Wednesday, February 23, 2011

On not being over it

Joyce Carol Oates's new memoir, A Widow's Story, has raised some eyebrows because it leaves unmentioned the fact that, eleven months after the death of her husband of 47 years, she was engaged to the man who is now her second husband. I haven't read Oates's memoir (although I read the excerpt in The New Yorker), and I don't particularly care about the timing of her remarriage; life's short, different people grieve differently, etc. But from what I understand, the book focuses on the two years after her husband's death, and nowhere mentions her new relationship.

That's odd. And more to the point, it's a loss for our public understanding of grief, the past, and how we move on.

Longtime readers know that I'm fascinated by how we work through and incorporate the past into the present, and I'm especially interested in what this means for interpersonal relationships--including but not limited to romantic ones. We don't much talk about these things, the long shadows and continuing influences of people in our past. Or if we do talk about them, that talking is pathologized: you're still thinking about that? Girl, you need to get over it. Are you seeing a therapist? Because you clearly haven't moved on.

Our standard narrative goes like this: something happened, we got over it, we moved on, and now we're better off. But why does moving on, or being better off, require "being over" something or someone? If we're honest, we all know that change takes a long while, and that we continue to be shadowed by events from our past (from our family of origin, from our adolescence, from old friendships and old relationships) even while we're forging new and better ways of being. Indeed, those shadows are a necessary part of forging new ways of being.

I'm unsympathetic to readings of the past that imagine clean breaks, and I'm unsympathetic to any vision of human nature that views such breaks as desirable or even possible. Sure, there are good reasons not to rush into a new relationship right after an old one ends. But the urge to prescribe the newly-widowed or newly-single an "appropriate" length of mourning seems to have less to do with a fear that they might do something crazy or ill-advised than with our own wishful, semi-magical belief that such a period (six months? a year?) will be enough, will do it, will heal the person totally.

We do not wish to hear that the widow remarries quickly, because we take it as a sign that she wasn't really so very content in her long, companionate marriage. But we also, and perhaps even more strongly, do not wish to hear that the happily repartnered man still thinks about his ex daily, and somewhat wistfully--because we assume that means he's not really so happy in his new relationship (and would take back his ex in a minute if he could). Usually, neither is true. The past lives with us, sometimes for a long while, and not being "over" something has nothing to do with being unable to move forward.

I would have loved it if Oates had written a book about that: how it's possible both to be haunted by the past and to move on: fitfully, uneasily, but simultaneously.


Anonymous said...

We really can't handle this stuff at all. Our cultural tolerance for grief is really pretty short and yet we have this odd expectation for widows that their grief will last for some determined period. But even that isn't the whole story. As you point out, a widowed man or woman who is still sad years later isn't doing it right and a widow who remarries within a few months either isn't doing it right or she wasn't doing her marriage right.

There's no way not to be wrong.

Bardiac said...

What a smart post.

When I was a kid, I knew someone who got remarried after a spouse died. And as I recall, the new partner was an old friend, someone who'd also loved the spouse. And the person I knew talked about how being in such a loving marriage the first time made it so very difficult to not be married, and also how being able to share the grieving with the new partner was important to both of them (indeed, they'd gotten close while caring for they dying spouse). My guess is that many people who lose a spouse after an especially loving relationship miss that lovingness deeply, and find it important to seek out love again.

I think Anastasia's point about there being no right is so very apt.

moria said...

I love this. So much.

This is why I work on patterns of time – exactly this. If we left our pasts behind us, if we truly lived in linear progression, what, I wonder, would be the point?

Thank you, Flavia, for being your forcefully perceptive self.

dhawhee said...

Whoo, man. I read that New Yorker excerpt too, and I sobbed uncontrollably for nigh on an hour. I agree with you that the book you describe would be fascinating. But my guess--and it's just a guess, one based on the excerpt--is that this book is her way of bringing closure to her 47-year marriage, and that introducing the next marriage-to-be would be as disrupting to the narrative as it would had she fallen in love with her second husband before her first had died. (That sort of thing happens all the time too of course--it did to my grandmother, and she married the guy after my grandfather died, some decades later.) In any event, I imagine the choice she made is something of a tribute. Maybe we will have to wait for the second husband to die to get that bridge story. Of course that would strengthen your points here, and marvelously so.

Susan said...

Thanks for this. Like Oates, I am a widow, so I react to this in complicated ways.
First, I have not found it possible in the 18 months since my husband died to read "widow lit": I'd read Didion beforehand, but I have a pile of things (much sent by kind friends) on my bedside table that I will get to "eventually". So the odds that I would pick up the Oates book are slim.

Second, as to her remarriage, I am convinced that we all go through widowhood in our own way. So while I can't imagine being remarried so quickly -- I was just finishing up estate stuff at that point -- that's me. My mother remarked to me over Christmas that I would be a good candidate for remarriage, because I'd had a good marriage, so I think Bardiac has a point there. And I can imagine people for whom it is difficult to imagine NOT being married.

I'd actually say I'm still married, still in conversation with my husband in both personal and professional ways. And I am sure that in some way I always will be, even if I am remarried.

Jeff said...

When a friend of mine, a popular music teacher in my hometown, died a few years ago after a long illness, she left behind a letter to be read at her memorial service. In it, before hundreds of people in a packed church, she told her husband that it was okay by her if he happened to meet someone and remarry soon. Although literally addressed to her husband, the letter was really meant as a warning to friends, colleagues, and local busybodies that he be allowed to grieve on no one's terms but his own.

