In Four Funerals and a Wedding, Smolowe jostles preconceptions about caregiving, defies cliche´s about losing loved ones, and reveals a stunning bottom line: far from being uncommon, resilience like hers is the norm among the recently bereaved. With humor and quiet wisdom, and with a lens firmly trained on what helped her tolerate and rebound from so much sorrow, she offers answers to questions we all confront in the face of loss, and reminds us that grief is not only about endings—it’s about new beginnings.
|Publisher:||She Writes Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Jill Smolowe is the author of the memoir An Empty Lap: One Couple’s Journey to Parenthood and co-editor of the anthology A Love Like No Other: Stories from Adoptive Parents. An award-winning journalist, she has been a foreign affairs writer for Time and Newsweek, and a senior writer for People, where she currently specializes in crime stories. Her articles and essays have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies, including The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post Magazine, Adoptive Families and the Reader’s Digest “Today’s Best NonFiction” series. For more on Jill, visit http://www.jillsmolowe.com/
Read an Excerpt
Funny, the moments that stick in memory. I have one that I can’t pinpoint more precisely than a morning in the early 2000s, yet I remember it like yesterday. I’ve just pulled into the parking lot of a small shopping center near my home in Montclair, New Jersey. As I step out of the car I spot Elizabeth, the wife of a journalist with whom my husband and I worked two decades earlier. Though I barely know Elizabeth, I know an intimate detail about her life: her husband Jake is battling a deadly blood cancer.
I don’t recall how or when my husband and I first learned about Jake’s illness, but I do remember our shock and concern. I also remember our hesitation. By the time news of the cancer reached us, Jake was already months into treatment and facing a stem cell transplant. Was it too late to acknowledge his illness? After much discussion, we decided to send a note. Joe promptly punted. “You’re better at this sort of thing,” he said, giving new meaning to our mutual nickname for each other: Weasel. After several drafts, I settled on a message that struck a note of humor (not too grim) and breezily offered help with carpools and dinners (not too pushy). Joe and I signed the card, one of us posted it, time passed. It might have been a few months; it might have been many.
What I do remember sharply, clearly—a short film that I can see in my mind’s eye—is this next sequence in the parking lot. I get out of my Subaru, see Elizabeth, and freeze. Her head is tilted toward the ground and her shoulders are rounded, as if bearing too heavy a load. Her slow gait radiates exhaustion, as if the act of putting one foot in front of the other requires effort. The sight of her chills me. Plainly, this is a woman sunk in a hell I can’t imagine.
Yet I do plenty of imagining as I watch Elizabeth make her way across the lot. Latching on to those aspects of her life that are similar to mine—wife, mother, working woman, Montclair resident—I project what worries must be weighting her every step. Her husband might die…Her children might lose their father…Family finances might become a wreck…They might have to relocate…The jumble of emotions that accompany my thoughts are impossible to untangle. Sympathy? Concern? Pity? Fear? Horror? One thing I don’t feel: empathy. Unlike Elizabeth, I have never been at risk of losing my husband.
Move! yells a voice in my head. Say something to her!
Leave her alone! another voice counters.
Paralyzed by indecision, I debate. Maybe I should approach Elizabeth and ask how Jake is doing. Give her a sympathetic hug. Offer to assist with her errands. Then again, it might be more considerate to leave her undisturbed. It’s a school day. Perhaps this is a rare opportunity for Elizabeth to be alone with her fears and worries. Besides, she might not recognize me; we’ve met only a few times. How awkward would that be, some stranger gushing commiseration in her face? Yet inaction feels cowardly. And wouldn’t a failure to acknowledge the monumental changes in Elizabeth’s life fall short of some basic standard of compassion? Because it doesn’t occur to me that Elizabeth might be thinking of anything but the upsetting events in her life; it doesn’t occur to me simply to shout hello and wave. No, her situation is all consuming; her distress requires a sensitive response. But which is the right one?
As I deliberate, Elizabeth crosses the street and disappears into a store. I am left standing by my car, feeling like a chicken so feckless that I can’t even get it together to cross the street.
Here’s another moment embedded in memory, only this one I can pinpoint precisely: January 3, 2007. I am at the same small shopping center in Montclair, this time running errands in preparation to drive my husband into Manhattan for his 1:00 p.m. check-in at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital. Not quite two days have passed since we learned by phone the cause of Joe’s recent fatigue: a deadly blood cancer. Already, that call feels like it came a lifetime ago.
Now that we’ve made the many arrangements that will enable Joe to disappear from his life for the next five months—or maybe forever—my husband is sinking deeper into himself. I, conversely, am turned outward, a tuning fork calibrated to both Joe’s emotional needs and the practical aspects of getting him ready for his first four-week hospital stay. The shock of Weasel’s diagnosis has left me with an uncanny clarity about what I stand to lose and what role I must play to maximize his chances of recovery.
My errands complete, I stand at a curb waiting to cross the street. I monitor the cars coming from my left, turn to watch the traffic flowing from the right, then look straight ahead. At the same moment that my gaze lands on the parking lot, I remember Elizabeth and hear these words, shrill, in my head: “Oh, my God, I am now that woman.”
