Category Archives: grief

Living Through Grief

Losing a beloved spouse is like being sliced open, with a piece of you taken out forever. Not only will you never get that piece back, but you are unavoidably changed from that time on. You still look like yourself, you may keep the same habits, but you are different.

            I have lost two husbands, fifty years apart. The first time I was 24, so young I was still unformed. I had a lot to learn, while taking care of a young daughter at the same time. The pain was intense, and I buried myself in books, which took me to a place where I could escape. Gradually, I was able to live a normal life, and to discover joy again, as the person I was becoming, on my own. I never wanted to remain single, but it took me ten years to find Jerry, a man who complemented me, and who loved me as I loved him. We had almost forty years together.

            Now I am mature, I know what I want out of life, and I feel content with the person I have become and am still becoming. It was not even a shock, as it was with my first husband, Jim, when Jerry died, from Acute Myeloid Leukemia. We had been battling Jerry’s two cancers, off and on, for 15 years, but our times together were almost all good. He was always active, and had great vitality.

            My two experiences of grief were very different. As a young person, it was devastating. My husband, Jim, completed several years in the Army, including a tour of duty in Vietnam flying medevac helicopters, from which he came home unscathed. After the service, he took a temporary job as a lumberjack for his dad’s lumber company in Pennsylvania. He had applied to several law schools and was waiting to hear if he had been accepted. One day he went to work cutting trees in the woods and never came home. A tree fell on him, killing him instantly. He was 28.

            I was in shock and had no idea what to do. I was fortunate enough to be able to live with my parents for a few months. I kept this image of a tunnel; if I could only make it through, there would be life and light on the other side. I clung to that, because I just knew the pain would get better. My brother-in-law, who lost his father when he was a teen, also assured me that time would help me heal, and I kept that message close to me.

            About nine months after I lost my first husband, I moved 500 miles away, with my two-year-old, to attend graduate school. By then, I felt strong enough to pursue a life for her and me, although I knew it would be hard.

            After losing Jerry, I suffered again, missing my special, unique man who was smart, caring, had many friends and was so full of life.  I have been very lonely without him. But this time I have noticed a strange phenomenon. I have felt vulnerable, which is normal, but I have also felt like I am experiencing the whole world for the first time, and really enjoying everything, like a wide-eyed innocent. I am reminded of advice which is given to new widows: don’t move or make any big decisions in the first year. Now I know why they say it! I keep running into people who just delight me, people I had never met or people I knew only slightly. I am enjoying the feeling of being opened up, letting down my defenses.

            I am also not afraid; I have this optimism that everything will be fine. There will be challenges, probably some mishaps, but I will be able to weather them. I will soon be entering my second year of widowhood, and I expect it to be full of exciting new experiences.

            I should note that this past year of grief has coincided with the covid-19 pandemic. How much of my experiences and attitude could be attributed to that, I wonder? For example, when I meet someone I really like, I can’t decide if I am really delighted with the person or just the opportunity to actually get out of the house and talk to someone! I feel so grateful that a new year is upon us; it just has to be better, which means my life will be fuller, and I will no longer need to be so isolated.

            Although I knew about grief, I did not know it would be so different the second time around. Perhaps I was more prepared than I realize, but probably it was just the gift of years of living, and not being blindsided. I feel like my grieving has been easier this time, and I am thankful for that. I have survived, and I am ready for tomorrow, whatever it brings.

Clothes Don’t Make the Man

We used to have a house with a huge closet off the master bedroom, big enough to be a bedroom on its own. I had the first half, and Jerry’s half was around the corner, where I never had to look at it, except to put away his clean laundry. When Jerry’s cousin Suzie came to visit, she exclaimed, “Your clothes don’t touch!”

            The large closet was in our last house in Virginia, a custom-built log home on twelve acres in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. We lived there 14 years, and hated to leave it, but we needed to downsize and wanted to be closer to two of our kids and two youngest grandsons in Raleigh. Our new home in North Carolina had few of the features we wanted, but the price was right. A new kitchen, deck and patio made it much more livable for us, and now it has been home for eight years.  

            Our closet in the master bedroom is technically a walk-in. I can walk into it, just a few feet, with clothes rods on either side and along the back wall. I can fit only my warm weather or cold weather clothes in it, so twice a year I have to switch and schlep clothes to a closet upstairs.

            For those who are grieving the loss of a spouse, the time comes when the closet needs to be cleaned out; somehow you just know when it is time. My time had come. My friend Diana offered to help me, and she showed up ready for business, boxes and all.

            We had a job to do, so I didn’t allow myself to get sidetracked, but I could picture Jerry wearing everything we packed. He wore that Hawaiian shirt at the “luau” we attended at Attitudes, a nearby pub, last year. A picture of us is displayed on the fridge. Such fun! That was the last time we danced together. He had a lot of very nice golf shirts, and more khakis than he could ever wear, but he mostly was a jeans guy, and jean shorts in the summer. T-shirts in the summer, sweatshirts in the winter.

            We had packed several boxes when Diana turned to me. “Was he a guy who left stuff in his pockets?”

