Recently, I joined an online group for widows. Commonly, widows ask for input and advice about questions that start with “when.” When is the right time to take off a wedding ring? To change my relationship status from “married” to “widowed”? To clear out his closet, sell his car, remove his name from our bank account? When will this loneliness start to feel bearable?
In this sad new world, everything feels strange — nothing feels right. Without our loved one, is there a right time for anything? For people who are grieving, time takes on new, paradoxical qualities. We all learned basic math. But now, when applied to units of time, these rules seem suspect. We were married for 18 years; he died almost 3 years ago. Can 18 truly be greater than 3 when we had too little time together? When the time apart feels like forever? People say that “time will heal” grief. Maybe so. But time also continuously carries us forward, farther and farther away from our shared years together.
How can people in grief make sense of time? I look for answers in “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing,” by Daniel Pink. Pink devotes an entire chapter to different types of endings, including semesters, decades, and vacations. But these also seem to apply to the ultimate ending: death.
My late husband’s heart stopped suddenly, without warning. I wasn’t with him. I didn’t know. For me, the end of our shared life together unfolded in a surreal spiral of slow motion events. He sent a text message saying he had called 911. I sped to the hospital with our daughter. We waited in a tiny room near the ER. A doctor and social worker told us that he had died. Time stopped. I had been too late to say goodbye.
How could this be? We had just been together, only a few short hours ago. I needed proof of this unbelievable news. Could it be true? If so, I needed to hold his hand, to stroke his hair. To say, “I love you.” To say goodbye. I needed to do these things, even if it was now too late. And it was. When finally, at last, he and I were together for one last time, he couldn’t hear me. He didn’t know. His life had already ended. It felt like mine had too.
According to Daniel Pink, our feelings during final moments disproportionately affect our perceptions and memories. That is, a happy ending often elevates a mediocre or sorrowful experience, whereas a sad ending often diminishes an otherwise enjoyable one. The shocking, sad way that our relationship ended affected my memories for many months. These feelings during our final moments together may explain why, for many months, images of my husband’s still, lifeless body invaded my mind at all hours. Day and night. Awake or asleep. Time didn’t matter. For months, I couldn’t stop picturing him, trying to make sense of this new reality. But at some point, the intrusive images stopped after the shock and denial faded.
Although endings strongly affect our perceptions and memories, according to Pink, moments of peak significance also play an important role. This tendency might explain why, after reality finally sunk in, my mental grief trajectory shifted course. Now, my most frequent memories of my beloved husband seem shaped by our early time together, the days when our relationship transformed my heart. Now, most often, I reminisce about us falling in love, recalling the intense and surprisingly deep emotions – attachment, affection, adoration — that I’d never before experienced. Today, when I look at photos from our last year together, I’m surprised to find that his hair was gray and his face was lined. In my mind, when I picture my beloved husband, his hair is brown; his sweet, smiling face is smooth. Internally, I see a much younger man, the one who first fully loved me, all of me, unconditionally, for more than 18 years.
Pink closes his chapter on endings with the suggestion that our thoughts about the meaning of the end also affect how we feel and what we remember. That is, meaningful endings tend to evoke a bitter sweetness; sadness can both coexist with and heighten feelings of joy. Pink writes, “I used to believe in the value of happy endings. Now I believe that the power of endings rests not in their unmitigated sunniness but in their poignancy and meaning.”
Endings and memories are complex and shifting. He’s gone. I’m grieving. Time has new meanings now. Once, we shared a happy life together. Now, I’m sad to live without him, yet grateful for the happiness we once shared. With time, despite lingering sorrow, my memories have shifted towards moments of profound joy.