Breakin’ Up is Hard To Do

When you marry your high school sweetheart, you don’t have a lot of practice being dumped.

My first foray into the world of the brokenhearted arrived on a Tuesday morning when I awoke (euphemistically, as I had not slept) to realize that the nightmare of the night before was real. In truth, it had been eleven months of nightmare. And now, on this Tuesday morning, I was a widow.

I had been unusually fortunate in my life. I had never lost anyone closer to me than aged grandparents with whom I shared distant relationships. And now here I was, plunged into the deep end of grief, having never really experienced that run-through for loss known as the break-up.

As the months passed and I bounced between the supposed stages of grief –leaping over some, lingering in others, churning them all together, one moment to the next — what I consistently felt was dumped. Then the dreams began. Dreams in which my husband, Laurence, had left me for another woman. These dreams allowed me to jab an accusatory finger at him. They allowed me to rail at him. But mostly, they allowed me to be in a relationship with him…still.

It occurred to me — and this may be the salient feature of the grief experience — it occurred to me that I might be losing my mind.

And then I ran into an acquaintance who had lost her husband to cancer, like mine, several years before. Since the last time I had seen her, she had remarried. Her new husband was a widower. This was no coincidence. She explained to me that their marriage worked because they each understood that the other was still in a relationship with someone else.

I’ve never been a fan of all those pop psychologists brow beating us. Work, work, work, they remind us. That’s what it takes for relationships to survive, let alone thrive. Sure, there’s work involved (though I bristle against the earnestness that implies.). But there’s a heftier dose of fun, silliness, and a lot of just plain, quotidian dullness. You need those things, too, if you’re going to be in it for the long haul.

I discovered, however, that there is plenty of work involved in this new phase of our relationship, Laurence’s and mine. My husband was more with me than not (still is), like a three-year-old’s imaginary friend. But sometimes I had to coax him out from where he was hiding deep in my psyche, deeper in my heart. I had to still the flurry of activity that I cultivated to pretend that life goes on. I had to be quiet. I had to give the pain of loss free rein. To learn to dance with that pain is the hardest work I have ever had to do.

My way of choreographing that dance was to write AfterImage: A Brokenhearted Memoir of a Charmed Life. Grief is a fracturing experience. I am sitting across the dinner table from a friend, but what I am really doing is grieving. I am at the symphony, but what I am really doing is grieving. I am at the movies, but what I am really doing is grieving. Writing this book allowed me to be all in one place – body, mind and heart. Though it may have seemed a horrible place to be, it was still a relief to be there, integrated. And with Laurence.

That was my way of figuring out how to negotiate the land of the abandoned., how to build a life around a gaping hole. A productive, fulfilling life that gradually proved to finesse the impossible: to include joy. A life in which I still sometimes think of myself as dumped rather than widowed. I am still trying to wrap my mind around the concept of widowhood. Because breaking up is hard to do.

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