I blurted “my husband died” to every stranger I encountered in the earliest weeks after it happened. No matter the setting — church, the frozen foods aisle, in the pharmacy checkout line … No matter where I was, I had to say it. I hated saying it. I hated hearing it. But I had to.
It wasn’t as if I walked into any business thinking, “I’m going to announce to the world I’m a widow.” Most of my grief blurted out in unbidden bursts prompted by the piercing pressure of dull-looking (yet deceptively sharp) questions like “How are you?”*
I am grieving, that’s how I am, thank you very much. Whether a person meant the question or said it as a greeting synonymous with hello, if I was asked, I would tell. And even if I wasn’t asked, my body had to express its inexpressible sadness in tears, shallow breathing, gut-wrenching anxiety at the sight of products my husband used — no, used to use — and sometimes in words, inadequate as they were.
Perhaps my pattern of blurting was set from the first moments after the hospital doctor delivered his pronouncement, when an orderly leaned inside the doorway of the tiny waiting room. “‘Scuse me,” he said to the doctor, “the medical examiner’s office is on the phone.” He crossed the room in three steps and while extending the cordless phone toward my hand said, “How ya doin’?”
I regret to say I raised my voice at the man. “My husband just died. How do you THINK I’m doing!?” (I can only hope my outburst did some good in the long run; I hope he never, ever addressed a grieving family in that way again.)
Sometimes the people I blurted to were sympathetic. “I’m sorry,” they’d say while looking me over carefully. (One asked, “Are you okay to drive? Do you need me to call someone for you?”) I appreciated the kindness of their sympathy and felt slightly better for the interaction. Their gentle acknowledgement acted like an embracing gauze to hold my wounded soul together.
Often people appeared embarrassed, averting their eyes as if I’d bared too much skin rather than too much of my soul. “Oh,” they’d say (if they said that much) before altogether turning away or, in the case of cashiers locked into position, turning their full attention back to the buttons at their fingertips. I left such encounters feeling the kind of social embarrassment I hadn’t experienced since my children were tiny and bled or threw up (or worse) in public places. In this case there were no surfaces to clean up and nothing to apologize for, but it felt much the same.
The harshest, most damaging interchanges happened when strangers (or much worse, people I knew) chastened me for speaking (or crying) about my husband’s death. “Stop crying,” they’d say, or “You already told me,” or “But that was last month, so why are you still crying about it?” or “Everyone has troubles, so you need to get over it and move on.” I walked away from such encounters feeling deep shame for my feelings and my inability to keep them to myself, as if I’d just offered a messy, inappropriate blood sacrifice in someone’s all-white living room.
In hindsight, with five-plus years behind me, I can forgive myself for committing such “offenses” against those whose own insecurities prompted their harsh or embarrassed responses. Looking back on the way I felt when newly bereaved, I can see how my wounded, lacerated soul and psyche bled orally. Applying pointed pressure to stanch the flow of grieving words was no more effective than holding a Q-tip to a deep cut.**
It was about a year before I managed not to blurt, “My husband died,” long after his death faded to “old news.”
For our family, though, every day we lived with the new, unwelcome reality of “firsts” without him. Time had to thicken and slow the verbal and emotional bleeding. Gentle acknowledgement of loss had to wrap around me and take hold. The raw edges of my wounded psyche had to begin their healing.
If your mourning friends seem never to stop talking about the death of their loved ones, don’t shove a poky cotton-tipped swab into their wounds. Wrap them with the consoling gauze of your acknowledgement and absorb the mess of their blurting with your acceptance and understanding.
Feel free to share ways you blurted — or listened.
*Please see these suggestions for Better Questions to Ask than “How Are You?”
**I don’t have any affiliation with (or aversion to) the Q-tip brand of cotton-tipped swabs.