Grief is a sacred journey

My Uncoupled Life: Family Changes after a Death

David and Liz

David and Liz

“You sit in front,” Liz offers.

“No, you sit with David,” I say. She belongs next to David, not me.

My son David, his bride Liz, and I head for Watkins Glen State Park on this glorious late September afternoon. Yesterday was David’s birthday. We want to celebrate.

We leave the sunny parking lot and enter the moist shady caverns of the gorge. Liz tucks their five pound Chihuahua Lil’Bit into her jacket. David and Liz keep track of each other on the trail in a coupled dance—step together, then one step ahead, then together and three steps behind, pause, wait for the other to catch up, walk together again. A smile, a touch, a hug, a whisper. I watch and remember this dance with my husband Vic.

DSC00052Not long ago, when my sons visited, Vic and I held the family center, but now I’m a widow and my sons have lost their dad. I love being with David and Liz as we warm our bodies in the sun and cool off beneath dripping rocks and splashing waterfalls, but I don’t know quite where to stand.

For 42 years, I was half of a third thing. There was me, there was Vic, and there was our marriage, the sturdy union and family backbone. Now I gratefully watch David and Liz build that third together. Still, when I’m with them, I feel Vic’s absence next to me.

Vic’s death left a jagged wound that seeped and bled. Over many years, I grieved, adjusted, and healed, but his death wounded our whole family. After five years, my sons and I stand solidly in our new lives but, as a family, we’re still adjusting.

Liz and Elaine

Liz and Elaine

When I’m alone, I’m used to Vic’s absence. I dream of him and write about him, but no longer expect to see him come down the path toward me or walk up from the barn in his work boots and tan overalls. My cells accept that he won’t return to fill my life with those brown eyes, that teasing smile, and those strong safe arms.

I enjoy my own company with my sweet dog Willow nearby. I love being outside, spending time with friends, and seeing family. But no matter how loved I feel, family visits awaken all I’ve lost.

Three, instead of four

After David and Liz leave for home, I’ll return to my quiet writing life, grateful for our time together, but keenly aware of Vic’s absence. I’ve learned that the intensity of my longing fades in time. Soon, I’ll only remember the love, hugs, and beauty of our walk through Watkins Glen, and I’ll be grateful for both my coupled and uncoupled life.

***

How did your family reconfigure after a death? Did you find a new structure in time? For another article about family after loss, see Small Goodbyes: Opening the Heart to Loss and Love.

30 Comments
  1. I love you dearly, Mama Elaine! So grateful for our time together and miss you, Willow, the Glen, and Seneca Lake. Also reminded of how sorry I am that I didn’t know Vic in human form….but I sure do sense him in spirit form! xoxo

    • David is so like Vic. Anthony, too, in different ways. I tell Vic stories to anyone who will listen. No wonder you feel his spirit. Loved your visit and will send more photos of the Glen. Second only to the Waterfalls, Lit’Bit was the tourist attraction of the day.

  2. I adore your heart and soul honesty of how we dance this Spiral Journey!

    • Thank you, Kay Marie. I know you do this dance, too. I love being with family, but there is always something amiss–and you live with that everyday. Thanks so much for sharing my post on FB and for taking the time to respond here. You are wonderful!

  3. I always find myself nodding in agreement to everything you express in regards to your loss. I find such peace in reading about your love for Vic. Thank you, Elaine. Just beautiful.

    • Thank you, Marisa, for taking the time in your busy life to tell me my writing matters to you. Your encouragement means so much. I’m leading a new bereavement group for women who have lost partners and spouses and wish you were closer and could be part of it. Grateful that you find peace and beauty in my posts. It’s wonderful to have you as a close heart friend. I hope someday we meet in person.

  4. Elaine,
    It was good for me to read these words, “But no matter how loved I feel, family visits awaken all I’ve lost.” You put words to how I feel about all my loses. When I am with family I deeply feel those that are missing. I strive to learn to enjoy those that I have in front of me.
    Thank you for another wonderful post.
    Patti

    • I love your reflections on my piece, Patti. I think many feel this way, but we don’t talk about it much. I ones who are here are more precious than ever, and the ones who left feel both close and very far.
      I appreciate your words and your encouragement,
      Elaine

  5. The very definition of bittersweet: “Still, when I’m with them, I feel Vic’s absence next to me.” Your ability to put into words the many facets of grief is a precious gift, Elaine, and I am so grateful that you share that gift so freely with the rest of us. ♥

    • Thank you, Marty. When you resonate with what I write, I know I’m on the right track. Thanks for all you do for the vast community of grievers and thanks for taking time to read and respond to my pieces. With loving gratitude, Elaine

  6. Elaine,

    Your words wrap around me like a comforting shawl. Each of us has lost a loved one – or many loved ones – but you always express loss and grief as part of the journey we are on.

