My marriage to Ron lasted for a few months shy of 40 years and ended when Ron died from a sudden heart attack in 2008. Our life together was in many ways unconventional but the equality between the two of us was what distinguished our marriage the most from other marriages that I have seen. We thought we were the greatest couple ever. I have decided to write about my marriage to Ron for two reasons: writing about his death is a way of reflecting on our life together and I also wanted to describe what his death meant to me in the hope that it could help other people with their grief.
We had a real and consuming relationship, including on the day he died. I go over and over that last time. It was wonderful but far too short, like our life together. As usual at 4:00am we awoke. I was going horseback riding before leaving for work and Ron had just come back from the barn where he had put the bridle on my horse. We had breakfast together. He tickled me, I sat on his lap. I kissed him goodbye and said that I couldn’t wait to go on vacation that night. We never went. Ron died that day.
The Day of Ron’s Death
I have told the story of Ron’s death numerous times, maybe in the hope of getting a better grasp, but it does not work. It is always horrible to relive and to realize again and again that his death does not go away. That day, I had a message on my private practice line to call the hospital. I called and a nurse told me that Ron was ill. I insisted that there had to be a mistake, that Ron was fine – I had talked to him just one hour before. She rechecked the information and said that no, it was correct. Ron was ill. I asked to speak to him and she said that he was too ill. The call did not make sense, and it did not make sense to me that she had called on a phone line which Ron would never use. The nurse wanted me to get a ride to the hospital. I was annoyed and said I would drive myself. Yes, I did have friends but they were married and busy with dinner. I cancelled a patient’s appointment and then drove myself to the hospital. I was concentrating so hard I did not want to stop for red lights. It kept running around in my head that Ron was dead.
When I arrived at the hospital’s emergency room, I was shown to a private room where I was left alone. On two separate occasions, I went to the front desk and tried again to see Ron. I was feeling desperate, I wanted to see him and the hospital staff was in my way. I was very agitated and, in the back of my mind, I began wondering if they would call a psychiatric emergency on me. They finally had a doctor tell me that Ron was dead. Ron had walked a short distance from work to pick up his truck at our usual repair shop, paid the bill, and was talking animatedly about his intention to put a special mirror on my car when he suddenly stopped talking, keeled over and died.
I wanted to see him. He was on a stretcher. His body was still warm. I touched his face. He seemed to be asleep. I talked to him, telling him to wake up. I tried to sit him up but he would not move. I was in total shock. Staff tried to help me but what could they do? The doctor said to take as long as I needed. It sounds trite but that really helped to decrease my agitation. Finally, a friend came and took over. Family arrived as did my Episcopal priest. Ian, our son, and his wife flew in the next morning.
It was a shock, a catastrophic loss for me and I’m still caught in the throes of turmoil. It seems as though a major part of myself is gone. I have ups and downs and sometimes it feels as if I’ll be turned inside out. The grief has been so deeply moving, hardly an adequate description. We saw the other as profoundly interesting and through our marriage we continued to grow individually and as a couple. Now I have myself, I guess.
Our Egalitarian Life: Alike and Not Alike
We had very different childhoods. Ron was expelled from school many times, usually for getting in trouble with a teacher. His music and interest in science saved him whereas many of his friends ended up in jail. I was much more gregarious than Ron but also much more compliant and always wanted to be the good student. If Ron and I had met in high school, I would have put as much distance between us as possible. However, Ron was a successful college senior when I met him and he readily adopted my lifestyle – horses, farm, and so on. Maybe for him, it was a new life, a new beginning. He was an electrical engineer and I was a psychiatric nurse researcher. He worked in the private sector but had many contracts with the armed forces. Ron was a republican, I am a democrat. When it came to his workers though, he would slide to the left politically.
Our wedding was small, 50 people, and it was great. Ron was Catholic so we decided on a “catholic” service. According to traditional thinking, I could not receive communion at mass because I was Protestant. However, we chose to be married in a church that was part of the underground Catholic Church movement. The service included everyone as equal participants. Ron and I had written the service and read the various parts. It was the greatest wedding. I think I’m just reflecting on the fact that our equality transcended our life.
Mourning: Collecting the pieces
I use Dideon (2005) and Oates (2011) as fellow mourners. They report in minute detail what they experienced when their husbands died and I compare myself to them and find many similar feelings, including the unthinkable.
Oates says that widows’ reactions might be defined as “rational/irrational alternatives to suicide”. She writes about the innumerable foreign tasks one has to deal with when becoming a widow and I did not know how to deal with all of it. People came forward to help. My lawyer brother for one was invaluable as he knew the legal mumbo-jumbo that comes with death. I have even been talking with a financial advisor, a lawyer and an accountant concerning my future. In some ways it feels as if I have had to grow up again and in ways I never did, or to put it more accurately, to learn to be more responsible. Like everyone else, I feel vulnerable. Ron always took care of these things. In many ways, I see what my friends meant when they said that I was spoiled. I did not think so at the time when Ron was alive but I pretty much did what I liked. Now, I sure do not.