In a rush, the meaning of those two words hits me with unsparing clarity. That Woman. The one who confuses instincts and makes people’s tongues stick to the roofs of their mouths: What to do? What to say? That Woman. The one who triggers a confusion of concern and sympathy, fear and unease. The one who makes people wonder, Could it happen to me? Could I cope? The woman who reminds them that a spouse can get sick. That children can lose their parents. That plans, expectations, and dreams can evaporate. That Woman. The one, to put it bluntly, who you are very, very grateful you are not.
For two days now, I’ve been focused on the three most obvious threats to my existence: I’m at risk of losing my husband; our twelve-year-old daughter, Becky, is at risk of losing her father; all three of us are at risk of losing the wonderful life we’ve built together. Now, I detect yet another threat. In the rush of sympathy that makes people say too much or too little or, like me, nothing at all; in the crush of pity that leaves no room for laughter or casual chitchat; in the tide of anxious questions that drowns out conversation about books, parenting, lousy commutes, or anything else that reminds large parts of my life remain intact, I am at risk of losing my strength, my optimism, my interest in the world outside my head. I am at risk of losing the person Joe and Becky are counting on to hold their lives steady during the long battle ahead. In short, I am at risk of losing me.
No! my mind screams. Move!
I step off the curb and cross the street, determined to handle whatever lies on the other side.
What waited on the other side was a tempest of startling proportion. The chemo treatments that quarantined Joe for the better part of five months, followed by the stem cell transplant that isolated him for two months more, would prove mere warning squalls. For the next three years, shock bulletins, hospitalizations, and grim prognoses battered my world relentlessly.
A few more dates seared in my memory:
March 28, 2009: My mother-in-law dies.
June 20, 2009: My husband dies.
August 14, 2010: My sister dies.
September 1, 2010: My mother dies.
I know. Unimaginable. In less than a year and a half, I lost not only the man who was the center of my life, but also three of the women who gave it shape and meaning. I kept anticipating that the accumulating weight of so much sorrow would sink me into depression and despair, bringing my life and thoughts to a standstill. Dark logic reasoned that so much of my world had shattered; surely I would, too. The pained winces and concerned questions of caring friends telegraphed a similar expectation. So did a lifetime of cultural cues absorbed through memoirs, films, novels, and TV shows, each wrenching portrait of loss reinforcing what I’d been taught is the definitive word on bereavement: Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five-stage cycle of grief.
To my surprise and relief, my grief never cut me off or shut me down. As I put the finishing touches on this book three years after losing Joe, my strength, optimism, and interest in the world outside my head remain sturdy. That’s not to say I don’t still experience gusts of sorrow. I do, almost daily. But with heartache has come an unexpected sweetness that has cushioned, fortified, and ultimately renewed me. Friendships have deepened. Relationships with remaining family members have developed a new level of intimacy. The unthinkable loss of my husband has given rise to the unexpected joy of new love.
For me, all of this serendipity has exerted a counterbalancing force that has left me disinclined to deny, evade, or flee from my moments of intense pain. I know I can tolerate them because I know they will pass.
I also know that my way of processing and dealing with grief is just that: mine and mine alone. Informed by a combination of coping mechanisms, beliefs, and attitudes that crystallized during the two and a half years my husband was ill, I can be quite unsentimental (or maybe the word is stubborn) about doing it my way. Not long after Joe died, a yoga instructor asked me how I was doing. “Bereavement sucks big time,” I said. Her shocked expression indicated this was not the way a loving widow was supposed to respond.
Which brings me to the focus of this book. Throughout the last five years, neither my needs nor my behavior have matched the American cultural script for exhausted caregivers, heartbroken widows, and grieving family members. I say “script” because the well-intentioned responses I’ve encountered all along the way—no matter how well or how little I know a person—have been largely uniform and seemingly predicated on assumptions similar to mine that long-ago day in the parking lot with Elizabeth. The thinking goes something like this: Jill’s days must be an unrelieved stream of worry, anguish, and sorrow. Her life is so awful that she must be incapable of thinking or talking about anything else. Jill needs consolation and reassurance. The script then calls for dialogue about my fragile state of mind and disrupted life. (Stage directions: Interlocutor looks concerned. Jill looks stricken. After conversation, Jill looks soothed by the expression of caring and support.)
For me, that scenario never had its intended effect. From the start, the commiseration was more burdensome than helpful, a reaction that is hardly unique. Several fellow travelers—wives tending a seriously ill spouse; widows and widowers coping with bereavement; family members dealing with loss—have told me that they find the unremitting sympathy exhausting, frustrating, sometimes even maddening. By the time worst came to worst with Joe, I felt no inclination to seek solace in the pages of books that affirmed my feelings of devastation. Nor did I want to hear, as I frequently did, that I was “amazing” for bearing up so well. Statements like that made me feel my coping mechanisms and grief were abnormal. What I hungered for were accounts that shed light on and supported my determination to find my way back to a place where I could look forward to, rather than dread, getting out of bed in the morning.
