How does a widow see her future? What can a widow see in the present?
My late husband Gene D. Cohen is considered a founding father of Geriatric Psychiatry and the grandpappy of the field of Creativity and Aging. With his son and our daughter, I went to Chicago to receive his Hall of Fame Award, only four months after his passing. Being married to someone famous, who passes away just five weeks into his 65th year, after devoting his entire career to the understanding and creative potential of people 65 and older, is a loss not only to those of us who are his family, but to the many colleagues and protégés in the field.
It seems to comfort friends to see me as OK; they say I am intelligent, bright, beautiful, young (they think, but I am 66, is that young?). They like to envision another chapter awaiting me. Although I know they have my best in mind, I am clear that this thought is more consoling for them than for me; it also erases my existence. I cannot imagine a future because the present is still filled with a need for stamina. Thoughts of “new life, new passions, new people” feel unsafe to me. I don’t want to be moved out of the now and into the then. Because I have walked the full distance of responsibility in caretaking, all the way up to the moment of death, the choice to walk with another is not an intimacy I dare take on again. The experience is a deep responsibility and a shared exchange that I can’t imagine repeating.
When our parents die, no one tries to comfort us by saying, "You can love like this again with a new mother, new father, or a different grandparent.” Yet, with the loss of a spouse, people quickly start talking about a new companion, a new sexual partner, a new friend. Or it seems quick to me; some people may truly be comforted by the possibility of being loved and cared for by someone again; but for me, it feels unsafe. I could explain it by saying that Gene was rare, that he was my true love, or that Gene was the right husband for me. But I don’t think this truth is the reason for what I experience. It’s much more existential than that: I have gone through the door of death and over the edge.
So, I do not find it hopeful or comforting when people say to me, “Ah yes, you will do that again once you get through this period. You are young, you have more time, more spunk, and more energy within, more love to give and to receive.” The truth is, it is comforting to them to believe that, to imagine that death does not take everything away, that we recover from what we have lost, that life goes on and on. And maybe the real desire in such a message is that we do not die. But we do. He did.
To me, what is comforting is to honor the deep intimacy I have whether my husband is here or not. I don’t want people to ask me to move on, move over, move anywhere. I don’t want to build a shrine to a past nor do I want to be told there is a future. I want to stand in what is and have it still throb with its own breath, its own memories. I want preservation and conservation. I want to float in the beauty of the creative life we built. I want to stay in our life together, a life that I seeded with him.
There is a huge community of care around me. It’s a wonderful source of support, gratitude, and love. But there is an edge to the grieving process that is difficult to articulate. It sounds ungrateful, mean, even selfish, but I think it needs to be said out loud because grieving is a universal process, one that requires informed exchanges of love and understanding.
So, allow me, please: Stop telling me of a different future. Stop telling me who I can become, might become, or should become. Stop placing your anxiety on me. I have enough to carry right now. I am carrying the death of love, the death of body, the death of marriage, the death of shared parenting, the death of wholeness, the death of friendship, the death of a well-built, well-traveled journey together.
I reject your images of what my grief should look like to you. From this side of the opened door, I can say that you cannot possibly understand what my reality is like or you would not offer me solutions. The loss of the intimacy, love, identity, essence, partnership I have known with Gene is what I am processing; nothing can be more intimate than holding the soul and essence of a loved one at the time of death. No one would ever ask us to move on from such awe-filled moments as when our child is born, when our choice of partnered love is born, when our shared identities are born. No one would ever ask us to imagine new moments for these rites of passage. Yet our culture doesn’t allow death to have the same respect.
Please remember, when you stand by your grieving friend, you cannot take her pain away with your belief that another life will help her feel better. What feels best is to stand beside your friend, knowing that you can’t imagine her grief—not just the loss, but the intimacy; not just the pain, but the closeness; not just the loneliness, but the aloneness.
The shared presence of listening is your real gift. Be in awe that your friend has been touched by some vital essence and will never be the same again.
“Both/And” (2002), carved alabaster on stone slab,12 x 9 x 7 inches.
Artwork by Wendy L. Miller, photo credit: Claire Blatt