The day I became a widow

After my husband died, I couldn't shake my guilt -- or a feeling that I'd lost a crucial part of myself

Published June 30, 2011 12:30AM (EDT)

The author and her late husband.
The author and her late husband.

Yesterday I was a wife; today I'm a widow. A 4 a.m. phone call, a voice penetrating the fog of sleep, and just like that, I'm a widow.

I sit on the edge of the bed, shivering; the window is open and the night chill has invaded the bedroom. I pull the comforter around me as I try to make sense of what I just heard. "Are you there, ma'am?" the voice asks. "Yes," I reply. But I am, and I'm not. Instead, I retreat to another place, a familiar one -- my therapist mode where I've spent decades as the one who listens, interprets, analyzes, comforts, cajoles -- and I ask myself: Is it really so cold in this room, or is this what shock feels like? I've read about it, heard patients and friends describe it, offered words I thought were wise, comforting, helpful. But until the moment I sat in that dark room, teeth chattering uncontrollably, unable to bring mind and tongue together to speak coherently, I had no idea what shock really feels like.

The voice on the phone intrudes, pulling me back to his message: Hank, my husband, is dead. I saw him just a few hours ago: living, breathing, holding my hand, kissing it as if trying to take me into himself. Did he know he was dying? Was he saying goodbye? "Ma'am, I need to know you understand what I said." But all I can think is, It's too early to call Marci to tell her that her father is dead. He's patient, my caller, he waits awhile, then asks, "Ma'am, Dr. Rubin, what do you want us to do? We have his instructions, we can call the mortuary and have them pick up the body."

The sound of my name jolts me back to attention for a moment. Years ago we made arrangements for cremation but now, faced with the idea, I balk. "No," I shout into the phone, "don't do anything until I get there." I can't just let him go like that; I have to see him, feel him, hold him one more time. I have to say goodbye and I'm sorry.

Sorry for what? I didn't know then, maybe still don't fully know. But in that moment I was overwhelmed with what Joan Didion calls "magical thinking," and what I might call "survivor guilt" -- the "what ifs" and "if onlys" that come to us when we survive and others don't, the belief that we could have/should have done something to prevent the catastrophe.

I've read about survivor guilt, treated patients suffering it, and know that the symptoms match the feelings that course through me now. But the heart doesn't always grant what the mind knows. So the guilt I feel seems to be mine alone, built on the knowledge that I would sometimes get irrationally angry at him, at life, when the burden of caring for him seemed heavier than I could bear, on the vigilance with which I watched over his care after he no longer lived at home that suggests I was motivated as much by my need to appear the good and loving wife as by my love for him, and maybe worst of all, that I sent him away to be cared for by others when I know, with absolute conviction, that he would never have done that to me.

Could I have prevented the fall that broke a couple of his ribs and ultimately caused his death if I had kept him home? My mind says magical thinking. It's precisely that scenario -- the one where my 6 foot, 190 pound husband fell in the night, and his 5-foot-4, 120-pound wife couldn't lift him without help -- that pushed me into the decision to put him into care. Still, despite some time spent analyzing my feelings with a wise and thoughtful therapist, my heart can't resolve the conflict and guilt. Nor can I, even now, let go of the question: Would his ashes be lying in a peaceful arbor in the University of California at Berkeley Botanical Gardens if I had kept him home?

It was only a few short months ago that I wrote about the problems of living alongside dementia on I recounted there a meeting with a man who wept as he talked about his wife's recent death and his awkward attempts at coping with his new life as a widower and single man. "I left our conversation," I wrote, "feeling sad for him – and also envious. At least, I thought, he knows what's ahead; he knows the meaning of the word 'widower.' But I'm a widow with a husband who's alive; I'm a single woman with the responsibilities of a wife; I have a future, but I have no idea what it will be or how to get there."

What is it they say: Be careful what you wish for?

