Saturday, June 5, 2010

Let me make you a bit more comfortable.

Originally uploaded by
Nicholas Maleno

It has been an interesting couple of days as far as talking about Michael's death goes. Yesterday I was in a meeting at a school regarding a teenage client of mine. His attorney was present, and I have known her for many years. While we were waiting for one last person to arrive, I told her that I was planning on moving to San Diego. This came up because many people in my office have chosen to retire recently, and it is all the talk these days. When I mentioned that I too would be taking an early retirement, she looked shocked. She asked how this was possible. I explained that you could take a service retirement once you are 50 and have 20 years on the job. She then began to ask about my plans, which led her to ask if my daughter would be joining me in the move. I explained that yes, although she is 19, she still lives at home. I went on to say how all the kids are very excited about the move, and then talked about how each one reacted to my decision. She then said to me, "well, isn't your partner going with you," meaning I hadn't brought his name up. I suddenly felt like I had walked right into a wall.

She must have seen a startled reaction when I explained that he had died eight months ago. She was obviously shocked by the news, and felt quite embarrassed for not knowing this. She quickly apologized for not knowing, and for bringing this up. I quickly let her know that it was fine, that there was no harm in her not knowing this.

This afternoon I was loading up the car to put some boxes in my storage unit. My neighbor from across the street came over to say hello, and asked if I was making one of my regular trips to the Salvation Army to make a donation. I explained that I was planning on moving, and was busy packing up some of the house. She was also shocked by this news. She then said that she only recently learned that my husband had passed away. At the time she too had been diagnosed with cancer, and had undergone surgery, and then chemotherapy. She wanted to offer her sympathy. I found myself explaining about how it has been for myself and the kids, and why I have chosen to make this move.

This is a clear example of why our grieving process is not as simple as others would like to think. I find it somewhat similar to the coming out process. Being gay means that I will always be in the process of coming out to people. Because life brings new people, and new situations, to my life, I am always in the position to come out to others. Until the day arrives when people naturally ask, "are you gay or straight," then I will always be in a situation where I need to correct someone when they assume I have a wife. My kids have also had to come out each school year, as they always have a new teacher, or classmate, who may ask about their parents, or about their mother. They then always have that moment, when they need to explain that their father is gay, and that their other father died. This is not an easy process for them.

This is how it feels to now explain to people that my husband has died. Some, like the attorney, or my neighbor, know that I had a husband, and might naturally ask about him. Others may not know, and ask if I am married. In each case, I am then left with the decision to explain that yes, I was married, but that my husband passed away. Of course this is always met with discomfort, so I am then in the position of having to make the other person feel better about the fact that they may have brought up something painful.

You don't know how many times over the years that I have said the words, "oh, well, I'm gay, it's okay, I don't have a wife, I have a husband," or, "don't worry, you had no way of knowing that my husband had died." I am quite familiar with the process. I have lots of experience at this point in making the embarrassed, or shocked, person standing before me feel a bit less awkward, and a bit more at ease.

Here, let me help you be a little more comfortable with who, or what, I am.


  1. The role that widowed people are flung into could almost be termed as "apologists". Your comparison to having to explain that you are a gay man - and now a gay man who has lost his husband, is certainly valid. You've had to be an apologist for a long while. Most of your life.

    While this isn't in the same league, it makes me think of my work life. For about the first 30 years after we were married, I often worked in a very non-traditional occupations that paid well (auto parts person, radiator repair person, manager of a auto parts recycling yard). Oddly enough, I have an M.A. and also worked nights and weekends as a freelance writer and editor, and a writing tutor at a university, to help further our goal of retiring to Nova Scotia in our early 50s. Look how well that turned out, eh?

