It’s been about 6 weeks since my wife, Susan, passed away, and although I realize that everyone’s experience of grief is unique, there is probably enough overlap, enough universality, to warrant me telling you a bit about my own.
And to simplify things, for the purposes of this post let’s just assume that all loved ones – yours, mine, everyone’s – are named Susan.
So, someone you love has just died.
There’s a good chance, particularly in the first days and weeks, that you’ll do something, read something, experience something, and think, “I can’t wait to tell Susan about…oh, right.”
The situation may be completely absurd, like when you’ve just finished making funeral arrangements and think, “I can’t wait to tell…oh, yeah.” This happens frequently, and pummels you with the realization that you will never tell Susan anything ever again, and really hammers home the impossible permanence of death. This realization is…disagreeable.
If you’ve opted for cremation, there will come a day when you have to go to the funeral home to pick up the ashes. I went alone to do this. Do not go alone to do this.
They will hand you a bag, inside of which is another bag, a large, ziploc plastic one, containing what used to be the person you loved. You’re not quite sure what to do with it. Place it on the car seat? Stick it in your backpack? This is a moment when you want backup, you want company, you want someone to perhaps take your hand and lead you away and make some of these decisions for you.
As I was on a motorbike, I put Susan’s ashes in my backpack and drove directly to a friend’s house. Honestly, I was terrified of going home alone to stare at that bag sitting on the coffee table or the kitchen counter. In the end, when the boys came home they wanted to see it, and we made a mini ceremoney of placing the bag of ashes in the urn. And we were fine.
You may find yourself crying at odd and often inconvenient moments.
Maybe you’ve just gotten a massage, during which images and memories of your Susan flood your mind until at the end you are left a bawling mound of naked flesh on a table.
You may be sitting on the sofa and a wave of weeping will wash over you, so that the woman who helps clean your house comes to investigate and ends up holding you until you subside. (Which, clearly, is not in her job description.)
You might be in the cleaning products section of the local supermarket, contemplating laundry detergent options, and tears will be streaming silently down your face.
All of these might occur in the same morning. You will have fragile days and days of strength, days when you’re steamrollered and days when your Susan might even slip momentarily from your memory. And every kind of day in between.
You may find yourself smelling old clothes. More specifically, you might find yourself getting out the winter clothes from storage under the bed, catching a whiff of a familiar scent, and burying your face in a pile of coats, snuffling away like some perverted beagle. Traces of her fragrance will linger on her clothes, but not indefinitely, so sniff while you can.
Which brings me to a related issue; at some point you will cycle through the laundry until there are no more of her dirty clothes. Somehow, for some impenetrable reason, this in all likelihood will cause you some pain. Eventually her clothes will smell like laundry detergent, the same as everyone else’s in the family, and you will have lost a little bit more of her. It is here that you might want to go back to sniffing coats.
Another garment-related matter. You will feel, sooner or later, the need to get rid of the clothes and shoes that crowd your closet space. (And if your Susan was anything like my Susan, roughly 7/8 of your closet space.) You have a few options.
One, you could simply give it all away to charity. If your deceased Susan was a man, I’d say go right ahead. He probably wouldn’t give a shit. But if you’re like me, it somehow just doesn’t feel right to give away some of these items that are so closely associated with her life, your memories of her, her very essence and identity.
Two, you could sell what you think is valuable online, and give the rest away. To be honest, this avenue had a certain appeal but struck me as somewhat mercenary, and I haven’t mustered the strength to set up an online shop for Susan’s things. It’s not exactly that I can’t be bothered, it’s that I haven’t felt, I don’t know, detached enough.
Perhaps the best thing to do would be to offer friends and family to take what they want – you’d be surprised at what people want – and then sell and donate the rest. I’m not quite there yet, but something should be done with this stuff.
You might run into acquaintances who know nothing of your loss, even weeks or months later. They will ask, “How is Susan doing?” And you will have to tell them. They will be nonplussed, perhaps shocked, and it may be that you end up comforting them. Look, everyone is awkward in these situations. No one really knows what to say or how to act. Just be candid and genuine and I’ve found that people respond likewise.
Let’s see…what else? Oh, at some point you’ll probably be filling in an online form, and in the dropdown menu for marital status you will tick ‘widower.’ And that will feel fairly fucking surreal indeed.
Oh, and depending on where you live, you might have to go to some sort of registry office to get a death certificate. I did this just yesterday. All of these legal formalities can range from uncomfortable to excruciating, but they do keep you busy, particularly early on, and help keep your mind occupied and distracted from perhaps more painful matters. You don’t need to embrace them, necessarily, but it does feel cathartic to get them done.
I guess the last bits of advice I would give from what I’ve gleaned from my own experience are these:
One, you will have friends and family offering you all kinds of assistence. Take it. It helps you and makes them feel better, gives them a sense of purpose at a time when everyone might be floundering a bit.
Two, you shouldn’t worry about any of this. By that I mean there’s no right or wrong way to grieve. If you feel like crying, then cry. If friends and family want to talk about your loss, then talk about it or not, depending on your mood or inclination. If you have children who have lost a parent, normalize it as much as possible. People die all the time. That doesn’t diminish their misery or their sorrow, but let them know that their misery and sorrow are normal and natural and universal.
Anyway, that has been my experience of grief in the last 6 weeks or so. Yours will doubtless be very different and much the same. You will be stumbling and blundering in unfamiliar territory, but that’s okay. After all, our Susans had never died before.