Hank died eight days before our 49th anniversary wedding anniversary. It's hard enough to comprehend any death, to grasp the reality that we can go from life to death in the space of a breath. But when it's a mate who dies, a partner with whom you've shared so many years, it shatters a whole life. One 4 a.m. phone call and it's all over -- my marriage, my role in it, a whole world of social and personal life transformed. How do I wrap my mind around it?

True, we hadn't lived together for nearly a year, and I was already living a life quite different from the one we had before dementia intruded. But I could still say "my husband" and could still be his "wife." I had a role to play, and while the responsibilities that went with it may have felt heavy then, they also framed my daily life -- sometimes foreground, sometimes background, but always there. That's gone now, wiped out in that instant when death claimed him and I became a widow.

I say the word, roll it around on my tongue, but I don't know what to make of it, how to live it. What does one do as a widow? What are the rules and norms that govern a widow's behavior? As I live these months and notice the sensitivity with which friends treat me -- the permission they give to my self-involvement, to go over it again and again, to cancel a dinner date with no excuse, no white lie, only the words, "Sorry, I can't" -- I sometimes think that the only legitimate social role left for me is that of grieving widow.

I tell myself it's just a word, but it's not that simple. A word is more than "just a word." It embodies ideas that frame our thoughts, tells us what to expect, even sometimes who we are. Hear the word "wife," and we think of life, husband, family, connection. Just so, "widow" tells its own story, this one a tale of death, aloneness, loss. Not just the loss of a loved other, but of a role we inhabited, a valued part of ourselves and our place in the social world. Wife has expectations, social and personal, present and future. Widow is now, the future unreal, undefined, with no rules, no guides for how to live it.

I sit at my desk filling out one of the many forms that accompany life or death in the modern age, and there's not even a box to check in the "Marital Status" section. Married or single? they ask. I'm not married, single doesn't feel right, but there's no other option. Not that I'm eager to take on the definition of widow. Quite the opposite! I want to stamp my foot like a 2-year-old in a temper tantrum; I want to shout to the world, "I don't want to be a widow, some poor status-less creature who has no role to inhabit except as the bereaved. I want my life back!"

A friend asks me, "Do you really wish Hank, as he was in the last years, were still here?" The question brings back to me a line in a song I heard recently, a lament about life and change, about holding on and letting go, "It's everything you wanted; it's everything you don't" -- words that speak to the complications of heart and mind. So one part of me answers, "No, I don't." I don't want to live with the daily drama of dementia again; I don't want to watch the man I loved for half a century slip away piece-by-piece until there's almost nothing left him, only the body with a mind that's forgotten who he is.

But the mind is a wily creature, and both death and dementia are tailor-made for denial. True, the process is different and more prominent in one than in the other. Dementia tiptoes in, takes its time to make itself fully at home, moves in and out erratically for years, and leaves confusion in its wake. It's the perfect script for a cycle of despair and denial, with brief moments of acceptance along the way. On the bad days, despair reigns; on the good ones, denial takes over, and you turn away the memory of yesterday's confusion and disorientation and hang on to today's moment of coherence.

Death, although unequivocal in its finality, brings its own confusion, and the mind doesn't accept the reality easily. You wake in the middle of the night, reach out to the other side of the bed, and no one is there; you read the newspaper at the breakfast table, begin to share something, and there's no one tell it to; you go to the market, buy food for two, and there's no one to eat it all. As these moments pile up, denial fades, to be replaced by myth-making and idealization of the dead and the shared past. There's nothing and no one to contradict the new construction -- no new experience, no person to push you to know what you know but want to forget, no one to say, "Yes, but ..." And even when someone -- a child, an old friend who was there through the years -- reminds you that it wasn't all as rosy as the story you tell yourself now, it's no trick at all to shut out their meaning.

It isn't that I've totally left reality behind. I can tell myself the stories; I just can't feel them. My head knows that these memories of the before-dementia years are idealized in some ways, that there's a screen or a veil over the difficult and complicated issues that are part of any half-century of living. But my heart cries out, So what? Why do you always have to know? I like these memories just as they are. Leave it alone?

