A partnership is a kind of shelter. Giving cover is inherently part of the intimacy of intimate partners: we divide household responsibilities, comfort one another in times of need, and even make excuses for failures to attend irksome social events when necessary. We shelter one-another.
In this way, losing someone you love is way more than a window in your heart. It’s having the windows shattered, door kicked in, living room trashed, rug peed on, and roof damaged so badly the rain comes in. The place is no longer livable. But the thing is, this particular shelter is existential (unless you lost your partner in a tornado, hurricane, or other natural disaster in which case I am VERY sorry not only for your loss but also my incredibly insensitive metaphor). No matter how badly damaged it is, you gotta live there.
I keep wanting to write things like “the hardest part about being widowed is…”. But then I realize that, no matter how hard something is for me, there are millions of others who have been through harder things, and also there keep being new things that either exceed my prior sense of what was most difficult, or simply redefine it.
When Nina died, I felt overwhelmed dealing with the raw pain I felt. I think it was actually a minor form of PTSD. Watching Nina die was painful. She and I had discussed this very thing before it became acute, and avoiding it was her overriding concern for end of life care. “Please do not let me suffer prolonged oxygen deprivation” was her seemingly modest end of life request to me, her principal caregiver. So watching her in anoxia was doubly hard — her suffering, obviously, but also my guilt as a caregiver. And Nina was tough. She didn’t complain and she suffered a lot. So if it rose to the level of concern for her, I knew it was really a major issue. I felt I’d failed her.
My initial “hardest thing” was learning to live with what I witnessed and learning to forgive myself any mistakes I made. An obvious but problematic element of this: Nina wasn’t there to help. That may sound dumb, or at least obvious, but for a trauma of any magnitude, she’d would have been my go-to person. Instead, my lack of access to Nina was part and parcel to the need for shelter from the biggest trauma I ever knew.
I took a variety of alternative steps to ameliorate this. I talked to friends, read books and articles, spoke to my psychologist, even got input from experts on what Nina was feeling in extremis. In the end, these things helped me limp to the point where the passage of time gave space to my rawer emotions to lose some of the tensions in their springs. It’s not that “time heals all wounds,” which I think is hogwash. Time not only doesn’t heal all wounds, it can nurse some and aggravate others.
|No actual therapists were harmed in the writing of this post.|
But time is a necessary (if insufficient) condition of healing. In some cases it’s critical not only because the feelings diminish in intensity, but because it provides distance and perspective. When I was first told Nina didn’t feel everything that I perceived her body going through, I understood, but didn’t totally believe it. The look on her face, the sounds she made, her body’s graceless articulation of dying, stuck with me and prevented me from accepting that the drugs she had on board kept her brain from feeling or perceiving all of it.
As I lived with both the fallout from Nina’s death and the information I was given, the input began to sink in. The same information and reactions from folks I’d spoken to sounded differently months later, and today it has a whole different feel. I’m not at peace about her death, and if my shrink could chime in who knows what he’d say about me and PTSD – maybe I’ll have him guest post – but I have a much changed relationship to those facts than I did in the immediate aftermath.
|Insight on my psychological issues courtesy of the Atlantic.|
As the initial impact of Nina’s death receded in the months (and now closing in on years) passed other, less obvious elements of losing her emerged as my new “hardest things.” This is where the contours of my missing relationship as shelter became evident.
Partly the shelter aspect is endemic to our particular relationship: Nina and I huddled regularly in our safest spaces — usually the bed or the comfiest available couch. We both needed time and space to process our experiences, and to hatch our plans and coping mechanisms. Nina and I were pretty different, but our personalities intersected at the “I” sections of our Myers-Briggs types.
Maybe not all of us are trying to escape the world (though I definitely am and let’s be serious: any sane person would at this point, for crying out loud), but we all want a niche within it. A dugout. A place where everybody not only knows our name, but our tastes, predilections, quirks, peccadillos, timbre, rhythm, and even our scent (and not only doesn’t mind the latter, but is maybe even turned on by its raw pheremonal power…look, it’s my blog, I can write aspirationally if I want to, and Nina’s dead and can’t contradict me, so if I’m describing my scent it’s going to be “semi-frequently sensually musky” not “sometimes objectionable.”).
Without Nina, my instincts are even less helpful. Before she died, one of us could retreat and the other remain more or less socially operational; now if I recoil from the world, my whole family loses contact with it. When Nina was alive I was retreating from something, but also towards something: Nina and our Katy-bar-the-door approach to marriage. Now it’s more like I’m going to my Fortress of Solitude, which is not a crystal palace constructed of alien technology at the North Pole, but a half-decorated master bedroom that, when I’m feeling overwhelmed, is likely messy and smells like I haven’t left it in too many hours (but, hey, sensually musky!).
|Picture me here, but smaller, less modern decor, and muskier.|
This is the unrelenting long-term cost of losing your person: there is no one to turn to on those many occasions when the only one to turn to is the person you lost. Need to plan, cook, and plate dinner? You are the purchaser, chef, server, and dishwasher. Seventeenth kid crisis of the weekend? You get to be 0 for 17 instead of just 0 for 9. Parent teacher conference? Your turn. Problem with the internet provider? Get ready for muzak and frustration. In need of comfort after a rough day at the office? Hope you stopped at the liquor store on the way home. Had too much to drink last night? Hope you’re still ready to go at six thirty tomorrow morning.
I feel like I’m running a long-distance relay race and there’s no one to take the baton. Or I’m in a tag team wrestling match alone, and the other guys just keep jumping from the top rope onto my weary, bewildered, spandex-burned head.
|This is grief. That’s me in the sharp red onesie and boots.|
If you’re wondering how any of this is different from any single parent: it’s not. Solo parents have no shelter, either, and they all deserve childcare subsidies, a raise, and semi-regular amazing sex, just for starters. But if you’re going through the solo parent learning curve on top of the trauma of the person you love dying, well, there’s that.
The point is, the relentlessness of the storm – not just its raw power – is the reason we need a good shelter. Your roof normally isn’t often going to get caved in by a tornado, but if you let enough sun and rain beat down on it, eventually even those everyday rays and droplets will wear it out.
So I guess I’ll just be here in my musky dugout trying not to get pelted too hard, pondering the concept of a growth mindset. And if you have a spare umbrella, slicker, or some top notch roofing skills, come on over (just call first, I’ll shower and straighten up).