Name: Angela Osborne
Tell me about the person who died:
I met my husband Bernie at work in 1964, and although he asked me to have dinner with him I turned him down. I was still mourning the end of a nine-year relationship with a much older man who had been my mentor and lover, and who had recently died. Bernie finally convinced me to go to the last day of the World's Fair in Queens, NY, so we made a date for the following Sunday. I always went home for the weekend and decided I would stand him up. As sometimes happens in storybooks though, I was in a cab when I spotted him walking away from my apartment. We saw each other at the same moment. He got into the cab and we headed for the World's Fair. Five months later we were married.
People we worked with warned me that my future husband and I had nothing in common and that the marriage was doomed, but Bernie was the right person for me. He was the most gentle, the most loving, the kindest person I ever met. Bernie left me a great legacy. He taught me that things don't always go the way we plan. He told me every day that he loved me. He adored his children and was an amazing father and grandfather. He loved his two girls with all his heart.
Bernie loved to drive so we drove everywhere; to all family events, and twice across the country. We had been married for a few years when I underwent a ten hour surgery to correct a congenital scoliosis. The operation didn't go well and I ended up paralyzed from the waist down and was told it was permanent. I was fitted with a six pound brace and consigned to a wheel chair. However, Bernie had other ideas. He compiled a book that outlined a cross-country automobile trip and announced that within the year we would make that trip. I didn't believe him. But we did it five months after I left the hospital. He made detailed travel plans that allowed for only four hours a day of driving with a stop every two hours for me to get out of the car to walk a bit to prevent blood clots in my legs.
The only real argument we ever had was after he retired. He wanted to move out of the city, and I can't live anyplace except in New York City. When he became ill with cancer we put off the idea. Cancer is known as the bankruptcy disease for a reason. After two and a half years of treatment we had gone through our insurance, 401K and IRA funds, and our savings. We had to sell our apartment and move into a rental on the West Side—far away from friends and family. Still, Bernie never lost faith that the chemo would either cure his cancer or put it into remission. But I noticed the daily changes in him. He used to take a bus to the hospital for chemo, then he started taking cabs. Then he needed a cane to walk. He fell twice when walking outside the house, but never told me; I learned about it from a neighbor. Eventually the day came when I confronted his doctors and was told there was nothing more they could do as the cancer had spread and the chemo was no longer working. The doctor told me he had several months to live. By that time we had already sold our house and moved.
As in every marriage of that length we had our ups and downs. But mostly we loved each other. Bernie told me he wanted to die at home, not attached to tubes, not to extend his life by mechanical means. He died in my arms with his children holding his hands.
What has your experience of grief been like since your loss? How has it changed over time?
When my husband died in 2013 I was introduced to the American way of death. There were mountains of paperwork—thank you notes, pension documents, social security forms, insurance claims, wills, bills from the funeral home, bills for car rentals and much more. My daughters took care of most of the details.
At first my home was crowded with people and food. Co-workers, neighbors, and relatives came from all over; some left after the funeral and others stayed on to be with me. I met with a grief counselor at my children's insistence, but she didn't help me. She kept telling me I couldn't move on until I got over the anger of his dying on me. But I was never angry at my husband; I was angry at the American health system that involved tons of paper work to help pay for his care while he was dying.
For whatever reason I didn't mourn right away. I was told that I was in denial. Four months later when everyone had gone home I realized that it wasn't a dream, that Bernie was never coming back. I felt as if I had fallen off a cliff. I didn't cry and moan, but I isolated myself. I stopped seeing friends, stopped going out, was alone for the first time in my life, and simply didn't know what I was doing in a rental far from the East Side neighborhood I had lived in for 38 years. I was lonely, scared, and unable to cope.
I had also been totally naive about one thing: from that moment on everything that needs to be done to get through life now had to be done by me. Some were small things: taking in the mail, taking out the garbage, getting into my boots, hooking the latch on a necklace. Some were the hard things: paying the bills, dealing with the bank, and most of all getting places. I do not drive. Gone were our frequent auto trips, and I suddenly had no way to get places out of New York City. I now needed to rent a car and driver or ask my daughter to drive me.
I also realized that we live in a couple society. We used to regularly give and attend dinner parties, but those stopped. And then there was what I called the “ticket” problem. As New Yorkers we subscribed to more than one theater series. No problem, I thought. I’ll just ask a friend to join me. But it didn’t work out that way. My married friends were reluctant to go to events that didn’t include their husbands and my single friends were “busy” with their single lives. I discussed this with an older friend who lost her husband years ago. She told me she hasn’t stopped going to the theater or concerts; she goes alone. I haven’t reached that ability. I still have friends, but I have to do the work of keeping those friendships–I initiate lunch dates, for example. Socially, I'm still learning how to meet new people.
One of the hardest things for me to do was to visit the gravesite. On the day when we had the unveiling of his tombstone the realization that Bernie was really gone finally hit me. I broke down and cried for the first time since his death. It was the saddest day of my life.
If you had to describe your grief as a literal landscape, what would it look like and feel like at different points since your loss?