There was a bit of clucking when he did remarry a couple years later, but I've always been impressed by how a dying woman foresaw, rightly, the need to warn some of her loved ones to think twice before judging how, and for how long, others mourn.

Withywindle said...

It's not entirely related, but I've always liked the song "John Riley":

Fair young maid all in a garden
Stange young man, passerby
He said, "Fair maid, will you marry me?"
This answer was her reply:

Oh, no, kind sir, I cannot marry thee
For I've a love who sails all on the sea.
He's been gone for seven years
Still no man shall marry me

What if he's in some battle slain
Or if he's drowned in the deep salt sea
What if he's found another love
And he and his love both married be?

Well, if he's in some battle slain
I will die when the moon doth wane
And if he's drowned in the deep salt sea
I'll be true to his memory

And if he's found another love
And he and his love both married be
I'll wish them health and happiness
Where they dwell across the sea

He picked her up all in his arms
Kisses gave her: One, two, three
Said, weep no more, my own true love
I am your long-lost John Riley!

Flavia said...


I'm guessing that your guess is correct, or in any case that Oates thought it would be too messy, confusing, or incoherent to combine the two stories. They don't fit: one story is ending and another is beginning.

But that's my point. They seem like different and unrelated stories, because that's how we're taught to think of our lives (and especially our romantic relationships): as separate, discrete stages. To take a more common example: most of us know people who became interested in other partners while they were still with their old ones--whether or not there was actual cheating involved--and there's always a powerful urge to write out that first relationship. It's an urge that I think isn't just about the seeming impropriety of it all, but about the desire for there to be a neat and tidy separation. At most we hear, "and that was so clearly the wrong person, and now I'm with the right one!" Maybe that's the end of it in some cases. But I'm inclined to believe that our old partners set us up for our new ones--often in genuinely positive ways--and that their influence lingers on. But, as I say, we almost never talk about it. Maybe it's that it's not socially acceptable, or maybe it's that we don't really have a language or a psychological model for it.

From the few facts I know about Oates's situation, she was simultaneously grieving, very intensely, and beginning a new relationship. She had to be struggling to reconcile and explain to herself how that was possible and what it meant, and how the two related to each other. And I would really like to have had access to some of those considered reflections, from a writer of her talent and perceptivity. It would help me to think about it.

Flavia said...

Susan: thanks for your comment. It's hard for me to imagine, too--but that's some of why I'd like to hear her talk about it. The human heart is surprising.

I like the anecdotes shared by Bardiac and Jeff. I too know a couple (the woman is my age, her husband 8-10 years older) who met in a grief counseling group after both losing their first spouses to cancer. I think there may have been some raised eyebrows there, too, but having a shared experience--and the freedom and comfort to talk about their late spouses and their grief--seems to me a significant and powerful bond, beyond all the other things they had in common.

Flavia said...

Cosimo and I were talking about this over breakfast, and I think the central problem is this:

Emotional reality doesn't always fit narrative form. Or for that matter, narrative reality: we can be in the past (at least occasionally) emotionally even as we're genuinely moving on and happily moving on.

And now I'll shut up, lest I hijack my own thread.

Psycgirl said...

I love, love this post Flavia. I really agree with you on moving on and "getting over" things. What I've noticed in my own grieving process - not from death but from unexpected divorce, is that there are many stages of being "over" it. At no point was there a clean break or magic moment where I was "done" with my grief and processing. It's all very much shades of grey - for example, I still think of my ex relatively often but on the same hand I have no loving feelings for him nor do I wish to be in a relationship with him. I used to believe that even having a thought about him meant I wasn't "moved on" enough and fret over how I needed to actively do something to get myself to move on.

Once I learned to accept that there will be no magic moment, and that I will always carry memories of that relationship with me, I realized that moving on is a very long process - but it doesn't preclude other great things happening, like meeting someone else or a widow getting married "too early."

Sometimes for me the hardest part to address was other people's expectations for my closure. They would fret over me not being done and I would get very upset by it, because left to my own devices I felt perfectly fine.

Thanks for a great post!

Flavia said...

Thanks, Psycgirl!

I've been realizing through these comments that this post goes in a lot of potentially different directions, depending on one's subject position. I know very little about widowhood, and don't mean to imply either that I have great insights to offer on the subject or that I believe losing a spouse to be analogous to divorce or the breakup of a relationship.

But I'm interested in the limited ways that the two are similar. And it strikes me that in both cases, there's a cultural fantasy that some period of time (or some series of behaviors, attitudes, or actions) will bring "closure" and leave one purified and ready for a new relationship--and that if one DOESN'T go through that period, one is left with damaging amounts of "baggage."

As my scare quotes suggest, I hate both those terms. We all have baggage, because we all have a past. And the only way we get closure is by not looking for closure--it takes years, and it's not something one can will into happening. But the lack of it doesn't preclude happiness, or moving on, or any other good thing.

Lucie said...

Very belated, but reading a Guardian article about children's author Allan Ahlberg, and the loss of his wife and illustrator, reminded me of this...

'Ahlberg is endearingly amazed by the fact he can be simultaneously "permanently sad" about Janet and incredibly happy in his new life with Vanessa, with whom he is clearly very much in love.'

Katherine said...

I know I'm late to the game on this, but I agree with so much of this. I don't know if you've read "Two Kisses for Maddy," a novel by a man who lost his young wife after childbirth, but he's often stated he would have her back in a second if he could. Yet, he's currently engaged to someone else. I find his simultaneous love of and longing for his late wife and yet love for his soon-to-be-new wife so fascinating. The heart is a wondrus thing.