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Grief Diary, Backwards

Grief Diary, Backwards

I’m going to start backwards. Not that I’m healed, far from it, but it only seems logical to take my life now as a given, or at least as a reality, and reflect on what I’ve gone through over the past five years. Ken died suddenly of a rare and painful cancer. We had been happily married for about thirty years; we had three grown children, now all married. To say I was devastated would be an understatement.

Efforts to rebuild my life were aided by friends, support groups, and therapy, not necessarily in that order. The words of one therapist still stick in my mind. “Imagine,” she said, “that your life is a broken dish lying on the ground in front of you. You must decide which pieces to pick up and fit back into a new plate.”

I’m still doing that, but lately, I haven’t been doing so well. A new friend told me that it may be as simple as changing the voice in my head. Our lives, after all, are mediated by what we tell ourselves. If I say, then, that I had a good day and that the grief is not paramount, then that, for all intents and purposes, is true.

Carl Jung said psychic history is not dependent on truth but rather on what people perceive to be true. He should have seen the current health care debate. Talk about creating new truths.

At any rate, I’ve decided to add music back into my mix and to start a book group. Hardly replacement for a husband, but I need to reestablish my personal identity, give it my own stamp, so to speak. As I wrote in an article for a local newspaper too soon after Ken’s death for me to truly understand the words: “We need to rediscover the things that made us who we are and, bit by bit, restore them to our lives. If that means stocking up on mystery novels (with female protagonists) and trying to assemble 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles, then so be it. If it means setting out on new adventures with new friends, then let the journey begin. And, if I end up slightly different than I was before, chances are my kids will still love me, my friends will continue to tolerate my company, and my colleagues will adjust to my personality in progress.” From my mouth to God’s ear.

Ken used to say that I only opened my mouth to change feet. Harsh, maybe, but truer than I’d like to admit. Still, I wouldn’t go quite that far. What I would say is that I talk too much, substituting chatter for quiet reflection and the solicitation of feedback for personal decision-making.

The need to regale my friends with a good story wins out every time, and I create oral versions of all my “adventures,” adding colorful details to keep the legends alive. I only recently realized that once you have canvassed everyone you know about everything you do, you can never really have any privacy again. And, ironically, if the stories were created to make you look like a free spirit, you now have less independence than ever before.

It’s sad really. Far from being the vibrant woman I describe to others, I’m actually a widow in search of an identity, looking for others to validate it. Ken gave me mooring. I knew who I was with him. But it took me a quarter-century to find him and, with luck, there’ll be a quarter-century after him. But for now, I’ve come loose.

I started a grief diary last year, trying to make sense of things like life and death.

September 18:

It’s a beautiful day. I remember when Ken’s brother, Richard, died on a beautiful day in November. Actually, every day in Florida is beautiful at that time. Ken was in the hospital waiting room with his parents. The doctor didn’t even come out to tell them Richard had died in the operating room. They found the surgeon later, hours after the operation, eating a sandwich in the lounge. “Oh,” he said, “the patient died.”

In truth, he probably couldn’t have saved him at that point. Another hospital had given Richard a staph infection, and the results of his staph test sat buried in a file that his busy cardiologist forgot to check. Ken got Richard’s family a large malpractice settlement.

At any rate, the morning after Richard was killed by the medical establishment and Ken’s soul was ripped out, my husband woke up crying. “Why is the sun shining?” he asked. “How can it be a beautiful day? Richard is dead.”

That’s how I feel. I take a deep breath and enjoy the fresh air and then I feel either that he should be enjoying it too, or we used to love days like this. Either way, it takes its toll. Sometimes I prefer the rain. It’s more honest.

August 6:

Still angry, though partly at myself for losing perspective. I gained it temporarily (actually, for the first time) after Ken died. Realized that not much mattered anymore. Now I’m getting bent out of shape again when I’m running late or someone cancels an interview. I’m also realizing that I’m in a different income bracket—not exactly counting pennies, but not as comfortable as I used to be.

I need to travel more, but I also need to work more. Hardly the first person to face this dilemma, I would imagine.