Help arrived four months after Joe’s death with the publication of George A. Bonanno’s The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss. “Humans are wired to survive,” Bonanno, a clinical psychologist and leading expert on grief, wrote. “Resilience is the norm.” Unlike Kübler-Ross, who relied on observations of her dying patients to formulate her theory, Bonanno methodically sought out bereaved populations to conduct his research. Over two decades, he identified three distinct patterns of bereavement, irrespective of the age of the mourner or the loss involved (spouse, child, parent, or sibling): chronic grief (the 10 to 15 percent who are overwhelmed by grief for eighteen months or longer); acute grief (the 15 to 20 percent who recover within eighteen months); and resilience (the more than 50 percent who return to normal functioning within six months). Those in the largest category, he found, experience grief as a constant oscillation between sadness and lighter moments that enable them not only to endure their sorrow, but also “to have genuinely pleasurable experiences, to laugh or indulge in moments of joy, even in the earliest days and weeks after loss.”
What a relief. I wasn’t amazing; my grief wasn’t abnormal. Like most bereaved people, I was experiencing waves of sorrow interspersed with restorative thoughts, conversations, and activities that helped me to withstand, rather than be overwhelmed by, my pain. Bonanno’s research also validated my sense of how people regarded me. “What is perhaps most intriguing about resilience is not how prevalent it is; rather it is that we are consistently surprised by it,” he wrote. “We expect bereaved persons to feel constant sadness and grief. When they do not, we tend to be surprised.”
Or judgmental. Ruth Davis Konigsberg, author of The Truth About Grief, a book that debunks Kübler-Ross’s grief cycle and explores how the theory impedes resilience, has concluded that the five-stage theory is so dominant in our culture that it has “narrowed our emotional repertoire for loss, and stigmatizes reactions that diverge from its prescribed path.”
With this memoir, I hope to expand that emotional repertoire by giving a voice to the silent majority whose instinctive response to death is resilience. Rather than surveying grief through the familiar lens of sorrow, I will focus on what has helped me—and what has not—to absorb, tolerate, and rebound from so much sickness and loss. To make sense of my “resilience,” I will also explore the caregiving phase that preceded the deaths of my husband, sister, and mother. For me, and I suspect for many others who have seen loved ones through protracted and ultimately fatal disease, the coping mechanisms that evolved during the years of illness are inextricable from those that kicked in after hope gave way to bereavement. The caregiving and the grief, in other words, inform each other.
Here and there, I’ve relied on journal entries to provide unfiltered access to my thinking and feelings at critical moments. To safeguard privacy, I’ve used pseudonyms for all but my family members. While I have checked back with friends and relatives to freshen my memory of certain events, this account reflects my own recollections. Fault for any errors lies with me.
I realize that by training my lens on what has helped me cope, rather than what has made me (and still makes me) ache, I may be misperceived as a person who does not love or care deeply. It feels worth the risk. The outsized Baby Boom generation is now grappling with not only the intermittent caregiving challenges of middle-aged partners, but also the painful end-of-life decisions that often close out a parent’s twilight years. Illness and grief are touching more and more lives. If I am able to offer anything that helps a caregiver, patient, or mourner get support that better meets his or her needs, then the effort feels very worthwhile to me.
Finally, I want to stress that by sharing my story, I aim only to enlarge assumptions about caregiving and grief, not to suggest that anybody else’s experience will or should mirror mine. While loss is universal, grief is personal. Each journey is unique, the welter of thoughts and feelings individual and often cloudy. A person in profound pain can find it difficult to identify, let alone articulate, needs—particularly when the assumptions and concerns of loving friends and family are so relentlessly uniform that they bear the weight of expectation. Perhaps if we toss out the one-size-fits-all script and instead remain open to what a caregiver or person in mourning may actually be feeling, then those who are suffering will be better able to identify and communicate their needs—and those who want to ease that suffering will be better able to offer support that truly helps.
[The time is now June 2009. My husband, Joe, who had appeared to be on the mend, has just collapsed in our kitchen and died. Given my shock and my sorrow, I assume that my own collapse will follow.]
In fact, what followed bore little resemblance to what I thought I knew about grief. Yes, I experienced moments when I felt choked by sorrow, hollowed by loneliness, overwhelmed by Joe’s absence. But they were—and three years on, still are—just that: moments. To my surprise, my feelings of devastation were intermittent, not all-consuming; disorienting, not unhinging. Grief, for me, was neither the unremitting quagmire of despair I’d experienced twice with depression, nor the total shattering I’d encountered in memoirs, novels, and films.
Magical thinking? I encountered it just once. Two, maybe three days after Joe died, I was sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee when the movement of a tall male figure caught my eye. Wease! I thought, the word forming on my lips to greet my husband, as I had every morning of our married life. When the person rounded corner, it was Jonathan, not Joe.
