I told a fellow widow recently that I was surprised that the build-up to Halloween was hitting me harder this year than last year. Last year was my first Halloween without my husband. Halloween was his favorite holiday. He started planning it much more in advance than any other holiday.
My widowed friend replied that the first year after her husband’s death she was too numb to really process all the “firsts” and that for many of those special dates, the second year hit her harder than the first. I think that’s what I’m experiencing. Last year, Halloween was on a weekend, so it was easy to just hole up at home and cry. This year, with it being on a Monday, I had to go to work.
I thought about not going. I had traveled to a conference the week before and just returned home Sunday night. Between the travel and Halloween, I felt physically and emotionally exhausted, and I suspect that my students and colleagues would have been understanding had I decided to take the day off. But I had already missed three weeks of the semester because of my brain surgery and felt self-conscious about canceling another class. I am also trying not to shy away from things I want to do because of grief, and I wanted to teach my classes.
I second-guessed my decision all the way to campus. Every time I saw a person in costume on the street, I thought of how gleeful my husband looks in every Halloween photo, how animated he got brainstorming costume ideas, how much sheer joy he conveyed to every trick-or-treater he interacted with. I thought of the annual raft-in Halloween party we went to every year, which was a highlight of the year for us, much bigger than Thanksgiving, Hannukah, or Christmas. It involved a few nights of camping, a live band, and a pig roast. Tom and I would dance together under the stars and every year, he would declare, “This is the best band we’ve had yet!”
By the time I walked across campus toward the building where I teach my morning class, I could feel tears sliding down my cheeks and my lip trembling. I knew I would have to acknowledge my visible grief to my students.
I begin each class by saying, “I want to invite you to be completely present for the next 75 minutes.” I then usually say something related to living with anxiety (most of my students seem to) and then the whole class takes three deep breaths together. On Monday, I told the class how special Halloween was to my husband, how fragile I was feeling, and that I was going to do my best to be present for the next 75 minutes but that I just wasn’t my best self at the moment. I heard my voice shaking and felt my lip trembling. I then asked a student to lead the breaths while I sat down to collect myself.
And class was ok. It wasn’t my best class but it certainly wasn’t my worst. A couple students stayed after to offer hugs and sympathy.
Back in my office, I closed my door and did some timed grieving.
For my second class, I repeated the confession of fragility and had the same experience of acceptance and sympathy my first class had offered.
Between classes, a colleague in costume came by my office, wanting to show off their costume. I was polite but said, “I’m sorry, I’m pretty wobbly today,” and they cut the visit short.
At home, neighbors invited me to join them on their porch for drinks and candy dispensing, but I declined, explaining the significance of the day. They understood.
This is the second Halloween I’ve lived through without my husband. It hurts to think of it in those terms—something to live through, something he isn’t living through. I woke up this morning very sad but full of determination to live life fully for those who can’t. The Muriel Rukeyser line “Today for the sake of all the dead Burst into flower” is never far from my mind.