August 3

Went to visit Ken’s garden at Ramah. The plaque looks like a gravestone,which made it doubly hard for me to speak at the dedication several years ago. But the garden itself is beautiful. And this year they outdid themselves with sunflowers and lilies. Visiting the garden unleashed a wave of anger at the unfairness of just about everything.

One friend of thirty years just suggested we couldn’t go hiking because his wife might object to his spending a whole day with “another woman.” What?

Ken would laugh his head off.

Another friend suggested (as have many other clueless people) that divorce is so much worse than widowhood since the spouse or significant other is continuing his or her life without you on purpose. (And Ken died by accident?)

I’m opposed to a hierarchy of grieving. Even if I bothered to articulate one, I would never confront a fellow griever with, “You’ll be fine. Your loss is less than mine.”

What else is eating at my kishkas? Friends who dare to have their own lives and not be available when I need them. People who pledged support, then disappeared.

Couples who are entering retirement, together. Especially the ones who hold hands. Seeing my relatively youthful face in the mirror and realizing that the man who loved me is dead.

July 2

Went to see the fireworks last night. Went for both of us— Ken loved them. They were pretty good, though not spectacular like some of the displays we’ve seen (we have seen, we had seen—(damn tenses).

Some friends are off in the Berkshires, seeing James Taylor at Tanglewood. We did that. They told me Pittsfield is building itself up. That hurt, unreasonably. Our short-lived (practically stillborn) ownership of a Berkshire home is never far from mind. The home of our dreams was just north of there and we eagerly awaited Pittsfield’s development. I told them that made me sad. They felt bad.

I feel lately like Ken’s getting more involved in my life, prompting me to move on. Increased sightings of the time readout 11:11, which a friend just told me is an “angel number.” Don’t know what that means.

June 20

Went to the cemetery. His birthday is June 24 and I intended to go closer to the date. In fact, I got in the right-turn lane to go to Modells instead of the left-hand lane to Beth-El. Then I looked at the time. It was 11:11. I made a quick lane change, understanding (but not why) that I needed to go right away. Strange.

June 5

I note the date because I had an unbelievable night. The last time I saw on the clock was 11:11 (prompting me to wish Ken goodnight). But then I dreamed — of him, of us, of passion. I spent the night in his arms and woke up smiling and refreshed. First time. Wow.

I spent his last summer by his bedside in the hospital, looking out at the sun and the sky and wishing he would sit up so we could go outside. I actually got angry at him because he hurt too badly to move.

We always loved to be outdoors. At the hint of a nice day, we would jump in the car and ride off somewhere to walk, ride bikes, enjoy the scenery, explore small towns.

Several times before he was totally bedridden I brought him to our newly purchased home in the Berkshires (owned less than six months, and sold off immediately after he died). His symptoms worsened. There was no enjoyment. I read to him, lay down with him, and still we never spoke of death. Apparently, he told the kids he knew he was dying. But the words never passed between us. My cries of anguish were heard only in the privacy of my bathroom, when I stopped at home to change clothes.

He told the doctors that I was his palm-pilot. I knew his symptoms, medications, dosages, what caused what reaction, when he needed to take things. But he also screamed my name when they hurt him—and everything hurt him.

He told me his body knew it was breaking down, one thing at a time. Actually, that’s just what happened. Plug a hole here, another opened. A stent here, a filter there, a tube there. Would we do that again? Probably. He died filled with hardware.

Guilt and loneliness; memory and regret. Grandchildren he didn’t live to see, beautiful sunny days, the chance to try new things, to enjoy the benefits of trees we planted in our youth. All by myself. I want to do everything I used to do, go to all the same places, but I wonder if it’s fair and if I should find new, me-only venues.

That’s all I wrote. The diary was meant to be therapeutic, but it didn’t work. Now I’m here, talking too much.

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Lois Goldrich is a sixty-year-old widow, mother of three, and grandmother of five, living in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. She has been a writer/editor for more than thirty years and currently edits a weekly newspaper. Goldrich says she has always turned to writing to help her make sense of her life—whether as a commuter, grandmother, study group member, or mourner. A graduate of Barnard College who intended to become, at the very least, a U.S. Senator, Goldrich said she was distracted by something more challenging: coping with the demands of real life.