Remember that silly episode of The Brady Bunch (what episode wasn’t silly?) where Marcia, being the cute little clueless dimwit she was, writes in her secret diary about her lust and love for the mullet-haired Desi Arnaz Jr, after watching him on The Lucy Show and really digging him playing those drums? Marcia says in her diary entry, that not only is she crushing hard on the son of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, but that her “dream of dreams is to someday be MRS. Desi Arnaz Jr!”, and that if anyone ever found out this unbelievably shocking secret, surely she would “perish!” (Seriously. That’s what she wrote in the diary. “I’ll perish!” How can you not love this dumb show?) Well, in classic Brady form, the diary gets lost, and after a 22-minute episodic adventure in which the Brady clan jumps through ridiculous hoops to find the missing diary, Marcia reveals her secret crush to Alice, of all people. In an even more ridiculously insane twist, housekeeper Alice happens to have some connections to the Arnaz family (Really? If she knows big-time celebs like that, what the hell is she doing wasting her time cleaning Mike’s jockstraps?) So, Alice invites the lad over so that Marcia can have a mini-orgasm in front of him. Desi doesn’t make fun of our heroine’s diary entry, but instead tells her that he thinks it’s “groovy” that girls like her find him attractive. (I’ll bet it’s super groovy when he’s banging these underage giggle-geeks backstage after that intense drumming.) Then, in typical “this would never happen in a million years” Brady fashion, Desi leans over and gives Marcia a kiss on the cheek goodbye. The episode ends with Marcia touching her cheek and proclaiming in classic teenage hormonal angst: “I’ll never wash this cheek again!”
Well, Marcia, let me tell you, I can now relate. Take the typical overdramatic, makes no sense actions of a teenager in love – and multiply that by about 18 billion or eternity – and that is what you get when you lose your spouse, your life partner, your love.
Let’s be honest. Losing anyone is horrible. It’s so hard. Whether it’s your best friend, your parent, a grandmother, your pet, or anyone that meant anything to you at all – it is an awful thing to go through. When you lose your spouse, however, there are so many unique things and feelings and emotions that go along with that loss. So many things disappear all at once. Rhythms. Your soul. Identity. A way of life. Dreams. Your future. Your past. Right now. Your best friend. The person you told everything to. Love. Want. Desire. Sex. Hugs. Security. Warmth. Marriage. Your laugh. Your purpose. Everything gets different. Breathing is different. You are you, but you are not you. Losing your life partner throws you into an endless loop of chaos, and you will do just about anything to get even a moment of it back. To feel them. To be with them. The loss is physical. Hormonal. Gutteral. You feel it everywhere, and it never goes away.
The other day, while cleaning some things in my apartment that had been neglected for the past year since he died, I came across a tiny plastic bag on the floor, stuffed into a corner. I sat down and opened it. Inside was my husband’s watch, his eyeglasses, and a wallet. Immediately, without even thinking, I started to cry. Hard. These are things that were on his person daily. They touched his body, his hands, his eyes, his wrist. And now I was touching them, and as silly and “so what?” as that sounds, it’s all I’ve got. And it made me think. It made me think about how, in regard to Don’s stuff, people keep informing me that they are just things. It made me think about all of the strange, sometimes sick, sad, and weird things I have done since his death – the items I can’t let go of, or the rituals I take part in that don’t make any sense, even to me. Like the time I sat in his favorite chair and hugged his picture and his ashes; sobbing and waiting for him to magically appear and come back home. Or the time I drove to a nearby baseball field in the middle of the night, sat on my knees in the middle of the grass, and called out his name to the sky. Or how, each and every time I am forced to drive by the hospital where he died, I look away, turn up the radio loud, and distract myself with a round of “La la la – I don’t see you!”, like a lost child playing a game in the car. Except Im not a child, and this is real.
These are real things that have happened, and that I have done, and they are brutal. I have said before that my story is your story, and that is very true. There is always someone else who relates, someone else who is hurting, someone who will be touched by your words or moved by what you say. So many other young widowed people that I have met both in person and in the internet world since this happened, have told me: “Thank you for being my voice, and for writing this. You say all the things that I want to say but don’t know how.” My story is your story, and vice versa. In going through this hardest time of my life, I still have yet to find any book, blog, or piece of writing that really tells the truth about grief. The whole ugly, hilarious, awful, difficult to read truth. The kind of truth that scares most people, and so they stay away from it. The kind of truth that exists without that plastic-covering of falseness attached to it, without judgement, without fear of what others will think. This is why I write. Not only to share my story, and our love story, but so that others out there might see themselves in the things I say. I also think it’s important to educate the non-widowed, as much as we can, on what this is really like. We are so very misunderstood. We are told to let go. Move on. Get on with things. People who haven’t been through this just don’t comprehend that those things are impossible. They don’t understand that when we made the decision to spend our lives with our soulmates, that is exactly what we thought we would get: a life. Time. Years. Decades. Nobody ever expects to lose their spouse before they’ve even had a chance to start that life together. It was not a divorce. We dont want to forget, or “put it behind us”. There is love. So much love. So we do what we can. We move forward, as changed people, and with our late spouses as a part of us now. Forever. They are in us forever.
