The agony of losing a spouse
Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.
- C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
The pain was searing. The loss of a spouse, especially when it comes suddenly and traumatically, is the emotional equivalent of a devastating physical injury, caused by an act of violence perpetrated by nature. In those first few weeks after losing Linda, I was dazed and confused. I was still functioning - I looked after my elder daughter, I visited my newborn daughter at the hospital daily, I contacted Linda’s friends to tell them the news, I arranged her memorial service and funeral, I started the paperwork to settle her estate - but inside I was numb. Taking care of these things that I never imagined having to do made each day surreal and, in some ways, acted like an anesthetic masking the pain within.
The worst pain was still to come. When my younger daughter finally came home from the hospital after three weeks, everyday life restarted. Family and friends had gone back to their homes across the country and resumed from where they had left off, their lives emotionally bubble-wrapped and still intact. There were now two young girls to care for, a household to run, and the daily routines that I was left to handle alone. The one person I needed the most to help me through it all was no longer here. The dulling effect of the first few weeks started to wear off, and the despair intensified.
I questioned whether I would be able to bear it. There would be moments when I would be overwhelmed with emotion; my heart would tighten, I would stoop to the ground, and it would be difficult to breathe. I was prone to random crying spells or outbursts. And sometimes it felt as if I was in a zombie state, going through the motions each day yet feeling like part of me had already died with Linda.
For the first time, I was able to understand how a person could die of a broken heart or why a person might choose to take one’s own life. Part of me resented that those were not even options available to me - I had to survive for the sake of my children, relegated to some sort of unfair purgatory. I felt suffocated, buried alive in an unknown place from which there was no coming back.
Grief affords no mercy. It is relentless. Its pain is invisible to the world around you, even those who are closest to you.
After a while, I learned to manage it, perhaps akin to how one learns to treat, relieve, and live with chronic hurt. On the inside, I would struggle just to keep myself from falling apart, the turbulence indiscernible to family, friends, or coworkers, like a duck furiously paddling underneath the placid waters of a lake yet gliding calmly on its surface. People would tell me I seemed “better” because “time heals all wounds” or “you just needed time” or some variation of those easy, throwaway remarks.
It was not time that helped me live with the agony. Grief is not a linear process, and it is not as if every day is better than the last. Yearly anniversaries and other milestones are simply arbitrary. No, time could not do anything. I had to help myself. About a month after Linda died, I started going to therapy, the beginning of a long process of emotional rehabilitation, analogous to learning to walk again or rebuilding from rubble. Every week, I would confront the emotions that had been compartmentalized, the feelings that lay hidden deep, and move incrementally through my process, to the point of exhaustion. Some afternoons I would leave a session and just fall asleep in my car.
But the pain does not leave, and it never will. It becomes less acute, and it has slowly receded into the background so as to not dominate every moment. But it is always there, lingering, so as to remind me that it can resurface when I least expect it and that on any given day I might look around and see everything tinted by the color of ash.
Life is irreparably dimmed. That is not to say that happiness is absent. I have found a way to smile again, to laugh again, and to see the glass as half full. In my daughters, I see Linda's grace, her curiosity, her intellect, her determination, and her enthusiasm for life. But none of it compensates for the pain of losing her. That is the harsh reality of loss: a loss is a loss is a loss. No one likes to hear it, but sometimes, as much we would like for there to be one, there is no silver lining.