            “Oh,” I replied, “All the time.” We pulled his pants out of boxes and removed the usual items from his pockets: dental picks, change, tissues, scraps of paper. As I reached into one pocket, I found a small stone I had brought back for him from a spiritual retreat I was on last year, when Jerry was in full remission. Hand-painted on the stone were the words, “Believe in miracles.” I didn’t know that he had been carrying it around.

            I remained upbeat throughout our work session, so grateful for Diana’s help. In less than two hours, even with an occasional lapse to reminisce, I could see the space developing in my closet and drawers.

            I still have some items remaining, like ball caps and a few coats. When my daughter Stacy last visited, she found a red plaid quilted jacket of his that she wanted to keep, and my grandson Michael Paul took some ball caps that were on a shelf in the coat closet. I have some more hanging on pegs on the wall behind the laundry room door, which I forgot to show him.

            Jerry was definitely a hat guy. I took one floppy hat he frequently wore fishing, washed it and claimed it for my own. It does not look any better on me than my other hats – I am just not a hat person. But I will keep it for sentimental reasons, remembering Jerry and how we bought that hat on our trip to Maine a few years ago.  

            Jerry’s undershorts and socks will be donated to a lady who distributes them to those in need at local nursing homes. I am happy they will get good use. I took the rest of the boxes to the Salvation Army that same day.

            Jerry’s clothes are gone, but the man who wore them remains in my heart.

I Need a Hug

It was early evening on a Sunday. Summer’s heat had not quite taken over, and I had the windows open to catch a breeze. Although COVID-19 has precluded parties or get-togethers in our quiet neighborhood, I heard voices in the yard next door, so I had to check it out. Walking out onto my back deck I spotted a deer in my neighbor’s yard, a big buck looking back toward Gary’s house. After my initial surprise, I could see it was not a live deer, but now I was curious. Gary and his family have not lived here long, and I do not know him well. I had met the family briefly, but since then, Gary would hail me if I was outside while he was mowing. I hail him back, smiling at how good it feels.

            Gary and another man walked over to the deer and appeared to be examining it. That was it, I had to find out. I walked over to his yard and said, “Gary, you have a deer!”

            He looked at me sheepishly, maybe a little embarrassed. “We’re doing target practice,” he said, “bow and arrow.” He introduced me to his friend, a polite good ol’ boy named Bobby. Bobby reached out to shake my hand, but I moved back, just touching fingertips.

            “Oh,” I said. “My husband used to do some bow hunting.” I realized Gary had never been in my house to see Jerry’s “stuffed animals”: deer head, black duck, fox and several fish. Jerry quit hunting years ago, but his trophies remain. Now I couldn’t invite Gary in even if I wanted to.

            Bobby nodded his head, “Yes, ma’am, I’ve heard so much about you.”

            You have? I wondered. Ah, yes, the widow woman next door. “Well, I brought over some cookies to Gary’s family to introduce myself. I guess I will have to make some more.”

            “Yes, ma’am, cookies would be most welcome.” I wanted to scratch my head over that. I wasn’t planning on making cookies for Bobby! I decided he was just being polite.

            Out of things to say and feeling awkward, I said, “I just had to check out the deer. Bye now.” I walked back to my house.

            This encounter was unusual for me. I rarely initiate contact with my neighbors, and don’t know many of them. The only neighbors Jerry and I had known well had sold their house to Gary. They were an older couple like us, and I miss them.

            Since Jerry died and I have been stuck at home, something has changed within me, and I feel I would do anything for human contact. Not just waving, not saying, “Fine,” if someone asks how I am. I need someone I can touch. I need someone who understands what I am going through and will hold my hand.

            I need a hug.

            Sometimes I hear Gary’s three-year-old daughter squealing next door and I want to go over and play with her! I taught three-year olds in a daycare center years ago. I love kids and I love that age especially. But I can’t do that; I feel like I am on the fringe, outside looking in.

            My sister and I talk via Facebook chat every Monday. Although we don’t cry much, she is the only person I can cry with without feeling embarrassed and vulnerable. She lost her husband a few weeks after Jerry died. I cherish my phone calls with Denise, but she is in New Jersey and I am in North Carolina. I would love to have her closer than five hundred miles.

            So this is where I am. I am not so much sad as starving for human companionship. Sometimes I say, to myself but probably out loud, “You can do this, lady, buck up.” But I can honestly say this is new for me. It is more than grief, but I am sure that is part of it. This is not a normal life. I never knew I liked hugs so much, but now that I can’t hug, I think about hugging complete strangers!

            I know how hard this isolation has been for so many, going on three months now. I am better off than a lot of others. I have some options that others do not. It helps when I am around people, so I am volunteering with a local organization, and it has been good for me. I go there twice a week for a couple of hours, and recently have taken on more responsibility. We wear masks and observe social distancing; I enjoy the interaction. My writers’ group has been meeting outdoors every week, maintaining social distancing. We have been together for years and care for each other. But we don’t hug, not now.

            Today I went to my first class at the Y in three months. It was outside in the parking lot, early enough that it wasn’t too hot. I enjoyed seeing old friends. We wanted to hug but we didn’t.

            I know there are people out there who love me, and I know those friends will be in touch as soon as we can get together. My daughter, Stacy, is coming to visit this month.

            Ah, at least she can give me a hug.