- By Jill Smolowe
After my husband died in 2009, I expected to be consumed by sorrow. The American cultural script, after all, is very clear on this point.
You know the kind of scenes I mean. Widow mournfully fingers the shirts in her husband’s closet. Widow burrows her nose in her husband’s pillow and tries desperately to inhale his scent. Widow climbs into bed and refuses to get up for days, weeks, even months.
In my case, what happened is better illustrated by the hours that immediately followed Joe’s death. We’d been enjoying a weekend in rural Pennsylvania with our teenage daughter. Now, as EMTs carried away my beloved husband of 24 years, I stood dazed, surveying the post-Joe world — everything familiar; everything changed. That’s one minute without Joe, I thought.That’s two minutes without Joe.
I don’t remember how long I stood there, but gradually a new mantra took hold: Get home. Get home. Proceeding with painstaking concentration, I washed the dishes. Emptied the trash baskets. Straightened the bedrooms. Got Becky and me packed into the car and on the road home to New Jersey.
Humans are wired to survive. We adapt, we change gears, we smile and laugh and do what we need to do.
— George Bonanno, The Other Side of Sadness
A Lesson About Death
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was receiving an important lesson about death. A master class, really.
During the more than two years that Joe had battled leukemia and then the side effects of a stem cell transplant, I had spent every possible hour by his side. When we were apart, I encountered dark fantasies of life without him. I imagined boundless loneliness. Unrelenting sorrow. Deepening depression. In my musings, death was solely about the stoppage of Joe’s life and the end of mine as I knew it. Now, reality was quietly showing me that death is never only about death. It’s also about the minute that follows death. And the one after that. And the one after that.
To see that life goes on was, in its own way, very shocking.
In coming days, as loving friends and relatives offered me sympathy and support, their tight hugs, furrowed brows and knowing looks communicated an insistent message: Jill must be a wreck. Yet, though Joe was never more than moments from my thoughts, I was actually functioning much as I normally do, albeit within a range of emotions more intense than usual.
Whenever a positive emotion broke through — comfort, affection, gratitude — I latched onto it. Around day four, a widowed colleague arrived radiating joy. “Wow, you look fantastic,” I said. Cocking her head shyly, she said, “I have a new boyfriend.” For a moment, I felt happiness and hope — two emotions I was surprised I could access, however briefly, so soon after losing Joe.
What I didn’t experience then, and still haven’t six years on, were any of the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) that my boomer generation was raised on. Those stages, I would eventually discover, were based on psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s observations of dying patients — not the loved ones left behind. Modern bereavement research paints a very different picture.
The 3 Ways We Grieve
Clinical psychologist George Bonanno, one of the country’s preeminent grief experts, divides the bereft into three groups: chronic grief (those who are overwhelmed by grief for 18 months or longer); acute grief (those who recover within 18 months); and resilience (those who return to normal functioning within six months).
This last group, the majority group, experience grief as a constant oscillation between sadness and lighter moments that enables them to experience pleasure even in the earliest days of loss. “Humans are wired to survive,” Bonanno explains in The Other Side of Sadness. “We adapt, we change gears, we smile and laugh and do what we need to do.”
So, what do resilient people do?
Mourners’ coping mechanisms are as personal as grief itself.
When Helen Kilbane, 47, turned the calendar page on her late husband’s birthday, she took herself off to a pub, her husband’s ashes in tow in an oak box. As she carried a pint of beer from the bar to her table, she says, “I smiled as I remembered times when I bought him a pint and then walked toward him at a snail’s pace as I tried not to leave most of it on the floor.”
After Sharon Kenney, 66, lost her husband, she says, “It became urgent that I get outside every day, put my feet on soil, and just notice that there’s still a world outside my grieving mind.” After ramping up her walks, bike rides and road trips, she says, “It occurred to me that maybe this is what it means to be ‘grounded.’”
For me, hauling boxes of Joe’s clutter from the attic proved therapeutic. (I know, it’s not for everyone.) A life-long packrat, Joe had told me shortly before he died what he wanted me to save for our daughter. “Everything else, throw it out,” he said. So, I did. As the mounds of boxes shrank, I found that the weight of his absence had lightened a bit.
I also wrote thank-you notes. Lots of them. I wanted people to know that I valued their support. Each time I uncorked my gratitude and let it flow, it helped me recognize and appreciate the reasons I had to go on without Joe. By the time I discovered Spider Solitaire on my computer a few weeks on, I had begun to think of myself as “OK.”
Yet I was having trouble accepting my OKness.
That may sound odd, but the tide of sympathy that engulfs the newly bereaved is almost uniformly colored by an assumption that a grief-stricken person is, for a time, lost completely to sorrow. With their worried frowns and concerned How-are-you’s, well-wishers communicate the assumption that you are not all right. Each time someone told me I was “amazing” for bearing up so well, I wondered if my grief was abnormal.
I’m OK, You’re OK
About two weeks into mourning, I had an appointment with Joe’s and my attorney, Grace, to begin the process of settling Joe’s estate. A year earlier, Grace had shared the painful news that her young adult daughter, after a long illness, had died. Because I knew that Grace had experience with grief, I responded to her calm “How are you doing?” with candor. “Better than I would have expected,” I said. “I’m still waiting for the moment when I fall apart.”
A look of surprise flickered across Grace’s face. “You won’t,” she said, her tone matter-of-fact. “You’re strong, like I am. You’ll cope just fine. That doesn’t mean you won’t go on missing Joe. I miss my daughter every day. But I also have a lot going on in my life. You do, too.”
She then talked about my daughter, my magazine job, my friends. She spoke about my strength, my competence, my ability to cope. She applauded my decision to return to work the following week; she, too, had returned to work soon after her daughter’s death.
I hung on Grace’s every word. Here was someone offering an alternative to paralyzing sorrow. In her scenario, I would be, as she was, profoundly sad, but I would keep going because I had a life worth living. I took from our conversation something I hadn’t realized I needed: “permission” to be OK.
Four months later, when I discovered that bereavement researchers have a term for my OKness — resilience — I stopped worrying whether it was OK to be OK. Grappling with grief is hard enough.
I was relieved to be done with the additional burden of feeling guilty that I was coping as well as I was. I also realized there must be countless other people who feel ill-served by the one-size-fits-all cultural script that insists, “Now you fall apart.” Perhaps if we let go of that misplaced assumption and give the bereaved room to experience their grief without the weight of societal expectation, more people will find they really are OK.