Today is the third anniversary of my husband’s death. His vital spirit departed his earthly body at 12:10 AM, Monday, March 7, 2016. Three years gone like yesterday or three years gone like a lifetime ago. I see his last breaths, long, slow and then stilled. I watch the color fade, feel the warmth diminish. His spirit taking flight. Despite our agony, our profound sadness, it is a Holy time, a thin place, the diaphanous gauze that separates heaven and earth, life and death nearly indistinct.
I keep writing my grief journey because there is more to say. It is January and the days are starkly reminiscent of what it was like three years ago to watch fearfully as my husband of 57 years began to fade before my eyes. The snowstorms, the freezing rains, the pewter skies trigger feelings of anxiety. Winter in the Midwest, cold permeating, many months to go, and me, with a dull dread underlying those months leading up to March 7, 2016.
Today I visit a favorite store in Glen Ellyn. It is a place where Bob bought me jewelry for special occasions, a place where the proprietor “knows my name” and knew his. A place where, when I visited a few weeks after he died, the owner, Margo asked, “and how’s Bob?” When I told her he had died she began to cry, came around the counter and hugged me.
Today I am on a mission. I am on a mission to replace the last gift he bought me on Valentine’s Day 2016. He bought it three weeks before he passed to heaven.The gift is a beautiful bracelet with semi-precious stones of variable colors and designs, linked with silver so that it hangs loosely on my wrist. He writes a Valentine message in an accompanying card which I keep in my Bible. I wear the bracelet every day. And every night I take it off with my watch and place it on the cherry red velvet seat of an antique chair in my bedroom, ready to be worn the next day.
The cemetery is familiar territory. A solemn respite in Midwestern environs. A family plot. A place where a young sibling, both parents and my husband’s earthly remains reside. We gather in scattered twos and threes. A stone urn our focal point. Early morning sun gleams gold, long rays streaking turf. We shiver for autumn chill penetrates. We are here for Pat, oldest Carlson sibling. “The smartest one” who lost her daunting mental capacity a little more than three years ago. Whose keen awareness as cognition failed wounded her heart, our hearts. We watched her slip, slip away.
I’m losing my knee in a few days. Oh it’s not an amputation. They call it a “replacement”…a “new knee”, a “titanium wonder”. I’ve tried the gels and shots and creams and sprays and Physical Therapy stints. I know I should be thankful to be living in an era when knee replacement is an option. And part of me IS grateful for that fact. But part of me is sad. Another loss, another transition, another reminder of time passing and body parts wearing out and things not how they used to be.
Once a widow client of mine said year four was the hardest. Just into year three I find I am struggling with an alone-ness that is visceral, the proverbial “lonely in a crowd” feeling that lives with me, now tugs at my heart, lurks in the recesses of my mind, conjures memories without warning. I’m dreaming often, of Bob, he on the periphery perhaps, or center stage but still obscure, a shadow person whom I long to grasp, to hold, to lean against, to breathe in. The dreams are not nightmares. But they are elusive, painful.
Transitions are challenging. As we let go of the holiday season and enter a new year, we may feel a pending sense of uncertainty, of being “off stride”. Often we negate or don’t recognize a nagging discontent for what it might portend. Questions may arise. We may feel a bit sad, sadder that we “should” feel under the circumstances.
And some challenges are more daunting than others. The first child off to college (or kindergarten!) or the coming empty nest are big transitions. I remember when we moved from one town to another, literally five miles apart. Our youngest child was in first grade and up until that time had come home for lunch every day. We were in a new home in the same state and yet these venues were miles apart in many ways. In addition I developed a painful case of pleurisy which was difficult to shake. I didn’t understand why my sadness was increasing and why I was falling into a situational depression.
Years later, in my capacity as a social worker I gave a workshop at a Wellness Day. The topic of the workshop was Grief and Loss. In preparation and to illustrate, I made a chart of the losses I had experienced (large and small) throughout each decade of my life up until that time. I gave the attendees paper and pens to document their own losses decade by decade. The “aha” moment for me came when I looked at what had led up to my depression in the two decades which preceded it. The most significant loss was the death of my father at age 48 when I was 21.But even as an early adolescent and then as a senior in high school my mother had nearly died of severe kidney disease. In addition I had moved from the Midwest to California and attended a boarding school during my high school years. My father’s early death was a profoundly sad experience for me and for my young mother and younger brothers. I could recognize that for what it was and still is one of the most significant losses of my life. But why was I depressed when I had a house with the room we had been needing, three healthy kids, a husband who loved me? I believe I was experiencing “secondary losses”. The loss of a familiar home room by room. The loss of a neighborhood with neighbors who were friends as well. The loss of the daily routines of fixing lunch for and enjoying the pleasure of being with my little boy. Secondary losses are sorrows that add up and sometimes they contribute to a vague sadness that we do not recognize and may need help to acknowledge. I value highly the privilege of walking through, sorting through and working through the transitions my clients are facing.