    Just yesterday, as I walked down the sidewalk from my front door to the street, I was overcome with a huge sense of sorrow over the recent death of my beloved dog, Bubba. From the corner of my mind, I saw us together by the driveway – me standing, Bubba in a perfect sit – as my youngest son backed down the driveway in his pickup and headed back to the Army post. Of course this scene took place hundreds of times over the years, but now only comes to me in my memories. Bubba has been gone now exactly five months.

    Like you and Vic, Bubba and I shared a “dance.” Yes, he was just a dog, but he was my walking partner and my best friend. I miss him every day. What I can’t figure out is why Bubba haunts my days even more than my beloved dad, who died five days after Bubba. Someone commented recently that is sounded funny when I said, “My dog and my dad died five days apart.”

    For some reason Dad’s death is easier to accept. He was 81 and trapped in his body. Plus, Dad didn’t live with me and wasn’t part of my everyday physical life. (Doest that make sense?)

    I’ve rambled. I just want you to know how much your writing has helped me since Jill made the connection.

    Keep these wonderful essays and photos coming. Keeping fingers crossed for your book.

    Kathleen

    • Thank you so much, Kathleen. This doesn’t seem a bit odd to me.

      My mother’s death (she was 92 with Alzheimer’s for years) was easy for me to accept. It was her time to go and I didn’t live with her since she lived in skilled nursing ten miles away. I think you nailed it with the idea of who we live with every day, the hourly companions of our lives. My companion was always Vic, but after his death, I had Daisy as a companion, (After my dad’s death when I was 14, I had Amigo at my side.) Daisy lived to be 13 and had so many health problems that it was her time to go, too. And by then, knowing I had to have a dog companion, Willow was in our lives and was two years old. Willow was my companion in grief, always watching and concerned when I wept over missing Vic or remembering his suffering or our love. Because I live alone with Willow, and because she’s a spectacular dog in most every way, I’m more attached to her than the dogs I had with Vic or when our kids were home. Willow and I are always in a coupled dance. She’s patiently lying on her bed near my computer right now with one eye open, knowing it’s time for a long walk.

      Thanks for encouraging me in all ways, and I’m also grateful for the connection. There will be more dog stories. Mary Oliver just published a whole book of poems about living with dogs. I don’t have it, but we’ll both enjoy it.

      Wishing you well in your search, too. Faith always needed and sometimes in short supply.
      Elaine

  7. Beautifully expresses the changing dynamics of a family after a loved one has gone. At 88, my dad and I are the only ones left from my original immediate family. And now my husband and I have come to live with him, in the home he shared with his darling second wife, who died nearly three years ago. It seemed so disrespectful for me to sit in her chair, use her pots and pans, throw away the food she had in the freezer. But then, my own grieving took the form of feeling her acceptance of me, and encouraging me to find things she had left, and make use of them. I swear, when I have been in the middle of a project, especially if it involves teaching children, when I would have the urge to go look somewhere and there I would find something I could use. Sure, it could just be a way to feel less guilt about enjoying her home. But I love to think of her close to me, eager to help me in my work, wanting the things she saved to make a difference.

    • Thanks for this beautiful story, Susan. How nice that you loved your father’s second wife. How lovely that you can live with your dad now and be there for him. And how terrific to know his wife would want what she cherished to make a difference for those she left behind. My husband wanted my life to be wonderful and happy without him, just as he wanted that when he was living. We knew that was a tall order, but I’ve done well at making my new life work. Yes, I feel his absence, but usually feel his presence within me, in the choices I make, the home we created together, and what we both loved. Love is a wonderful thing to pass along.

      I’m grateful that you took the time to respond to my post and tell me your heart-opening experience.
      Warmly,
      Elaine

  8. Elaine your words are so beautiful, this really moved me. I have loved and lost a parent, an aunt who was like my mother and a good friend, the hurt is there in different ways for all of them. They say it is also a different hurting with the loss of a spouse. Thankfully I haven’t experienced that although I worry sometimes when I let myself think about it because my husband is much older than me and sometimes when I let myself ‘go there’ I shudder at thought of my world without him. God bless. 🙂

    • Thank you for reading my piece and sending your kind words. Losing anyone is hard, and I agree the grief brings different feelings and lessons each time. Losing my father at 14 was devastating, but somehow at that age, I moved on without knowing how to deal with grief. My husband’s loss was a big blow, but it was expected. We had time to settle affairs and say goodbye. No unfinished business. Then I felt drained and not quite here for two years, but I began creating a new life in the first year by seeking help and exploring possibilities such as hospice work. I’m becoming a different woman on my own, taking the life that is and making the best of it. I told Vic I’d figure out how to be OK on my own, amd I’m keeping that promise. May your husband and you have a long healthy life together. Your site is on my weekend list. Warmly, Elaine

