Lee died three years’ ago this week — on July 2 to be precise. This year the date fell on a Sunday. This year, when I awoke, Robyn was with me. I felt no ambivalence about this circumstance. On the contrary, I was happy she was with me.
According to the Holmes-Rahe Stress Scale, losing a spouse tops a lengthy list of stressful life events which can adversely affect one’s physical, psychological, or social wellbeing. For me, the first six months were particularly gut wrenching, notwithstanding that Lee’s early death was something I privately had long considered a real possibility given her troubled medical history. The raging pandemic merely exaggerated these ill effects.
Looking back today, however, I do not recall significant changes in sleep, appetite, and concentration, nor any decrease in self-esteem, which, according to grief experts, are some of grief’s more common ill effects. To the extent I felt increased anxiety, or got depressed, well jeez, in losing Lee I not only had lost my wife, but my love. If our relationship never reached the heights of perfection, it was special. And as someone who has experienced multiple marriages in his life, I can state authoritatively that our marriage was pretty damn good. I was very happily married to Lee.
Day-to-day I fortunately never experienced much loss in my ability to function. Ironically, the isolation imposed by the pandemic could have been helpful in this regard. The one notable exception is that I lost my enthusiasm for work, perhaps hastening my status as a very nearly, fully retired lawyer, but the truth is that I had been trending in this direction ever since Lee retired from work the previous year.
Daniel Klass, Phyllis R. Silverman, and Steven L. Nickman are generally credited with elucidating a Theory of Continuing Bonds, which allows for the continued and evolving relationship with the person who died. The theory challenges the assumption that one must learn to accept the death of a loved one to move forward. Their theory is not completely original and owes a large debt to a previously described and well-regarded Two-Track Model of Bereavement. Regardless, but importantly, both theories recognize that grief is not a linear process.
Instead, they posit that over the course of a lifetime a survivor will adjust and redefine his relationship with the deceased. Research has validated that we maintain our human attachments, even in death. This phenomenon appears to be normal and healthy. For example, I still think about Lee every day. I still look at our photographs, touch our objects. I still remember her birthday. Sometimes I will recall something that she said. These things help me to maintain our connection.
Yet, our connection continues to evolve with the passage of time. Initially, for example, Lee’s death meant our permanent physical breakup, which I liken to a particularly harsh romantic breakup, except it is not psychological. The loss of physical intimacy was an important reason I started dating again.
Eventually I met Robyn. In her I have a new, loving relationship, yet first I had to learn how to simultaneously let go and hold on to my relationship with Lee. As research suggests, part of holding on involves the tendency among surviving spouses to idealize their deceased partners, particularly if they were fortunate enough to have experienced a positive and loving relationship. And I was very lucky to have had Lee in my life.
If one is not careful, this tendency to idealize can undermine the new relationship. Of course, Lee and I shared a vested interest in each other’s lives that is irreplaceable. And consider: Lee will always be frozen in perfect time whereas in the here and now Robyn and I will experience the ups and downs that daily life throws your way.
This said, I embrace Robyn’s uniqueness as the new person in my life.