Ramblings about my personal journey of learning to understand widowhood.
Loss is not new to me.
There are 7 widowed persons in my direct family-- both of my maternal grandmothers, both of my step-grandmothers, 2 of my aunts and 1 of my uncles. I guess that life has been especially cruel to my family. None of them deserved to have their loved ones ripped away from their arms-- but then again, does anyone deserve that? I think this is where the common thought of "why did this happen to me" comes from, because none of us ever expect to face a tragedy, and none of us deserved this outcome. We picture our lives one way, and we're upset when we can't control or change the reality of our situation...
While I've never lost a spouse, I've lost many family members & friends, and with every death I lost of a piece of myself. Each person has a unique role in the lives of others, and no role is the same. To me, my uncle was the man who always told hilarious but slightly inappropriate stories during holidays dinners. My grandparents would look over with slight disappointment, but my aunts and uncles of cousins would always be cracking up.
When I think about him, I remember him as a light-hearted person, but I never thought about how he influenced the lives of others in different ways. To my aunt, he was the love of her life and the disagreeable-but-loving father to her children. To my cousin, he was the strict military father who was "hard on his kids" but everything he did was to create a better life for them. To his grandkids, he was the man with a big smile and kind eyes who brought candies to the house whenever he visited. When he first passed, I was sad to hear it, but I really didn't think about his unique role in each person's life... I just assumed that everyone saw him in the same light. That's where I made my first mistake.
When I would put myself in the shoes of another, I only envisioned their pain for the time-being. I only thought back to specific instances of their memories. See, I only had a handful of my own memories witnessing their joint-lives. Most of the time, I was focusing on living my own life and I wasn't there to hear their private conversations or enjoy their special moments. I couldn't really put myself into another shoes, because I couldn't envision the hundreds of thousands of special moments, nor did I know about their inside jokes or their future plans.
I only ever spent limited time with my family members. We'd visit for the holidays & share our major life updates via social media or email, but I wasn't as close to them as their spouses were. I didn't sleep in the same bed with them, wake up every morning and make breakfast with them, create a joint life with them...instead, they were just "the man who tells funny stories and gives great hugs" or something of the sorts.
I had such a narrow perception of the depth and intensity of spousal loss. That's why I want to share my story, so it might help non-widowed persons to really understand the unrecognized "fault" in their ways, and to hopefully explain why some people treat widows/widowers the way they do...because they don't know how to help.
I think back to the times before my grandfather died.
My grandpa would be sitting in his stool in the dark den, curtains drawn and only a small lamp radiating yellow light to the surrounding desk. He would nibble on his favorite snack--Cracker Barrel's sharp cheddar cheese & club crackers-- while reading his newspaper. I would run up to him, he'd get out the manilla-colored notepad and he'd draw caricatures. I would laugh and poke fun at how ridiculously exaggerated his drawings were, and he would look over smiling and say "who needs enemies when I've got friends like you?"
My grandma would be outside tending to her hydrangeas in her garden. She'd come inside, her faded blue-jeans smeared with dirt, smelling strongly like the "Off" bug spray that she'd drown herself in to avoid itchy mosquito bites. She'd walk into the laundry room, see my grandpas socks on the floor & start nagging at him about the mess he's made. He'd sigh and say "okay dear" and they'd walk up the stairs to the kitchen, ready to eat lunch together-- every tuesday, they'd make pastrami sandwiches on pumpernickel bread.
I can remember this all so vividly even though I was a young child. I can't imagine what my grandmother must be going through. Does she remember every snide yet joking remark she made? Every sandwich they made for lunch? The taste of the pumpernickel bread from the bakery that closed down? Does it cut into her heart like a sharp blade of regret?
When my grandfather began showing signs of dementia, his health really began deteriorating. He stopped recognizing me to the point of believing that I was my father's new wife-- when I would visit him in the hospital, he kept congratulating my father & I on our wedding and wishing us a happy honeymoon. He even stopped recognizing my grandmother, because he thought he was back in the 1960's and he didn't recognize "this old woman" as his wife.
