The Pain of Losing a Spouse Is Singular

Courtesy of The New York | By Jane E. Brody | Photo by Fred Viljoen on Unsplash | Originally Published 04.05.2010 | Posted 04.19.2018

As my husband of 43 years approached the end of his life and the anguish within me welled like a dam ready to burst, I realized something both simplistic and profound — losing a spouse is nothing like losing a parent.

I lived with my parental family for 17 years before I moved out to begin an independent life. My mother died just before my high school graduation, and I had known for several months that there was no hope for her recovery.

As the older of two children, I thought I had to be strong for my father and young brother, and I factored my mother’s illness into my life as if it were an after-school activity. During her final months, I visited her daily in the hospital and did what I could to keep her comfortable and assure her of my love and admiration for the wonderful woman she was.

Likewise with my father, whom I adored and who remained an extraordinarily important person in my life until his sudden death when I was a 41-year-old wife and mother. Though sad about all he would miss — especially the grandchildren he doted on — I took his death in stride; after all, parents are supposed to die before their children.

But spouses?

When we marry “till death do us part,” do we really expect to be parted by death? I know several women who lost their husbands after relatively brief marriages, forcing them to raise young children on their own. I thought I could imagine their pain and anger at the unfairness of it all. But I also knew they could not afford to wallow in grief, if for no other reason than that their children needed them to be emotionally intact.

But after the children have moved away and have children of their own, a spouse’s death leaves an emptiness that is hard to fill. There’s no one in the house with whom to share the events of the day, discuss the broken pipes and rotten politics, relish the antics and achievements of the grandchildren.

I do realize that my life is very rich. I have many interests, a wonderful, caring family and a large network of dear friends to whom I can turn for emotional support, advice and companionship.

It is not just that I will miss my husband’s company, his acerbic wit, and his astute commentary at movies, concerts and plays. There are also practical issues that serve as daily reminders of his absence. Who will open the jar that defies my efforts, close a stuck window, hold the ladder while I change a light bulb, split wood for the fireplace, take the wheel when I’m too sleepy to drive?

I’m not good at asking others for help or hiring people to do menial jobs, and I suspect I may be too old to change my ways.

I long joked that should my husband die before me, my memory of the movies and plays I’ve seen and books I’ve read would die with him. I suppose I’m now destined to see and read them all over again.

But aside from the pain of personal loss, I feel intense pain for what he lost, especially the blossoming of our four grandsons. I can, however, get vicarious joy in seeing that so many of my husband’s best qualities will live on in these boys, as they do in our own two sons — productive professionals, independent thinkers, wonderful parents and husbands.

Richard died on March 18, just eight days before a concert he had carefully planned — and had expected to attend — to celebrate his nearly four decades as a lyricist for the musical theater. He named it, appropriately, after one of his songs: “Nice While It Lasted.”

I had desperately wanted him to be at the event, and to remain my life partner for years to come. If at any future time I might be inclined to say I miss neither his kisses nor his touch, to quote from another of his poignant songs, I should be reminded of its title — “The Lady Lies.”

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