Widows and widowers are prone to guilt. We wallow in it like a bubble bath except it’s not as relaxing.
“Why am I still here?” “Why didn’t God take me too?” “Why did I call him an idiot right before his heart attack?” Sure, I meant it, but still...
Is it my fault that my heart continues to beat and I can still enjoy a tasty hamburger deluxe? I pause to dip my well-done fries in the ketchup. How can I be devouring this with so much gusto knowing my husband will never again fork fight me for that last little crispy fry? What is wrong with me?
I wash down my self-disgust with a bowl of rice pudding. The coffee is pretty good, too.
Jimmy would want me to keep my strength up I tell myself. Wait a minute. Could he be orchestrating my food intake? He knows when I’m bloated I don’t leave the house. He’s keeping me prisoner. If this is “looking over me” I’d rather he spread his angel wings and look over someone else.
I tell my one-on-one bereavement counselor how controlling she is to me lately. One blink is the only movement on her stone face. Mean Jean is tough. I describe her to friends; “She must have studied at the ‘snap out of it’ school for shrinks.”
Her lips crack open. “Did you kill your husband?”
She hides behind her oversized coffee mug. I suspect her coffee is black, no sugar. Above the rim, she squints as she peers at me. I register accusation.
My first thought is, “I’m not answering without an attorney present.” Okay, perhaps I’ve been influenced by binge watching Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
I tell her I know where she’s going with this and not to lead the witness. Mean Jean tilts her head and waits for my shell to crack. She’s a professional. She knows I can hold in grief and guilt for just so long.
My grief and guilt (or Gigi as I like to call them) burst into the room like a tidal wave. “I should have insisted he go to the doctor!” I cry out. And, then, more to myself than to Mean Jean, I mumble, “Why didn’t I?”
I wipe my eyes and tuck the tissue inside my sleeve like old ladies do. Am I turning into my mother-in-law? I worry.
Mean Jean explains that guilt is a useless emotion. This is exactly what I need to hear although I detect a tinge of “Get over yourself” tone in her voice. I sit up straighter.
“Listen, Carol, if you want to keep beating yourself up, be my guest. It’s good for business.” She added a “Ching-Ching” register sound.
At this point I was seeing her twice a week for three months. I noticed the couch I was sitting on was new.
For those reading this and wondering why oh why am I seeing her? “Mean Jean” certainly seems to be a fitting nickname. Here’s why – she doesn’t let me wallow. I know myself. With a softer shrink I might be curled up on the couch sucking my thumb. I keep coming back because every so often she gives me a gem and my breathing is calmer when I leave her.
This day, as I wrestled with feelings of guilt, she blurted out wisdom, a little ditty, that seemed to come out of nowhere, but it made sense to me and it helped me.
She told me that when widows want to get remarried they often go to the cemetery to ask permission. I nodded my head. “I can understand that,” I said.
Mean Jean lifted one eyebrow sarcastically. “Really?” she replied. “It makes sense to you to ask permission from a dead man?’
“Well, I figured that,” I stammered.
“Just for the record, none of the husbands ever say no.”
“So, you’re saying...”
“I’m saying our time is up!” She snorted and slapped the arm of her chair. “I’m kidding, Carol. You should have seen your face!”
Eventually, she stopped chuckling and leaned forward to gently touch my arm.
“Honey, emotionally healthy widows and widowers do what they want to do. If they want to remarry, they remarry. If they want to buy a foreign car when their spouse only bought American they say, ‘Hey, I’m the one driving it!’
“It’s a process to get to that, of course, but they know that it’s their turn now and they know that life can be fleeting. They know that better than anyone.
“They look back, they regret, they give themselves and their marriage a report card and in some subjects they acknowledge that they failed. So what? Dwelling and its first cousin, guilt, don’t change a thing. It only keeps us stuck.”
When our session was officially over I went home and got violently ill. It was food poisoning, no doubt from that delicious hamburger deluxe.
In the midst of my misery I thought I heard a familiar snicker. I imagined it was my husband saying, “You have the pleasure, but, look, you pay the price.”
That wiped away my guilt.