    Anyhow, I used to become so annoyed at people who treated me as a know-nothing at my workplace - because I was a woman. Some would become so belligerent when they found out they *had to* talk to me. If I had a dime for every time I had someone say, "I want to talk to a man!" I'd be pretty damned wealthy by now. (-:

    However, times change. I see more women doing the jobs I worked at back when I knew no others doing the same thing. People don't act as incredulous or belligerent toward those women anymore either. So, I guess what I'm saying is that people can and do change their behaviour as society changes with the times. Unfortunately for you, as in the case of a woman working in non-traditional careers, we had to deal with lack of understanding and probably occasionally worse, due to the time in which we live(d). The bad news is, that now that we're past a lot of that kind of stuff, we're widows and, as you've written, this whole situation is coming up over again.

    Of course, the first year or so of being widowed is always very bad - the phone calls that have to be answered, "I'm sorry, Don died in September." Running into people who haven't heard your spouse died. People pretending they haven't heard because, if they admitted they knew, they would be admitting they never bothered to call while your spouse was ill, or after they died. I had a lot of that. When Don was ill, only a couple of people ever called, two people visited, and after he died, I got exactly three phone calls in the following month to see if I was okay. An online friend who flew east to help me was totally appalled that no one seemed to care about us. I prefer to believe that everyone was just ashamed and embarrassed about their cowardice in not "being there" for us. Keep in mind that my husband was one of these incredible "go-to guys" who would do anything for anyone who needed help. It broke my heart to see how people abandoned him when he became ill. It broke my heart as I know how hurt it made him feel that no one would call or visit. Oops! There's some of that bitter-widow side of me causing me to digress!! (-:

    Anyhow, for me, the good thing was that I just had the phone turned off a month after Don died as I went off to do my nomad thing. Unfortunately, I'm back to this a bit now that I'm at this new place. Everyone new that I meet asks about my husband and if I have kids, etc... I have this down pretty good now. "No, my husband died of cancer two years ago, and my dogs are my only kids. We intended to retire here, but he didn't make it. I decided the plan was still good, so I came here with the dogs." (end of spiel). Yes, that does get a few shocked looks, but hey, what can I say?

    What has been harder (for me) is having to deal with the people who weren't there for us and should have been. I actually avoid them now because I don't feel like being an apologist, or pretending I'm cool with how they abandoned us during out darkest hour. I have a pretty hard time playing the apologist anymore. That's one of the reasons it's kind of nice to have relocated. New place, new people.

  2. I dread telling people Jeff has died. We ran a retail business in a small city for many years, and lots of people THINK they know us. I still avoid places where I will run into casual acquaintances, like farmers' market, our regular grocery store, etc. which is silly, inconvenient, but necessary for me.
    I don't have a lot of anger towards people from whom I might have expected more. I keep hearing that my anger will come, but mostly what I feel is that people can't deal with my pain because they have their own pain - that they can't deal with. And I just let them go. I expect nothing from them, which in itself is sad. They are just gone to me, even if I still talk to them.
    Maybe this is why some widows and widowers are so helpful to each other: they ARE dealing with their pain in whatever way they can/have to, and as we are all in the bottom of this well, let's hold hands.

  3. I was out walking with one of matt's friends the other day (friend - he renovated their house, and these folks, not others, are the ones who stay connected). On our walk, we ran across an old acquaintance of mine, for the second time in a month or so. She gave me a hug, and asked if I would like to get together for a walk, and if I had the same contact info. I don't think this person knows what happened, though she is connected with people who do (and have said nothing). My/matt's friend said, "I didn't realize this part is still your reality - running in to people, having to let them know. It just doesn't end; there will always be someone you have to tell."

    I agree, bev - I think some people are maybe ashamed of how they responded, or didn't respond, and that's why they continue to keep silent. I did have one old friend write to acknowledge that, and it was refreshing and good to hear Someone be Honest. And some people who behaved atrociously, I'm sure, truly believe they were Right. Everybody's got an opinion.

  4. megan and carolyn - I would like to respond but don't want to hijack Dan's comment thread (I often worry about that when I leave one of these long comments).