As for Kübler-Ross’s grief cycle, I have found no resonance over the last three years in any of its five stages. Denial? From the moment I bent down to kiss Joe good-bye, I understood that the body in front of me was a corpse. Joe was gone. Anger? The closest I came was something I wrote the day after Joe died. Today Joe is gone one day. Today [Joe’s father] Al is gone four years. Al was 96 going on 97. Joe was 66 going on 67. I want those thirty years. Bargaining? My already-weak inclination to pray (Please, please, please) withered entirely after Joe died. Depression? Given my prior history, I began a preemptive course of Paxil the night of Joe’s death. Four months later, no longer concerned that a miasma of depression might smother my grief, I put the pills back in the cabinet. Acceptance? If that means I understand Joe is never coming back, I was clear on that point from the moment the EMTs covered his body with a sheet. If it means I no longer awake mornings thinking about Joe, then I am now there. If it means I’ve rebuilt a life in which my relationship with Joe is no longer the central organizing principle, then, yes, I’ve done that. But if acceptance means I find it acceptable that Joe is gone, then, no, I have not achieved acceptance, and I’m hard-pressed to believe I ever will.
The preconception that held on most tenaciously was my assumption that at some point I would “collapse.” I didn’t picture myself curled on the floor in an inert heap. Rather, what I anticipated was a gradual ebbing of will until there came a day when my sorrow trumped my inclination to keep going. Like the title character of Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, I would sit down and, overtaken by a feeling of “I would prefer not to,” I wouldn’t get back up for some undefined period of time. This matched the mental image I carry of my paternal grandmother, who for more than a decade after my grandfather’s death spent hours each day in her reading chair, a thick novel open on her lap, staring into space. It matched the image of [my best friend] Lynn’s grandmother, who for decades spent her days lying on her living room couch, one arm draped over her eyes. It matched the images I remembered from movies and memoirs of bereaved people so consumed by pain that they could do little more than wander through the empty rooms of their homes, their minds fogged by memories.
Within days of Joe’s death, an artist friend sent me a parable she’d written about grief. On the cover was a black-and-white photo of a person prone on a bed with a sheet pulled over his/her head. For me, that picture epitomized my sense of grief. The withdrawal. The isolation. An opaque world stripped of air and light. The image took root in my mind and was soon embroidered with details, none of which drew from any previous experience I’d had with heartache or pain, yet seemed very real.
I keep waiting for the moment of collapse, perhaps because I can picture it so clearly: me curled on my side in bed, sheet pulled over my head, my body alternately trembling and heaving. I know the soundtrack, too, a mix of gut-wrenching sobs, feathery gasps and fingertips clawing the pillow beside me, the one that served as a landing pad for Joe’s head…There I will lie, unable to eat or sleep, think or not think. Oblivious to the accumulating hours and mounds of Kleenex, I will simply surrender to memory. The recaptured moments will be happy ones, designed to hollow my brain, body and soul as I inventory all that I have lost. At some point, maybe, one of my concerned siblings or friends will tiptoe in with a tray of tomato soup (Joe’s favorite) and toast, and whisper, “Try to eat something.”
To my surprise—to my relief—that day never arrived.
Instead, though Joe was rarely more than a few minutes from my thoughts, I functioned much as I normally do, albeit with an oscillation of emotions more intense than usual. I had my ups; I had my downs. I laughed at times; I cried at times. I talked (though not as much as usual). I listened (with greater care than usual, since my thinking was fuzzy at times). I shopped for groceries (with less focus than usual). I tended to my daughter (with greater vigilance than usual). I had moments when the rush of sorrow felt like a tidal wave taking me under. But then I resurfaced and carried on.
It would be absurd to suggest that friends, relatives, and colleagues filled the vacuum opened by Joe’s absence. That was a void nobody could fill, nor did I expect anyone to. Like most loving marriages of longstanding, Joe’s and mine had been a unique fabric woven from threads meaningful to only the two of us. Our sturdy tangle of obligations and expectations, conflicting agendas and hard-won compromises, mutual goals and reassurances, individual disappointments and shared joys had been shot through with that golden thread that often keeps a marriage intact when the fabric threatens to fray: unwavering exclusivity.
The luxurious expectation of “just the two us” now gone, my daily habits no longer worked for me. Normally, I spend chunks of solitary time each day reading, writing, and thinking; if I don’t spend enough time inside my head, my mood can turn cranky. Though that had changed when Joe got sick and I spent as much time with him as possible, I still used the late-evening hours to sink onto the living room couch in front of a mindless movie and let my thoughts sift through the day. Now, I preferred not to be alone with my thoughts.
The first two weeks I didn’t need to seek out companionship. People simply came, day and night, a flow of traffic that I dubbed my “free-range shiva.” They brought words of solace and moments of distraction, tight hugs and daunting amounts of food. After years of resisting people’s attention and concern during Joe’s illness, I now welcomed the company and the commiseration, gaining an appreciation for what Richard had meant when he’d told me, “I find the cards, the calls, people staying in touch tremendously comforting.”
I also felt a peculiar physical lightening that made me feel younger. Days passed before I put my finger on it: the weight of worry had lifted. Only after it was gone did I realize how heavily Joe’s shaky health had been weighing on me—literally.
