Grief: A Love Letter
A story about the loss of a husband, the two babies he left behind, and the impossibility of filling that void.
“Sadness is a love letter to what we’ve lost.”
‘Alba’ (she asked me not to use her name) is a young woman with an old soul. In a few words she can cut through a dense human fog and express a clarity that escapes many, if not most, of us. Her early morning musing, just last week, was no different. And today is the right day to plumb its depths.
This morning, I awoke to a despondent wife. Today marks the day — in 2011 — when she lost her first husband, Jordan; a man in whose chair, metaphorically, I now sit. And here, in this unusual emotional space, lies some incredible human complexity. Deb’s loss, in its own right, is eminently deserving of sadness: she lost a man she loved with all her heart, and with whom she had begun to build a life, a family, and dreams of lifetime goals. To have all of it suddenly eviscerated would be devastating to anyone; it is doubly so because their children — Alan and Milly — were barely toddlers when Jordan died of cancer, leaving Deb without the space to mourn her own loss, at her own pace, without concern for parental responsibilities; and with the task of raising two children they had every intention of rearing, maligning, and celebrating together, investing much of themselves in their co-creation. Deb suddenly had to pick up the pieces of a life that suddenly looked entirely different, less clear, and much darker.
Cancer is one of nature’s more ruthless creations. It is a not-uncommon part of her ecosystem; and a loss to cancer is no different — to nature — than any other avenue to the same conclusion. But because we as humans are both ruled by emotions and assign meaning to everything, loss is the undisputed path to our deepest grief, and cancer is a formidable weapon. Grief is something with which those who have felts its sting continually grapple, until the edge of our emotional turbulence softens, with time, and we are equally able to find solace in the story we tell ourselves about what the person we’ve lost meant to us, and to others; and about how we can continue — in some way — to keep the spirit of that person alive in what they’ve left behind.
In this way, Alan and Milly stand as the loudest reminder of what Jordan left behind: two brimming, beautiful children who carry his legacy, as well as his DNA, into what we hope will be rich and long lives. I can think of no greater legacy.
None of this contravenes or diminishes Deb’s right to mourn. One way she does is to allow herself to be sad for herself, as she said this morning, through tears, “Just once a year.” She is a remarkable woman for many reasons. One of these is her grit. We joke about it regularly, but only because it’s so evident that she doesn’t allow her own sadness — or anything else — to get in the way of her responsibilities as an ‘adult’, which includes parenting, work, friendships, and her relationship with me — her still-newish husband. I feel bad mostly because she feels unable to sit with her grief more often, more openly, for fear of offending me. I’ve created this ‘reality’ for her, given that I, too, am an emotional being, and to be the sequential ‘number two’ in a single seat isn’t easy for me, when the seat is still warm with love for ‘number one’, and is filled with his children, whom I’ve now begun to co-raise, with concern that I not overstep my bounds. Occasionally, Alan and Milly dip their toes in still unknown waters, and call me ‘daddy’, watching me laser-like, for my reaction. I’m sure that, too, conflicts Deb, because there is no word that more legitimately belongs on Jordan’s shoulders. Milly has said it two nights in a row, now, as I have put her to bed this weekend — once in front of Deb. How powerful one single word can be… and to be honest, it is my favorite word in any language.
So while the sadness that accompanied my own divorce was also legitimate, emotionally turbulent, and involved our own young child, Mia, it is equally true that in our sphere, our romantic love had run its course, or had at least gone underground long enough for us to question our ongoing union. So my loss, while devastating in reflection of memories shared, plans scuttled and an innocent child now forced to bear the crucible of a life ripped in half, is at best a distant cousin to the emotional power of Deb’s love, ripped from her while it was still in full bloom, and forever without recourse for sharing the joy of so many life experiences, now that Jordan was irrevocably gone. Not to mention what it means to a child to carry a parental loss throughout their own lives.