    Anyhow, a few months ago, one of my husband's family members emailed to say she was very sorry she stopped keeping touch by email shortly after he became ill (she lives nearby), but she said she found it too sad to hear how his health was declining. I suspect that's what happened with other family members too (he had several sisters and brothers). His coworkers were the same. A fellow who used to go out to dinner with us (he and his wife) almost every month, stopped calling shortly after my husband went on sick leave, and the one time he had to bring some insurance papers over from work, my husband said he practically threw them through the door and ran away. I have tried not to feel anger, and actually feel very little of that (probably should, but don't). However, what remains and linger on is an incredible sadness for the loneliness that cancer caused us during my husband's illness. I am pretty sure this is why many people at the chemo labs and radiology departments are always so quick to strike up a conversation if you even flash the briefest smile, or why people on online cancer forums often become good friends. It's almost like we're all on a starship together - one that has landed on the planet Cancer, and everyone else in our past is now very far away. Being widowed often feels sort of like that too. Some of us have left our spouses behind on planet Cancer or some place else, and now we have moved on to the planet Widowed, and are making a different set of connections. This is definitely not the trip we thought we were going to make with our spouses when we bought our tickets at the beginning of this ride. However, we just have to learn how to carry on doing the best that we can.

  5. thank you bev.
    I often feel that way too - hijacking comments (usually yours dan!). I keep going back and forth about making my own blog. I'm not comfortable making my private life so public, and at the same time, I'd like a place to connect with those shoved onto this planet... rather than taking over Dan's comments section. (btw, bev - I always look forward your long comments.)

  6. Hijack all you want. Just know that if you crash and burn, we all go down together.

    This is what these blogs are about. My daily post is there to start a dialogue, and it pleases me when one takes on a life of it's own. I may not always have time to get back into the conversation by way of the comments, but I read every one of them.

    The anger that I carry is often tied up, like bev, in those that disappeared when Michael became ill. It them becomes an ongoing slap in the face when these people become the same people that never acknowledge his death. I try to let go, but I am only human.

  7. Dan, I'm glad you don't mind the comments. Yes, if our starship goes down, well, we'll all go down together.
    I've always tried to encourage visitors to my blog to say whatever they like and it's been interesting to see what kinds of dialogues develop - although my blog goes off on a rather different tangent most times.
    Yes, I can imagine the anger you feel at people who "disappeared" when Michael became ill and are now not acknowledging his death. It's a very difficult thing. I was just speaking with my brother about this very thing and he said he thought what I'd done - just pick up and leave the area and start over elsewhere - was probably the best thing I could have done as I would have been running into all of the family and co-workers everywhere I went back in our old community. I had that happen a few times while I was back fixing up the farm to sell last year and it was just bizarre. I can't tell you about one encounter as it involved a very close family member, but suffice to say that I'm pretty weirded out by the behaviour of some people. I'm a hell of a lot happier being off in Arizona, or out here in Nova Scotia, where I don't have to deal with other people's unresolved weirdness! (-:

  8. good lord, if our starship crashes and burns, where the heck is there left to go?

    Don't answer that.

    I think I just came back from there. but I got there by falling Off the starship.

    bev - I have been telling myself that people are reacting and responding exactly in Character. The folks who were crazy are crazy, the folks who are blind are still blind, the people who are good are still good, the ones who deal with life by pretending nothing happened are still doing so. There have only been a couple of surprises (one great, others not). And me too - I am responding exactly as I am: tolerant and patient with crazy - while still maintaining sanity, "understanding" to the point of overly so, avoidant of conflicts, far too hard on myself, loving Matt in his new path even when it smashes my heart, and still finding birds and plants and rock formations really cool, in spite of myself.

    Avoiding other peoples' unresolved weirdness fits in perfectly with my generally avoidant-of-conflict and not-terribly-social nature. Plus, those people are crazy.

  9. still finding birds and plants and rock formations really cool, in spite of myself.

    That's what saves me too. These days, I've been "mothing" at night (setting up a lamp and sheet to photograph moths at night). It's doing things like that that keep me trying to carry on.

  10. I saw bats swooping outside a month or so ago and said out-loud: "ooooh! bats!" followed quickly by the thought that my old love of life sometimes sneaks out before I have a chance to stop it - so what if bats are neat?! What part of me still lives in a world where it matters that bats are neat?! Followed by laughing at myself for how quickly I censored and amended my impulsive excitement...

