After a Loss, Learning to Be Happy Again

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A wedding lay just around the corner: my son’s. Major family events stir things up, the way spring stirs up a lake. You never know what will rise to the surface. In my family, where we lost my husband three and a half years ago, suddenly and shockingly — an aneurysm, we think — we all have had to deal with wildly fluctuating emotions.

For that first year after David’s death, it felt as if he hovered very close. My 10-year-old daughter could ask what Daddy would say about this or that, and I’d answer unhesitatingly. I still heard his voice. During this first year, I saw the famous Chagall painting “The Promenade,” where the artist is holding his wife’s hand while she floats above him just at arm’s length, and that’s how it felt.

My husband was in another realm, yet nearly close enough for me to reach out and touch. After the anniversary of his death, the day after Valentine’s Day, I could almost feel him move away. It was as if he’d shifted to a different realm, as Jewish mysticism teaches. The departed is simultaneously here and not-here.

I felt this viscerally. And my body responded: I immediately came down with pneumonia. (It didn’t help that I had spent the bitter cold day wandering around the cemetery, in the deep snow, looking for his grave.)

In a way, the pneumonia was a good thing. I had an excuse to stop and rest — something mourners don’t often allow themselves to do. Friends and family generously helped — at one point, I think I had seven different kinds of soup in my refrigerator. But I could no longer so clearly and easily hear my darling’s voice. I too seemed to hover between life and death. But we had a young daughter, there was no real choice; I had to come down on the side of life. Life shoves you from behind, like a rude fellow passenger.

Shortly after that, my son became engaged. Nothing would have made David happier. At the engagement party, a crazy-happy surprise event, I kept looking around, half-expecting him to charge through the door. I don’t think I was the only one. Friends and family congratulated us, and many of them were weeping. They were tears of joy. They weren’t just tears of joy.

I too met Someone. (My mother-in-law asked, “Are you dating yet? And if not — why not?”) Not just anyone, but someone tender and gentle, thoughtful and handsome and kind, who had himself been widowed four years earlier. We share what he calls “an almost unreasonable love” of music — and a wound. We’d each been happily married for more than 30 years. We know how to be with another person. We know something about loving and being loved. Life is suddenly full of joy again, and juice, and adventure. It changes everything — and it changes nothing.

We are happy again — almost giddily so. But that ache, that loneliness for the lost beloved never goes away. You, reeling on a planet that has proved its untrustworthiness, must find your own balance. And that isn’t easy, because there’s no timetable, no map for grief. One minute you might be dancing on air, ecstatic, and the next you’re looking down, off the edge of a cliff with feet madly churning like Wile E. Coyote in mid-fall. And you never know what might push you over the edge.

I was recently at the wedding shower of the daughter of a widower friend, a happy, beautiful occasion, filled with young women in flowered dresses. Someone played the Sting song “Fields of Gold” and I looked at my friend. His face was drawn, his eyes tear-filled.

You’ll remember me when the west wind moves / Upon the fields of barley / You’ll forget the sun in his jealous sky / As we walk in fields of gold

His wife would have known all those beautiful young women in their flowered dresses — she could have greeted each by name. She had walked with the bride in her arms; she would remember the nights of worry, pacing the floors, and the victories. She should have been there.

My son’s marriage drew closer. I adored his fiancée. It’s an occasion I looked toward with utmost joy, and a touch of dread.

No matter how glorious and full the wedding, I knew we would all feel the great absence… In truth, the devastation.

David, who lived to make his loved ones happy, wouldn’t be there to make the toast — and he was one of the great speechmakers of all time. He hit unerringly what my son called, “the Kodak moments.” Arms out, blue eyes beaming. David, the ultimate family man.

It was impossible, unthinkable that he wouldn’t be there to warm the hall with his larger-than-life presence.

It would fall on me, the halting reserved one, to make the speech, and once again, to find the fine line of balance between joy and sorrow. To remain true. To honor David without dishonoring the sweetness of the occasion as we all begin again to move forward.

I knew what David would shout. Even without having his voice fully audible in my head, I knew this. It’s the classic Jewish toast, the old chestnut, one that celebrates the body and the blood, the union, the velocity of time, the incredible gift of being, these two young people who love each other, now and into eternity.

L’chaim! To life! To life.