That I could feel anything other than sorrow was an unexpected gift. Whenever a positive emotion broke through—amusement; comfort; affection; gratitude; relief—I latched onto it. Around day four, the widowed colleague from whom I’d recoiled shortly after Joe’s diagnosis emerged from her car bearing a plate of brownies and radiating happiness. “Wow,” I said. “You look fantastic.” Cocking her head shyly, she said, “I have a new boyfriend.” I don’t think anyone could have delivered a more heartening message. For a moment, I felt happiness and hope—two emotions I was surprised I could access, however briefly, so soon after losing Joe.
During these weeks, either [my sister] Ann or [my brother] Jonathan was also on hand each day and night to ensure that [my daughter] Becky and I were never alone. Ann, who was the more frequent guest, handled the visitors and phone calls I was too drained to take; relayed information to my anxious parents in North Carolina; took Becky shopping to prepare for camp. Buoyed by her energy and surrounded by my friends’ commiseration and goodwill, I was reminded how rich my life was. In case I was failing to register this safety net of support, Ann called it to my attention several times.
Late one morning before guests began to arrive, she put her arm around my shoulder and asked, “How are you doing, Meus?”
“I’m doing better than I might have anticipated,” I said.
With that, Ann abandoned her concerned tone and launched into a series of short, declarative sentences that highlighted why I would pull through. Mirroring strengths and reframing weaknesses she knew I perceived in myself, she said, “You have good self-esteem. You have a passion for writing. You’re fifty-three, with a young daughter. You have a rich circle of friends who are being supportive. You and Joe expressed your love and covered what needed to be covered; you have no regrets. You are social, more than you give yourself credit. You’re holding court even at your worst.”
Much as I appreciated others’ caring acknowledgments of my grief, I needed reinforcement of my tentative sense that I could hold up. I got out my reporter’s notebook and asked Ann to repeat her list. I wanted something to consult when I was feeling overwhelmed by sadness, loneliness, or doubts about my future.
As one day bled into the next, I began to realize that my most dreaded preconception might be misplaced. Now into the third week. I’m more clear-headed than I would have anticipated...I can think and do things…My free-range shiva helped a lot. Made me realize that I have a life in Montclair, one that stands even with Joe gone…People have been amazing. Writer friends. Pennsylvania friends. New York friends. Neighbors. I didn’t want to be “that woman” when Joe was sick. Now I am a different, more appalling kind of “that woman,” but there’s no hiding it. Don’t even try. I take energy from encounters, especially from people who are high energy. They lift my spirit…I had thought when I saw the abyss after Joe’s diagnosis that I would have to “reimagine” my whole life. I no longer think that’s true.
I don’t mean to suggest that I ran away from my pain and loneliness. Even if I’d tried, constant collision with Joe’s absence—the empty chair and lack of running commentary about newspaper stories at breakfast; the lack of humorous e-mails throughout the day; the silence that replaced Joe’s dinner conversation, his booming laugh, his noisy cookie crunching as we watched TV; the vacant half of the bed at night—made avoidance impossible. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that what I was feeling this minute might not be what I would be feeling the next. When my yearning for Joe rushed at me with sometimes-breathtaking force, I tried to practice what Joe and I had learned during his hospitalizations: stay in the present and don’t get ahead of yourself. One minute at a time. One hour. One day.
Back in my midtwenties, when I was struggling with the first of my two episodes of clinical depression, I had a therapist who tried to convince me not to fight my pain so hard. “Just sit with it,” she used to instruct.
“How?” I would answer, as I twisted myself into ever-deepening despair.
Now, for the first time in my life, I was able to sit with my pain. My loss of Joe. My loss of Joe and me. My daughter’s loss of her father. Our loss of the three of us, what we called our Becky sandwich. My loss of the life that I assumed I would be living for several decades to come. Unlike most of the anguish that had blown through my life, bringing with it a tailwind of complicating questions (Did I bring this on myself? Can I handle this better? Am I overreacting?), this sorrow required no self-justification, explanation, or apology. To me, the pain seemed not only appropriate and understandable, but also necessary.
Soon, my most intense moments of grief settled into a pattern. Once a day, usually around dusk—the time of day when Joe and I used to reconnect after our separate workdays—I would feel a huge wave of sorrow rising up in me. If people were around, I pushed it down. I had no desire to share these overpowering waves of grief. This was for and about Joe; for and about me; for and about us. Where the pain came from, what the feelings of loss involved, were too personal, too special, too impossible to explain. But if I was alone, I surrendered without resistance, letting my grief take full hold and toss me where it might. I sobbed, keened, pounded the floor with my fists, choked on the mucus clogging my nose and throat, emptied boxes of Kleenex, and whispered over and over, “Where are you, Wease? Where are you?” These crying jags, which went on for many months, rarely lasted more than twenty minutes. By the fourth month, I trusted that I could tolerate them.
I disappear through a hole at the center of the earth. Then I resurface and go on. I’ve come to understand that I will resurface, that as much as those moments hurt, I know I will push back up and be okay.
