A few weeks ago, while holed up in my apartment like millions of other New Yorkers in this surreal period of self-isolation, I downloaded an app call Quarantine Chat. At a few random times each day, Quarantine Chat rings my phone; when I answer, it connects me to another user, also in self-isolation in some other city, somewhere around the globe.
These phone conversations all start the same. Where are you? What's it like there? Are things getting better or worse? Invariably, these questions lead to the one that likely prompted all of us to sign up for this social experiment in the first place: How are you doing?
Underlying his devastating pain and loneliness was the loss of his wife. He felt like he might be alone for the rest of his life. Finally, I spoke.
For the first 10 or so conversations, the responses — mine included — tended toward the superficial. I'm doing all right. Hanging in there. It could be worse.
Most recently, though, I was patched through to a man named Akbar in Philadelphia. