longer without him than I did with him. The terror feels more like fear, and I’m resigned to it. I am alone. Terrible things will happen. I’ll manage. But the trauma…? That never ebbs. Yes, I can once again watch movies and T.V. shows I had to avoid for those first couple of years. I can hear music we or he loved and not become physically ill. Finally, he now appears to me in dreams that have nothing to do with him being dead. I cherish those dreams. But that trauma that was right there on the surface? Doubling over in pain when hearing an ambulance siren? Not being able to breathe when passing the place he died? That trauma has seeped into my being. It is part of me now. It has changed my entire worldview and guides my survival. And I am surviving. I may not be living a recognizably productive life, but I’m still here. I am more porous, fragile, quiet, fearful, grateful, peaceful and solo, than ever before. My life is almost childlike in its simplicity.
For most of my adult life I maintained that it’s never too late to have a happy childhood. I’ve learned that isn’t entirely true. I can spend the day in shorts, T-shirt and Keds (my childhood uniform) and eat ice cream for lunch, but to say I was happy would be a disservice to real happiness. I am at times peaceful. I am afraid at least once a day. Deeply and profoundly afraid. I am sad often. And my husband is always with me. Always. This is both comforting and shattering. Nobody does “the best they can” and I’m no different. I’m doing the best I choose to do. I may do better some day, I may do worse. I have never bought into that ridiculous chestnut: what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. What a load of crap. What doesn’t kill us can leave us on life support.
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.
Over the course of one week I experienced two significant anniversaries: it has now been five years since my husband died and nine years since I’ve lived in my home. I’m a numbers gal, always have been, so these kinds of things really resonate. Even if you’re math averse no doubt you’ve gleaned that I’ve now been in this home longer without him than I was with him. It is also the longest I’ve lived anywhere in my entire life. For real.
By the time I was in 4th grade I think I’d lived in about 13 places and attended perhaps 5 schools. Needless to say, I don’t have many romantic notions about a homestead. I do however have many feelings about stability. I abhor surprises and above all else, I like to be told. Mr. Rogers did and said many things that spoke to me (he was most definitely my surrogate parent) but it was his song “I Like To Be Told” that made me feel so seen. So yes, given my druthers I probably would never move, let alone dozens of times in my life. It is no wonder that it takes me no more than 24-hours to fully unpack. I love stability. Have I mentioned that? I could eat the same lunch every day for the rest of my lunch. I am like a dog with my love of routine. I don’t love to travel (see every word I’ve written above) but do enjoy the planning and packing. Those days or weeks imagining myself in another place are usually more fun that the realty. I’d rather read about travel or watch someone far more adventurous than myself (with a stylist and personal assistant just off-camera) traipse through the Swiss alps. I simply don’t like the unknown. Is that a product of so much moving? Probably not. The moving was simply the fall-out from a very unpredictable childhood. (Having to move across town and away from your four best friends because your mother can’t get along with the neighbors is about one’s parents’ unpredictability not about real estate.)
Going though life having stability as one’s guiding light is not ideal. I’d like to think that with age and repeated upheaval I’ve gotten less rigid. And I probably have. About stuff that really doesn’t matter. Change in plans? Okay. Purchasing a one-way ticket? Sure, I’ll try that. But the big stuff is still the big stuff. It’s been five years and I still become a bit nervous going out alone at night or having to make big financial decisions. I still at times feel paralyzed after five years. I spent the first year stunned and furiously taking care of legal business. While I did have to take care of everything myself, I had people who were always “there” for me. I felt somewhat taken care of by my “village” for the first year. I began casually dating the next year and had a few “relationships”. I loved the familiarity of the relationship routines and at times felt whole again. But over time I grew less resilient to disappointment (middle-aged men can be very very disappointing – it simply never dawned on me that they wouldn’t have learned how to be nice by now.). Not surprisingly, by the time I grew tired of dating, my support circle had dispersed. Well of course they had! They have their lives to lead and presumably I should have made one for myself by now.
Five year is a long time. I still get mail addressed to him and have memories so strong and sudden that they stop me in my tracks. But I’ve lived in this place longer without him than with him. For five months I have parented a dog (for the first time) without him. In other words, time is definitely marching on. I look different than I did five years ago. My hair is longer and my skin is getting a bit saggy in places. Other than that I’ve really nothing to show for these past five years except that I’m still here. I am still in the apartment I chose partly for the sunken living room which I (very wrongly) predicted would be suitable for a hospital bed when the time came. (You tend to think that way when your spouse is 19 year older than yourself.) I look around and realize that the place has changed as little as I have; a hallway painted, some chairs moved, a bathroom refurbished. But mostly everything is just the same except he’s not here. That seems wrong. He took up so much room. He was a big man in every sense. I feel there should be a visible chasm, right here in the living room. There should be some physical representation of the enormity of the loss (besides the bags under my eyes.)
I’m proud of myself for surviving. During the past five years I have never engaged in destructive behavior or done anything (too) rash. I’ve gotten out of bed every single day. I have tried new things and new people. None of these accomplishments are small or should be dismissed. But I honest to G-d thought that by now I’d be “all better” and have a new life. Let’s face it, I watch too many movies and tend to believe they are actually real. The five year anniversary was disorienting in its intensity. I was gutted for a week. I listened (for the first time) to voice mails I had frantically had tech support save. I took out a photo of us with our (late) Bichon. I lit a yarhzeit candle for the first time. I made his favorite foods and even ate some of them. It felt sacred, raw, recent, sad and powerful. But mostly it felt jarring. How could I still be feeling the loss of him so strongly? The sorrow was deep inside and on the surface at the same time. I spoke to him all that day, something I very rarely do. And I admitted to him what I am to you right now: I never expected to feel this alone after this much time.