In our 100th blob, we talked about staying together by choice. This will be my last serious blob but as the Jewish holidays approach I think about the other friends who are no longer part of our lives. They are the friends who have been separated by illness or God— who really knows. Over the last few years at least four of our very good friends died. They left behind devoted partners, who spent the last years of their marriages as full time care givers. Friends do what they can to help, but it’s never enough. It can’t be, because the truth is, the person who is ill only wants to deal with their beloved partner. On one occasion we visited a dying pal who, as sick as he was, allowed us to understand that he didn’t want to die because he didn’t want to leave his love. It was so personal a statement and so unlike anything he had ever shared before that we felt like we were, in some way, intruding in their lives. And so we said a quiet goodbye and raced to the car where we could have a really good cry.
What is amazing to me is the different ways people deal with such a serious loss. Based on my fortunately limited experience, it takes years before someone can function after that kind of a loss. And by “that kind” I mean people who chose to be connected 24/7 and loved it. Some were life long partners, some married late, some were married more than once. But they made the commitment to spend most of their day, as well as nights, together. Then, without any warning or preparation, they are fighting some unwinnable battle with an aggressive lymphoma or some equally devastating disease.
So what happens to these brave and devoted people once their partner is gone and they have no alternative but to move on with their lives. It depends. My friends have reacted in totally different ways. But they seem to fall into four categories; numb, professional widow, you can’t be happy because I’m miserable, and I’m picking myself up and moving on.
Numb is just a stage but worth noting because it can last for a long time. This happens to everyone but it is more severe when the survivor was dependent on the spouse for everything from work to driving. The spouse did most of the tedious tasks – bills, taxes, repairs etc. This is not to say that the partner left behind is helpless, but it means they have to spend a great deal of time playing catch up. They need to spend inordinate time figuring out where things are. Simple things like where the circuit breakers are or when the car needs inspection, and complicated things like mortgages on vacation properties. Or, were the new windows ever installed? Is there a security system? What the hell am I going to do about insurance and medical bills? The person you love most in the world is gone and has left you with a mess. Are you angrier about the death or the clean-up? Probably a combination of both. But it does teach us all a lesson and as a consequence I have begged David to clean up the basement because if he leaves me with a mess I’ll have to kill him. Never mind, I’ve decided to go first—it’s easier.
The professional widow is someone who can’t deal with the fact that they should be credited with moving on with their own life while carrying on a legacy. They insist on giving credit to the dead spouse for their livelihood and at times, their existence. They feel like they can’t take the credit or it will take something away from the spouse. It’s probably more a girl problem than something boys suffer, but at the best of times, it’s not easy. You adored the person who died and you just want to keep protecting who they were and how their astounding talent impacted on the world. The only way an outsider can help is to be supportive and keep reminding them that they are special in their own right.
The people who feel like you can’t be happy because they are miserable are always the most difficult to deal with because you always have to be careful not to do or say anything that makes them feel worse than they already feel. If they are in good financial shape it’s easier than if, along with the loss, they have to figure out whether to eat or take medication. You can try to be supportive but there’s always the chance that you’ll do something insensitive or, in their estimation, unfeeling. If the have work that is rewarding or children they love and can look beyond their suffering to something positive in their lives it will be OK. But it is breathtakingly painful to watch your relationship with a dear person degenerate because if you are the self who was part of a valuable friendship, it just makes them angry.
A college friend, who has also become my personal hero, has been widowed three times. But she will tell you that the second husband died after she divorced him, so it’s questionable whether that one counts. How horrible it must be to have to go through that kind of a loss 3 times. But she has. After a few years she decided to stop mourning. She went on the web for dates, (where, she says, everyone lies), she been to singles events, and has bought new sexy underwear. She says you have two choices – to live or to just breathe and be miserable. And she has chosen the former. And she has done it with great class and good humor.
I have asked all these friends the same question. How do you get out of bed in the morning. How do you face the day, pick yourself up and go on? They all agree that you take one day at a time. There is no long range plan—that it too stressful. They also agree that although the loss becomes less immediate with every passing day, it is not something that goes away. There are always wonderful memories but they are often mixed with tears. They agree that the support of friends and family are important but that they are basically on their own and have to learn to find a different path to happiness.
I guess I have come to this conclusion. If we love them we hang in, help them through the worst times, and celebrate the best times. As friends it is our job to be there when they need us and be quiet when they don’t. We’re just sayin’…Iris