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I Mourn My Husband's Absence, Not His Death

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Six months: It was exactly six months ago that my beloved husband died.

There was a breath, and then, none. Life left the room, leaving behind love, loneliness, bittersweet memories, and a range of emotions.

I cannot, and do not, will not, mourn his death. Even before the advent of Alzheimer's, he had lived a long and useful life, a life of accomplishments for others; lived for the most part on his own terns, days met with joy. It would have been greedy to have expected more, and he was not a greedy man.

Even the first five years of living with Alzheimer's brought some gifts. There was still intimacy, moments shared, touch, laughter, joy. But the last two were dominated by AD, with an increasing cost to his dignity. At the end, as the rabbi said, "Death came as a friend."

So I do not mourn his death, but I do mourn his absence and I have learned that absence can be a presence. How to describe that? He is with me. Sensation: A sudden weight in the bed, but there is no one there. Visions: a mirage in the garden, an elegant man meticulously deadheading the geraniums. Memory: a photograph that speaks and dazzles me with that radiant smile. Sound: music that begs me to dance with him. And I dance, myself. Absence is a presence.

But absence is also the source of the pain. And it is pain, physical pain so severe I hear myself sometimes whimpering. And soul searing pain, that tears at the heart. There is a prescribed formula for grief, clearly outlined in books and articles and advice, a crisp list of stages. I seem to be in them all at once. Except for denial. There can be no denial. He is dead.

Yes, he lives on, as the rabbi tells us, in the lives of those he touched on earth and there were many of those. That is a comfort. But it is a cold comfort. And yes, life goes on. But there are moments when I am ready to let it go on without me.

At the outset, I was numb. On the most basic level, I functioned. I planned a funeral; answered personally --with hand written notes -- more than a hundred letters; dealt with estate matters; paid the bills, attended to the mundane matters of daily life; planned a memorial service in another city, walked and groomed the dog, started to bring order back to a neglected house and garden. There were things that had to be done, and I was the one who had to do them, so tears were kept on the back burner. They would occasionally break through but, even so, one foot went in front of the other, baby steps, but steps.

Over and over, people told me that I am a strong woman. I suppose so. I tend to think that most women are strong. Truth is, we don't have much choice. But, so what? What does my being a "strong" woman mean, in the face of this loss of my lover, friend, partner, advocate? What does strength have to do with it? The hearts of even the strongest of us can, and do, break.

I was fortunate to have an exceptional second marriage. Perhaps because it was our second, we valued the marriage as well as each other. We were faithful to each other -- in the sexual sense but also in the greater sense. We were faithful to who we were as individuals: we did not see marriage as a reform school. We were faithful to how each of us wanted to live, and managed to accommodate that without one of us having to give up self. We were faithful to the idea that the other deserved respect. In this grief, there is no remorse because the words that needed to be said where said when they still could be heard.

We had our down moments, quarrels, of course, but we kept them within our own four walls. Never once, did we criticize the other in front of an audience; never once did we use what we had learned about each other in intimacy as a weapon; we were more than faithful -- we were loyal to each other. And oh my did we have fun. If I had to choose a sound to symbolize our marriage it would be laughter. How I miss the laughter.

And the coming home together. Now? I don't want to go out to dinner. I don't mind the going out, but returning to the empty house, not being able to discuss who we saw, what was said, what we ate -- that is difficult. I have no interest in food. I always found sensual pleasure and satisfaction in cooking: now I rarely turn the stove on. I still cannot sit at the dining room table.

Six months. To some observers, six months is long enough: I should be over it by now. And for others, they acknowledge that six months is not long enough for me to be over it, but it is for them. There is a limit to how much sorrow others are willing to witness, let alone share. I want to talk about my husband, that is all I want to talk about, but it is increasingly more difficult to find someone who doesn't find the topic boring. So I practise saying, "I am fine, I am fine." because that is what the world wants to hear.

The truth? I begin to grieve only now, six month later, because now -- now -- his death really hits me. All those heart- and mind-numbing chores are behind me. Now I know that he is really, truly, forever, gone from my living life. Now, I live with absence.