A few weeks after my wife Karina died in May last year, some friends of ours who had previously conveyed their sympathies, messaged me to ask how I was doing. Though at first I found this expression of concern a little odd, I soon understood what it was about.
It was their way of telling me that bereavement was long and unpredictable, and that they were just a phone call away if I needed to talk about the burden of living after Karina’s loss. All of them had gone through this experience after the untimely death of a spouse, a child, a parent. The grieving never really stops, the sadness could be relentless—since a part of you also died. It’s learning how to live again that one must figure out.
I did not realize, until much later, that learning to live again was not just a metaphor for something complex. It was also meant to be taken literally—like learning how to walk again, or how to speak again, after a debilitating stroke. It is getting back into the rhythm of time and place through the disciplined acquisition of what, in better times, had been an effortless routine. It’s putting back structure into one’s days—a lesson all of us may need to relearn as we watch the COVID-19 pandemic dissolve everything we have regarded as normal in our lives.
The American author Annie Dillard (“The Writing Life”) stressed the need for “schedule” to convey essentially the same thought, though she clearly meant it in the context of a writer’s struggle with her craft: “A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time. It is a lifeboat on which you find yourself decades later, still living.”
As someone trained to conceptualize everything, I guess I had taken for granted that a beloved’s passing was something I could easily process as an idea. So I reread Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ classic work “On Death and Dying,” in which she first discussed the five stages of grief. I listened to the audio version of a later work she coauthored with David Kessler, “On Grief and Grieving,” hoping to find new insights on how to live with the deep sadness and intense longing that accompany grieving.
Kübler-Ross’ counsel is soothing: One must give oneself time to know and befriend the pain that comes with grief, rather than flee from it. But, she does not say how much time must pass before one could get past denial, anger, and depression on the way to acceptance. There is no uniform time frame in which all these complex emotions are finally resolved for everyone.
How does one tell when sadness has turned into depression? Or when intense longing has led to a sense of futility and emptiness? When does something that is supposed to be normal, like grieving, become pathological? I read Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” a beautiful and restrained account of what it was like to lose her husband as she was preparing supper at home. They were having a conversation — she from the kitchen and he at the dining table finishing his whiskey — and then he just fell quiet. He was gone.
She was stunned, but she had the presence of mind to call 911. In a few minutes, the paramedics were there. At the hospital, her husband was pronounced dead. She vividly recalls what happened after that, how she went home alone that evening carrying her husband’s shoes, belt, shirt, and trousers. She made all the necessary phone calls to family and closest friends. Death’s practicalities required her undivided attention; it took some time before she could cry.
It was writing that structured her life after the loss. She dug into her memory, and reviewed all the medical reports from the hospital, in an effort to reconstruct the events of that fateful day. It was her way of dealing with the powerful emotions of grief. She described these emotions in great detail, in the process gaining a self-awareness that, I now think, is essential to continuing to live after a loss.
Not being a fulltime writer like Didion, I found myself with plenty of time in my hands after the funeral. Though retired, I could continue to teach as emeritus professor. But I could not summon enough enthusiasm to return to the classroom. I have had to gather enough resolve to continue writing this column once a week.
I have found myself building new habits because many of the old ones required Karina’s presence. I began to sleep on her side of the bed, and eat my meals while seated on her chair. I began to wear the Apple watch I gave her as a birthday present, because I could not bear seeing it unused on our bedside table. I now listen to less music and more poetry on Spotify, because my taste in music is basically a copy of hers. Every night, I light a candle before one of her last photos, and think of her and the life we shared. But, anniversaries and special occasions are tough. My children and I continue to celebrate them as though she was still there.
Without constant self-checking, nearly everything we do in remembrance, after a loved one’s death, could become an obsession. By the same token, everything we fail to do could lead to fatal resignation.
I worry about being so overcome by grief that I must persuade myself that life still holds some meaning and purpose. That is where I am. But I also worry about getting so adjusted to a life without Karina that I may no longer feel her lingering presence. Then I will have completely lost her.