Some sleepless nights, when I’m lying in bed, listening to my husband’s steady breathing, instead of feeling comforted and secure like I normally do, I am seized with fear. For one heart-stopping moment, I imagine life without him and a future that seems unbearably empty.
I don’t anticipate my dear husband dying anytime soon, nor is it certain I’ll outlive him. But sadly, as we move into middle age and beyond, losing our life partner to illness or disease becomes an increasing possibility. And if you’re like me, you wonder, how could I possibly survive such a loss?
My own father wasn’t the best model. When my mom died in 1993, his grief was so powerful and overwhelming, that he immediately tried to distance himself from his feelings. The day after her memorial service, he actually said to us, his children, “We’re allowed to be sad today, but tomorrow, we’re done crying.”
My dad was also in a hurry to dispose of anything that reminded him of my mom, ordering my sister and me to go through her closet and throw out “everything.” I still remember that awful day, the two of us weeping, raw with grief, as we bagged up the remnants of her life–her evening dresses, flannel nightgowns, golf shoes and costume jewelry.
In truth, my dad never moved on. In the years that followed, he jumped from one bad relationship to the next, trying, but never able to replace my mom and fill the hole in his heart.
None of us can predict how we’d react in the same situation. But recently, I came across what appears to be a healthier approach to love and loss.
I went to visit “Don,” a family friend whose beloved wife of 61 years died nearly a year ago. I planned to take him to lunch to cheer him up.
But before we could leave the house, Don walked me to his wife’s closet, to see if I wanted any of her clothes since she was about my size and build. Remembering the experience of going through my mom’s things, I followed him with a heavy heart.
What I saw made me terribly sad, at first. His wife’s well-tailored clothes were lined up neatly, each item cleaned, pressed, and ready to wear. They were perfectly preserved, just like the rest of the house–not a picture frame or piece of furniture had been moved; even their 1960s pink bathroom still smelled feminine and flowery.
I fixated on Don’s loss and a love that seemed frozen in time. But then I realized my focus was all wrong. In giving his wife’s precious things to me, he was giving himself permission to move on. Unlike my dad, Don grappled with his grief, faced his fears, and sat with his memories until he was finally ready to let them go.
When we left the house, his wife’s clothes piled in my arms, it was as if a huge burden had been lifted, and he walked with a lighter step.
I learned from Don that if we’re willing to embrace both our love and losses, we can survive anything–even the death of those closest to our heart. In fact, to know that we loved and were loved is precisely what allows us to move on, give to others and even love again. At least that’s what I’m banking on.