I have been lucky. My family is kind and uncomplicated. My in-laws, too. I didn’t suffer any over-blown drama with relatives, friends, or exes when my husband died. Just the rawness of people grieving. And much, much kindness from friends.
For the past 9 years, we have lived in a wonderful place, the soft, rolling, warm-hearted Midwest, salt of the earth people, indeed. I wouldn’t have wanted to be any other place during the past half year. This was our home. We would roam the ‘hood with our old dog, then with our new one, we knew people from many streets over, we paid attention to the details…changes in gardens, fences, families and pets.
Directly to our right, we have some of the most generous neighbors. They brought us food, checked in on my husband when he was ill, know our family members by name, and have continued to send over the occasional meal for me…trying to fatten up the skinny widow.
But I have some other neighbors…
across the way, the ones who have a peace flag flying…
…they saw my husband all summer, sitting out on the front deck, emaciated, pale, wearing pajamas, and hospital wristbands, dangly cables, medical tape. They saw him, losing his hair, losing his balance, losing his battle…their living room windows look directly out at our house. A clear view of it all, I am sure, but not a clear enough path, apparently, for them to cross the street and acknowledge his death.
I was getting my mail, neighbor was getting his, instead of ignoring me, per usual, he took some steps into the middle of the road and approached – most definitely crossing his comfort zone. I was taken aback.
I am so sorry we never said anything.
You heard about my husband? (up until then, I wasn’t going to assume)
Yes, and I am sorry we never said anything.
Thank you, I appreciate you coming over.
Some people just don’t know what to say. Or when to say it. I know it’s not easy. There are lists of things that you shouldn’t say, litanies of experiences conveyed about hurtful things that the “uninitiated” say or do. I’ve shrugged off plenty of stupid, thoughtless remarks. I’ve also carried the sting of some them until I was in a private place where I could lick my wounds.
But still, the most troubling and somehow upsetting to me have been the people who CHOSE to say NOTHING. And it is a choice. Yeah, it might be uncomfortable, or worrying. It is for me too. I am sitting in a little dinghy and most often do not have the right words for my fellow passengers, as we bob up and down in grief. Death, it’s a fucking downer. And our reactions to it, in many ways completely unique.
So let me just use this one post…as I really don’t want to complain, or act like I own the pity-party of all parties and can start telling everyone how to behave, but:
Say something. Anything. Even if the connecting path is a loose or undefined one, a co-worker, friend of friend, somewhat friendly neighbor but I can’t remember your name. Overcome your discomfort, if just for a moment, to acknowledge a loss. It’s just a moment in your day, but it’s a catalyst in mine. As the Einstein poster in my dorm room used to say, “Don’t worry about your problems with mathematics. I can assure you, mine are greater.” Do I really need to do spell it out? I watched my husband die, our lives collapse. I am living in THE ZONE of unsettled unpredictable discomfort, and I have to overcome it every day. I didn’t get here by choice. But I get through it by choice. The thought of crossing the street makes your wool socks feel itchy? Suck it up. Be brave…one foot in front of the other.
Because “absence”, it defies its own definition, doesn’t it? It’s a “lack” of something, a void, a negative space, yet it’s the biggest elephant in the room. Sitting on my chest, waiting for me in bed, a hole—so wide and empty that it actually takes on a presence. Similarly, a “lack of action” communicates just as loudly as action, usually even louder. Am I making sense? I received many touching condolence cards, from people I wouldn’t have expected, and I appreciate all the kindness that came my way. So why do the few that were *not* sent seem to stand out? I’m not trying to focus on the “negative”, it’s the wiley nature of absence. If there is one thing I have learned, it’s that ignoring the elephant does not make it go away. It feeds the void.
The fact that my neighbor expressed his remorse, not about my loss, but about his own lack of action speaks for itself. It didn’t matter what he said. It mattered that he finally said something. The day after he took those wobbly steps toward my pain, and acknowledged my loss – my husband’s death, I woke up and was able to breathe just a little better. My steps just a little lighter. I could swear that big old elephant had shifted its weight.