Walking this morning, I was thinking about grief, how it progresses through time and changes.
When my husband Helmut died in February 2021, I kept a kind of visual journal of grief, for even though I generally traffic in words, that activity helped me represent what I was feeling. For example, on a day in which I’d been busy with a variety of activities and then, afterwards, found myself overwhelmed with aloneness, though not crying, I expressed it as my upper body full of tears.
Eventually, however, the 98-page sketchbook was full, and by then it was November and less was “new” in the experience of grief. The first Christmas passed, and more crucially for me, New Year’s, which I approached with dread because the year in which he had still been alive would then be finished. The first anniversary of his death came and passed as well, which also signalled changes.
For an entire year I had found myself unable to move his keys from the ledge where they had always waited when not in use, but now, finally, I hung them on a hook under my jacket, as a spare set in case of need. Also — and I’m not sure why — I began after a year to sleep on “his” side of the bed. (Of course, alone in a queen bed one can push into the middle or all over as much as one wants, with no one pushing back, but I’m talking about the side of getting in and out.)
People with experience of grief told me the second year could be harder than the first. I don’t know if harder is the word for me, but certainly there are new challenges and questions. There’s a brutal finality that still confronts me, which no “magical thinking” of keys or leaving his side of the bed open could dissuade, nor moving keys or switching sides accomplish either, a finality that seems the more brutal because of how persistent is the disbelief around the truth that this is how it is. The challenges are the questions involved in shaping a new existence in the face of it: Is there anyone who truly needs me now? Who is witness to my life? Since I’m still here, what should I be doing with this time?
If I were to sum up the first year visually, it might be thick vertical lines — lines of grief, say in purple, alternating with thick lines, say in green, of going on, as in coping and adapting. This, then this, then this. To sum the place that time has taken me now, I would use horizontal lines. Layers. Simultaneous. The most obvious layer perhaps what my sister, also a widow, meant when she said “you get used to it.” Doing the things of each day. There’s a solid layer of joy as well. As in my walk today, following a trail in a ditch and comprehending the subtle but rich colours of autumn grasses — cream, yellow, white, brown. As in fears overcome, and some upcoming travel to anticipate. As in my children, grandchildren, friends. As in the youngest grandchild, who, as babies do, delights me with his visible curiosity and cheerfulness. Another layer I call quest, short for the questions mentioned above. And always a layer of memories and missing, solidly in the mix though not dominating or excluding the rest of life as much as earlier.