So with all of the above in mind and heart, this blog piece is about all the crazy, weird, beautiful, heartbreaking things that widowed people do without reason. The rituals we have, the items we hold onto, the habits we develop in our loved one’s absence, or because of it. And because my story is their story, and their story is mine; I asked my dear and brave young widowed friends to share some of the unexplainable things they have found themselves doing, as they make their way through this new life that none of us asked for. The first portion is filled with things that most of us find ourselves doing or experiencing, in various forms. There were so many people that wanted to participate with their stories, that I ended up creating a second portion, a TOP 11 List from those that were the most unique, or a bit “out there” from the rest. You may find these stories scary, sad, strange, cringe-worthy, or even funny. You might not understand. Until one day – you will. (first names only were used in these stories, at the request of some who shared.)
In the world of weird widowhood, going to sleep is a huge issue, and something that, overnight, becomes extremely difficult. You will do just about anything to feel like you are not alone in that bed. A lot of people reported having a need to “fill” their spouse’s side of the bed. Lorie does this with pillows, stuffed animals, and even books; all piled up on her husband’s side of the bed. Evie stays on her own side, and their dog occupies her spouse’s. Pam went as far as selling her entire bedroom set, no longer being able to stomach sleeping there after her husband was killed. Casey practices a nightly ritual of wearing her husband’s boxers and favorite t-shirt, spraying a stuffed monkey he gave her with his cologne, and then sleeping cuddled up to the monkey. Judy ordered a life-like doll of her man, complete with a chip inside that has a recording of him saying to her: “I love you.” She listens to his voice on the recording, and sleeps with the doll, who is clothed in special pajamas that she bought for him.
When you are in love with someone and spending your life with them, the physical part of them is so organic and palpable. When you can no longer touch them anymore, ever – you simply find other, unorthodox ways to feel them somehow. To touch something they touched, smell them, somehow feel their skin. Sue kept each and every clipping from inside her husband’s electric razor – they sit inside of a ziploc bag – as evidence that he was once alive. Carolyn keeps the ashtray full from her partner’s cigarettes – 2 years after his death. Stephen, whenever having a particularly rough day, would use his late wife Dawn’s deodorant. “I haven’t done it in awhile now,” he says. “Maybe I’m learning to cope better, or maybe I just don’t want all her deodorant to be gone. It smells like her.” Hair is often a huge source of comfort for many. Bianca refused to cut her own hair for almost 5 years after her husband Eric’s death. “I had longer hair when he was alive, and he had touched it”, she explains. In another tale involving hair, Kim tells this story: “Brian had long hair, and when he cut it all off, he kept a ponytail. At the time, all of us thought it was a bit gross. Now that he is gone, it’s the closest thing I have to his DNA. I treasure that ponytail, but I don’t let many people know that. Same for his eyeglasses. He saw the world through them.” Sandy, who picked strands of hair out of her partner Cam’s toque and kept them in an envelope on her desk, explains it like this: “It’s a weird mix of getting angry and thinking ‘how can this be all that is left?’, and becoming overly possessive and anxious about losing them or ever being without them.” She still has that envelope, 6 years later. Many, many people reported of getting some type of tattoo on their body somewhere as a memorial or remembrance of their love. My favorite of these was Wendy, who has a tattoo of R.I.P., along with the image of their marriage license, with his singature, across her back.
