I had a recent, major revelation and thought, perhaps, we should discuss it: Death. Death is a mystery, a certainty, familiar yet unknown. People have been mystified by it and its curtain call since the beginning of time. It’s unpredictable and life’s single inevitability.
In life, most of us are forced to reinvent ourselves for many reasons. Even as parents, as our children grow busy and independent, we must morph. We have to think differently about joy, productivity, daily purpose and our place even in our own family. These are things most of us usually don’t realize until it’s too late to fully understand how to aid or support our loved ones with it. A few people are luckier; they are wise beyond their years or they are enlightened by someone else in time to benefit themselves and others.
Especially in the case of losing a long-time spouse or partner, survivors need much more than just sympathy. Help is needed with the reconstruction of everyday life, indeed, life every day. Like a kite cut free, we lose our grounding, direction, and everything that steadied us while aloft.
My father passed away nearly 20 years ago. He was the center of our family and we were all lost. My mother, however, was completely untethered, trying to navigate without her guidance system. Married nearly 60 years, her life had been compartmentalized. “His” and “Her” responsibilities made survival and recreation simple, and their common interests made life fun. She knew how to do that life, and she could have done it forever.
Then, suddenly, one leg on her ladder was gone and balance became impossible. She lost much more than the love of her life – she lost her way. She wasn’t just grieving. She wasn’t just alone. She was struggling to redefine her entire existence and reason for it, even to herself.
Like many spouses, my father grounded her, shared every moment of every day, and was her sounding board, lighthouse, confidante, helper and advisor. He was the reason she cooked, stocked the fridge and made coffee. She had interests and hobbies, sure, but he was part of her, her joy, and he was her life’s validation. Suddenly, all that was gone. She couldn’t articulate it … and we, her own kids, missed it.
I don’t know why we expected her to be normal and to just go on as always – albeit without him. We should have understood that his loss had left her alone in the deepest sense of the word, without her greatest reason to see each day through with some zeal. She’d lost the last reason in the world to do what she did. She, now, had no obligations, no distractions, no reason to “be.” I understand now, as my family has grown completely independent, and I’ve gone from being essential to being an accoutrement. As parents, it’s a blessing if we can put ourselves out of work, but we wonder, “Who am I now?”
That feeling of being lost yet in motion is very real. Worse than that, we aren’t really sure of who we are in this unknown, new place in life, or of our own ability to carry on, what we are carrying on for, and if it’s worth the effort.
I remember my mother’s aimlessness, yet I never really understood the profundity of it or her effort to carry on while not knowing who she was anymore. The place she had occupied, that place she knew, that role which was her whole life, that existence defined her – even to herself, and it was gone in one single moment. She only came alive when a bride asked her to make 600 cookies for a wedding, or the family wanted her meatballs. We should’ve needed her more and more often.
It’s important to share these things because we need to learn important things in time to fully benefit from them. When we survive losing someone we love, our grief sometimes blinds us to the grief of others. Other times, we just aren’t able to understand the immediate grief of the survivors, most especially that of older, longtime spouses. If we’re made aware, we can support all loss including that worsened by the prospect of having to redesign a life with purpose and definition. Such change can leave anyone in freefall.
It’s a perk to have help from loved ones who are aware. I wasn’t aware soon enough. I’m sharing this private revelation with anyone for whom it’s not too late.