As I write this column, it has been just two weeks since my wife, Kathleen, died of a virulent lung cancer. At times I feel okay, consoling myself that she lived a good life and was not in great pain at the end. At other times, I walk around like a dead man. I have conversations with friends and have no idea what they just said to me. I'm in this kind of stupor, carrying on with life but not really functioning at all.
Friends and family have been supportive. Some utter platitudes like “She's in a better place now, Hank.” I want to say, “Oh,yea. How do you know ?” One person said to me that she knows exactly how I feel.” I wonder how she knows that ? But, I can't get angry with people who are coming from a place of love and caring. The concern is real and that is what counts.
I know from my own experience as a priest how challenging it is to say the right words to someone who is grieving. The wiser ones say little. A hug, a hand on the shoulder and perhaps “I'm sorry,” is more than sufficient. Heart speaks to heart.
At first I was surprised that a few of my closest friends seem to be avoiding me after the funeral. Then, I realized that some folks just don't do well in this situation. It's not that they don't care. Rather, they are embarrassed by death. They don't know what to say so they avoid even meeting up with me.
Re-reading CS Lewis's book. ” A Grief Observed,” I discovered that I am not alone with the difficulty I am having in talking about my loss, even to good friends. In CS Lewis's case, he said he couldn't even talk to his teen-age son about the death of his wife. Looking back, his now adult son defends himself in this way. “He didn't understand that I was only 14 when Mom died, a product of seven years of indoctrination in a British Preparatory School. The lesson I was taught throughout that time was that the most shameful thing that could happen to me would be to be reduced to tears in public. British boys don't cry. It took me almost 30 years to learn how to cry without being ashamed.
Thank God, the time when it was considered a weakness for men to cry has pretty well passed. I am not at all embarrassed to admit that I shed tears at my wife's passing and that her kids did the same. I fully expect, in these coming months, to continue to feel her loss deeply and, at times, to cry again. You don't just turn your feelings off like a faucet.
At the same time, I want to celebrate her life more than mourn her death. She gave me love and laughter, lots of laughter. One of her sons called her “a real hoot.” She also did not hesitate to give me a kick in the butt when I needed it, a hug when I needed that. I'm awfully glad that she was a part of my life. I'll try my best to get on with my life, as millions of widows and widowers continue to do. We owe that to the spouse who has preceded us.
To so many of you who have sent me letters and e-mail and called me on the phone to pledge your prayers and support, I will be ever grateful.