As my sons have heard (probably far too many times by now), among all the many websites I have found that deal with bereavement and grief, one day I found one with a kind of list of many different types of bereavement and associated grief, with beautiful, sensitive descriptions of the different kinds of experiences. Reading through these descriptions, I started mentally checking off all the experiences I have already gone through, even including miscarriage and my own near-death experience with the ruptured tubal pregnancy, and by the time I got to the end, I realized that I had checked off every single description – with one exception: I have not had to cope with the death of one of the children I have given birth to. With that realization, I suddenly froze with terror, starting to wonder whether that is something I still have to face, as though I cannot be “finished” until I have covered the entire list. That is not a fear I can live with, not a possibility I can even begin to imagine facing: that would break me now. This sudden terror was immediately followed that the realization that this is exactly what Peter’s parents are going through. They have lost their child. My parents-in-law are coping with this terrible loss with such inspiring grace and dignity, yet sometimes I feel it will break my heart just having to watch them. But we have cried together, again and again, held on tight to one another, and promised one another, we can only do this together. Most recently, my beloved mother-in-law, holding on tight to my hands, tears streaming down her face, told me, “We are family, we just have to stick together.” All the past conflicts, arguments, differences of opinion and world view no longer matter, not at all. We have to do this together, because it is the only way we can do it.
I have to admit, however, that after one year and three months, I am really, really tired of being a widow. And it is not getting easier.
Sometimes I take a detour on my way to work in the morning. Instead of walking across the bridge, I get on the bus that leaves from below my balcony. All the way across Urfahr, this bus picks up older, old, and elderly women, and then we all get off together at the stop across from the cemetery. On weekday mornings, the No. 33 bus turns into a “widow’s bus”. I don’t know why the other widows take this bus, but when I go to the cemetery, apart from lighting candles, removing old leaves, and generally tidying Peter’s niche, I usually just go there to complain. I look at the plain marble plaque with his name, his date of birth, and the date of his death, and I just feel incensed and reproachfully demand, “How could you just fall off a mountain and leave me to deal with this mess alone?” Then a little more tidying, checking for signs that the neighbor’s widow has been there recently, and it’s ok. I can get back on the bus that takes me to the tram that takes me to my office, and I can just get on with it.
Sometimes I try to frame what’s hard now about being a widow in a broader context. Everyone I know is constantly under pressure: too many people living under precarious conditions, struggling to keep up with all the major and minor responsibilities, from childcare to deadlines to health problems to taxes to project proposals for funding to economic justice and political activism. Even as I type, I know that an amazing group of people is shivering from the cold in a church in Vienna, where they have been on hunger strike to demand basic human rights – human rights that are denied to them, simply because they are refugees, and Austrian politics can’t deal with anything but unquestioning gratitude from anyone not born here. And I feel stupid and useless, because I feel too tired, too lonely, too overwhelmed to find any energy to even write letters of support or go to solidarity demos.
What happens when everyone feels that way? What is left, if no one has enough energy left, after just getting by from one day to the next, to reach out to other people? What if the only people who can cope with everyday life are the ones who choose to only look out for themselves, all the purportedly “self-made”, “self-reliant” men and women, who look down on anyone who has not done well for themselves?
Peter and I were a good team, I think. We were by no means an ideally romantic couple who fell in love and found our soul-mates. He often complained that I was so unromantic, just as I often teased him about being a hopelessly cliched romantic; he rolled his eyes at my repeated assertion that “romantic love” is just a capitalist fairy-tale that keeps people unhappy so that they are better consumers, and in response I just stroked his beard and kissed him. He frequently brought me roses, just because he thought I needed them, and I smoothed the back of his hair when he looked silly, held him when he felt upset, insecure or – for him – dangerously vulnerable. It wasn’t that kind of “romantic love” that kept us together, but rather our shared convictions about the kind of world we wanted to live in and the work entailed in making that kind of world.
The hard part about being a widow now is that I have not lost those convictions, I have lost the partner who shared them – who also shared all the minor and major responsibilities of everyday life to create enough free space to be able to work on making the kind of world we wanted to live in together. Now I not only have to figure it out by myself, I have no one to talk it through with. And no one is here to do the laundry or wash the dishes while I write or gather information or go to the meetings I would attend, if only I were not so exhausted.
Eventually I will figure it out, I’m certain that I will. But right now, the process of trying to figure it all out just feels like hard, hard work.