You can’t, writes Mervyn Kaufman.
I don’t remember the thrust of the story—it was probably a compendium of advice for mature married women—but I do remember exactly how it ended: “Also, it will be good preparation for widowhood.”
I was aghast. Why would a writer use such a heavy emotional crutch to underscore an idea she was trying to promulgate? No magazine would print such an assertion, certainly not the one I was editing at the time. I challenged the writer; it took awhile for her to see my point, and even then she didn’t concede eagerly.
How, I wondered, could anyone actually prepare to deal rationally with the loss of
a spouse or partner—even if grave illness made such loss imminent? How could a woman know in advance how she’d feel, or react, when confronting the death of someone she’d been close to for years? Similarly, how could any man—even one deeply in touch with his own emotions—imagine how he would comport himself in the face of a loved one’s passing?
At dinner one night with a couple we thought we knew well, my wife and I were taken aback when our friend Jed suddenly asked, “Have either of you thought how you’d want to live, should one of you die?” Our silence and stunned looks more than convinced him to change the subject, which we obviously never addressed.
But I’ve thought about it—a lot—in recent years and finally concluded that there is no way I could imagine what my life would be if my wife were gone. My emotional state would probably be shaped somewhat by the nature of the loss—the result of an accident, a medical misjudgment or a long-term illness. No matter what, I know I’d be sustained by unyielding hope, right up to the end. Afterwards, there’s no way of knowing.
This issue came roaring back to mind upon reading Dean E. Murphy’s compelling piece in a recent New York Times, “Watching Them Watching Me,” which was mainly about how the author’s three young sons dealt with him in the aftermath of their mother’s cancer death.
The boys asked penetrating questions—about their dad’s faith, his health and his emotional state. And, he confided, “there was nearly a round of applause when I announced I had found a bereavement group.”
Rereading Murphy’s essay, I remain convinced that it’s virtually impossible for anyone—man or woman— to anticipate or visualize a likely response to the sudden loss of a life partner. Also, I’m more than ever convinced that, despite the strong feelings expressed by that writer I tangled with, all those many years ago, there’s no sure way to prepare for such loss … except to know in your heart that you must keep on living, you cannot cave. You have to continue to be the person you were to that someone you loved. For his or her sake, you have to perk up and move on.
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