I choose to believe that most of the time, people are well-intended when they say things out loud. They don’t necessarily mean to say something stupid and hurtful. People (myself included) just don’t know what to say in the wake of death, sorrow and loss. Naturally, people feel this urge to say something over saying nothing. So they open wide, and in what is an attempt to inspire me to feel better after my husband’s death, out comes something like this: “You can never replace a parent or a child, but people routinely replace a spouse.”
As if I should just run to Costco, pick out another ready made husband right off the shelf, and wash my hands of this ugly grieving business.
While legalistically true, the statement remains oversimplified and emotionally wrong. Maybe it was intended as a variation on the “there’s always somebody who has bigger problems that you do” theme. Perhaps it was meant to encourage me to smooth over my loss of a husband with the latest and greatest model, like the pretty new sweater I purchased after I accidentally shrunk my favorite wool one in the wash. The fact of the matter is that nobody can be replaced. It’s not so simple as checking a box, submitting the fee and moving on. This real life is messy and complicated and somehow beautiful in a way that’s nearly impossible to explain, but that doesn’t stop me from trying.
I hadn’t intended to replace my spouse. I kind of liked Sam and wanted him to stick around. We were family by choice, not by accident of birth, but does that make our relationship less valuable, less worthy of grieving? Spouses are supposed to stay together for life (life, meaning well into old age, and old age looking like that sweet couple shuffling slowly down the sidewalk holding hands). We were partners, lovers, confidantes, everything. We promised.
And then he died.
Everything we had built together now rested on my narrow shoulders. I was left holding the babies, who were by far the two best reasons for me to get up in the morning. So I did.
As a mother to grieving children, I cannot completely separate their suffering from my own. It’s true that I don’t know personally a loss of a parent, but my sons’ loss of a parent grieves me with each stage and graduation their deceased father misses. My heart aches for my step-sons as they grow and progress without their mom, even as my same heart swells with gratitude for these young men and pride in their accomplishments. If I do my job right, and the children do theirs, my boys will leave me and create lives of their own, maybe even with a partner he chooses (and who chooses him), if they are so blessed.
As a daughter-in-law, my in-laws’ loss of a child is never far from my heart, especially when we plan holiday celebrations. Again, it is not my loss, but there’s a tenderness and awareness for that particular ache. I hold an insider’s seat watching my father-in-law go from desperately losing his own will to live to embracing the life and family and love that is present for him. He teases my husband Tim (his son-in-law-in-law?) if we do not have his favorite beer at family gatherings, and my Tim drives across town to pick up my in-laws to bring them to brunch. No, it doesn’t replace the father-son relationship, but it is something special. There’s love enough for both.
My son once explained to me that the adage “blood is thicker than water” actually derives from the military context, in which the soldiers (blood brothers) who fight together form a closer bond even than twins who share the same womb (water brothers). I am grateful that he appreciates the varied forms that love presents to us. Because in the end, does it really matter? Whether the family we choose or our family of origin, we are bonded together with love.
The comparative loss paradigm is a subtle snare that diverts us from a healing path. Nobody wins the competitive suffering competition. It doesn’t make sense to me that the loss of a 5 year marriage is by definition less meaningful than the loss of a 50 year marriage, any more than it makes sense to tell a mother that the death of her 5 year-old child should be less excruciating than the death of her 50 year-old child. We could let the individual nature of our losses divide us, or we could instead let love unite us. In the words of Francis Weller, “We can be generous to every sorrow we see. It is sacred work.”
And so, we hold other’s hands, we meet for coffee or a walk, we laugh and cry.
I appreciate that people want to say something, something that will be helpful and kind, something inspirational, something that might reduce the pain. I get that the silence is heavy and scary and painful. I understand that our culture is incredibly uncomfortable with grieving and sadness. And that the future is frustratingly opaque. I wish – way back then – that I had known to say something like this, Here’s the deal. You try this: You do not have to say anything; it’s okay to sit with me silently. Please don’t try to talk me out of how agonizing grief is; let my pain be; just sit with it, with me. And I’ll try this: I will forgive you if you say something hurtful in an attempt to be helpful; I will listen to your heart when you cannot tolerate my tears or silence any longer, and I will ignore your words in an effort to hear what your heart is saying: I love you, I’m here, and I don’t know what to say.
In a way, my friend was right, in the sense that she hoped I would find love and joy again. Eight years later, in fact, I am happily married.
It might seem incongruous that I am still talking about grief and loss and healing and hope and light. I guess that’s just how big love is. It’s not defined by time or space, or what it looks like on the surface, and the whole crazy mess is an integral part of who I am and how I got here. It’s not as though you can simply delete the past, even if you want to. Just yesterday, I received a letter for Sam from the County Assessor’s Office. Evidently, they are lagging behind in their record-keeping. Nearly every day, I drive home from the office via the intersection where Sam jumped to his death. And yes, I think of him. Every time. Sometimes, it is with joy and gratitude, occasionally with anger or sadness, often with a smile and prayers for peace – for Sam, for our family, for those in the human family struggling with depression and despair. It’s just part of my route, my routine.
None of this negates how crazy head-over-heels in love I am with my Tim.
I did not replace Sam with Tim, and he did not replace Debbie with me. We have our own relationship, and we do not love each other less for the journey. The resurrected life expands to hold the whole of love and loss and pain and joy. On the one hand, I will always love Sam and never quite get over the heartbreak of his suicide, and on the other hand, my Tim is a gift and a light in my life that I adore. As Kate Braestrup says, “I can’t make those two realities – what I’ve lost and what I’ve found – fit together in some tidy pattern of divine causality. I just have to hold them on the one hand and on the other, just like that.” Which is exactly what it’s like.
The other day, Tim and I were sitting at lunch, and something about us caught the attention of the woman at an adjacent table. She kept looking over at us. Eventually, she leans toward me and says, “You look like somebody.” Julie Christie? I offer. (When I was waiting tables in college, one of the regulars called me Julie because he thought the resemblance was so strong.) “No.” Pause. Then she says, “You look so happy together. There’s a light about a woman whose husband truly loves her. How long have you been married?” Five years, I say.
I often feel compelled to explain that the two of us were widowed, because “five years” doesn’t come close to containing our relationship. Maybe because we look our age, complete with wrinkles and more than a few gray hairs. Maybe because our children are much older than the years of our marriage. So I told her the short story of Charlotte and Tim: we were both widowed, with two sons each, and then we met, fell in love, married and blended our family. Margaret smiles. “Thank you for sharing your story. You’ve made my day. You are a beautiful love story.”
Which might also be why I keep talking about love and loss and life and hope. Because love is a beautiful story.
Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And silence. And love stories.
Francis Weller, The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief (2015).
Kate Braestrup, Here if You Need Me (2007).