Love and Loss: Marriage and Bereavement at the Holidays
In her most recent addition to the wildly popular Bridget Jones’ series, Mad about The Boy, Helen Fielding portrays the bubbly and erstwhile boy-crazy Bridget struggling with the untimely death of her husband Mark. We see Bridget five years after Mark’s death still struggling to adjust to the reality and learning how to respond appropriately to the social network that once embraced them both and now uncomfortably welcomes her alone into their homes at Christmastime. In one scene, Bridget is paralyzed by the happy memories she and her husband shared during the holidays in anticipation of the big party with friends, standing on the exact stoop she now finds herself, alone and still bereft, waiting for them to answer the door. She wants to bolt.
It only takes one poignant scene from a novel to transport a reader to a time and place in which they felt that exact kind of aloneness. It is with anguish that I recall my ex-best friend (emphasis on ex) bossily announcing that I “really (wasn’t) a widow,” just before Christmas only a few months after my husband’s suicide, because I was “too young,” depriving me of the one descriptor that provided some lucidity to my surreal experience. Or, the fact that my five year old cousin Melissa was the only one in my family who dared acknowledge his absence at the holiday dinner table that year, running up to me to tell me that she “miss(ed) him too.” My status as someone who was abandoned by their spouse through death was the most painful reality I ever had to accept. Yet, I was told by everyone surrounding me, my safety net, that I was not allowed to be it or feel it.
Unlike Bridget Jones, I did not have children. In Fielding’s new novel, Bridget doesn’t have a great deal of time to think or grieve, because of her preoccupation with being both mother and father to two small children. Her children are her saving grace – and her true loves, in some respects. She cannot escape the memory of her husband who she sees in her son’s face, his eyes, and remarkable intellect. Her daughter was an infant when Mark dies and Bridget is devastated by this fact, because all her daughter has known is a life without a father. Unvarnished in their grief, Bridget’s children constantly bring Bridget back to the deep pain of their shared loss, paradoxically reminding her again and again of her pure, deep love for her children, which rejuvenates her. She falls in love with her children’s vulnerability and allows herself to follow their lead. Like Bridget, I began to surrender to the deep unrelenting emotional pain, while consciously embracing things I loved deeply during that first holiday season. Commingled with my misery was a growing curiosity about what it would be like to feel happy and alive again. Because I no longer rejected misery and, as Buddhist nun Pema Chodron taught me, I “made friends” with my pain, I became curious about what else there was. I became curious about my suffering and started to voraciously read about it, instead of just running away from it. I prayed and suffered with Christ hanging on the cross during Mass on Sunday. A grace and otherworldly love surrounded me and carried me for months afterward. I suffered publicly, but appropriately, crying openly in church or seeking out clergy who could explain my suffering to me. I also became more curious about this nebulous, strange thing called love, wondering more deeply about the nature of love and its genesis. I held my pet rabbits, Lepus and Emily, in my lap closely and in a way that I never had before. I was present to their feelings and my feelings for them and practiced my love for them. There were whole moments when I did not feel pain, but felt my heart swell with warmth and tenderness, because of this practice. It was a silent exchange of feelings and gestures. They became my favorite companions and I know they felt this new closeness. I discovered that love was not just a verb, but it was a noun, an energy that we feel and is transmitted through space and time. New friends wandered into my office – when my previous friends no longer came around because of their discomfort with my husband’s suicide – and I was pleasantly surprised by their generosity and kindness. I made new friends and experienced a loving connection generated in deep pain but sustained through time by real affection.
I tried to bridge the divide of loss and love. Questions nagged, especially that first holiday season. If I still loved my husband and he still loved me, I was sure of it, am I still married? How could I be married and widowed at the same time? These were concepts I had to process, wonder about, and struggle with, and did so for years afterward. By opening myself simultaneously to both love and loss that first Christmas, however, I became stronger and was able to begin to make sense of things, starting my new life, not without my husband, but with him in my heart forever.