22 Months Out: Every One of My Late Husband’s Belongings Tells a Story  

I’ve felt great the last few weeks, able to focus on thoughts of the future for the first time in many months. I’ve been on sabbatical this semester and actually met all my sabbatical goals early. This gave me some unexpected time to start trying to make sense of my late husband’s pride and joy, the garage, which he dubbed Garage Majal.

The task of going through the things of someone who died seems to go on and on. My husband died 22 months ago and I am still cleaning out the garage. A friend went through the garage soon after Tom died and collected and sold the valuable tools. His brother got the motorcycles.

What’s left is rafting and camping gear, random motorcycle stuff, equipment related to his many hobbies, a foosball table, and a leather couch. There’s a story behind each item, which makes going through them, let alone parting with them, very difficult.

Many times when I’ve gone out determined to organize the camping gear, I’ve been overcome by tears instead. I’ll touch the tent and remember how thrilled I was the first time we camped together and I realized he had a big tent. (No, that’s not a euphemism. 😊 I’m somewhat claustrophobic and prefer to sleep under the stars with no tent at all; the next best thing is a big tent.) The sleeping bag still has dog hair in it from his last road trip with one of our dogs—thinking “last road trip” immediately brings a lump to my throat.   

Opening the cabinet where his motorcycle gear hangs always knocks the breath out of me. Seeing his leather jacket triggers so many strong memories: the time we rode a motorcycle to Oregon with his cousin, the many times we took the motorcycle with a sidecar out on a weekend night and made a splashy arrival somewhere, me emerging from the sidecar in heels and a dress, and more.

I can’t look at the foosball table without remembering the day Tom came home from work in the middle of the day positively giddy because he had driven past a yard sale in the company truck and scored a foosball table for $20. He had to drop it off at home to avoid going back to work with a foosball table in tow. I don’t play foosball myself, but as long as I have room for it in the garage, the foosball table stays.  

Although I’ve been out to the garage hundreds of times since he died, I still make new discoveries. Last week I noticed a gray sleeve hanging down from a shelf that is high enough I hadn’t seen it before. It was the sleeve to a dark gray hoodie I remember him wearing on our last camping trip together. One pocket was full of dog treats.

Finding the hoodie set off a weekend of sobbing. My daughter came over one night to walk the dogs and found me immobile on the couch. She stayed with me for a few hours, first holding me on the couch, then sitting on the kitchen floor with the dogs and me. We reminisced about the many adventures Tom brought to our lives: rafting and camping trips, making us dog people, living in a trailer park. We remembered my trips with him to Cuba and Europe and him putting gender neutral signs on the porta potties on a construction site he worked on where pretty much everyone else who worked there had a MAGA bumper sticker. We laughed about how nobody ever messed with him except for “some old cowboy in Wyoming,” and Tom allowed that he had that coming because he had disparaged the old cowboy’s horse.

It’s still hard to believe that this man who lived life with so much gusto could be gone, and there are still days where I feel like I will never be whole again, but they pass and I do feel whole again.

Someone posted in one of the Facebook widow groups a few weeks ago, “When I post about my husband, it’s not to get sympathy, it’s to keep his memory alive.” That is one reason I blog and am working on a memoir: as long as I keep writing about that man who lived life with so much gusto, he isn’t really gone.

Recognizing My Own Toxic Positivity

How could being positive ever be toxic? Well, when it makes you feel pressure to squelch any emotions that could be seen as “negative,” like sadness, grief, or fear.

I’ve had my own struggles with toxic positivity. A student commented in an anonymous teaching evaluation fifteen or so years ago that I was “aggressively positive.” I was used to being noticed for my optimism, but the word “aggressively” caught my attention. While the rest of the student’s comments were positive or neutral, that one stuck with me and I turned it over in my mind for a long time. Being “aggressively positive” didn’t feel like a compliment.

I prided myself on not complaining, and over time my definition of complaining became so broad that it encompassed even neutral observations. I began to recognize in myself resistance to sadness and other emotions I saw as negative. When friends and students shared hard news with me, I noticed a strong impulse to reframe what they told me in a more positive way. Sometimes the reframings were productive, like when I helped a student who was fired from their job recognize it as an opportunity to find a job that was a better fit.

But other times, my reframing was a denial of the gravity of a situation; a student who was broken up with by their partner wasn’t helped by my reframing of it as a chance to explore what they wanted. What that student needed in the moment was for me to acknowledge their pain. It took me a long time to get comfortable with acknowledging pain.

I think my “aggressive positivity” grew out of a fear that people wouldn’t like me if I was negative, coupled with an inability to deal with my own complicated emotions. Dismissing all things negative—either by reframing them or simply ignoring them—allowed me to come across as ceaselessly positive and to deny that I ever felt anything upsetting. I used to laugh about my ability to put a positive spin on anything, but now I see it as a defense mechanism.

What I’ve learned is that reframing pain, sadness, and other emotions I used to see as negative into things I saw as positive—opportunities was my favorite—was just a way to avoid the difficulty of the “negative emotion.” I still felt pain and sadness, I just didn’t talk about it . . . and the less I talked about it, the harder it was to talk about it. My vocabulary around emotions became very limited.