One thing I have noticed amongst almost everyone I have spoken to is the almost subconscious habit of developing odd rituals after losing your love. There are so many types of these habits and rituals. Some of them are things people do over and over, and others are what I like to call “ways to stop time.” What they have in common is that they most likely only make sense to the person doing them. Sometimes they give us comfort, and other times they are just something that we feel we must do or not do – and we don’t know why. Grant drives 4 miles out of his way daily, so that he doesn’t pass their favorite restaurant, and the last place they went to together the night she died. “She gave me a pair of BSU Bronco boxers for Christmas. I won’t ever wear them again. They are a keepsake now.” He also texts her at the end of each day, to tell her goodnight and that he loves her. Becky’s husband rode a motorcycle. She didn’t. But after his death, she felt compelled to get her motorcycle license, keep his bike, and learned to ride it herself. Beth can’t stop purchasing all the items that he used to buy – Tide, Downy Softener, Lever 2000. Abagail no longer eats ketchup, because her husband found it disgusting. Patty keeps the package she bought of his favorite cookies (he only ate 3) inside the refrigerator to this day. Ashley cant turn off her husband’s phone after 13 months. Darleen no longer buys Fruit Loops cereal, because her husband ate them constantly during the last few weeks of his life. Jennifer, after 3 years, keeps Jim’s half full bottle of Coke that he left in the fridge. Ilene no longer eats the Black and White Italian Cookies that she used to share with her husband. “I would split it down the middle and give him the chocolate while I had the vanilla. Now, if they serve them at a party, I can’t eat them. Who would I give the chocolate part to, now that he’s gone?” Jon has a habit of mentally preparing himself for specific situations. “Everytime I get in the car, I mentally prepare myself to argue over who will drive, me or her? Or when something good happens, like I get a bonus at work, I prepare mentally the conversation where I would tell my wife.” James practices the ritual of driving down the country road where his wife Candace is buried in the cemetary, sitting in his car and talking to her, telling her how much he loves her. “I haven’t let go of anything that belonged to her.” He goes on. “I have the baby clothes she bought for Little James that he has long since grown out of, the asthma inhalers that failed her miserably the day she left us, even the rocking chair that she was sitting in when she took her last breath. People tell me I should donate her things, but I can’t. They are not mine to give away.” Lastly, Tom continues to sleep in the bedding that his wife Lisa died in. He also finds himself decorating their home “in manners that I think she would find appealing, but when left to my own devices, I would not choose.”
Those are some of the more “common” things that people experience. The remaining stories and examples were the ones that I found to be a tad more on the truly unconventional side, or “unique” in some way. I sincerely hope that if you have gotten this far in reading and you are still alert, that you will try not to judge us too harshly by these things we do. I hope people can maybe understand that our actions come from deep love, fear, and an urgency and need to make sense out of something that will never make sense. I put these stories out here, not to pass judgement on anyone, but to educate others on what this life is like for us, and to point out how truly brave every one of my new widowed brothers and sisters really are – each and every time they get up and try again. I honestly believe that.
Those of you familiar with my past blogs and writing pieces know that, unlike most lists which follow a TOP 10 structure, my lists are always in honor of my husband’s favorite movie: This Is Spinal Tap. So, in the words of Nigel Tufnel: “These go to eleven.”
11. First up on our list comes from Anne, who lost Will suddenly to an aneurism. “I was away on a trip, and Will was at our home. When he died, nobody was around except our dog, who was with him. I find myself pleading with her to tell me if he was in pain, or if he cried out, if he was scared. Of course I know she can’t answer me, but I can’t help myself.”
10. “The clock radio on Glenn’s side of the bed had somehow lost power when he was very sick. I have left it this way. It has blinked the wrong time for 2 years now, and I cant bring myself to re-set it to the correct time. I have no idea why.” This comes from Molly, and it’s another perfect example of wanting to freeze time. Something tells me that somehow, even though it’s in no way logical, keeping that clock blinking tricks Molly into thinking that her husband is still alive. He was alive when it was blinking. If she changes it, he is really gone. Although, I have no idea how on earth she puts up with that constant blinking. That would make me NUTS!
9. This one breaks my heart a little. It comes from Sara, and she talks about the day he died. “While at the hospital, I sent a friend to get his ring from the E.R. I put it on my necklace, without ever washing his blood off, and it’s stayed there ever since. When I travel anywhere, I have to take some of his ashes with me. Always. If I don’t, I feel like I’m leaving him behind.”
8. The next story is from Gina, and she writes: “My family had a tradition. We used to play games while sitting out in the pretty garden area of our home. Just me, him, and our two children. UNO was a favorite. I can no longer play UNO. Whenever some poor soul asks me to play that game, I well up with tears instantly as they sit there looking at me totally confused.”
7. Tied for number seven are two food-related tales. Food is often a huge issue for people dealing with this kind of loss. The first comes from Tereece, who still has the last candy bar her husband was eating just a few hours before he died. “It’s all yucky now, but I still have it.” Jo tells this story about her typical lunch: “Ant was a great cook. The day before he died, he had made me lunch, but I never got the chance to eat it because we were so busy. I left it in the freezer at work. It was spaghetti. Today, it is still in the freezer, 19 months later. My co-workers don’t dare touch it, because they know the significance of it, and I can’t even begin to think about ever taking it out of there. Is that crazy enough for you?” Yes.