Deb’s burden is many-sided: reconciliation of a romantic love, lost in its prime; children to be reared without the partner with whom she created them — children who were too young to have a single clear memory of their father; guilt — in some form — in having survived him; the complexity of loving another man and welcoming him into her life, as a lover, a partner, and co-parent; and honor for her first husband, insofar as keeping him present and impactful in their children’s lives, through totems, stories, and a meaningful relationship with the balance of Jordan’s family, all of which she has done meticulously.
It’s not enviable. It’s difficult to watch the woman you love grieve; and for that grief to be compounded by the complexity of the relationship I now have to the world in which I stepped. I wish there were a rulebook for both of us. The fact is, none of us experiences grief the same way, because our psychological makeup is unique, because each relationship is equally singular, and because with additional layers of complexity the calculus becomes dizzying.
I have also experienced loss — that of a brother. Deb mentioned this morning that I was fortunate to pay him homage often, through my writing: I had written a book about us, shortly after he died, now sixteen years ago. I believe she was contrasting us, in that she didn’t feel she had the luxury of doing the same; and nor did she even have the luxury of doing so once a year, any longer, because of my own emotional shortcomings in supporting her need to grieve for the day without becoming embroiled in it. She’s right: while she grieves a husband who died nearly a decade ago, I sit there, very much alive and in front of her, and begin to fear all sorts of things: that I am not enough for her; that she is conflicted, and feeling guilty for loving again; that I will never be him; that I am a ‘false father’; that perhaps I met her too early, and that another three or ten years would’ve allowed her heart to heal enough to make room for me without the need for comparisons…
I know these are projections. She has never uttered a word of it. But therein lies the additional complexity of cobbling together a new family from fragments of others. The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi is not about people, but rather objects. Just the same, to read from its definition is to find an excellent corollary to the human condition of suffering, upon which Buddhism is based:
“wabi-sabi (侘寂) is a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”. It is a concept derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence (三法印, sanbōin), specifically impermanence (無常, mujō), suffering (苦, ku) and emptiness or absence of self-nature (空, kū).”
We are imperfect beings. We dream, we discover, we love, we exalt, we lose, we grieve, we sometimes lionize, we love again, we strive, we lament, we fight, we resolve, we are raw, we are beautifully ugly, we learn, we grow stronger, we have setbacks, we overcome, we are brave, and we sometimes lose strength, just as we felt we were regaining it. We are everything and nothing, and we struggle to make meaning out of everything that befalls us, in all of its turbulence, so that we can pick up our feet and continue walking.
It’s ok to grieve, and to mourn. It’s the most critical part of healing. I’m sorry I am an imperfect being, unable to remove myself emotionally from Deb’s grief — from your grief, sweetheart, because I know you will be reading these thoughts later today. Loss sucks. I know this, because while I didn’t lose a spouse, and am not raising our children alone, I did lose a brother and a best friend, and on that level, I have known devastating loss. We all mourn differently. All I can do is strive to be increasingly supportive of your needs, Deb, without mine getting in the way. We can take turns grieving. Today is your day. And any other day that you need. I’ll do better. It’s my commitment to you. I will continue to improve, until I am exactly who you need me to be.
I am mostly done with my grief. I am at the stage now where while I am still sad for “my Jordan”, and I, too, allow myself one day to really lose my shit over feeling sorry for his loss — the loss of his life — I am mostly grateful for the lessons he left behind, even if it’s taken me sixteen years to fully internalize them. I am far sadder for my parents’ loss than my own. To lose a child is perhaps the most devastating loss. I wouldn’t know, emotionally. But I have watched two adults brimming with life, dim — and more than a little. I have watched the burden of loss spread and drag one of them down, near-completely; and I have equally watched both of their meaning-making machines whir, imperfectly, but relentlessly, struggling to find a narrative that honors him adequately, to toss boulders into an unfillable hole. I watch my parents, and whether or not they need my empathy, my heart bleeds for them, regardless. I hope I never know that loss. I hope you never do, either, Deb.
As much as death is our only guaranteed experience, it is also the most powerfully devastating one, for those who have loved us, and love us still.
I have room in my heart to mourn your loss, too, Deb; to feel your grief and hold your hand, as heartbreaking as it is not to be able to lessen your burden.
I love you.