Coping with Election Grief: Some Thoughts from a Widower

You know the feeling I’m talking about. You forget for a little while, your day passes along, life begins to feel a little — dare I even use the word? No, I cannot. Because then the moment suddenly hits you again: that jolt, that sledgehammer blow, that sharp stinging stab to the pit of your stomach. That didn’t really happen, did it? Omigod, it did really happen.

The feeling can last for many days. That’s certainly how I’ll always remember November 9, 2015. That was the day after my neighbor and friend Matthew had called me to ask how I had coped with losing my wife when it happened 19 years before. He wanted to know because his wife, the love of his life for the past 30 years, had died that afternoon in a tragic accident. His words set off in me the first wave in a chain reaction of jolts — how could this possibly be? He and his wife Karen were legendary among their friends and acquaintances for the formidable array of recreational activities which they avidly pursued. Karen rode horses and aerial danced on silks and had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with her husband and a group of their friends just the year before. The two of them scuba dived and flew on trapezes; both of them were veteran, highly rated parasailers and hang-gliders. They pursued these activities with a verve and energy that seemed inexhaustible. How could this new reality possibly be real?

And of course, this sad news triggered memories of reverberations of my own experience of loss, the decades suddenly compressing into the present as I remembered the wave upon wave of shock and disbelief and lack of comprehension that would slam against me and then pass and then slam again.

So exactly one year later, November 9, 2016, the day after Election Day, was a grim anniversary for me with a cruel but familiar sense of deja vu — the momentary forgetting, the jolts back to this new reality with our new president-elect. (Even though I saw the collection of cars parked by Matthew’s house on election night which indicated that he was surrounded by friends to watch the results, I can’t even imagine how he got through that evening and the next day, and I haven’t had the heart to ask him yet.)

To this day I resist using the word “normal,” for there is nothing normal about such moments in time like this one. If you feel the same way, your reaction is natural, and that can be the glimmer of the beginning of finding a little comfort in our new plight.

Allow me to offer you a source of guidance: turn to your friends and acquaintances, but especially seek out those who have been widows and widowers for some time. We are practiced in handling this emotion. We are as shocked and appalled as you are, but we also have the added sensation of recognition — we have traveled through this territory before. Here are a few things I have learned from that experience which I am practicing now.

Life does goes on. There’s no getting around that. The late autumn days may be impossibly and insultingly beautiful, mocking your sense of loss with their reminder that some things haven’t changed. At the same time, don’t be fooled by the lure of “this too shall pass.” This will not pass in the sense of going back to what life was like before. Life will go on, but it will never be the same.

Life is short; grieve, but it’s time to get moving.   Some time after my wife Martha died, I read a book on grief by a widow whose husband (if I recall correctly) was a judge and a mystery writer and whose death tore her apart. She described how she would spend hours day after day doing nothing but feeling sad and falling apart. I understood her feelings, but her experience felt foreign to me since I did not have that luxury. I had my two-year son to take care of, and that kept me sane and busy. So give yourself time and space to grieve, but also get busy; there is no time to wallow in that mire.

Move toward the light. The revulsion, the temptations to flee or lash back or give up in despair are also natural. Know that they will recur as these waves continue to wash over you; accept that this is happening and feel them as part of the actions and reactions to the wave energy that is beating down upon you.

But in addition to accepting this natural reaction, resolve yourself to do something that may feel unnatural at this moment: move toward the light. In my case, this means resolving to spend much more time in nature, walk, write, create, and appreciate what I have, as well as supporting those people and organizations and causes and ideas that have evidenced to me that they are spreading light, focused on making the world a better place. Redouble your efforts — retriple and requaduple them if you can — to support the spreading of this light.

As you move toward the light, remember these crucial truths: light is defined by Otherness (that is, the dark), and it is not defined by belief or tribe. Seek to shine the light wherever it needs to go, including within yourself. Seek to expand your light by understanding others and why they chose what they did.  But don’t waste your time on trying to turn darkness into light. If the light you shine cannot penetrate through resistance to facts or insulting communication or hostility to your identity, turn your light away and shine it elsewhere where it can find more light. Keep a sharp eye out on those who seek to take your light from you if they can, but shine your light into those dark reaches every now and then to see if things have changed there.

At the same time, spend as little time as possible in the backwaters of your life.  For me, this means paying even more attention to what I consume: looking at much less mainstream media and TV; watching sports is out (except for soccer; that’ll take a longer time to work out of my system); rationing of Facebook and web surfing; and removing consumer products from my life produced by those who have expressed their active support of values in opposition to mine.

Well, one hell of a gauntlet has been thrown. This is serious now. So I’m off to an event being held by a friend who is putting into practice what I’m saying here.  Words are important, actions much more so. And remember that, if you’ve ever spent any time in the ocean bodysurfing or simply frolicking, you know something about how to handle waves. Don’t just stand there rigidly and let them knock you silly. Respect their power and respect your ability to respond to them, move within their power, even use them to propel your life in new, sometimes painful but sometimes joyful, unexpected ways.

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