      • Thanks so much
        Elaine. I just popped back here because it seems I cannot read your replies, as they aren’t sent to me? So I will pop in here often! 🙂 So lovely to know you. You are a powerful woman! 🙂

  9. Elaine – – What an exquisite reflection! And the out poring of response is phenominal. Clearly you enable affirmation, healing, redemption by revealing your own journey. And you made me homesick for New York State as well! It is so good to be part of your/our tender family. Fondly,DavidAnn

    • Thank you, David and Ann. Yes, this piece got more positive response than most–both in private email, on Facebook, and here. It resonated with many who feel that quiet sense of someone missing and dismiss it or think it’s inappropriate to express it. For me, noticing these things reminds me of my own mortality and makes me more appreciative, less impatient, and kinder. Watkins Glen was exquisite that day. It was one of the things I knew we would all enjoy if weather cooperated–and the day was spectacular. It warms my heart as it must warm yours to watch David and Liz build a relationship of exquisite equality–they are each made stronger by their marriage. I’m also glad to have you both as family and hope we meet again soon. I would come south for holidays, but can’t leave Virginia alone. With love, Elaine

  10. Elaine, your wise and beautiful words are always a comfort. I had a different experience losing my husband, Adrian, since he had Alzheimer’s and was leaving me slowly years before he died. The dynamics between us, and between us and our families was gradually changing over those years. My mourning for the loss started way before he died.

    Lynne

    • I can only imagine how hard this was, Lynne. My mom died with Alzheimer’s, but she was my mom, not my lover and partner. I hope the whole family kept adjusting with you along the way. I also grieved before Vic’s death, but until the last few days we were in deep verbal and heart communication and I still felt supported by his love and sweetness as I cared for him. Those times were precious, but also heart-breaking. Mortality is hard. Thanks for your encouraging words, Lynne (Lynne, have you looked at “The Long and Winding Road: Journey through Alzheimer’s?” By coincidence or synchronicity, Ann Napoletan’s response came right after yours. She writes of her personal experiences with her mom and works tirelessly on behalf of Alzheimer’s.)

  11. Although I’ve never experienced a loss like yours, your writing helps me to understand – just a bit – what that must feel like. Most of all, your resiliency and beautiful outlook, despite that massive loss, inspire me to keep going, even on the days when I’d rather just pull the covers up over my head and not face the world. Thank you for that!

    • Ann, may there be days when you can pull the covers over your head and hide from the world. But I know you won’t do that for long. You love life too much and have much good work to do. Thanks for your perspective after reading about an experience you haven’t had. I love memoir for that reason. Have you read Eve Ensler’s ‘In The Body of the World’? Powerful book taking me to many places I’ve never been. Patti Hall wrote a great review of it at 1writeplace.com

  12. Beautiful told tale, told well with powerful messages for everyone. Thank you.

  13. Elaine I just want you to know that reading your post and book has helped me some. I lost my husband of 51 years in February also after 2 years of fighting Cancer. He was a wonderful person…. in his obituary I called him “a gentleman in Levi jeans” Like you I haven’t yet found how to continue on this journey of love without his physical presence but it is encouraging to see that some do.

    I have 4 lovely children/spouses and 8 grandchildren and they have been very helpful. Their Dad asked them to take care of me! (He told the priest that he felt like he was letting me down for leaving). He took his commitment of marriage seriously.

    On the last day of his body being on earth and now bedridden… I told him it was OK for him to leave (at this time I didn’t know what he had told the priest) that me and the kids would be OK. A few hours later while I was holding his hand he looked at, smiled his wonderful smile and crossed over.

    I now live alone and SLOWLY am learning to live this new way. I have so much to be grateful for but so much to miss.

    Thank you for showing me there is Hope and truthfully I never want to stop missing him!

    Katie

    • Katie, they’re part of us forever. My husband’s death was 10 years ago and I’m still adjusting, but a whole new life has blossomed and our continuing love has been a huge support–even though I miss so much about his physical presence. Family has settled into new patterns of mutual support and I have many old friends and also some that drifted away–but many new friends came along. I also told my husband I would be OK without him. I saw the only way out of suffering was death, so there were no choices. I live alone, but have as much social contact as I want or need. No one can fill his spot, but I’m not afraid of that deep longing now. “This is the way love feels now.” Thank you for letting me know my words helped. It sounds to me that you are continuing your journey of love without his physical presence. No, it isn’t the same, but it’s yours and you’re doing it every day.

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