My husband died years ago. The impact of his death still affects me most days, completely changing the course of my life, reshaping who I became thereafter and how I think. You probably wouldn’t know it to look at me but it’s the truth. I am aware of an underlying note to my life that longs for connection and, despite the passage of 14 years since he died, I still want to feel connected to Mark. As a result, the recent decision to sell the home we had built together was a big deal. It represents a transition with profound significance to me and my family. A good metaphor for this life change is a bridge.
Bridges are a widely used metaphor in many art forms because of the obvious analogy of connections, crossings and transitions. Not surprisingly, the real estate closing could be seen as a symbolic bridge with several significant permutations. It constitutes a shift to more carefree living as a result of having less to care for, but also a recognition that a certain stage of being a parent is complete. I can let go of the need to maintain for everyone else a large home they will never return to except to visit. Getting to the point where I not only knew this but acted on it allowed me to consider new possibilities and new freedoms which will open the door to a different kind of happiness in the days to come.
A few hours after the closing I packed my car and headed toward Cape May, New Jersey. This meant I had to drive over an actual bridge, usually the Delaware Memorial Bridge (DMB). For those unfamiliar with the DMB, it actually consists of two parallel suspension bridges, one for each direction of traffic. The 20” thick suspension cables on which the roadway is built rest on four steel towers that rise 44 story buildings above the water. It is an impressive sight.
Upon approaching the foot of the bridge, I saw the outline of the towers stretching into the sky as the road itself rose upward like the crest of a wave. In under five minutes, my small car soared over the two mile span while my two cats lay stretched across the back seat, oblivious. Usually when I drive across the river, my mind is on something other than the astonishing fact that such a bridge can be constructed. But then I must confess to doing that a lot. Having been born into a world that includes so many marvels – things like skyscrapers, eight lane highways, and GPS systems, I frequently treat them as part of the scenery because I’m so caught up in my own thoughts. That time, however, I was paying attention because the day was special as a result of having signed a deed transferring my family’s home of 24 years to new owners. It is an odd thing that by making a few scribbles on a piece of paper, you thereby agree to hand over the keys and peaceably vacate somewhere you have lived for decades, but that’s the way we do it.
Now that the closing is over, I feel relief that the thing I had dreaded is over. My attachment to the house has been legally severed with the stroke of a pen, so I am now freed from the weight of thinking I can still change my mind. What remains is a deep sense of gratitude for getting to live in such a lovely home all those years. This gratitude opens the door to a heightened awareness of that which I typically take for granted. Apparently, joy and gratitude allow my soul to take a deep, slow breath. As I relax and exhale, my vision expands. On the day of the closing, that meant I had a focused appreciation of the tangible things before me, like the bridge that I drove over, but also of other deeper things of my heart. For one, I noticed how I had gained perspective and healing in the years since Mark’s death simply by the passage of time. A manifestation of healing was having the strength to choose to let go of our house.
I’d like to emphasize that it took me fourteen years to be able to decide to sell. Why did it take this long? Admittedly, it often takes time before any of us are ready to move ahead with a major adjustment in our lives. Unless circumstances force our hand, we generally prefer not to make a change until the pain, cost, or detriment outranks the comfort of continuing on the same course. One aspect of holding on to my home was that it was a link to the life we had lived there when our family was whole. I still remember Mark standing in its rooms, his strength, energy and laughter making it a place of security and refuge. After he died, his presence remained and the home was our fortress, something we could hold onto that hadn’t changed while life as we knew it imploded. Though I’m generally not sentimental about material things, I have a deep sense of sentimentality regarding home. My roots there are tenacious. As a result, digging up a mature tree like me, transporting it (across a theoretical bridge) and transplanting it at a new location needs to be done with care and in the right season to enable me to thrive .
I recognize as I say this that I have been fortunate. My home wasn’t taken from me as a result of becoming a widow. Some widows don’t get a choice. They cannot put off the decision of whether or not to move. Regardless of their emotional needs or preferences, financial considerations dictate what must occur. This is an additional layer to their grief.
As someone who has been there, I wish I could wrap my arms around others who walk on their own healing journeys that include grief. If this is where you find yourself, please know that you are not alone. Losing a spouse or anyone close to you is one of life’s most stressful and debilitating events. It can be a devastating experience that is lonely as well as confusing. Any forward step you are able to take represents more than the thing itself due to the weight of grief you had to overcome to take it. As an analogy, you would not expect someone wearing a leg cast to run a marathon although they might be able to hobble across a room. Doing the best you can looks very different when you are merely trying to get by.
For many who grieve, we need to heal and build up our strength in order to be up to the task of deliberately choosing a new trajectory as opposed to having one thrust upon us. Maybe there is even a resistance to some types of change because we had no choice regarding the huge changes resulting from our loved one’s death. We need to or try to hold on to things, or routines or even ways of thinking as a response to what was taken from us. I remember that certain small choices I made when newly bereaved felt like huge, meaningful accomplishments and now understand better why this was so.
Whether your grief is still fresh or you have been carrying yours for many years, the impact on your spirit never goes away. It is good to recognize and to celebrate your victories in whatever form they take. Like the Paralympic motto “Spirit in Motion,” our individual grit will shine through when we move ahead with our lives despite the disabling challenge of coping with grief. It requires crossing our own bridges so we can learn to create a new life for ourselves, one step at a time.