A couple of days ago, at my invitation, my sister-in-law came to my house to go through my late wife’s jewelry. Even though my wife died fifteen months ago, I have been unable to force myself to do anything with her earrings, necklaces, pendants, rings, and other pieces of jewelry. I have no idea whether any of it has any significant monetary value—I rather doubt it, as my wife was inherently frugal—but I did not want to simply give it away to a charity. The idea of turning items of sentimental value into transactional trinkets was—and remains—anathema to me.
As my sister-in-law examined each piece of her late sister’s jewelry, she commented about specific pieces, saying this ring or these earrings or this necklace called to mind specific memories that said, to both of us, “this is Janine.” I was grateful to my sister-in-law for choosing specific pieces of jewelry that she wanted to keep and wear; wearing those pieces would honor my late wife’s memory and keep recollections about specific moments of her life alive.
Most of the items in the jewelry boxes held no specific meaning or memory for me. But I was grateful that most of those that were meaningful to me also were meaningful to my sister-in-law. I was grateful that she would keep them and wear them from time to time. Some of the items, though, has so much importance to me that I wanted to keep them; to treasure them by bring them out from time to time and letting the memories they evoke wash over me. I know those memories will bring me to tears; they did as we went through the jewelry boxes. I have no use whatsoever for those pieces of jewelry. But I cannot give them up. I know that, when I open those old jewelry boxes and see those things my wife used to wear and treasure, powerful emotional memories of my late wife will turn my grief at her absence from old and controlled to immediate and acute.
At the same time we were going through emotion-laden jewelry, it occurred to me that my grief at my late wife’s absence might be hard on my girlfriend. My girlfriend, who was away at church while my sister-in-law and I were going through the jewelry, has been extremely understanding of my fragile emotions. But, I thought, might my ongoing grief be hard on her? How would I feel, I wondered, if the shoe were on the other foot? As I mulled over theses issues, it occurred to me that the shoe is on the other foot, though it is not as tight on my foot. My girlfriend was divorced from her husband only a few years ago; and she maintains an amiable relationship with him and his girlfriend. I am happy that their relationship is good; that they can talk with genuine care and interest about their daughter and grandson. And I do not take offense when my girlfriend talks about experiences with her ex-husband—places they visited, foods they enjoyed, experiences they had, etc. So maybe my memories of my late wife, which often are expressed through indirectly through tears, are not intrusive on or injurious to our relationship. I hope no. Yet, even though I think my emotional attachment to those memories is a natural phenomenon, I still feel guilty that I may be unintentionally sending the message that my “old life” was more important or more fulfilling than the one I am living now. On the other hand, I sometimes feel guilty that I might be dishonoring the memory of my late wife by getting such joy from my relationship with my girlfriend. Both feelings probably are natural, but neither feel “right.” I wish I could erase the feelings of guilt from my life, but I suppose that’s impossible. Those feelings, too, are natural.
Not long after my wife died, I participated briefly in grief support groups. I did not feel like I got much out of them, but I do remember—very clearly—conversations about the part that guilt plays in a person’s grief. What I do not remember, perhaps because it was absent from those conversations, is how to eradicate or minimize the feelings of guilt associated with continuing to live one’s life after the loss of a loved one who was so important to one’s identity and reason for living. And I remember from those few grief support sessions the admonition that grief is not something one “gets over” or “gets through.” It is a life sentence from which one cannot be granted a reprieve. It cannot be commuted or pardoned. It is eternal. Either one learns to live with it or lets it take on the power of executioner.
I do not need these emotions right not. I am in the midst of making massive changes in my life. A major resurgence of grief and its attendant guilt can have no place during this period of metamorphosis. They must be overcome; tamped down or snuffed out or otherwise prevented from consuming me.
It is likely that I will regret writing this post. I will regret even more posting it for the world to see, if the world happened to stop by for tea. But, if memory of what I learned in my brief excursions into grief support groups is true, I think expressing my thoughts is better than bottling them up in the hope they will go away. Still, maybe it’s better to express them to someone who can help deal with them. A therapist or counselor, perhaps, instead of a small group of people who may or may not read my posts. People—most of whom obviously are not sufficiently engaged by my posts to comment about them—who may not feel any real connection to me. I’ll throw this question out to those who have read this far: how can I overcome, or at least deal with, being consumed by grief and guilt and a tangle of related emotions? Or might that be an impossible wish, a dream that cannot be fulfilled?
I realize, of course, how insignificant my pain is. When the people of Ukraine are struggling to stay alive, my emotional traumas are utterly meaningless. Yet they refuse to shrink back and let the truly important, life-or-death experiences a world away take over my psyche. And that, too, adds to my feelings of guilt. How can I allow myself to turn inward at a time the world around me rightfully demands my undivided attention and action? There’s no temporary solution. Only the final solution ultimately will resolve the matter. And even thinking that way is enough to make the dams fail, releasing the pent-up energy of all the planet’s oceans as they rush to drown Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Everest.
It’s nearly 6:00. Time for another cup of coffee and some silent reflection, giving my fingers a rest and my mind a respite from the roar of thought.