6. Sometimes, unexplainably, the most brutal things can also be the most comforting. As is the case with Sylinda, who, 3 years after his death, still has her husband’s blood-soaked clothese that he died in, sealed inside a large plastic bag. “Every couple of months or so, I take them out, lay them on the bed, and cry on top of them.”
5. Sheila reports this: “I have his shoes in a bag in our living room, which I brought home from the hospital over 4 years ago. I know what’s in the bag, so when a cleaner came over and took them out, I screamed at her to go get the bag out of the trash, put the shoes back in it, and never touch them again.”
4. Molly provides us with number four with this simple gem: “I have a picture of him by my bathroom sink, and a heart-shaped rock. The rock has to point to his picture so he knows I love him. Are you scared of me yet?” Nope. Not even close.
3. Tammy kept all of her husband’s clothes that he had on the day before he died. “I came home the night he died and threw laundry everywhere to make sure I got every piece he had on. (they were dirty) I still have the clothes they cut off him and his workboots, and I keep both right by my bed. Strange, but they were the last items touching his body before he died. I take them out and smell them, hoping that his scent is still there.”
2. “You want wacky? He periodically visits and has sex with me. Please don’t use my name on that one.” Well, anonymous, all I can say to that is: “WOW!” I would really like to know how that works. Actually – no – I wouldn’t. (no picture available of this act. Thank God.)
1. Okay, this is my damn list, so the last bizarre grief ritual belongs to me. Not only because this is my blog, but also because I truly feel that what I am about to describe here is completely, without a doubt, 1000%, off-my-rocker INSANE. The fact that I am revealing this information to the world at large, or the hundred or so people that might read my blog, probably qualifies me for the nuthouse. Oh well. At least if I went there, the following behavior would appear normal. Here we go. Please don’t judge me …
Don and I got married in October of 2006. Since then, my wedding gown has been hanging on the inside door of Don’s closet in our apartment. Quite frankly, we had no idea what to do with the damn thing, and It felt wrong and weird to throw it out. So it just sat there. Then, eventually, it got knocked down and ended up on the floor of the closet, and sat there. When he died last July, I kept opening his closet door, staring down at the gown, then closing the door again. In March, I wrote a play about losing my husband and the grief process, and performed it in The Networks One-Act Festival in NYC. At the start of the play, a DVD played of Don giving his personal written wedding vows to me during our ceremony. One night sometime in April, when I was feeling particularly depressed and “woe is me”-like, I took out the DVD of our wedding video, and paused it at our vows. I then went to my computer, and printed up the written vows I had written to my husband, and the ones he wrote for me. No longer thinking like a human being, I then sprinted to the closet, got my wedding gown off the floor, and revealed it from it’s garment bag and hanger. Next; I stripped down to my undies in my living room, and stepped into the crumbled and ignored dress, sewn especially for me and our Christmas-themed wedding. Running to the other closet, I located the silvery, sparkley shoes that I wore on that amazing day, and put them on; the whole time feeling like a lunatic. I didn’t care. With written vows in hand, I pushed PLAY on our wedding ceremony, and said my vows out loud along with the DVD-version of myself. The TV version of me was looking longingly into his eyes, and I stood here in our apartment, looking and searching into his eyes, with tears streaming down mine. Trying to re-create the happiest, best day of my life – under the saddest of realities. When it came time for Don to read his vows to me, I stared into the TV screen and listened intently. No other noise existed. Time had stopped, and Don was professing his love to me again, promising to be “the husband you have always dreamed of, for the rest of my life.” I heard his voice, 8 months gone, and it sounded hollow to me. Different. Far away. I listened harder. Got lost in his blue eyes. Tried to feel my elation through the screen. Got married again. And then, in my crumpled up wedding gown, I jumped into his favorite La-Z-Boy chair, as I had many times before, and just cried.
So there you have it. A whole bunch of odd, sad, hard to wrap-your-head-around stories, from a bunch of hurting souls. Go ahead and throw me in the loony-bin. Throw the rest of these guys in too, while you’re at it. Or – take a few seconds and try to understand the depths of this kind of loss, and what it does to a person, how it shapes them into something else entirely. Try to comprehend what it means to lose the very air that you breathe, the life that you had, the heart that you shared. And then go home to your wife, your husband, your girfriend or boyfriend, your fiance, or whomever it is that you love, and put your arms around them and love them with a vengeance. Because you just never know when you might find yourself re-enacting your own wedding day in a crumbled up wedding gown and a DVD-recording of your now dead husband. So please excuse me while I go and put on my brand new straight-jacket. I have an appointment at the funny farm, and I’ve got a bunch of weird death rituals I need to do before I leave. Ta-ta.