Even the most unpleasant aspects of the post-death rituals proved less upsetting than I might have anticipated, had I thought about them (which I hadn’t). Joe had lifted the burden of one decision by telling me that he wanted to be cremated. That left the selection of a cemetery, a plot, and an urn. My sister attended me every step of the way, at each step reminding, “It was such a gift that Joe told you what he wanted. You don’t know how lucky you are.” Through the years, Ann had lost close friends, some of those losses involving sudden deaths where there had been no opportunity to discuss dying wishes. She’d seen grief-stunned families anguish as they tried to divine what their departed loved one would have wanted.
Me, I knew what Joe wanted. That spared me any of the debate, hesitation, equivocation, frustration, or anger I’d seen dramatized on the five seasons of Six Feet Under. My meeting with a local funeral home director lasted less than a half hour. Minutes before the appointed time, Ann and I ducked out of the free-range shiva, an informal affair that reflected Joe’s and my casual lifestyle. I’d been dressing in accordance with the warm weather—shorts, tank tops, flip-flops—and, per Becky’s edict, no black. Despite my Six Feet Under bona fides, it didn’t occur to me that a funeral home visit might require more formal attire.
I rang the front bell and after a minute the door creaked open to reveal an overly tall man with an overly somber expression on his face. When he looked at Ann and me in our fun-in-the-sun clothes, clearly uncertain which one of us was the grieving widow, it stiffened my resistance to a maudlin encounter. “Lurch,” I whispered to Ann. Suddenly, we were in Addams Family territory, the absurdity of him, of us, of the moment leaving us biting our bottom lips in order to not burst out laughing. Escorting us to a darkened room, Lurch posed a series of questions that I don’t recall, then stood and said he would now show me the casket room. I shook my head. “My husband will be cremated,” I said. “I need an urn.” Our visit to the urn room lasted less than a minute. My eyes scanned the shelves and when I spotted a simple silver urn in keeping with Joe’s taste, I said, “That one.” As I turned to leave, Lurch said, “Don’t you want to see—”
“No,” I said.
Lurch then tried to engage me in chitchat about the funeral and the services he could provide. “No need,” I said. “The burial will be a family-only affair with no religious officiant.” When Lurch tried to take my hand, I declined by flattening my fingers against my thigh. I didn’t know this man; I didn’t want his consolation. Lurch was brilliant, however, on the logistical arrangements. He’d already gotten Joe’s remains to Manhattan for an autopsy; now he told me he would make sure the cremated ashes got back to Montclair and on to the cemetery in time for the funeral once I set a date.
Back outside, Ann and I waited just long enough for Lurch to close the heavy front door before we dashed into the parking lot and doubled over, laughing hysterically. It felt good, that laughter. Inappropriate as I knew it was, it displaced some of my upset about the all too obvious: I’d just chosen the urn in which I was going to put my husband’s ashes in the ground.
Our next task: selection of a burial site. Joe had left that up to me, and thankfully Becky had a preference that provided guidance. “I want to be able to visit Daddy,” she said. That made me think of a local cemetery tucked behind the cooperative preschool that Becky had attended as a tot. Now, I learned, it was actually two cemeteries, one religious, the other nondenominational. The proprietor of the second guided Ann and me to a small field where the plots were small, appropriate for an urn, and the tombstones were flat to the ground. When I reported back to Becky, she said, “But how will the flowers stand up when I bring them?”
Ann and I did a second reconnaissance. When I explained the headstone situation to the cemetery director, he said, “Monument.” Monument? I echoed. “It’s not a headstone, it’s a monument,” he said pompously. Fine, monument, whatever, I need one that stands up. “It’s important to use the proper language,” he persisted. I cocked an eyebrow at Ann. Was this guy for real? “What a jerk,” Ann muttered and with a nod signaled, Let it go. I was so grateful she was there to witness and commiserate.
This time we were shown to an area abutting a heavily trafficked road. “Too noisy,” I said, thinking of Becky’s future visits. I turned, and that’s when I saw it: the playground where Becky used to romp with her friends. Joe had been an active co-op dad. Maybe while visiting this sad spot, Becky would also remember happier days on the playground with Daddy. I walked toward the quieter center of the cemetery, keeping my eye on the playground. “Is there anything in this area?” I said, once I’d reached a point where the noise was less noticeable. After some tussling, I got what I wanted: two spots beneath a shady tree with an unobstructed view of the playground. I plan to be cremated, too; Joe and I would both fit.
On the drive home, Ann and I replayed the exchange with the cemetery director. “No, no, it’s a monument, Meus,” Ann lectured with mock consternation.
“But I’m just a poor, grieving widow,” I said, turning on the melodrama. “Is it really so important what the fuck I call it?”
“You need to get it right,” Ann said sternly.
Again, laughter helped.
That was it for burial arrangements. Having my sister by my side steadied and strengthened me—though I have no idea how Ann navigated these tasks with such humor and grace. Somewhere along that short circuit, I vaguely realized she was making mental notes of things that needed to be done. For her.
A few weeks later, Esme accompanied me on the final task: selecting a, um, monument. While we walked around the cemetery hunting for a stone that we thought Joe would have liked, I told my sister-in-law about the absurd exchange I’d had with the cemetery director. We then proceeded to a stone yard, where I told the guy behind the counter that I wanted to order a headstone. “A monument,” Esme slyly corrected.