Living as a widow is like living on a foreign planet. There are lots of social opportunities for single people, but few for older widows. There are websites for singles wanting to meet potential mates such as Match.com, Christian Mingle, and J-Date, but no organizations where older widows can meet someone without marriage in mind. Not all widows want marriage; we want companionship. I did try a senior center in my neighborhood, but it was 99% women (who weren't happy to see another widow join their club) and the main activity at the center was playing bingo. I never went back.
I began having chest pains, but tests showed no physical ailment. My doctor told me my grief was the physical manifestation of the heartache I was experiencing. Loneliness is a dark place. I do delight in colors though. A pair of cardinals that has taken up residence in my courtyard brings red color into my life.
Tell me about an object that reminds you of the person who died, and why?
Bernie was director of special events for ABC-TV News. In that capacity he attended every political convention for years, and he always brought home a mug from each event. Each of the mugs has the convention year written on it; some are Democratic, some are Republican, and they are in a prominent place in my bookcase.
How did the people in your life support you in your grief? What was helpful? What was frustrating?
The most helpful are those who offer to drive me places. Also, at first one of my daughters took care of the bills, a job Bernie always did. One day she announced that I had to take on that responsibility myself. I was very hurt until my older daughter explained that her sister was trying to get me to be more independent. I now have finally learned to handle the finances, and have done well. When I put my mind to something I usually can do it.
I had to have surgery a few weeks ago. It was minor surgery but I reacted badly to the anesthetic. When I got home my doorman was very concerned. He stopped in to check on me, my next door neighbor offered to food shop for me, and one of my daughters stayed with me for a few nights.
The most frustrating thing was having people say "He's in a better place." I don't know what that means. Was he not living in a good place with me? To me, he is not in a better place. He's alone in a cold cemetery.
One of my daughters attended a series of group grief support sessions and apparently was helped to get through her grief. It didn’t work out that way for me. It was not unlike sessions at an AA meeting. Each person stood, introduced herself, and briefly talked about her loss. Within minutes most attendees were in tears. It was very depressing.
How did people who were grieving the same person respond to the death compared to you? What similarities and differences did you notice?
I haven't seen my older daughter grieve as she lives in another state. She sends me lovely cards on our anniversary, or just cards saying "Thinking of you,” or will display paintings Bernie loved which I gave to her after his death. But my younger daughter is still grieving after two years. She was a "daddy's girl." I recently mentioned I was getting rid of Bernie's medical records and she got very upset. She doesn't want me to get rid of anything of his, but she doesn't understand that I have to downsize and move into a smaller space within the year. I can't keep everything.
Did anything surprise you about your experience with grief?
I was told over and over again that "it will get easier." It doesn't ever get easier; it only gets harder. As I am getting older and have creaky bones and arthritic hands I wish I had someone here to help me get through the day. However, in some ways I've become stronger. I now have come to the realization that I am much more capable that I thought I was. I still miss my husband every minute of every day. But sometimes it is a relief to be alone and not have to explain myself to anyone. As a writer I always had to explain over and over again that although I was working from home I was still working. Bernie would interrupt me with a stupid question such as "Are we out of coffee?" (Answer: If there is no more in the coffee container, yes we are out of coffee.)
My father was killed in an auto accident when I was young, and I thought that was the worst thing in the world that could ever happen to me. But losing my husband was another kind of loss. The grief was entirely different.
How did your private grieving relate to your public mourning?
I do not grieve in public. I was former president of the professional organization Women in the Arts & Media, and at the first meeting I attended after my husband's death, no one mentioned it. They simply said, "Glad to have you back." That was enough. Shortly after my husband died my grocer sent me a tray of food. When I thanked him a few days later he simply said, "We all miss him." That was enough.
I mostly grieve at dinnertime—he loved to eat and he loved my cooking. Now I seldom cook; I order in or eat out. And of course, I miss him at night. And I miss sex. It was more than the act of sex, it was having someone tell me I was loved that I miss the most.
Were there any personal or public rituals or structures that helped you in your grief?
After the unveiling of Bernie's gravestone we went to a special event that my sister organized for members of her church who had lost a loved one during the previous year. I was surprised that she managed to get films of me and my husband, pictures of my husband from our wedding, and pictures of him with our children when they were small. Those films were shown during the reception that followed the Mass said for those who had recently died. It was a great surprise to me to see those films, and a joy that he was remembered in such a special way.
How did your loss and your experience of grief change you?
It made me realize that my expiration date is a lot closer than I thought. The unthinkable had already happened to me. I lost my husband, my father and eventually my mother. One of my many cousins reminded me that "we are now the older generation." That has made me aware that holding resentments and grudges is a waste of valuable time. I am much more forgiving of those who have done me harm. I don't reach for the unreachable.
Angela Osborne is a graduate of New York University, a widowed mother of two adult daughters, and a published author of two books: Miss America, the Dream Lives On (Taylor Publishing), and Abigail Adams, Women's Rights Advocate (Chelsea Publishing). In addition, she has written dozens of articles for the online Christian organization Education Spot.com.
This post is part of Grief Landscapes, an evolving art project documenting the unique terrain of people’s grief. Participants share an experience with bereavement, and I then photograph an object that evokes the person who died, transforming it into an abstract landscape inspired by the story. I’m accepting submissions until June 15th, 2016. Learn more about the project, share widely, and submit your story.