Nothing wrong with that; there's no right way to live with the aftermath of death. But I know that until I can claim the whole of our life together -- before and after, good and bad, joys and tears -- I'll be stuck in the constructed myth of the idyllic before-dementia years and unable to step into whatever the future holds.

We live in a time when it's trendy to be searching for the self, for some core being that reflects the real self, the one that's not filtered through the set of roles, norms and expectations that any society imposes. "Maybe it's time to just be," a friend counsels. "Maybe this is your time to let go, give up all the rest, and just be authentically you." But it's a false god we seek, for there is no self outside of society.

What does it mean to just be? I try to make sense of the words, but it's as if we're speaking from two different worlds. How can I just be something when I can't understand what that means? Who am I without the various roles I've lived all these years: wife, mother, friend, psychologist, sociologist, writer -- each new one opening up a part of the self, each sometimes enhancing, sometimes limiting other parts. Sure, depending on the demands of the moment, one is foreground, the others background. But no matter what their position, they are all crucial parts of the self that has defined me, not just to the world but to myself as well. What do I do now with the me that was Hank's wife for the last 49 years of my life? Was that not an authentic part of me? Was I just playing a role?

In his famous book, "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life," the sociologist Erving Goffman uses the metaphor of the theater to limn what he calls the "front stage" and "backstage" arenas of the roles we play in our own lives. It's a great metaphor, and we know intuitively that it's true -- that there are front stage (think: job, cocktail party, grocery store) and backstage (think: home, family, friends, alone-time) parts of our lives. We know that we show a different face at a parent-teacher conference than we do at home later that day when we're tired and irritable and the kids won't go to bed. We know, too, that a different part of our self comes to the fore when we're sharing a glass of wine with a close friend than with a colleague who may sit in judgment at our next promotion review.

But it's only a metaphor, not the story. For life is more than theater, our roles more than performances. They are also deeply rooted parts of ourselves that can be very difficult to sever, even when we choose to do so. We may, for example, think about retirement for years, construct fantasies of "the good life" when we don't have to go to work every day. But it's a different story when we face the reality of losing the role that identified us to ourselves and in the world for so long. In the research for a book I published a few years ago, "Sixty On Up: The Truth About Aging in the 21st Century," I spoke with dozens of retired men and women who were struggling to adapt to the new role and the definition of self that flows from that. As one man said to me then, "I thought if I could play golf three-four times a week, I would feel as if I'd died and gone to heaven. But turns out I miss the job, the guys I worked with -- the whole thing, like who I was then. I mean, I love golf, but c'mon, there's got to be more to life than that."

And this was a role change they sought and that also does have some rewards.  Think about how much harder it is when death chooses for you, when you're torn from a cherished role to one without reward -- from wife to widow -- in the blink of an eye.

But what have I done here? Have I retreated to the intellect, the mind, because I can't tolerate the emptiness of the heart? Perhaps. But in putting these thoughts on paper, maybe I'm also closer to bringing together mind and heart, past and present -- and with it the way to the unknown future that lies before me.

Is there a lesson for others here? I don't know. For while becoming a widow -- the shock, the disorientation, the shaken sense of self, the unknown future -- is much the same for a 50-year-old as it is for someone like me who has ascended to the ranks of what the gerontologists call "the old-old," being a widow at midlife is very different from the experience in old age. Not easier, just different -- different problems in the present, different possibilities for a future.

What I do know is that there are times in a life when, no matter how many loved ones surround us, we must walk alone. Becoming a widow is one of those times. And the path to being a widow, the ability to find a future and live it well, lies inside me. It's true, as I've said, that widow is more than just a word. But it's equally true that it is also just a word. It has no magic qualities to force itself upon me; I have choices to make. A door closed on a part of my life, and if there's another waiting to open, my mind and heart both tell me that I'll only find my way to it by mobilizing the parts that are left. 

By Lillian Rubin

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