WESTMINSTER WEST — In the fall of 2004, my friend Kay's husband, the love of her life, left this world after a long illness.
Kay decided to keep their tradition, and so, three months later, without her Richard, she went to the annual extended family Christmas weekend celebration they'd always gone to together.
If you're a fellow widow, you will understand how surreal those days were for her, how deeply out of place she felt. How she went through the motions, physically present but not remotely there.
“But you know the really weird part, Crescent?” she asked me later, shaking her head. “I was actually in every single group photograph at the time they were taken. I stood with everyone. I smiled. I saw the flash.
“But I don't show up in any of the photographs. Somehow, photographically, I am literally invisible. It's like I wasn't there.”
Because she wasn't.
* * *
Holidays: ignore them, adore them, participate in them, or abstain. But there they are, making us take note of time's wheel, unceasingly spinning in one direction only.
Holidays tell widows what every day after the death of our respective partners tells us: that what is impossible is true, that the wheel will continue turning, even after the person most central to our lives is gone. That while nothing in our lives is the same, the world will continue to act as if it is.
Mail still arrives, with bank statements. The cat still needs to be fed, the dog walked. Dust accumulates under the bed we will never again share with our partner.
But though every day tells us this, holidays do so extra loudly.
Like every aspect of our lives, widowhood shifts our observance of the holidays, cleaving before from after. We used to do the holidays in a certain way with our beloved partner, then he or she died: tectonic alteration, an unacceptable fact we are asked to accept over and over.
Holidays ask us to accept it with additional burdens, specific rituals, behaviors, and expectations.
Our first Thanksgiving without her. Our first Christmas without him. Another Chanukah without her. A third New Year absent him.
No matter how we, as widows, choose to mark or attempt to ignore holidays, these days will almost surely be grief-filled.
We can, however, worsen the grief (by trying to pretend it away). Or, depending on how willing we are to feel and sit with our sorrow, we may take a few baby steps towards integrating loss, love, and life, with our lives as they are now, as they will become.
Although it might not feel like baby steps - or integration.
* * *
What makes the holidays so hard?
Obviously, we can't do them the way we did when she or he was alive, even if we continue some of the outer forms. And whatever we may eventually find or grow into for future holidays has probably not yet revealed itself. And the future refuses to be hurried.
Obviously, too, enormous pressure bears down on us from many directions. Pressure to celebrate, to “count your blessings.” To be thankful. To be jolly (or “holly-jolly”), happy, merry, bright.
And to consume. We endure pressure to buy, decorate, drink, socialize, give. (The importance of “Christmas shopping” to retail means that we are pressured relentlessly to express love, joy, and peace, ineffable qualities that are not and never can be material, through the purchase, exchange, and consumption of material objects.)
But underneath these pressures lies the mother of all holiday pressure. The holidays in particular ask us to feel and be something other than what we feel and who we are. At this time.
And our culture, addicted as it is to positivity, self-improvement, fixing things, and feeling good, really doesn't deal with grief well. On many fronts, others find what we are actually feeling unacceptable, so we face an even larger - and usually unstated - pressure to fake it.
This puts the widow or widower on a collision course with her or his world. Grief makes others uncomfortable. Those who are grieving are the ultimate “buzz-killers.” (Though, really, it's not us; and it's not even mortality; it's the society-wide inability to look at mortality.)
But, feelings want to be felt. And of all the emotions humans carry, grief is most unyielding on this point. Grief simply insists on being felt.
But during “the most wonderful time of the year” (as the Christmas songs - set on repeat, everywhere from gas stations to beauty salons - ceaselessly remind us), we are asked to not feel our grief.
And if we can't not feel it, we are asked (usually indirectly) to pretend.
* * *
The pressure to not feel what you feel comes from many sources. Some are familial, some societal, some religious. Some come from friends. Some, from within.
Even the impersonal, economically driven pressure to consume has a painful emotional component in widowhood: for many of us, we may well be deep into dealing with questions of our late partner's stuff: what should be given away or thrown out, and when. The thought of accumulating still more material objects at this time might also fill us with horror.
But even if we put our feet down and resist shopping, buying, and giving, widows are also pressured personally - often, by friends.
Such pressure from friends is harder to resist, because most of our friends are well-meaning. Their intentions are kind, mostly.
They are worried about us. They “don't want us to be alone for the holidays.” They want to know if we are getting enough sleep or if we are sleeping “too much.” They tell us to “take care of [our]selves.” (Which means, in this context, exactly what?)
They say, “You have to eat.”
They say, “He wouldn't want you to feel this way.”
They say, “It's been over three years!”
They say, “Just come out for an hour, one hour. If you're not comfortable, I'll drive you home.”
None of this lets you just hang out with what you feel, with who you are now. And it trivializes and minimizes your egregious loss.
Could a party to which you wear a red-and-green plaid velvet skirt and drink mulled wine cheer you up? Well, maybe if you lost a set of car keys, even a job - not a life partner.
On the other hand, threaded among the dynamic of changing friendships may also be the perplexing opposite: friends who drop you utterly.
If this happens, it will most often be with “couple friends,” dyads you and your partner knew as another pair. So unthinkable are your present circumstances and reality that some such friends vanish - driven away, one supposes, by an atavistic fear that maybe it's catching.
Given the discomfort of the pressure to socialize, you would think this loss would be a relief, and in some ways it is. Yet it is also confusing and hurtful.
