Face to face and online, people keep telling me that I am bearing my wife’s death well. The truth is, what I am really doing is maintaining the appearance of normalcy. I have just enough sense remaining to realize that people don’t want to hear the details and that what I am enduring is unimaginable to most people who have not gone through it themselves. Certainly, it would have been unimaginable to me before this summer.
I tell myself that I have learned from the parrots in my living room not to show vulnerability. Scream, puff yourself up, or cause a disturbance, but don’t let anyone know that you’re tired or ill: That’s their credo, and I can understand it. Grief is a private thing, and I don’t generally care to share it, except with those who already feel it.
I’m here to say, though, that surviving a spouse of thirty years is like nothing I’ve ever experienced – and I’m not exactly a stranger to trauma. It’s not even like other griefs, except maybe in general outline.
To start with, my situation means endless details. Quite aside from funeral arrangements and telling friends and relatives what happened, my life has been full of canceling subscriptions, changing the name on assets, dragging through probate, arranging new medical coverage, talking to my accountants to my lawyer, and to my financial advisor, and dealing with government agencies and officials of all sorts. Just when you are least able to handle bureaucracy, an avalanche of it is waiting to overwhelm you and suffocate you.
Yet these distractions are the least of surviving a spouse. My situation is also about noting a joke or a situation, only to remember that you no longer have anyone with whom to share it. It’s having thoughts that you no longer have anyone to confide to. It’s learning to cook for one person instead of two. It’s realizing that there is no division of labor – if you don’t do something, it doesn’t get done. It’s breaking down half a dozen times a day over trivia like an old photo or shoe, or watching a video and remembering that your partner never got to watch it, or thinking of a trip that she’ll never take now. It’s a sudden pain in your abdomen that has you worrying about appendicitis but is really just a new manifestation of anxiety. It’s waking up with your hair and your sheets cold with sweat, and getting up in the morning feeling like a hand is pushing against your chest whenever you do anything.
Then, just as you are getting some distraction from a video or book, so that you could almost belief that your spouse is out shopping or in the next room, it’s realizing that the respite is an illusion – that in dozens of tiny ways, your everyday assumptions no longer work.
And that’s just the common themes. Stay home, and you are alone with the thoughts that you have come to dread. Go out, and not only are you surprised to see people going about their ordinary business, but that business seems trivial and unimportant.
In fact, your whole relation to people change. You have less patience with people. Euphemisms like “passed away” or cliches like “I’m sure it’s all for the best” set your teeth on edge. You may find, as I did, that you have no longer have patience with other people’s foibles. You may even pick a fight, so viciously that, even when you apologize, the other person doesn’t forgive you, and you feel like an idiot for making the world a nastier place.
You discover, too, that the way people treat you changes. For one thing, relative strangers feel they can now give you meaningless advice on how you should live.
Also, you are no longer half a couple, but a lone individual for the first time in years. Many acquaintances and friends no longer know how to treat you. You are no longer married – and therefore, provisionally safe – to women. Things you could do or say as a married man now take on new implications, and are suddenly best avoided.
This change in the expectations placed on you is especially ironic, because the last thing you are thinking of is a new relationship. If your relationship with your spouse was as good as mine, you wonder if you will ever have a relationship to match. You seriously doubt that you will, and, anyway, the steps that are usually necessary to develop even a potential relationship seem so ludicrous that you are seriously thinking of avoiding the whole subject for the rest of your life.
In short, surviving a spouse means that the future, which for years you thought you knew in broad outline, is suddenly as indefinite as it was when you were fourteen. You discover, too, that you don’t really care.
In theory, you could start staggering down a new life path, but that would require giving a damn – and you don’t, not really. Taking a course or joining a meetup would just be a new way to pass time, and travel a lot of effort just so you can go somewhere else to be alone.
And if you say all this sounds like self-dramatization, like I’m only going through what billions have gone through before me, all I have to say is, “See? I told you that you wouldn’t understand. You don’t want to, either, because, if you did, you would comprehend just how fragile your life really is.”
Far less effort for me to show the facade they prefer. That way, everyone else can keep their illusions intact.