Grief by the Numbers

My husband has been dead for over 13 months. I have been a widow for over 13 months. 13 months, one week, and one day, to be exact. 1.104 years.

I crunch numbers related to his death regularly. I repeatedly do the math on how long it’s been since he died in weeks, months, years. I calculate the percentage of our relationship after his stroke (9%), the percentage of my life that I’ve been a widow (2.12%), how old he would be if he hadn’t died, how long we would have been married if he hadn’t died. I redo my math sometimes daily as if the numbers matter in some consequential way.

I recognize all this calculating as an attempt to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense. The questions the numbers answer are relatively simple and the answers are clean, tidy, and neutral. I don’t have to like that 9% of our relationship involved me being my husband’s caregiver, but it’s a cold hard fact.

Questions like when will this get easier or how long will my heart hurt don’t have neat tidy answers, but how long has Tom been dead? Now that’s an easy one.

Question: When will this get easier?

Answer: Over time.

That’s a pretty useless answer. What can I do with that? And while I know it’s the best answer I’ll ever have, I want to argue with it. What if I do more therapy? What if I take a yoga class? What if I sleep more? But the answer doesn’t get any more satisfying or clean—it remains maddeningly vague.

Question: How long will my heart hurt?

Answer: Forever.

This answer makes “over time” look almost precise. How long is forever, exactly? I can’t seem to find it on my calendar.

Sometimes I calculate what percentage of the day I spent crying or napping or moping. This is more complicated because I typically don’t know what time it was when I started crying/napping/moping. These things sneak up on me and I suddenly realize I’ve been crying/napping/moping. And then I get tangled up in taxonomizing the activities: does it count as crying if I did it while engaged in another activity or do I only count it as crying if it disrupted something? Is it napping if I didn’t actually fall asleep but was merely immobile on the couch for an hour—or is that moping? And then once I have my calculations, making sense of them kicks off another round of absurd questions and judgments. Is crying for 10% of the day acceptable? If so, where is the line between acceptable and unacceptable? If 10% is acceptable, how about 11%? 14%? Surely 20% is too much. Right?

Sometimes the calculations are a shortcut to imagining what might have been. I used to wonder why people would post on social media something like, “Jack would be 87 today if he hadn’t died.” I thought, “But he did die and he’s never going to be 87.” Now I understand that the person posting that is imagining how Jack’s life would have unfolded had he lived to be 87. When I say, “Tom would be 62 now if he hadn’t died,” that’s shorthand for, “And I would have made him a German chocolate cake for his birthday, and we would have had another year of making each other laugh, of him calling my coffee Nectar of the Gods, collecting sword canes (true story), and breaking out into song in random moments.”

Other times the calculations give me strength. I’m not at “forever” yet, but I’ve managed this heartbreak for 13 months, a week, and a day, and I’m sure I can go another day.

The part of me that loves gallows humor wants to write a bunch of word problems like the ones I struggled through in school:

If Elizabeth’s husband has been dead for 13 months and the annual inflation rate is 9.1%, what percentage of time should she expect to spend crying on the average weekday?

No equation is going to make me miss Tom less, but ridiculous word problems will at least make me laugh.

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