You Don’t Know Jack

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Many thanks to everyone who was so kind and sent their well-wishes (and even shared their own stories) to my recent post about the anniversary of my husband’s death. But there’s something you don’t know.

I’m a widow. And I’m not a widow.

After 20 years of marriage to an alcoholic and addict, my husband went on a dangerous drunken spree that began with telling me and the children good-bye and ended 15 months later with his death from a pulmonary embolism at a rehab center. Somewhere between the slurred midnight phone calls and mountains of credit card debt, I was forced to obtain restraining orders and eventually a divorce to protect myself and our kids.

So, I’ve had the dubious distinction of being both a divorcee (for 5 months) and a widow. The legal authorities recognize me categorically as a widow, but funnily enough, I get the feeling some of my friends don’t. If they know we were separated and divorced the year before he died, they don’t see why I should be as upset as “a real widow”.

For people who don’t know, it’s difficult, when someone asks how he died, to answer truthfully.

I stumbled upon this article from The New York Times, which perfectly summed up the situation. It’s a little like this:

Them: What happened?

Me (Version 1): He had a pulmonary embolism. Very sudden. On his way into a meeting.

Me (Version 2): He had a pulmonary embolism, which was a result of a lifetime of chasing vodka with Tylenol PM, PCP, and pills that belonged to other people. He was in a rehab center because he was homeless, but he still managed to have the most heinous behavior right up until he dropped to the floor outside an AA meeting where he was actually passing himself off as a counselor.

Obviously, I tend to stick with Version 1.

I want to ask a favor of you. The next time you ask a question that requires a person’s back story, consider that the answer may be all that they are able to share with you, but that doesn’t make it the whole truth. Don’t believe for one second that you really understand what happened or how the survivor is feeling. Thank them for sharing. Encourage them in their strength through this difficult time. And know that if the answer is a short one, then you probably don’t know jack.

Yahrzeit – Because Sometimes Your Own Language Doesn’t Have the Words

This blog has hibernated for so long that even I forgot it existed. You might think that it was because I was busy writing my first fiction book (it’s over HERE), or finishing up my master’s degree in fine arts. And that’s sort of true. But let’s face it. It isn’t that hard to throw up 200-500 words for a blog post now and then. Until it is.

What most people don’t know is that the last few years have obliterated my ability to do anything but put one foot in front of the other. Wave after wave of tragedy and difficulty had rendered me speechless. And I think that may be why I could only find expression in fiction. The truth is too painful. And for someone who writes nonfiction, that’s a problem.

When there is a death, you find yourself divided into “before” and “after”. Following the initial adjustment to “after” comes the succession of milestones on your path leading away from the event. Tuesday was a biggie for me. One year since my husband died.

We have no word in the English language for this event. This macabre anniversary that suffocates the weeks leading up to The Day. This magical marker that must surely mean that life can now go on. A year gone must mean something.

But for American culture, you’re meant to be busy getting on with your life and not making other people uncomfortable with your grief. We do not mark the day with any ritual. There is no section in Hallmark cards for remembering the day your friend’s life fell apart. And one year later, I am still searching for words – anybody’s words – to describe this process of letting go and forgiving and moving forward.

Thankfully, the Jews in their staggering capacity to honor and express grief, have a word precisely for this time. Yahrzeit. A Yiddish word specifically meant for the anniversary of the day a loved one died – often marked by lighting a candle, fasting (if it is the death of a parent), and general recognition that on this day someone important to you left your life forever.

And even I feel like no one remembered this day but me, it is good to know that there is a whole language and people devoted to the idea that one year is not enough to move on. That grief and loss will roll back on you and will be revisited. Even if only for a day.

See you next Yahrzeit.

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