I can't imagine how much that hurt her. I feel like she lost her husband twice. He was still alive & breathing, but he wasn't the same, nor was he really "there" towards the end. She was able to sit next to him and hold his hand and talk to him, but he didn't know who she was. She had to listen to him and console him whenever he had any delusions, like the time that he thought he was trapped in the mall being accused of shoplifting, when really the doctors were pinning him down as he tried to walk away on his just-operated-on leg.
She had to sit and watch his personality die, slowly but surely. She had to watch him struggle and get frustrated when he didn't understand what was happening. She had to sit there and listen to him speak about other women when he didn't know he was married to her. I wonder if, at that point, she began her grieving. Did she regret all the years she didn't sleep in his bed? She probably still remembers their last fight.
I remember these memories so vividly, and that's probably because I spent a lot of time with them and their routines became mine. As it turns out, time is very relative. I'd spend maybe 10 hours per week at their house, but that's such a small percentage of their life. There are 168 hours per week, so I was only with them ~6% of the time. I wasn't there to witness their morning or night-time routines. I wasn't present for every conversation. I didn't know them for the first ~30 years of their marriage, because I wasn't even born yet. I only began putting all of this into perspective.
At the time of my grandpas death, my boyfriend was on his own deathbed in the ICU. His lungs had collapsed due to lupus, and my step-grandfather had just passed, too. I wasn't focusing on my grandmother or my step-grandmother or anyone else in my family... I had just lost 2 grandparents and I was focused on not losing my dying significant other.
At the beginning I was there to dry my grandma's tears, but I wasn't asking her how she was actually feeling nor was I offering much help. I wasn't stopping by her house or cooking her dinner or helping her clean. I just distanced myself from her when she needed the support the most, and that was not fair.
It's not like I meant to isolate her. That's not what I wanted at all. I had my own grief to deal with, and I didn't know how to simultaneously help with hers, nor would I have known how to deal with her grief even if I hadn't experienced my own losses. From my outside perspective, I really didn't understand what she was going through or what she needed.
I mean, I also lost someone. No, not the same level of loss nor the same level of pain, but I still lost the man who used to walk me home from elementary school and take me to the park. I wondered, am I supposed to mask my pain and avoid the topic as if she doesn't think about him every second of every day? Should I be visiting her house every week and treating her very delicately, acting like she's unable to help herself? I know that daily tasks can be hard, harder than I can even imagine due to the extra responsibility during a time of grief, but I didn't want to offend her or treat her like the damsel in distress that she always despised.
From my point of view, I could see that my grandma was hurt. She was a new widow, of course she was hurt, but I wasn't prioritizing her. On the rare occasion that I did try to help, she'd reject it so I thought that maybe she needed space or wanted to be alone. Around this time, someone told me "doing the wrong thing is better than doing nothing". This was in regards to my professional career, but it really struck me when I thought about my grandmother. Saying the wrong thing is still better than saying nothing...
I felt selfish and guilty for not helping her because I realized I wasn't trying hard enough to 1) understand what she needs and 2) put myself in a position where she feels comfortable to accept my help. This was my mistake, and this is where you can learn from my wrong actions. Don't avoid reaching out because you don't know what to do.
I want my grandmother to know that my failure to help wasn't because I didn't want to support her, it's that I truly didn't know how. I still don't know how, because I know that she's isolated... she can't drive and she doesn't trust taxis, so she needs me to come and drive her places when she wants to get out. But thats okay- everyone grieves at their own pace. I know she's allowed to feel anti-social, and I know that she needs my support to push herself to try new things. There's a balance that I need to reach of pushing and holding back.
She doesn't want to make new friends, but she complains about feeling alone and isolated, so I visit to help. I can't replace the company of my grandfather, and no one can. While I might not be doing everything right, I'm trying. That's all that matters.