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Life Notes: The “Improper” Widow
Watching a friend suffering through loss

Valentine’s Day will be awful for my dear friend this year. Firsts always are. And this will be her first without the love of her life.

At his funeral six months ago, she wasn’t polite or restrained or composed. Her shoulders shook with heaving sobs, and some might even say she “carried on.” In short, my old friend always was authentic even back when we were taught by our respective mothers to be “proper,” the highest and greatest good for girls back in the antediluvian 1950s.

She was never much of a model of decorum, no study in absolute dignity as the late iconic widow Jacqueline Kennedy had been. Propriety – control – are not easy commodities when a good, solid marriage ends in a single shocking moment. 

She had started out for a walk with her mate of 49 years, and she had returned home alone. In an instant, he had stopped in mid-sentence. The silly, mundane, excruciatingly ordinary conversation about getting to the sale on lamps the next morning would remain forever unfinished. 

“You’d think we could at least make it to 50 – just three more months. Such slackers,” she quipped. And then a paroxysm of sobs were punctuated by dark laughter. So yes, she was without dignity at his funeral. She dared to wear red because it was his favorite color. She had her hair done up in curls because he loved how they bobbed when she moved. She showed what she felt not for anyone but for the man with whom she had built not just a life, but a lovely, safe, insular world. 

“She’d better pull herself together,” said the friends who filed into her home during the mourning period. “She’s disgraceful,” some were even heard to whisper in the kitchen where they prepared groaning trays of food she wouldn’t touch. 

As she told me in the kitchen as I passed endless tissues into her trembling hands, she didn’t even try to explain herself to those who wouldn’t, couldn’t, understand. How does a new widow in an old marriage tell them what it’s like to build a union based on old-fashioned notions like fidelity and loyalty and yes, security, and then lose it all on a sidewalk two blocks from home. 

She didn’t even try to answer when they asked, “What now?” 

When they sat all around her and talked about the weather or the grandkids or the stock market, she tuned them out. There was only one subject she wanted to discuss. She wanted only to talk about that night when her husband fell to the sidewalk, that awful, horrifying night. 

“Forget that night,” they told her. “Don’t dwell on it.” It’s like commanding the tide to be still. Over and over, she would become the film director, replaying the scene at the hospital, the words: “massive coronary. Nothing we could do. Is there someone we can call for you?” They were kind, of course, but aloof, eager to be done with this mess. 

Forget that night? As impossible as forgetting his face, their wedding, childbirth. As impossible as forgetting the fierce connection that some would dismiss, but that she knew was the real thing.

So her mourning made others edgy, uncomfortable. They would have preferred more delicacy, tears shed in private, words thought but not

spoken. Grief, they implied with their eyes, should be private and done quickly. Death in our strange culture is an embarrassment, their disapproving stares told her. Death is the ultimate taboo. 

Her adult children saw to the endless forms and papers. Friends stopped by to squeeze her hand and remind her that time would heal. Neighbors brought fruit baskets, cakes and advice about keeping busy. And finally, she understood this would be her battle alone, and that she would fight it her way. This lonely journey grieving her husband’s death would somehow take her to the core of her life. 

Let others be noble. Let others stifle the tears and smother the pain. For this widow, there would be great waves and sobs and gasps. Because for her, pain was very real, the very fair cost of loving…and losing…in the truest sense. 

And what about the words of our 1950’s mothers about propriety? Drowned out by the sorrow and pain of a woman who has learned that grief is a wild and primitive country. And propriety doesn’t live there.

February 2019
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