There’s a series of simple questions that become complicated to answer.
What does your wife do?
Does mom live in the same house?
What’s mom’s contact number?
Switch it around and replace wife and mom with husband and dad, and the questions still linger in the air. Thoughts rapidly flutter the mind with how you are supposed to answer. The TRUTH is usually the first thing that comes to mind, but I’ve learned that it’s far easier most times to play along and not create an awkward scene.
In the immediate aftermath of Maureen’s passing, we all put on a good face most days, but we were trying to keep our stuff together. There was a gaping hole in our lives, and we were still in shock, trying to figure out how to get through our days without breaking out in tears. We had a vacation planned about two weeks after Maureen’s Celebration of Life. It was supposed to be five days of relaxation by the beach because Maureen said that was what she wanted to do that summer. I put it out to the kids, and they all agreed that we should still go. I admired their courage. We packed our fragile and heartbroken bodies into the car and headed south.
Putting the questions to the test
We were learning to deal with a lot that trip, and there were times when thoughts of her loomed over us, with her presence being ominous. The check-in at the hotel was the first time that I had been asked the question, “Does your wife need a key?”. Of course, I was still wearing my wedding ring. I fumbled my way through it and was glad the kids were preoccupied and didn’t have to watch me search for the right answer. It must have created an emotional moment for me because it struck me that it was something we needed to discuss together. It can be a simple question about your mom, but one that brings back emotion and sends the mind racing.
I don’t remember how the initial discussion started because we were all trying to take care of each other. I wanted to keep these conversations ongoing and was open about bringing up difficult and emotional topics as they arose. Humor is good therapy, and since we’ve developed a bit of dark twist in our perception of the world, death gave us good material for keeping the subject alive and active. Keeping the subject active was important back then. We could cry, but we could also laugh, and memories are much satisfying when they make you smile.
Dark humor is good therapy.
While not my favorite family vacation, it is memorable because of the time we had to ourselves, doing something fun, and learning how to keep going. We hadn’t been able to agree on a correct response, but the talk was ongoing with some wild ideas. We were having a good day with lots of smiles when we decided to get lunch. Kids were busy deciding what kind of tasty beverage they were going to enjoy when the waitress approached and asked, “Will your wife be joining you?” Before I had time to think, I replied, “No, She’s home resting…In Peace”. It was a very deliberate pause. I could hear the kids all giggling as I answered with my straight face, trying hard to hold back my grin. It wasn’t the response for the long term, but for right now, it was good and something to hold in your back pocket for emergencies.
It gave us the chance to make light of serious questions and allowed us to avoid it for a while. The proper response has not yet been found by any of us though. It’s usually a pause and awkward silence followed by some lie, or worse yet, the truth. Spill out the facts a few times, and you realize it was a mistake.
I try to have a healthy relationship with death and am still working on it. The passing of my wife was shocking, but I’ve learned that life can be random and even cruel. That was a startling realization for me. I’ve had many fairytale moments and many more still to be had, but I also accept that there will be more heartache and pain. Part of that acceptance is learning how to cope with Maureen’s passing and other family members that are now just part of my happy memories. I needed to do some soul searching on how death fits into my life because it was all around me.
More on relationships with death. http://onelobotomyplease.com/whats-your-relationship-with-death-like/
It’s hard, though, to bring up death randomly in communication, and you get tired trying to figure out how. Perhaps it may be that after so many times of creating that conversation ending response, you stop testing people with it. I want to be honest, though. I want to be able to tell people that I’m widowed; the kids don’t have a mom, and she passed away. I don’t want to evade the truth.
It’s a real thing and a significant event in my life. It sometimes feels like a dark secret that I can’t tell anyone. I offer the truth as my way of being at peace with where I am. When I speak of admitting that my wife will never again be physically joining us for dinner, I’m not trying to make you feel uncomfortable; it’s that I don’t want to hide from who I am. Yes, I am widowed, and I am a happy, relatively normal person. Life continues.
You learn how to gauge people and perceive who can handle the facts and who can’t. If I drop the truth on you, it is because I trust that you understand it’s part of my life and that I don’t feel sorry for myself. It does not happen often, though. Some can accept the truth; maybe they confronted death in their life or have exceptional people skills. Whatever the reason for their acceptance, it is relieving to let it out without it impeding communication.
Many times though, you guess wrong. You make a connection, perceive something that lowers your guard, and the truth slowly spills out of your mouth and cast a dark shadow of silence over the room. Most times the awkward silence is nervously followed up with a feeble change of subject. Almost often, though, if the person has a way to escape physically, they will. I’ve sent people scurrying, not understanding why the honesty about my life scares them away.
I still give out Maureen’s cell phone as a contact number. There are still teachers that think mom is home helping the kids cover their books or helping with homework. I have business contacts that think I’m happily married. There is an entire population of people that are going to be very shocked someday when they learn the truth. It’s not because I have intentionally tried to deceive them. It’s because the fairytale version is what they want to hear and death does not fit into that illusion.
“You may find this sad”
When I feel the situation is right, I’ve learned to preface my response with a disclaimer. I’ll start by saying, “You might find this sad,” or “That’s a difficult question to answer.” Sometimes that little indication that I’m not going to come back out a typical response is enough to soften the blow. It is the best technique I have found for me. There are other times, though, where I get tired and frustrated and willingly let it out, knowing that it is going to sink like a lead balloon.
I don’t know yet what the proper answer is or if there is one. I’m sure that there are others with similar situations, where society does not see their life as typical and are having to create a false identity continually. If you are proud of who you are or have accepted where you are, then you don’t want to have to hide it. I have a good life. My kids and I are happy. I don’t flaunt my situation, but I don’t want to pretend it does not exist. If we are honest with you, it is because we trust you and think that you can see the good in our lives and not the tragedy. It’s an honor if we are brave enough to tell you the truth.
This post was previously published on Loss and Learning and is republished here with permission from the author.
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