And that was that. Once my choices were made, I did not think about them again.
My eleventh day of mourning, I had an appointment with Joe’s and my attorney, Grace, to begin the process of settling Joe’s estate. Though heartened by how well I was holding up, I knew my brain wasn’t operating on all cylinders. So I asked Lynn, my backup brain, to accompany me to Grace’s office.
The notes that I took during this meeting detail the items we covered: rolling over Joe’s various bank accounts; dealing with Social Security, death taxes, term insurance, real estate tax returns, my deceased mother-in-law’s estate; changing my beneficiary forms; changing the deeds on the car and two houses; procuring letters of testamentary and death certificates. In time I would come to think of these various tasks as the Dance of Death. Bite-sized and doable, each bureaucratic detail typically required multiple phone calls, letters, and e-mails to achieve resolution. Because each matter progressed in stages, often months apart, I had to pay close attention to what was said during any given phone conversation and take meticulous notes. I was glad for these small distractions. As I checked the items off my to-do list, it heartened me to see that I remained a functioning human being.
What I remember most clearly about my meeting with Grace, however, has nothing to do with any of those details. I’ve known and admired Grace, a calm and forthright woman, since 1994, when she walked Joe and me through the closing on our Montclair house. Our encounters since then had always been in a professional context, but given the issues—wills, living wills, mortgage refinancing, estate planning, guardianship of Becky—our conversations often had touched on the personal. At some point, Grace had shared the painful news that her twentysomething daughter had Lou Gehrig’s disease, to my mind the cruelest way to go. A year earlier, her daughter had passed away.
Perhaps because I knew that Grace had experience with grief, I responded to her “How are you doing?” with candor. “Better than I would have expected,” I said. “I’m still waiting for the moment when I fall apart.”
A look of surprise flickered across Grace’s features. “You won’t,” she said, her tone matter-of-fact. “You’re strong, like I am. I didn’t collapse after my daughter died. I’m just not that kind of person—nor are you. You’ll cope just fine.”
“I recently talked to two widowed people, one a man, one a woman,” I said. “They both told me exactly the same thing: it takes five years to get over grief.”
“Oh, no. It won’t take you that long,” Grace said. “That doesn’t mean you won’t go on missing Joe. I miss my daughter every day. But I also have a lot going on in my life. You do, too.” She talked about my daughter, my job, my book projects, my friends. She spoke about my strength, my competence, my ability to cope. She applauded my decision to return to work the following week; she, too, had returned to work soon after her daughter’s death.
I hung on Grace’s every word. Here was someone a year ahead of me in what I still thought of as “the grief cycle,” offering me an alternative to paralyzing sorrow. In her scenario, I would keep putting one foot in front of the other, just as I’ve always done. In her scenario, I would be, as she was, profoundly sad, but I would keep going because I had a life worth living.
“That was amazing,” Lynn murmured during the drive home. “Grace is so wise.”
When I asked what had struck her as amazing, Lynn spoke about Grace’s “obvious pain, yet utter calm.”
Usually when Lynn and I speak intimately, I am aware of her sensitivity and perceptiveness. Now, as I listened, I was struck instead by how differently we’d heard Grace. While I, too, had found the conversation “amazing,” it wasn’t Grace’s blend of pain and calm that had made an impression. Rather, it was her assumption that I, like she, was coping well. That had been clear from her opening “How are you doing?” which she’d posed in the same down-to-earth tone she always employed. Her inflection had borne no trace of God-how-awful sympathy; no you-need-a-hug effusion; no you-must-be-a-total-basket-case concern. Instead, unlike anyone else, Grace had addressed me in a tone that conveyed her assumption I was still the steady Jill she knew. That, in turn, had led to a conversation focused on coping, rather than commiseration.
Lynn also expressed amazement about Grace’s “generosity and candor.” While I greatly appreciated Grace’s openness, it hadn’t struck me as surprising. My shiva visitors had included a widow and a widower, neither of whom I knew particularly well. Yet both had been responsive to my questions about their changed lives. Their willingness to talk so intimately had reminded me of Richard’s generous candor after Joe’s diagnosis.
Just as my conversation with Richard had left a deep impression, so did my talk with Grace. Her demeanor, words, and tone all suggested that she’d absorbed her heartbreaking loss without coming unglued. I took from our conversation something I hadn’t realized I needed: “permission” to be all right.
That may sound odd, but the tide of sympathy that engulfs the newly bereaved is almost uniformly colored by the assumption that a grief-stricken person is, for a time, completely lost to sorrow. I knew I wasn’t lost. Twice, I’d experienced just such a total loss of self while in the throes of depression. Trapped in a mental solitary confinement that allowed no room for thoughts of anything but my misery and inability to escape it, my emotional range had become static, my thoughts tiresome and repetitive, my comprehension dulled almost to the point of dysfunction. I took no pleasure in any place, any activity, any interaction. Being with other people was painful and required effort; being with myself was even more painful and required the most effort of all. The anhedonia of depression had been intolerable.
