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facts & arguments

Neal Cresswell

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I lost my husband on Nov. 29, 2011, a statement that implies I merely misplaced him in an absent-minded fit, and if I could just remember where I left him then all would be well again. The euphemism sounds better than the truth.

With spousal bereavement, things don't get better, just different. Everything feels wrong. A rift exists between us, as I go on and he doesn't. Time comes between us. When sutures refuse to hold, the wound opens unpredictably. So it is for the widow or widower: The world assumes that time has done its proverbial work and "healed" us. No. We bleed still, our amputation aches. The wound never heals because our partner is gone, forever. Time heals nothing.

I've read my way through every stage of life, so when abducted by bereavement I naturally turned to books. I devour books, and as a child I sniffed them, too, assuming that the place of publication (London, New York) smelled just like the book.

Bereavement literature frequently mentions waves of grief. Tiny waves may carry unsuspected currents. Then there are the tsunamis. Buddhist books suggest meditating as the waves of emotion surge: sit, and without judgment simply abide with your feelings; ride out the waves like a skilled surfer, paddling through the worst of it.

Or pedal through the cycles of anguish, say other experts. There are three cycles, or four – opinions differ. Some cycles tear the victim asunder, while gentler cycles numb, a welcome respite from what has gone before and lies ahead, which you begin to recognize because these are, after all, cycles and any fool can spot a pattern after the first few weeks.

But sometimes there are no patterns. Loss struck me as the graph of a bad tech stock, where today's all-time low is a mere prelude to tomorrow's new rock bottom. Then, perhaps 18 months on, bereavement was more like learning to walk again, minus childhood's tottering charm.

This is what I now understand: Some emotional land mines we can brace for, such as a wedding anniversary, the date of diagnosis or death, the first holiday without them. But most land mines are unexpected: a few bars of music, a mental snapshot, a handwritten note. You cannot protect yourself from these, and they are everywhere.

In the first fresh agonies of separation I howled like a distressed animal (which I was). Sanity receded. My centre gutted, mindless chores helped to ground me. I struggled against the desire to call out for help, not wanting to trouble others, sensing even early on that few would understand the depths in which I floundered.

Our grief-illiterate society lacks the Victorians' polite shield of mourning dress: Then, one glance proclaimed both an individual's emotional fragility and the relative degree of sorrow. Today, many deny death's reality by doling out advice ("keep busy" or "take a trip") with more enthusiasm than logic, as if all the bereaved need is distraction.

Alternatively, we are encouraged to "remember the good times." but that only reminds us of who and what we've lost. Once we lived in technicolour, now all is black and white. We are first with no one. After decades at the head table we've become " … one that will do/to swell a progress, start a scene or two … " or, more prosaically, fill a last-minute gap in a seating arrangement.

I need to come to terms with the fact that nothing will ever be right again, for his death was the death of "us," and when he died "we" died, too. The edifice of our 27 years together was abruptly demolished in the four months from diagnosis to death. I'm left sifting through the rubble with my half of the memories. The only other person in the world who shared those remembrances is gone. I fear that without his reinforcement of our memories I will gradually lose even my half of the tale of "us." And as our life together equalled most of my adult life, I may in time forget much of my own personal history.

Worse, I worry that over time he will slip away completely.

My mind automatically sorts memories and events into before or after his illness and death. The last weeks of his life are welded into my being. I relentlessly replay specific scenes as if hoping for a different ending. The flexibility of time destabilizes me: Sometimes it seems he disappeared decades ago, but moments later I imagine that he just stepped out of the room. Along with time, the magnitude of loss shifts – from bottomless pit to manageable sorrow – further disorientating me. Am I going mad? Has anyone ever felt this way? In my mid-50s, I'm like a confused teenager again. Who am I? What should I do? I'm a stranger to myself.

Small things overwhelm me. Life without Michael is both too much and too little. Even the altered vocabulary jars: an official form with the box "widow" ticked, the word "late" in front of his name. Surely someone has made a mistake?

Learning to be a widow is the hardest thing I have ever done. I proceed grudgingly with this business of fashioning a new identity and becoming fluent in the language of life, after.

Joy Tyndall lives in Toronto.

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