Since my husband’s stroke, I’ve taken a different tact. I’ve chosen to embrace the hard parts of life with the same energy I bring to the easy parts. I’ve learned what it means to turn toward the emotions that used to frighten me.  I’m expanding my vocabulary around emotions. When I have a challenging day, I can say I was sad, sorrowful, anxious, caught up in memories, reflective, grief stricken, heavy hearted, and more—and each of those choices means something distinct to me. None of those terms is bad or even negative—they are simply descriptions of normal emotional states.

All the time I find the topics I think and write about—disability, caregiving, death, and grief—to involve elements of both sadness and joy. In my “aggressively positive” days I would have acknowledged only the joy. Now I acknowledge the sadness, too. Ironically, what kept me from acknowledging the sadness in the past was fear of the sadness, but acknowledging it actually makes it feel less scary.

Going through the experience of my husband’s stroke, becoming his caregiver, and then being widowed has given me a new appreciation for the acknowledgment that sometimes life just sucks. And that’s normal.

I was telling a new acquaintance recently about my husband’s stroke and they said, “That sounds like it must have been intense. What was that like?” I appreciated their response because it both acknowledged the complexity of the situation and invited me to say more about it. They didn’t try to change the subject, lighten the mood, or put a positive spin on things.

I was with another new acquaintance recently when I unexpectedly began crying. Their response was perfect—they asked me what I needed. They didn’t seem shocked by my tears or act like there was anything wrong with me.

These two people demonstrate how simple it can be to normalize events and emotions that are, in fact, normal, but that we often shy away from.

How to Write a Sympathy Card

When my husband died, I got a lot of sympathy cards, and every single one of them meant something to me. For weeks I let unopened mail pile up on the dining table, making an exception only for cards in hand-lettered envelopes. Those I read eagerly.

I loved the cards from people who had known my husband; knowing he would be missed seemed like validation of the heartbreak I felt. I loved equally the cards from people who hadn’t known my husband; the acknowledgment of my pain made me feel seen.

Many nights I sat on the floor with the pile of cards I’d received and read them, sobbing but feeling the embrace of all the people who had sent the cards. I still do this occasionally, nearly two years after he died.

Before my husband died, I sometimes wondered if I should send a sympathy card to someone. I wondered if I knew the person who died or the person who was grieving well enough to say anything of value. Now that I’ve been on the receiving side of those cards, I know that the answer is always YES.

If you are putting off sending a sympathy card because you don’t have time to get to the store, don’t go to the store—just write your condolences on notebook paper or a scrap of something. Really. The card doesn’t matter—your thoughts do. Some people sent cards that I’m sure they put a lot of thought into choosing, cards that featured Bible verses or a saying that they probably imagined would comfort me. The truth is, I almost never read any of the pre-printed messages. I did this for several reasons:

  • Lack of interest in truisms about loss and grief. The genre of sympathy card is not terribly original, and I wasn’t interested in cliches telling me that loss is hard or that death is a part of life. Duh. I knew that. I didn’t need the Hallmark Company to give me that information. As soon as I saw fancy embossed script lettering, my eyes glazed over.
  • Impatience to read the handwritten, personalized part. My interest was solely in the thought the sender was sharing with me.
  • Lack of contrast. On a practical level, many cards featured pale lettering on a white background or white lettering on a light background, which I can’t see.

The card itself doesn’t matter. Which means you should write something, not just sign it and stick it in the mail. (Although, frankly, those cards were nice to get, too, so if all you can muster is a signature, I’d say go ahead and send it.)

What to write?

My favorites were the cards that included stories about my late husband—little anecdotes about him saying something funny, doing something outrageous, wearing something silly. People told me what they would most remember about him or what they would most miss. Some people tucked longer handwritten notes into the cards they sent because they had so many stories to share. A few people included photocopies of poems they thought I would appreciate.

Grief is overwhelming and blurry. The cards that included something specific about my late husband made the blurriness disappear for a moment. I could focus briefly on the particular memory or quality they shared. A note that mentioned the canoe Tom built himself made me remember the canoe in our garage, Tom deciding to sell it, and then deciding to give it away to a man with a son who would appreciate it enough that Tom no longer cared about the money. A note that mentioned the colored lights in Tom’s garage workshop briefly transported me to the time I woke up in the middle of the night and Tom wasn’t in bed. I couldn’t find him in the house, so I went out to the garage, where I found him tinkering with a motorcycle as the lights shifted from blue to green to purple.

The next time you need to send a sympathy card, consider mentioning

  • what you will most remember about the person who died. Maybe it’s a quality of theirs, a particular outfit, a memorable catch phrase. Perhaps they taught you something or recommended a book to you that made a difference.
  • what you will most miss about the person. Even something tiny is worth mentioning: seeing them every evening when you walk your dog, hearing them trigger their car alarm every Monday morning.
  • a brief anecdote. This only needs to be a sentence or two. You can just say, “I’ll never forget the time . . .” It doesn’t have to be detailed.

