Recovering from grief takes time. I went to the movies by myself last week. It’s the first time I’ve ever done that. I couldn’t do it before because seeing the empty seat next to me was just too painful. It has taken me almost five years to go to the movies alone.
But even as I continue to recover from my loss, I will never “be over it.” And I resent when people suggest that I should be. I have not moved on from my loss. I move with it, fluidly. I spent 32 years with my late husband George starting with my senior prom and ending with his death from cancer in April 2013.
I’m heartened that the current model of grief seems to be changing from an illness to be overcome to a process “to be tended and lived through in whatever form and duration it may take.” We integrate our losses. They are painful, but beautiful because they’re the histories of those we’ve loved.
Six months after George died I’d organized his benefits, put everything in my name and remodeled a couple of rooms with the anal retentiveness of the former attorney that I am. But emotionally I was lost. I had no idea who I was without him. I prolonged going to sleep, not wanting to see that cold, empty side of the bed each night and to wake up each morning, my first thought of the day, “He’s still gone.”
Three years after he died, I was still adrift a lot of the time. In the movies, widowhood looks like a course in self-improvement. The bereaved mourns gracefully, still looking perfect, just wearing less eye make-up. Following a glowing montage of elapsed time, she establishes a cute new business, remarries and moves to a renovated yellow cottage with French doors, a Labrador retriever and a guy who looks like Richard Gere.
I watched movies about widowed people and threw cocktail olives at the screen.
I researched whether I suffered from “complicated grief,” a disorder where the bereaved is still significantly impaired by grief for over a month more than six months after her loss. I decided my grief was simple, a normal reaction to George’s death. Not to be sad would’ve been unusual. I was just coming up against a ridiculous societal model. And I was dealing with people who kept asking “Are you over it?” Or telling me that I was lucky to have a “new life” because I was still relatively young and no longer a caregiver to someone with cancer.
I gave myself permission to be sad, to mourn my loss when memories I couldn’t control engulfed me. Over time, my memories moved from being a source of pain to often bringing me joy. My loss became my friend. I could sit with it and be at peace. The tenor and intensity of my grief changed, moving from a pulsating red to an iridescent, shell-like pink, but it hasn’t gone away. I hold space for it.
Last month, I was at a holiday party when the talk turned to marriage. Those in shorter marriages were asking the long-married, “How have you kept the attraction alive?” and “How do you get through the rough patches?” I tried to offer my opinions along with those who’d been married a long time, but I kept getting left out of the conversation. When I chimed in, no one responded. Then I realized, it was because I’m widowed. It was as if I’d mentioned an unpleasant digestive disorder over dinner.
What helps me now is being able to talk about my marriage. George’s death at age 53 was sad, but our 32 years together were full of weird recipes, eighties music and high speed road trips. I can’t just excise him from my conversations. But that seems to be what people expect.
People ask us if we’re dating again, eager to hear that we’ve moved on. They’re happy to listen to my dating stories but become uncomfortable when I mention my marriage. But I was married for most of my life. I’ve been single for less than five years. I can talk about my past without living in it, just like anyone who’s undergone a major life change. I have met someone who I think is my second chapter. But it’s still part of the same book. I’ve had to explain to him that talking about George doesn’t diminish how I feel about him. I’m just including a dear friend who’s no longer with us.
In the beginning, I needed to mourn without putting on a happy act or pretending I was recovering on some pre-approved timescale. And now that I’m at peace (most of the time), I need to be free to talk about my marriage. I just wish the non-widowed understood that healing is talking about our pasts.