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A conversation with a widow’s nervous system

My late husband Gene Cohen is known as one of the founders of both geriatric psychiatry and the creative aging movement. He was always talking, writing, and educating about brain plasticity and the changes that took place as we age into our wisdom and creative potential. In the years since he passed away in 2009, it is as if the awakening he predicted for all of us baby boomers has just exploded into consciousness. I have watched it happen gradually and then pick up speed over just this past number of years.

At first, as a widow at 59—fairly young as widows go—I felt isolated and alone in my experience, as if I were now an outsider to life. It was so hard to bring up the topic of my loss, to be present with people as I was wrapped in my own blanket of grief. It was a real conversation stopper. Suddenly now, we read about aging everywhere: How to exercise our aging brains with games or eat the right foods and think the right thoughts for longevity and brain fitness, or how aging opens us to the existential quest for meaning in both life and death. A multitude of voices now speak (and write) not only on aging, but on illness, grief, death and dying. These conversations are not only taking place in books but also in blogs, personal essays, opinion pieces on end-of-life issues and quality-of-life issues, and in media stories about the many new ways that people are finding to talk about their experience. From potluck dinners to book clubs, more people are daring to broach the subject in a conscious and more thoughtful way than ever possible before.

It is a conversation of existential inquiry. It is the voice of grief. It is the voice of identity reevaluation. It was verboten and now is condoned or allowed. Whoever would have thought that an experience as painful and isolating as loss would move from the outer edges of the psychic hinterlands into the forefront of a trending conversation? Has it?

What kind of experience have you had where you have observed over time how your own identity changes; yet it is also right in front of your eyes?

Does your experience include a confrontation with illness, aging or dying?

How do we take care of ourselves inside these major life transitions?

It’s hard for me to remember time in those first few years after Gene died. I know that the simplest tasks were gigantic. The multiple steps of a decision seemed to clack into one another before any movement occurred and I remained flooded by thoughts, papers, unmade phone calls, words floating by, thoughts all askew. I remember reading through a book on meditations after the death of a loved one called A Time to Grieve by Carol Staudacher and one of the pages had a quote by Boris Pasternak that said: “Our nervous system isn’t just a fiction; it is part of our physical body and our soul … it’s inside us like the teeth in our mouth.”

Wendy Miller
“Sandscapes I and II: Encrustment” (2007), cooked sand and mixed media on canvas with embedded fired porcelain clay fragments and colored paper pulp, 8 x 16 inches and 7 x 23 x inches. Image is from Chapter 4 in Sky Above Clouds and reflects the encrusted feeling of the fragility of life and death. Artwork by Wendy L. Miller. Photo credit: Joshua Soros

The teeth of my nervous system were seriously chattering as neither illness nor deaths are changes that come upon us through choice. They are forced on us as if an earthquake has opened the ground upon which we live.

That was certainly my nervous system in private; but in public, it was almost as if I were living in someone else’s skin. Friends who loved Gene or colleagues who had worked with him wanted to share their stories with me. But my system was so fragile that while taking in their care, I also needed to care for the psychic boundaries of my own body which sometimes felt like a pin cushion as the memories they shared aloud pierced my being.

The pain of loss is such an isolating experience, where the outside and inside of us are not aligned. We are out of sync with humanity, and yet we are inside an experience that each and every one of us will have. We will all die, and we will all grieve the loss of someone we love, whether it is a parent, a child, a close friend, or a life partner.

We long for something to take us out of this isolation—physical and psychic—and return us to a place of belonging. Yet nothing really can. We can sometimes be dropped into someone else’s space for a short period. We can search for companionship in some form, and yet our deepest companionship has been uprooted. What did I do? I read. I tried to read any and everything I could that dared to speak to loss. I read novels, books written by spouses, treatises on grieving. Sometimes I was comforted. Mostly I remember throwing books across my bedroom when I reached some line or some place in the narrative that deepened my sense of invisibility. I wanted to be both in the space with others and out of the space at the same time. I searched for the place where it would be okay to have this conversation.

Where did I find it? How did I come to take care of myself? In my urgent, impatient need for solitude and quiet, I turned from books to TV series for my escape. My teenage daughter observed my new obsession with House and Grey’s Anatomy. She much preferred reality TV shows and couldn’t see the attraction of watching medical dramas when we were barely through our own. “You watch problems,” she told me. She was right, I have come to understand. I watched medical problems: trauma, anger, problem solving, and sometimes recovery, but often loss and death. My tears found the existential conversation I needed in the narratives of love and loss on the screen in the fictional communities and complexity that entered our home on a weekly basis.

Might we have the ability to bring such conversation forward between us? Might we be able to learn what we need to do and say to one another that respects the privacy of an individual in grief, and yet stay present in the space with one another so that when we grieve we are not left alone with our chattering nervous systems? I look forward to exploring that with you.

Featured image credit: Clouds by Ana_J. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. E Berris

    I had wonderful support from friends and family, but definitely experienced the “Merry Widow” syndrome, as you have lost your identity and have to work out how to reinvent yourself. You also sense that you have become part of a whole (invisible and unacknowledged) community. Over time, as you settle into a pattern, you realise that you are really your old self, just wiser and hopefully more tolerant.

  2. Wendy Miller

    Yes that seems to be what happens in the retrieval of self. Identity is infused with and by everything we experience, and as you say, we realize that we are are old self, although we also realize we are a different self as well. Forever changed.

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