    Thankful that the impulse to be interested in cool stuff is still in me, even with so much torn up. Thankful that it IS me. Mothing: had not thought of that - might be a good activity for recent insomnia.....

  11. Dan - well, we will chatter on for a little longer! Thanks!


    "ooooh! bats!" followed quickly by the thought that my old love of life sometimes sneaks out before I have a chance to stop it -

    I feel the same way. It's why I like to travel. During the times when I'm out in wild places, I feel "normal" again. The only thing missing is being able to turn to Don and say, "Wasn't that amazing!" I bring his ashes along with me wherever I go - even if that seems ridiculous - but I just like the idea of him being there in all of these incredible places. I promised that to him in the last minutes that he was alive - probably unconscious at the time - but every time I told him that we'd be leaving to travel in the west very soon, his heart rate increased and his respiration steadied. I'm sure he heard what I said. I never go back on a promise.
    Mothing is a great cure for insomnia. I can't explain how it feels to be out with the moths on a warm summer evening, but it's like being on another world for an hour or two. It always felt that way to me before and is even more so now. If you want to know more about this stuff, I may try to put up a blog post about it today or tomorrow.

  12. I still go to call Matt, or turn to him, when there is something cool or beautiful. He drowned (47 weeks ago yesterday), so the shock is still here with me. Not used to his being physically gone. With that, I also lost his skills in the woods and on the trail. I felt for a few months that the world had closed in on me so much, that I couldn't have the freedom I used to have. Kind of true - I can't take the adventures we used to, on my own. but I do feel Normal out in the woods.

    He wanted to be dropped off in the salmon river watershed to hike his way back out, and I would meet him 6 months later in vancouver. That is certainly beyond my skillset, but packing up the dog in a camper van and heading west sounds good to me. We also had just planned a road trip from maine to niagara falls, among many many trips. Up to the gaspe and back, too. Traveling with the dog, without Matt, feels a little too overwhelming right now, but maybe soon. I know if I had drowned instead of him, he would be out there, on the trail, for a long long time.

    Off to read your mothing post.

    thanks dan! And, right back at you. This community means a lot to me.

  13. megan - I'm not surprised that you are still feeling shock even as it is close to a year since Matt died. Time is a strange thing - some events seem old and far away, while others still feel very near and recent.
    You *will* learn to have the freedom you once felt in the woods, but you'll just have to grow into it. When I left the farm almost two years ago, headed west in the smaller van with the one old dog, I felt practically like I was going insane - like a wild-eyed horse that was out of control. A year later, with two dogs and a bit larger van, I left for the west once again - after selling the farm - and this time I felt like a seasoned pilot taking off to fly around the world. We had an incredible trip, camping in remote places where there wasn't another human for miles. What a difference that year made to how well I could manage. The trip back east the previous spring had been a time for me to really grow - camping off by myself in Utah and hiking with the older dog. I am not and will never again be the same person who left home in October 2008. It's all a process of growing stronger and more self-assured as you learn from your experiences. If I can make a suggestion to you, it's to start small - some hiking trips with your dogs, a short camping trip here or there to figure out what kind of gear the two of you really need, what foods you can live on, etc.. and then maybe a bit longer trip to visit someone so that there is something reassuring at the other end of your journey. At some point, I think you'll find that you'll feel strong enough and sure enough of your abilities, that you'll be ready to travel far. I did have those abilities before Don died, but it took time for me to trust myself enough to feel comfortable, especially in those horrible days after I was alone.
    If you ever want to discuss "how to travel" alone with your dog, etc.. please feel free to email me any time. There's an "email me" link on the "about me" page of my blog. If you do travel west, be sure to ask me about places to stay as I know many.

  14. Dan, what a brilliant observation -- it goes on and on, the explanations, the contraverting the assumptions, just like coming out.
    There's an analogy to the way kids grieve and do other learning processes, but I don't think I can make it clear enough in a comment.
    Thanks as always for your bright ideas and sharing.
    Can't wait to meet you at Camp Widow!