The army made a statue of an eagle to be presented to Ron at his retirement but was presented to me posthumously along with his inclusion in the company’s Hall of Fame. It bears an inscription, which characterizes him very well:
“The eagle can see great distances and stare into the sun without being blinded. Though lesser birds head for shelter when a storm approaches, the eagle does not. It spreads its wings using powerful updrafts to soar to greater heights. He was not one to shy away from the difficult or disagreeable; no task was insurmountable; no task ever too immense; no issues without resolution. His optimism and fortitude will long be remembered. “
It is very painful for me to write this because it seems to put a final end to Ron’s existence, yet our love is forever. Forever? What does that mean really? I don’t know. I can identify with how to keep going on the outside, yet I flirt with magical thinking as when I expect Ron in the driveway, although I know he is dead. A nurse called the evening Ron died asking me if I wanted to donate any organs. I felt guilty and so conflicted. I was afraid they would cut Ron because then for sure he would not live again. Dideon and Oates still had their husband’s voice on the answering machine as did I for a long time too. I could not make myself remove it. Ron sounded so nice. To remove his voice would mean a further death. I also identify with the difficulty Dideon and Oates had in thinking of themselves as widows. I didn’t know what to check when filling out an insurance form for example. I still felt married but if I was not then what am I? “Single” did not seem to fit and in general, there is no category for “widow”.
Dideon describes internal reactions that no one sees. She says that grief is passive, it happens to you. Mourning is the act of dealing with the dead, it requires attention. Marriage is not only time spent together and memories of that time spent together, it is also paradoxical in its denial of time. Since I was 22 years old, I have seen myself through the eyes of Ron. After his death, I suddenly felt old. I became more aware of the lines in my face and other signs of aging. Ron always said I was beautiful. He never said anything negative about my appearance or my body. I am not sure, but I think that may be unusual. And now this year, for the first time, I saw myself.
Dideon realized how open we are to the persistent message that we can avert death and if death catches us, we only have ourselves to blame. I found myself going over and over Ron’s symptoms. Should I have insisted that he see a doctor, when he got tired after mowing only part of the lawn? I imagined a doctor would catch and remove the plaque when it became dislodged. I tried endless ways of blaming myself. People said there was nothing I could have done and that I must accept our frailty at life but that was too hard – it would make me incredibly vulnerable, too. I am less vulnerable if I accept self-blame rather than take the world at random. It is a terrible lonely thought – either I accept this incredible vulnerability or I continue on this fruitless course of holding myself responsible for Ron’s death.
One summer evening, I was watching a concert on TV – the Boston Pops – and they played “It’s time to say good-bye”. I cried and cried. I thought of Ron’s death and this project. I had better finish it. I don’t want to finish it. In some way, to do so would finish my husband’s life. And as more time goes on, his memory becomes more remote. I do not want the memory of Ron to become more remote. The more remote he is, the less likely he is to come back. One of Dideon’s phrases is that the deceased becomes “transmuted over time into whatever best serves my life without him.” I do not like it because I want my memory of Ron to be intact but I can see it happening. I think now is a good time to write this while my feelings are so present.
My Involvement With Patients
To know when to regain your position as a therapist for people going through the same issues as you have just gone through is very difficult. It reminds me of when I once had to lead a group of patients who had suffered a stroke. I had had a major stroke myself a year and a half earlier before starting this Stroke Survivors Group. I returned to work after several months in private practice. I had an enormously difficult time with this group in keeping the boundaries between my role as leader and the role of a patient. I was not there as a patient, but the pull was so strong. It was with great care and intense supervision that I led the group.
Through A Psychotherapeutic Lens
As a researcher, I am used to the rationalism method. It values conscious cognition which it can see, quantify, formalize, and understand. It is however blind to the unconscious cloud like the nonlinear (Brook 2011). It cannot acknowledge the importance of unconscious processes because if it goes into the dark and bottomless current, all hope of regularity and predictability is gone.
Psychotherapy is having the opportunity of looking back through a psychotherapeutic lens at these unconscious processes. What first comes to mind is the notion of synchronicity. Synchronicity means to occur simultaneously, coincide, harmonize, to agree. I think what this really means is that we can differ on surface issues like politics for example, but underneath there is the strongest desire for the relationship to grow and be nurtured. It makes Ron’s loss very intense, but as a result I don’t have as many past regrets or issues that I wish had been addressed.
I thought about my own death. Will I ever see Ron again? I don’t know – nobody knows. I do hope there is an afterlife but I don’t really know. Ron always said he loved me across time and space. That thought makes him so near to me. I feel complete, at least for the moment. I know that if we are to live ourselves, there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. The apprehension that our life together will decreasingly be the center of my everyday life seems a betrayal of Ron. Death is a reality I don’t want to face, neither do I want to grow older without Ron.
Now I still have the farm although I had to make innumerable changes. I still love the fields, and white board fencing around the edge. People thought that I should move to a condo or something, but I think I will follow the discussion that I had with Ron – to live out my life at the farm. Internally I have changed from it being our place to me becoming the owner. It feels like I have pushed ahead rather than falling back. I suppose that no one would be surprised but me.
I think one particular difficulty is accepting the frailty of life. Psychotherapeutic intervention should be beyond just mourning the loss. It should include the frailty we all face with death.
Marilyn Lanza has worked as a psychotherapist and nurse researcher since 1968. She has dealt with grief, not only in her personal life, but as a therapist through her clients and through her work as a researcher. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
This material is based upon work supported in part by the Dept. of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Health Administration, Office of Research and Development, Bedford, MA 01073
Brook, D (2011) The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources Of Love, Character and Achievement. New York, NY: Random House
Dideon, J (2005) The Year of Magical Thinking. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.
Oates, J. C. (2011) A Widow’s Story. New York, NY: Harper-Collins Publishers.
Image: Loneliness by Francesca Martini