I knew my husband was ready to die, even before he wound up in the hospital in July. At the hospital, doctors discovered he had prostate cancer and that it had spread to his bones. We had also just learned that what doctors had diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease was something far more brutal and swift: Multiple System Atrophy. MSA hadn’t yet robbed Dick of the ability to speak, and one of the last things he said to me that final week was, “Please. Help me die!”
He entered the hospital on Monday, July 13, and died Thursday night, July 16. Although I know he was ready to go, the hole he left is huge.
Last month, my son and I marked the milestone of six months without Dick, his father for 21 years and my husband for 23 years.This seems like a good time to reflect on what has gotten me through this horrendous time: family, friends and ritual.
After two decades of researching and writing about tradition and celebration, I had resources and reflexes that kicked in almost immediately. And still I was shocked by how profoundly the rituals I created, both tiny and large, worked. The rituals celebrated the man and our love, but also gave the grief a place to sit frankly and fully, taking up all the space in the room for the time it needed.
At first, I was just trying to live within the screaming storm of grief, a time when I couldn’t bear to have the radio on or think about household chores. When just changing the calendar to another month gutted me, because that was a month Dick wouldn’t inhabit.
But the rituals burst forth, fed by specific needs and encounters. The rituals helped shape the time and create vessels to carry the unruly feelings.
First came the intimate reception I held in my living room just 10 days after my husband died. I had been talking to the pianist at church about coming to play and sing for my ailing husband at home, hoping to create a fun evening with friends. I went to church 3 days after his death, and the pianist said, “You know, I could still come to your house and play your husband’s favorite songs,” and I knew this was the perfect centerpiece for a mourning gathering.
I called it an “Athiest’s Wake” (my husband was a vehement ex-Catholic), and threw myself into the planning, choosing the 10 songs that James would play, ordering food from Dick’s favorite Italian market, and sending invitations to more than 50 friends and family members.
It was one of the most magical days of my life. The loss was still raw and shocking and people needed to talk about that and drink and eat and tell stories. Every detail seemed perfect: my sister-in-law brought flowers and herbs that had been transplanted from her late mother’s garden, and this precious, fragrant bouquet sat in the powder room. The music was cathartic beyond my imagining: It began with Dick’s favorite song, “Someone To Watch Over Me,” which I had sung to him (accompanied by Frank Sinatra on my cell phone) as he died, and ended with Sondheim’s “No One is Alone.” When James sang “Here Comes the Sun,” sunlight shot through the overcast sky. I sat with a box of tissues in my lap.
As the music ended, I carried a bowl around the room and gave everyone a confetti popper. I wanted a percussive end to the ritual, and I told them we should celebrate our luck and joy in having had him so long in our lives. My grandbabe counted down, 3-2-1, and confetti flew everywhere!
My next big task was the memorial service, to be held at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. I expected 200 people, many who had worked with my husband in public policy or politics. I wanted it to be personal and memorable and sweated the details, putting hours into the choice of photos for a slideshow. I asked my guitar-teacher friend Monica to play for the service because my husband loved classical guitar. The speakers were a perfect mix of family and friends, including one ex-Senator and a former Congressman.
But perhaps the most poignant time for me was the reception, and the way I included my quilting passion. I had prepared plain muslin fabric for people to write specific messages to Dick’s daughter, son, sister and granddaughter. All of these messages will be included in the memorial quilts I’m working on. For my own memorial quilt, I had people write messages between the stripes of one of Dick’s shirts.
The holidays were raw but good, each encounter needing delicate navigation. Who would sit in my husband’s chair at Thanksgiving? That needed to be a conscious decision in advance, so the shock of the empty chair didn’t set the tone. Letting my son make the choice (he picked his half-sister) signaled a shift, not a forgetting.
But frankly, a lot of what gets me through are daily rituals and modest talismans.
While sorting through his things, I found a heavy circular “charm” that I had bought Dick for his keychain. One side has an angel and the words “someone to watch over me” (his favorite song) and the other side says “healing is a work of heart.” I put this token on a chain and started wearing it most days.
But I also wanted a tangible talisman to put in my purse, to carry everywhere I go, and I decided to use a pillbox I bought Dick with Shakespeare on the lid (and a snarky line about doctors). He always had his Parkinson’s medicine inside. There is something so comforting about this small, solid object, and when I am fumbling through my purse for tissues or lipstick, my fingers brush against it and I squeeze it. He comes back to me, and my shoulders lower.
Two other rituals that have been key in this time are writing in my journal (my dear friend Mark Lipinski gave it to me at the wake) and being reflective about solo meals, especially dinner.
I think any widow will tell you that eating and sleeping alone after so many years of togetherness feels stark and unsettling. Especially after months or years when so much of your life was dedicated to helping your spouse eat and sleep. So I spent time thinking about how to enhance my meals alone. I decided to eat dinner on a plate my mother gave me when I started my first job after college: so I would always have a face smiling back at me. Along with lighting candles before I ate, this made every meal a remembrance of my late mother as well as my husband.
For all the dark side of grief, it does hollow out a person and help them discard a lot of thoughts and activities that don’t enhance life. That hollow place becomes sacred, and out of respect to your lost loved one and yourself, you want to fill it with beauty and meaning. For me, the bonus of this hard experience has been to rediscover my friends and family and to realize with joy that I am still loved.