The sorrow of grief, I was discovering, was not. Much of the time it still allowed me to register and be a part of the world around me. I could tune in and out of conversations; concentrate on small tasks; even be distracted from my pain long enough to experience other emotions, albeit within a much-diminished range. A few months after Joe’s death, I told a friend who, like me, had endured two depressions, “I lost Joe, but I haven’t lost myself.”
“I understand exactly what you mean,” she said.
That relativity gave me perspective on my pain. No matter how bad my days got, I knew they could be worse—which made me wary that the worst was yet to come. It also produced intermittent feelings of guilt. Surrounded by concern and sympathy, the pressure to follow the more familiar script was so strong that I even had a few moments when I asked myself the truly unthinkable: had I not loved Joe as much as I thought?
Maybe I’m cruising for a plunge…All in all, I’m doing okay. Which surprises me. And relieves me. And makes me feel a little guilty. Is it because I was exhausted by the caretaking that I feel younger?…Am I okay because I know I did my very best for Wease? I hope so.
As the four-month anniversary of Joe’s death neared, I thought of myself as “okay.” I was becoming more recognizable to myself. In early August I’d written, I think I’m nearing the end of wanting people around me constantly. It’s exhausting. My tolerance for being That Woman was wearing thin. Joe’s absence and my sadness were with me all the time; I didn’t need constant reminders from other people. I was a single parent now; I couldn’t afford to be Morose Mommy. Additionally, my own mother was fading. My sister’s colon cancer was metastasizing. At People, we were adjusting to a newly reduced staff. If I had a cloud of grief hovering over me all the time, I couldn’t be the mother, daughter, sister, and colleague I wanted to be. Even so, I was having trouble accepting that it was okay to be okay. After almost three decades with Joe, shouldn’t I be more of a wreck? Wasn’t my “okayness” disrespectful of our love and his memory?
Late that October I spoke by phone with a friend in the advanced stages of uterine cancer. Our conversation was animated, as were her days as she plowed ahead writing a book that she was determined to finish. Her buoyancy prompted me to tell her about my own unexpected steadiness. She asked if I was familiar with the bereavement work of clinical psychologist George Bonanno, and pointed me toward his new book, The Other Side of Sadness.
There is a Buddhist proverb popular in yoga circles: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I was a ready student; Bonanno would prove my teacher. His decades of research offered a picture of grief vastly different from Kübler-Ross’s familiar portrait. According to Bonanno, my okayness, what he called “resilience,” was no anomaly. Rather, it was the norm for better than half of the bereaved population. In sentence after sentence, Bonanno described my own perceptions and experience:
“We imagine grief to be a relentless shadow…overwhelming and unremitting.” So, my expectation that grief would be an unyielding chokehold was typical.
“The good news is that for most of us, grief is not overwhelming or unending. As frightening as the pain of loss can be, most of us are resilient. Some of us cope so effectively, in fact, we hardly seem to miss a beat in our day-to-day lives.” Wait, so it was neither unusual nor unseemly to return to work two weeks after Joe’s death?
“It is easy to become suspicious when a bereaved person seems too happy or at ease. ‘Is this some sort of denial?’ we might wonder. Or worse, maybe the person never really cared about the loved one in the first place?…After many years of studying bereavement, I’ve found no evidence to support any of these ideas.” Oh, thank God.
Or rather, thank you, George Bonanno. After reading his book, I stopped wondering and worrying whether it was okay to be okay. Grappling with sorrow and loneliness was hard enough. I was relieved to be done with the additional burden of feeling guilty that I was coping as well as I was.
Table of Contents
1 Diagnosis 11
2 Road Map 27
3 Surrender 43
4 Rorschach Blot 61
5 Lifelines 79
6 Contagion 101
7 Death 121
8 Preconceptions 139
9 Gratitude 155
10 Serendipity 173
11 Solace 193
12 Commemoration 213
What People are Saying About This
“Jill is not only a fabulous writer but she discovers in the midst of her sorrow, her insuperable losses, that she has enormous reserves of strength. Hearing about grief from the inside gives me a better notion of how to respond to it.”
–Rick Hamlin, Executive Editor, Guideposts
"Forget everything you've heard about the grieving process. Jill Smolowe's memoir about the death of her husband and other close family members and her eventual true-life happy ending upends conventional wisdom, providing a new narrative for grief. By turns humorous, matter-of-fact, and wise, Smolowe does not shy away from uncomfortable moments. But she also emphasizes moments of grace with an eloquence that will take your breath away. As she probes deeper into her own feelings and motivations, she's never maudlin or histrionic. You'll feel like you're in the company of a wise, funny, rigorously honest and yet compassionate friend. I found myself in tears several times and I also found myself cheering her on. Her insights about grieving, and moving beyond grief, should be required reading for all humans. I loved this book."
–Christina Baker Kline, author of the New York Times bestseller Orphan Train
"A valuable tale told with diamond clarity, honesty and a bracing lack of sentimentality." -- Becky Aikman, author of Saturday Night Widows