I wish there was a “Miss Manners” book on grieving or at a minimum a grieving “For Dummies”; a checklist, a ‘step by step’, a ‘how to’ or even guidelines, but there aren’t any. There is no plan, no map, nothing to help you chart the course and get through this ‘journey’ you unwillingly embarked on. Everyone will tell you, “you grieve at your own pace”, “there is no right or wrong”, “you grieve how you need to”, but is that really true?
Is it really true when the onlookers, who are also grieving this immense loss, care so much for the unbelievably broken and sad widow that they don’t know what to do or say? Do people give the grieving space and let them process if they think that going back to work half days, a week after the funeral, is too soon? That taking the planned trip for spring break is running away and you should be home? Is it letting the process unfold if they think it is time for her to start removing his clothes that still hang in her closet? What about his toothbrush and razor, which remain untouched, as if he will be using them tomorrow morning? What if it bothers them that his shoes and coat are by the door as if he will be coming back or stepping out at any moment? What if they ask if she can afford to stay in the same house or tell her not to make any major decisions for six months to a year? Perhaps they think she is crazy for staying in said house because they certainly could not do it. Will you go to counseling? Are you taking the children to a support group? Honey, are you going to church? Ask when she will wear color again because “quite frankly, all this black is…depressing and (in a whisper add) “no one wears black anymore during mourning.” How about if they tell her they think she’s young enough to go on with her life and that she should find someone new, or ask and encourage she date or ask if she will be keeping his name?
YES, YES, YES!! People who care for the grieving ask this and more, and almost every single person who asked something or gave me their opinion did it because they cared. They wanted to make sure I wasn’t getting lost in my own head, in my own thoughts and that the loneliness wasn’t killing me and that I was processing. They were making sure I wasn’t doing something stupid. But, there were the occasional acquaintances who really were just curios. Death is a part of life and with that comes the dreaded grieving, none of which we talk about because it makes us uncomfortable, but somehow, I apparently made it easy to ask or accept the comments.
Of all the questions and curiosities the hardest part was honestly answering them or preemptively blurting out an excuse for why something was somewhere or why I didn’t want something moved (I went through a period of leaving everything exactly as he had left it) and of course trying to not sound like I was crazy. Aside from not being the town nut-job my biggest fear became, that I wasn’t meeting expectations of how I should be handling a situation, the kids or myself. Trying to figure out what people were thinking and the need to not be judged or talked about became my daily burden. All the while, somewhere inside was the real me, the girl who stopped caring about what people thought somewhere at about age 9. My internal battle became who was I turning into, what was happening and why did I care? I was completely involved in what I was “supposed” to be, so when the questions came I answered as expected or let people say what they needed and let them put me in a box with a pretty little label, and wether they intended to or not, they judged my decisions. Sometimes I met the expectations and many times I know I did not.
I grew up Catholic, a religion with traditions and customs that many don’t understand, and Latina to boot. My circle doesn’t include many like me, and let’s face it, who’s could? But it added another layer for wondering and questioning. I grew up with the tradition of wearing no color when you are in mourning; black, dark grey or white. Attending mass for the first 9 days, a priest presiding at the burial (which of course is preceded by a mass in the Church) a monthly mass for the first year and then mass on the deceased birthday and death anniversary. All this is intended, I suppose, to bring peace and healing to the grievers, and to be done out of respect for the deceased and for their legacy.
I didn’t do any of that. I didn’t do the traditional American visitation at the funeral home, the traditional viewing in the casket, I did what Brett requested I do, with the exception of an immediate burial. I wasn’t able to bury Brett’s ashes for three months because the ground was frozen solid in February and we had to wait until the spring thaw. I did have a pastor presiding and at that moment I realized, none of this was for Brett. This was all for us, the ones left behind. I had never done any of this before. I didn’t know what to do, I did ask some but with my being guarded and stand-offish, they didn’t offer much in the way of this is what is traditionally done or this is what I can help you with. So I did what I thought was right given what I had to work with.
We buried Brett on the 3rd of May. The last day I wore my wedding ring, fully intending to bury it with him, I didn’t. I couldn’t. I simply took it off…and with it went all that it symbolized and my beliefs in so many things that a marriage is supposed to keep bound. What that simple action brought? More questions from people and so many of my own.
I realized quickly that there is a lot of sympathy for those who grieve but not always empathy. Sympathy seems to ooze from people’s every pore, but empathy, empathy is a much more difficult trait to find. It is very hard for someone to think about what they would do and how they would act if they were in this situation. I did what I needed to do, I wore black, I took my ring off and went on with this new life I didn’t know how to manage. I was scared.
I wore black honestly because it was what I was taught to do. The most important person in my life died and my attire seemed to be a shock. It became a topic with those around me; family, friends and at work. Those closest to me struggled and I didn’t understand why. My closet has always been filled with black clothes, wearing black is easy and I’m pretty disorganized. Black matches anything, especially when you’re two weeks out on laundry, you’re not a morning person or a night before “what will I wear tomorrow” person. I’m more of a grab and go kind of a girl. But it’s also easy. It was one less thing to think about when I had the weight of the world falling on me like a mud slide creeping up to my chin, knowing that soon I wouldn’t be able to breathe. What I’ve reflected on the most is that when I was asked about it, it wasn’t with the intention to understand but rather, they asked with the intention of wanting me to stop.
And then, one day, I did. I went back to mostly black with some color and I realized immediately that people began to act differently. They went back to normal, joking and not feeling sorry for me. Their discomfort was with how my mourning made them feel, uncomfortable. Nothing in my life was normal anymore but people went back to being normal. So many wanted to see me happy, an emotion I couldn’t even relate to anymore and all I wanted to do was crawl in a hole. I was learning how to pay bills on time, select the right insurance coverage for the kids through work, how to mix gas for the lawn mower which is different that for the weed whacker and stories of widows who had remarried and how soon thereafter they had begun dating began to surface. My appearance began to be important to people, I felt 15 sometimes, you know that awkward stage in life when all of a sudden your relatives ask, “so, do you have a boyfriend?” If I spoke about a man, it was met with raised eyebrows and I had to decipher is this a good thing or bad? Is this a person who would approve of my dating or not? I was pulled over well over a year after Brett died and people asked me if the cop was single. My horror was that I was pulled over, their interest was did I land a date!
It has taken me quite some time to make peace with my “Morticia” attire and to be ok with it being what I needed to do at that moment. I reference her first because of the Wednesday Addams quote in the title and because like her, I have evolved to making all of my family’s decisions, am fiercely protective of them, am authentic, and spend most of my time with the people I love most.
My only learning and advice that I am grateful for is, “they are going to talk about you anyway”. Do what you need to do and what will get you through the moment or the day.