If you didn’t know the person who died, talk about what you know from the person you are writing to. In the cards I got, people said things like “I remember you talking about your epic motorcycle trips with Tom” and “I remember noticing the photo of the two of you together in the snow on your desk.”  

Consider what is most likely to comfort the person you are sending the card to. This may be something other than what would comfort you. If you are very religious but the person receiving the card is not, a non-religious card may resonate better and actually provide more comfort, and vice versa.

Stay focused on the purpose: to make them feel less alone. You don’t have to “fix” anything for them, make them laugh, or write the best card every written. Even the cards I got that had nothing but a signature made me feel loved.  

Phrases to avoid:

  • Any sentence that begins with “at least,” such as “at least he’s no longer in pain” or “at least she’s now with [her dog that died last year].” These words minimize the pain your recipient is feeling, whether than is your intention or not. You can say “I’m glad he’s no longer in pain” or “I imagine her playing with [her dog that died last year].” Do you see the difference the phrasing makes?
  • “Let me know what I can do.” This seems helpful, but in actuality it puts one more burden on the recipient—now on top of grieving, they have to be a project manager. For better ideas about how to offer help, read my post.
  • “I can’t imagine.” Sure you can, and saying you can’t puts distance between the recipient and you. The point is to close the distance not increase it.

Finally, I’m not a fan of wishing people strength when they are grieving.

Divorced versus Widowed: What’s the Difference and Why Does It Matter?

Losing a partner, whether it is through divorce, breakup, or death, is disruptive. Any kind of major relationship break is considered a high stress event by mental health experts. I don’t see much value in ranking them, finding one to be easier or harder than the other, but several people have asked me how they compare and I do think understanding the similarities and differences is helpful in grasping why widowed people behave the way they do.

There is quite a bit of overlap. Having experienced both, I can attest that they both suck and I hope to never experience either again. Both involve tremendous loss: loss of a relationship and loss of identity certainly. With both, I went from being a wife to something that was less defined by society. I had to recalibrate who I was and what my role in the world was.

With both, I experienced grief for the death of all the hopes and dreams my partner and I shared.

I also found both to be expensive. Most people understand the financial hit of divorce, but there seems to be little understanding of how expensive death is. People have asked me about collecting my late husband’s social security, but I’m not eligible for it. There was no financial windfall beyond a life insurance payout that helped but didn’t make a significant difference in my finances. Losing my late husband’s monthly disability payments, and before that, his paychecks, made a huge difference in my finances.

A few people have suggested to me that being widowed is essentially the same as being divorced. I think this view overlooks some very consequential differences:

  • How it impacts kids. When my ex and I split up, our daughter was devastated but she wasn’t also mourning a parent. When my late husband died, my daughter and his son both lost a parental figure. Both kids were adults and I found it challenging to support them while going through my own loss. Supporting young children who have been bereaved is even more complicated (shameless plug for a friend’s memoir: Charlotte Maya’s moving memoir, Sushi Tuesdays, about raising two young boys in the wake of her husband’s suicide describes the intense parenting she had to do alone).
  • The finality of death. You may not want to, but with a divorce you could reach out and re-establish a relationship with your ex. But a dead spouse is gone forever. My ex husband is alive and well and we are friends, but my late husband is gone from this earth.
  • Getting rid of stuff. In a divorce, the ex typically takes their stuff with them. When the spouse dies, the surviving spouse has to deal with all the stuff. For me, that process goes on and on. There are things that can be given away or sold, but there is a lot that has sentimental value and triggers strong emotions. Last weekend, for example, I came across my late husband’s snow boots. He was perpetually cold and always made a big deal about how warm those boots were. It makes sense to give them away, but that means saying good-bye to one more piece of him.
  • An element of choice. Divorce was a choice my ex and I made because we were both better off not being married to each other. I am not better off without my late husband. My late husband and I not only brought out the best in each other, things were getting better in that regard. I miss him every day.
  • Public opinion. Moving forward after divorce is seen as a triumph. This is not the case for widowed people. I read every day on the Facebook widow groups about someone being told they’re moving forward too quickly or too slowly. Besides, I don’t want to move forward from a relationship that was profoundly nourishing.
  • Availability of peers. When I got divorced, it was easy to find other people my age who had been divorced. It was much harder to find widowed peers, which is why I was so grateful to find the Facebook groups for widows I mention all the time.
  • Obligation to preserving a legacy. Many widowed people feel an obligation to maintain some sort of legacy of the person who died. I feel like it’s important to keep talking about my late husband as a way to keep his memory alive. Someone who is divorced has no analogous responsibility.
  • Viewing divorce as a failure. I don’t happen to consider my first marriage a failure, but I’m aware that many people view any marriage that ends in divorce that way. On the other hand, being widowed doesn’t seem to be accompanied by any such judgments.

Of course, what I’ve said here isn’t universal. Someone who didn’t want their divorce might feel differently. Someone who was widowed in an unhappy or abusive marriage might have a difference experience.

Supporting someone either way may be similar. Ask what they need, offer specific help, let the person grieve the loss in their own way.