Jim died seven years ago today. We had been together 35 years.
My noisy devastation crowded out the possibility of a memorial service.
Well-meaning friends pushed me to get past grief so that others could join me to celebrate his life. At first I resented the intrusion, more concerned with insular issues like keeping sanity, composure and getting through the next moment.
I later understood I could stand my ground with friends and relatives while fighting traditional death rituals, but it was part of my responsibility to help loved ones find their own way through their grief. In doing so it might help me find a way through mine.
A trusted guide through the long path leading to Jim’s death and someone throwing light onto the resulting emotions was a beloved Psychiatrist and friend who gracefully disabused me of the notion of grief as a finite process, one to get through and past.
In fact, grief is an ill-defined, opportunistic parasite, a black hole sucking up a universe of emotions at a time when you are least able to fight back.
And it never ends.
My reactions to Jim’s death are still strong. They are sometimes understandable, sometimes not and have a tendency to fold over each other without providing a learning experience that can make the next one easier.
Days after the event, I began to fret over simple things.
Would I remember the gentle timbre of his voice or the delicate way in which he touched me?
Worry soon became more complex, morphing into the realm of the metaphysical.
When descending the steps of our townhouse, I fully expected to catch a ghost-like glimpse of Jim sitting in his favorite Eames chair watching Law & Order. As no such visitation occurred, I wondered if our relationship hadn’t been strong enough to deserve such after-life bonding.
More painful was the idea he did not want to come back.
Then there were the many remembrances leading to guilt over things said and done. One uses many words over 35 years; sometimes not in the order you might have wished.
After a recent relocation I removed from its tissue wrapping, seashells Jim had meticulously collected over a lifetime, each a quintessential specimen, a singularly perfect random design from nature that would – of course – have appealed to his sense of visual perfection. I'd sometimes chided him about this collection of objects, thinking it was trite.
What else had my own limitations prevented me from sharing with excitement what was meaningful to him?
Of utmost concern was the fact that up until recently he never appeared in my dreams. Now, when he does occasion me with a confusing, gauzy cameo appearance in a dream not about us at all I awaken troubled, unable to shake off the unsatisfying encounter.
What am I to make of the constancy of this grief?
I once believed putting his memory into a small compartment in my heart would keep our relationship in congealed, suspended animation, preserved in a museum-quality environment offering just the right amount of light and space to provide for best viewing.
It was a fool’s endeavor.
Releasing his spirit back into the world allowed it to find its own axis of orbit around my new life without him in a sort of relationship glastnost.
But setting Jim free did not free me.
Every now and then while walking the dog, boarding a plane or cooking a meal, an after-shock significant enough to leave me emotionally disheveled strikes with unbearable freshness - as if I’m learning about his death for the first time – and I think: how did this happen to him, to me? Sane thoughts and realistic memories become dismembered from the system that normally protects my hard-won equilibrium about his departure.
Yet after the system settles I am left feeling perversely grateful.
Yes, the after-shocks do usher back in the deepest parts of the pain, but they also bring with them the deepest parts of the memories.