When I became a widow after my husband’s illness, here’s what I wanted and needed to hear: I was loved, my husband had been loved, and he had loved me. I wanted to hear and read friends’ memories of us together. I needed stories of our happiness together. His final illness had been long and hard, and our relationship became fraught with frustration over our new roles of patient and caregiver. He had been on seven different medications and was depressed and angry. We were not the same couple as caregiver and patient.
I realized it was hard for people to know what to say. The things I really didn’t want to hear were: at least he wasn’t in pain anymore, he was in a better place, and I still had my memories. But I did understand that the condolences, no matter how awkward, were given in the spirit of kindness and love, and I was grateful and comforted that people showed up or wrote me notes.
The Episcopal priest who conducted the memorial service said the most important and helpful words to me. When we were planning the service, he told me, “You’ll be crazy and fragile for a year. And then you’ll still be crazy and fragile but not as much.” Which was exactly what I needed to hear because that’s how I felt, and I needed it acknowledged, needed to know it was okay to be crazy and fragile, to be overly sensitive, to feel skinless, to continually be knocked down by waves of grief and fits of weeping. My grief — it was like weather or a piece of luggage that I carted around with me. As my husband and I had become a different couple in the face of mortal illness, I had become a different person in grief.
The best gift was my kitchen table filled with family and friends every night for the first week after he died; food and wine simply appeared. I was hugged and told I was loved; I could cry right there at dinner, and no one got embarrassed or felt they had to do a grief intervention. For the first few nights my daughters took turns sleeping with me. In the weeks to follow there were flowers and letters, and also specific gifts. John and Holly gave me The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing; Judith and Billy brought me two baskets: one filled with books for the soul, and the other with comfort food; Monica sent me an afghan that I curled up in every night with my dog; Phyllis sent a case of wine; Kara brought me a miniature lemon tree; my vet brought pet food; Rob sent a Bristol Farm basket filled with treats for visitors; and Maggie kept calling me out of the blue to announce that she was coming over to take a walk with me and she’d bring little gifts she picked up at Trader Joe’s — special pink salt from the Himalayas, chocolate truffles. These gifts were perfect: they were practical, and they made me feel loved.
As thoughtful as handwritten condolence notes are, I appreciated emails even more. In the past I’d always sent condolences as notes on paper or cards. I’d believed that emailing condolences was tacky. Now I discovered it wasn’t; I loved the emails I received. They were spontaneous and filled with emotion. And as the recipient of the handwritten notes, I realized they required handwritten replies because for many I didn’t have email addresses. Emailed condolences were easier to answer.
A surprisingly large number of people (those who haven’t been through it themselves) think that by three months or so you should be pulling yourself together, you should be “moving on.” But moving on means leaving your beloved spouse or partner behind. As long as I was grieving, even with those waves of tears, my husband was still with me, we were somehow together. I wanted his clothes to remain in the closet, I wanted his car in the garage.
I had a hard time being alone. When I worked I had to go to a daughter’s house and write at her kitchen table with all the hubbub of domestic life around me. At home I had radios playing in every room. I drove around a lot. I went back to work (I made a lot of notes — my memory was shot). I invited friends to Friday night potlucks.
What became vital to me was reading poets and writers who wrote about the loss of their spouse or partner. Most of what I read made me cry in the beginning, but it gave weight and meaning — and acceptance — to what I was going through. I wanted to feel my own grief — to go through it, not around it. Anne Lamott said, “Only grieving heals grief,” and this is true. Grief is profound and awful and painful and necessary. The grief you feel is in proportion to the love you had.
The Language of Loss is the book I needed when my husband died. My hope is that it will be a valuable gift to others going through their own grief process.
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Barbara Abercrombie has published over fifteen books, including The Language of Loss. Two of her books were featured on Poets & Writers magazine’s “Best Books for Writers” list. Her personal essays have appeared in many national publications and anthologies. She has received the Outstanding Instructor and Distinguished Instructor Awards from UCLA Extension, where she teaches creative writing. She lives in Pasadena, CA, with her rescue dogs Nelson and Nina. Find out more about her work at www.barbaraabercrombie.com.