Now, some friends do get it, and bless them, bless them, bless them. They neither pressure you to celebrate nor do they drop you. They hang out with you, walk with you a little ways.
But many friends simply are not going to be able to go the distance with us at this time. They might love us, but they find it hard to know how to be with a grieving friend if they themselves have not been bereaved.
In a wholly different way, the death of our partner has befuddled our friends, too.
* * *
Family create another tangle of mixed-up, often excruciatingly contradictory, pressures.
Parents of young children feel the pressure to make the holidays both normal and special for their kids. How unbearable this is for the widowed mom-or-dad, bereft and probably not able to even begin to grieve fully solo, too overwhelmed in trying to protect and salve the bereft, bewildered children.
In fact, all who were related to your partner had unique relationships, good or bad, with individual sets of feelings. All of them also are contending with the loss of your partner - the same person, though someone very different to them than to you.
Issues of control, money, and inheritance, of who has the “right” to remember your spouse in what way (and who does indeed remember him or her correctly), matters that were unresolved, arguments over possessions (sometimes, even his or her very ashes!) - all of these issues can surface.
All of these issues on top of whatever scratchiness may have been there all along.
And some of it is frankly crazy.
And most families have one or more self-dramatizing narcissists, who will make their reactions bigger and more important than yours, even if your spouse saw such relatives maybe once a year, inevitably saying later a dozen times, “Well, thank God we don't have to deal with him for another year - what a jerk.”
All this as you may still be trying to come to grips with the most basic fact: your partner is gone and not coming back.
Of course, as with friends, there are some family members who do get it, who love and support us respectfully, who do not deny the mysterious, vast, somber terrain we now tread. Some even walk with us part of the way from time to time. Bless them. Bless them.
But, in my experience, again, they are the minority.
And perhaps you and your beloved partner jumped right in and reveled in this season joyfully, either privately or with family or friends. Or perhaps your practice was to ignore the whole thing as much as possible.
Yet even people who don't celebrate the holidays traditionally do “observe” them, in the sense of noticing them. (Going out for Chinese food every Christmas day is as much a tradition as roast goose and plum pudding.)
Your social relationships, as a couple, may have been nourished by familial love and affection, enjoyment and friendship. Or, they may have been driven by duty and toxic obligation, or characterized by distance. This continues to play out, or heighten, after a death.
* * *
Especially if you are in early-stage widowhood and the partner who has died is someone you loved deeply and unambivalently, you are in pain. (Ambivalent love has a separate set of burdens and sorrows, but generally, the more joyfully you loved your partner, the tougher grief is.)
Other people may not be able to be honest with you about your pain, but at least you can be honest with yourself. Or you can try to be.
You can't unfeel the pain, nor can you hurry it up. It is going to take its own bitter time, and it will not leave you as it found you.
And it is certainly not going to go on vacation so you can have a nice Christmas.
And while you may feel you owe to the well-meaning ones your presence as reassurance that you are okay, you don't, actually.
You are not okay, and to pretend you are only worsens things. You owe yourself only this: whatever is the best way for you to get through the pain. This is rarely big noisy socializing.
The death of both my husband and, later, my partner taught me to think long and hard about accepting invitations. As grief counselor Meghan Devine writes, “Remember that 'no' is a complete sentence.”
Though this may sound stark, for most of us it is far more soothing to stay at home, where, if a grief tsunami hits, we can sob unobtrusively and not have to worry about anyone or anything except how the hell we are even going to take one more breath in the face of this enormous pain.
It is a special kind of hell to have to pretend celebratory normalcy, as our well-meaning friends attempt helplessly to comfort us.
We feel doubly or triply bad because we have to fake it or because we cannot fake it.
In comparison, sitting alone with the pain of your loss, even in a dark house, is so much more comfortable.
* * *
But the noisy denial of death and grief does not only come from outside. The trickiest piece: we do it ourselves sometimes.
We are not immune to magical thinking. As we try to come to grips with the unthinkable, we find our unconscious, as well as our conscious, working overtime.
My dreams, after my husband Ned's death, kept coming up with alternative scenarios that collided with reality devastatingly.
I wrote a poem about one such dream, which led me to say “yes” to an invitation my conscious self had said “no” to.
The party, my first public appearance in our small town since his death, was grim for me. People would clam up or burst into tears when they saw me, or they would fling their arms around me.
But coming home was worse.
This poem may be hard to read - as it was to live through.
But I share it for two reasons: first, to say again that not all the pressure and denial is external, that some of it comes from within.
And secondly, because living through the agonies -which, for me, included this party - turns out to be part of the process by which we integrate the great loss of our great love into our next life.
For death, and grief, are inseparable from love. All are part of life and loving, and they come only on their own terms.
Dream, December 30, one month after your fatal accident
§We knew you had six months
§to live. How calm we were!
§No tumors, amputations,
§hospitalizations; no burning drips,
§emaciation. Just fact:
§the running out of time,
§but known, a set amount.
§We moved through the house, sorting.
§You were wearing
§that big texture-y white shirt,
§black jeans. You gave me
§the Quicken password, the
§safety deposit box key.
§You promised, within these confines,
§that there was nothing to fear.
§“It won't be unexpected,
§you'll know. For instance,
§you won't walk in and find me
§dead. As for that
§New Year's Eve party, you
§should go. I'll be here
§when you get back.”
§I went. You weren't.