"I'm writing for some advice," the note from Liz began. "My friend L is now at the end of the road; likely to die within a few days. Her husband, J, is facing the quiet of the house without her so soon, and I'm wondering what (if anything) your amazing friends offered in those first days post-death that may have been either comforting/helpful or really off key (so I can do some things and avoid other things)...All advice most gratefully accepted."
I met Liz when my husband was dying. "I'm an amateur oncologist," she said, by way of introducing herself. I noticed her silver bracelets (I don't leave home without them) and laughed at the same line I'd been using. If you're paying attention when people you love are dying, you learn a lot very fast about drugs and blood tests and tumor markers, in our case, the CA 19-9, whose rises and falls you watch like the weather.
I hadn't heard anything new about L for a while until the night before last when I got Liz's note and so we spoke.
She’s right, by the way. I do have “amazing friends,” who have known when to drop by (once late on a bad Saturday night), what to say when they called (“can I bring lunch over?”), how to help me empty the drawers of Jeff’s study (“let’s just put all this in a box labeled ‘later’”).
I offer this in the spirit of "this is what worked for me." There are no prescriptions for grief. They all must be custom compounded in our own weird laboratories of survival and any advice that comes with musts or have-tos or don'ts should be returned to sender at about twice the velocity it was delivered. At least in my experience.
Here's what I said to Liz:
Clean out: I had all of Jeff’s belongings removed from our room the day he died, kindly engineered by a friend of my daughter’s, who also stayed with me off and on in the months following. Nothing was thrown out; everything was neatly folded and put in plastic boxes. Even the items on his bureau were removed. For some people, seeing these things might be comforting but there was so much of Jeff everywhere in the house that having less in the bedroom made the minute-by-minute a bit less raucous. It took much longer (more than a year) to completely dismantle his study but that room was not on my regular route around the house.
Phone it in to the funeral home: Our friend Tom went to the funeral home with me a few hours after Jeff died to make “arrangements.” In retrospect, I should have insisted on having this meeting on the phone. I remember having to wait an agonizingly long time in the pale carpeted halls of the funeral “home” for the funeral “director” because he had “a customer,” which is what I thought I was, but because we were going for a simple “package”—no limos or hearses to drive the single mile from the Unitarian Church to the cemetery—he treated us more like people at the bargain bin in the basement. (In retrospect, I forgot to tell this to Liz. Bottom line: engage with the funeral people via conference call if at all possible, alternatively, as briefly as possible.)
Tell a bedtime story: My kids did something unexpected, spontaneous, and very soothing that first night. They came into what had been just a few hours earlier our but what was now my room, sat on the bed, talked, then stayed until I fell asleep. Granted, they’re adults so you might expect such a thing, but I didn't and still can't quite believe it. It was their dad who’d just died in that very room, in that very bed. It was their incalculable loss and they had the generosity and maturity to realize what such a night might present after thirty-nine years of marriage.
Get out of Dodge: We all left just a few days after the funeral, my younger daughter back to work at an artist residency that she was running that summer, the rest of us to New York, where my older daughter, son-in-law, and grandkids live. From there we went really away for about ten days. I think. I can’t remember how long it was. We went somewhere exotic, to an island I’d never heard of in the Caribbean, one that was too expensive, of course, to a rental with a pool and a cook and lots of gates on the doors and windows. I had my own room in a wing off the kitchen, which was good because I was able to cry and not feel as if I would disturb the kids more than they already were disturbed. I tried to write but that was futile. We swam, ate, and watched movies. I worried about the twins, who were not yet two, cracking their heads on the tile floor. I remember the looks on the faces of the cook and her sister when I defined “just” in regard to when my husband had died. Takeaway: go away if you can. Not for a “vacation,” because you can’t really enjoy anything, but for a transition. We might have done just as well in a rented house in the Berkshires but in retrospect I think being in such unfamiliar surroundings was a very good thing. Everything was going to be different and this was a good way to make that palpable. Even the food was unfamiliar.
“It gets better:” My son-in-law’s mother, whose husband died swiftly of a vicious cancer when her boys were eleven and fourteen, said these three simple words as she was leaving my house the night of the funeral. I so hoped she was right because the beginning is a crappy bronco ride on a chipped pony with some mean critter continuing to stuff quarters into the coin box. Which reminds me of something my older daughter said “at the beginning,” when I referred to “the beginning,” perhaps a month after Jeff died. “Mom, the beginning is going to go on for a long time. The first few years are going to be the beginning.” After decades of marriage, the beginning is still going on, thus, as usual, she was right. As was her mother-in-law.
It also can get worse: As the months wear on, the crowds die down and the weekends loom. We talked about this a lot in our grief group. I’ve told this story elsewhere, the value of sitting with the same nine people, all of whom had lost mates around the same time, in a safe setting every week. Did our group go on for six weeks? Or six months? Or was it a year? Did we meet every week or every month? I can’t remember now but with that group—Barbara, Doug, James, Jim, Susanne, Mary Ann, Margaret, and Dagmar, led by Sue—the weird torques of reality that ached like slivers of glass in the soul seemed normal. What to do on a Sunday. How to fill a Saturday. Whether to sell the house, a question we all raised at about the same meeting, a confrontation with the way life has been that hit us all at about four months, the same time for me that the near-nightly dinner invitations died down.
“You’ll learn things about yourself you never knew:” Marianne has “lost” two husbands, one suddenly when she had three small children, the other slowly after she and her new husband had brilliantly blended their families, leaving her with six. Others have written about this use of the word “lost,” as if you went into the woods together and one of you wandered off, never to be found again. Or like you misplaced your keys. Permanently. It’s like that. Marianne asked me out to dinner about six weeks after Jeff died and offered this advice. I thought she meant I’d learn things right then. Immediately. The only thing I’d learned up to that point was that my hearing was attuned to every movement Jeff made in the house. He was a very quiet partner, actually, soft on the stairs, not the type who banged around in the kitchen. He never even watched a football game (though he would hunch forward watching his young hero Bode Miller, who skied on the same mountain that Jeff loved more than any, Cannon, and made the occasional cheer for him).
As time has passed, Marianne’s advice has proved true. I have learned to climb out of all the gender related traps that we’d fallen into—being willing to part with money for help with things I don’t like, for example, such as climbing a ladder to clean gutters. So that’s one of a string of very obvious things, superficial even. As I write this, I realize that I can’t put words to what those other things are right here and right now but I know the deep interior of me has different contours than its architecture of nearly two and a half years ago. Death grows you too.