With apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning
“It takes strength to make your way through grief, to grab hold of life and let it pull you forward.”~ Patti Davis
It is an everyday occurrence for couples who have happily survived 30 or 40 or 50 years of marriage. One spouse dies; the survivor begins a period of mourning that can easily last for years. The intensity of mourning is proportional to the number of years spent together. I am one of those people. My late wife is in my DNA and her DNA is the genetic good half of our three children. At some point I will likely stop grieving for her, but I will never stop missing her.
Nancy died on August 17, 2021. We were approaching our 46th wedding anniversary. She had suffered through a five year battle with pancreatic cancer and the cancer, as is almost always the case, won. By the time the end came, it had robbed her of her intellect and her consciousness and had disfigured her almost beyond recognition. her once-beautiful features distended, her limbs bent, her luxuriant hair a memory.
Two recent occurrences, which I will describe below, have shown me that missing one’s spouse is not a discrete state of being. It is comprised of a number of different types of memories, and there are different triggers for each. It is easier to identify the trigger, and give an example, than to try to categorize the different ways we miss our loved ones. I have identified around a dozen different ways the bereaved miss their spouses . Most of them are sensory, the remainder are tied to events, calendars and places.
Seven Sensory Triggers
Visual triggers usually come to us through photographs and videos. We see our loved one in happier days, when they were young and healthy and vibrant and completely alive. I have an Echo Show in my family room which scrolls through a thousand photographs. Each time she appears on the screen takes me back to the time when the picture was taken. Our sense of sight inflicts this punishment on us; the blind are spared this particular agony.
Auditory triggers for me come in a number of different flavors, the primary one being the songs we fell in love to and countless others that we loved during almost 50 years together. We had our first dance as a married couple to Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” I play the piano, and there are several songs I’m unable to play anymore without weeping. Birds grace us with their whistles and calls. My family and I believe Nancy visits us in the form of a female cardinal–“Where cardinals appear, angels are near.” Even the sound of the dryer door closing can do it. There are times when I wish I was deaf.
Gustatory triggers come to us through food. She was constantly amazed at how vivid my memories of certain flavors from my childhood were, and still are. A made-from-scratch birthday cake. My mother’s cream cheese and garlic party dip. The salad dressing at the restaurant where I parked cars in college. Now, of course, memories of her come to me in her apricot cake, her pumpkin chiffon pies, the delicate almond cookies she hated baking but loved giving away. Her tomato, corn and bean salad. Miss Giddy’s fried chicken (a name well-known only to members of her family). My daughters and I remind the grandkids of the recipes that Nanny used to make. She spent weeks making a family cookbook for granddaughter Lila, who cooks from it regularly.
Tactile triggers, fortunately, are rare. I held a gold chain I had given her years ago in my hand the other day. Gold has a peculiar, almost soft feel to it, and I remembered her wearing it most days. Going through her jewelry, separating the precious from the dross, I recognized the textures of a number of pieces, mostly costume jewelry, that she enjoyed wearing. I will always remember and miss the feel of her skin, holding hands during Mass, carrying her around in the water at the beach. She took most of these memories with her.
Olfactory triggers, as I discovered again just the other day, are powerful reminders of those we have loved and lost. She favored two Innis fragrances, Moonlight and Free. They have similar scents and both infuse her sweaters, in her dresser and her closet. I began crying the other day searching for something in her dresser, and have not yet been able to approach her closet, which needs to be cleared out. But doing so feels like I’m sending her to Goodwill and Dress for Success. Simply can’t do it yet. Our daughters are going to have to get involved in this.
Proprioceptive triggers are associated with proximity and movement, both of which our bodies can perceive. As I sat through Mass on Palm Sunday, I was overcome by the sense not of her presence but of her absence. 98% of the time I’ve ever spent in our church she had been right beside me. On that Sunday I could feel her absence and it was palpable and overwhelming. I have decided to join a different church, one that we rarely attended together. This was a truly powerful experience, one I hope never to have again.
Kinesthetic triggers are associated with keeping track of our bodies. They are what keep us, generally, from accidentally hitting our bed partners in our sleep. When we roll over, something helps us keep our limbs close to our own bodies. I would guess that in almost 46 years of marriage I might have kicked or clubbed her in my sleep perhaps half a dozen times, which is statistically significant.
Holidays bring their own set of clear memories to bear. Why is it that happy memories generally make us sad? Christmas, Easter (Nancy’s favorite), Halloween, Thanksgiving, the 4th of July, even birthdays, are easy to remember clearly. I have very few memories of gifts, much more of the people who were there, where we celebrated, things like that. For some bereaved spouses, holidays are their own special minefield, to the point that some widows and widowers are unable to celebrate certain holidays or anniversaries after a death.
Vacation and location triggers can hit us looking through photographs, maps and globes, seeing ads for river cruises we never got around to taking. Visiting a city where we used to live (Annapolis and Cincinnati, in our case.) A trip to the art museum, of which she was a faithful supporter. Summer concerts outdoors at Conner Prairie. All these things are fertile ground for taking a few private moments to miss her.
Historical and calendar memories. Celebrating the Bicentennial on the Mall at the Washington Monument in 1976. New Year’s Eve on Y2K. September 27th every year, the date of our wedding in 1975. Her birthday, the day she died, the day she found out she had a terminal illness (June 2). The birthdays of our daughters, remembering being there in 1977, again in 1980, and the last time in 1984.
The point of all this, I suppose, is to understand that the world we occupy after the death of a spouse may be full of family and laughter and joy, but that painful memories are lurking in the corners and crevices. For the newly bereaved, one must be aware that some rocks have snakes under them; we must be careful turning those rocks over. We will certainly have happy times in our new world, but the memories, and the things that trigger them, are numerous and often unexpected.