The definition of the word “duality” is as follows:
1. the quality or condition of being dual
2. an instance of opposition or contrast between two concepts or two aspects of something; a dualism. “the photographs capitalize on the dualities of lightness and dark, stillness and movement.”
I think it is more than safe to say that every widowed person understands the concept of duality. Maybe you didnt know the exact definition, or you weren’t sure what to call it, or it was maybe more subconscious than conscious in your own mind – but at just about every moment in time, some more elevated than others, widowed people are living and existing in a dual reality. The above definitions describe it perfectly. After all, what is grief and loss and widowhood, if not the duality of stillness and movement? Joy and pain? This life, and that other life?
When I started my blog 4 years ago about this tsunami of grief (I still refuse to call it a “journey”- it’s a tsunami, dammit!), there were many things I could have named it. My Husband Is Forever Dead came to mind. Or maybe Widowed at 39. Or lots of other things. But none of those fully encapsulated the concept and the very real truth that when your spouse or partner suddenly dies, you are not just losing and grieving a person. You haven’t “only” lost your husband to death. The truth is, while all loss is impossibly hard, the death of a partner or spouse is the only kind of death that literally affects EVERY SINGLE aspect of your life. There is no piece of your life that this loss does not touch or affect. Where/how you eat. Where you shop. Your living situation. Your finances. Your job. Your parenting (if you have kids). Your loss of the dream of a family (if you didnt get to have kids). Your friendships. (Some grow stronger. Some grow weaker. Lots disappear altogether. ) Your dreams. Goals. Desires. Your sex life. Love. Your daily habits. On and on and on …
When my partner died, I not only lost my husband, but I lost my best friend. My biggest fan and supporter in life. My teammate. My car and computer and everything-else repair-man. My kitty-cat co-parent. My lover. My home nurse who took care of me always. My “run to Wal-Mart at 2 am because my wife is out of printer ink and has a writing deadline in the morning” guy. My sounding board. My gentleman, who treated me with such kindness and respect. My helper. My resident dork who guaranteed that I laughed at his silly humor at least once a day, and who guaranteed that I always knew how he felt, and who called me beautiful at least once a day.
When you lose the person you thought you would spend the rest of your life with and grow old with, it is not just the loss of a person. It’s the loss of that life. Everything you planned. Your future that wont ever happen. Your past that now sits in only your memory bank. Memories that the two of you shared, and now there is noone to turn to and say: “Do you remember that time when we ….” Your day to day life, that was taken, stolen away by thieves. Everything. All of it. Gone, in one horrifying moment, when you know that his heart stopped beating, and that the life that you knew is no more. That is why my blog was appropriately titled: RIP The Life I Knew.
So, with a loss such as this, one that affects every fiber of your being forever, it becomes a part of you. They become a part of you. And there are moments, often actually, where the life you have right now and that other life, merge together on the strangest bumpy path, and you are left there to navigate. You are standing there, inside of it, and yet, none of it makes any sense. This is not a negative or a positive thing – most things aren’t. Its simply a thing that happens when the life you had and the life you have, begin to marry.
This feeling of duality begins to happen more and more, as time goes by, and as you begin to live your life instead of just existing. It happens right in those very moments of passionately living. It has happened to me quite a bit lately, and each time is no less strange or surprising than the last.
Having my first “time”, post-loss, (last July) and right in the middle of it, hearing my dead husband’s voice literally cheering me on and saying: “Yes! Good for you! You deserve this! Finally!”, in that hilarious way that he might teasingly say such a thing. And yet, somehow, being able to completely get lost in the feeling, 100%, and enjoy it’s every wonder.
Doing my TED talk last month, about my husband’s death, and about the power of sharing each other’s stories to keep the people we love alive, and knowing that my husband would be so damn proud of me in that moment. And then immediately wishing he were there to see my talk. And then realizing there wouldn’t BE a talk, if he wasn’t dead. And then crying in the backstage dressing room area, because he IS dead, and I just gave a talk on a big stage about him being dead. And then wishing he were there to give me my favorite yellow roses and lots of his amazing hugs. And then shaking my head in confusion, for the one hundred billionth time in the last 5 years, that Im really, actually, truly a widow, and that my husband really did collapse and die. That was a thing that actually happened. And then laughing at how ridiculous and all over the place the inside of my brain can be.
Last Sunday. Standing in the kitchen of my parent’s house, which is not the same kitchen and not the same house that they lived in 5 years ago, in that life where my husband wasn’t dead and where my parents still had their home in Groton of over 45 years. Standing there, in a daze, as if frozen, as my date rang our doorbell. Watching as my mom answered the door, because I was too paralyzed by my fog to handle that task, and invited him inside. Giving him an awkward hello with a half-glance in his direction, as I accepted the beautiful Easter lilies he brought for me. Somehow not comprehending that they were, in fact, for me, and not for some other confused widow. Retreating back to the corner of the kitchen, hiding myself without realizing it, as this man who I was meeting for the first time, and who was about to take me out on a lunch date, had a conversation with my parents. Hearing only snippets of that conversation, but also not hearing anything at all. Noticing that sounds and words were happening, but being stuck in that duality of this life/that life. Looking right through the three of them, and into the television set, while thinking to myself every bit of this:
“Who is this man standing here talking to my parents? How did I end up here, on a first date, at age 45, living with mom and dad in fucking Fitchburg, Massachusetts? Who lives in Fitchburg? Just a few years ago, my husband was talking to my mom and dad, and I was happily and newly married. How is this happening? Is this real? What are they talking about, anyway? I think I heard something about Cape Cod. That’s where we honeymooned. The best week of my life. This man in my kitchen seems familiar to me, and I cant figure out why. I feel like I have met him somewhere, somehow. Is that possible? Thats probably not possible. Maybe its just because he’s a fellow paramedic, like Don was. Why do you keep putting EMS guys in my life, Don? Whatever message youre trying to send me with that, I GET IT! You can stop now with the EMS theme. He seems to be getting along with my parents really nicely. How long have we been standing here? It feels like a long time. Should I say something? He seems really genuine and really sweet. I like him already. I feel like Don would like him too. I wish he could somehow know Don, or that Don could somehow meet him, and know that Im hanging out with a truly good guy today. Maybe he DOES know. Maybe he is the one who is making all this happen. I hope he knows. Im excited to spend time with this person. But Im also not going to get carried away in my head. Its just a date. Stop overthinking everything. Okay, my sweet dead husband, let’s do this. We can do this. Hopefully he won’t run away screaming after being held hostage by the shit that goes on in my brain. He’s cute. I feel myself smiling around him, even just on the phone or in text. Im going to shut up now, and try like hell to just be in the moment. ”
This life, and that life. Merging together, as if stuck in traffic and down to one lane. Co-existing in the same space. The past. The future. The now. Like my friend Michele says about widowed life: “Finding a way to blend what was, with what is, with what will be.” A tapestry. Chaotic and calm. Tranquil and stormy. Heartbreaking and joyous. Death and life.
Living the life I have now, and being excited and hopeful about it ….
While always acknowledging and honoring, and yes, always missing,
that life I used to know.
They can breathe together.
They can marinate.
Everything is connected.
The joy. The grief. The hurt. The death. The love.
All of it.
Sometimes, in the same, complex and wonderful second.
Ain’t life a beautiful thing?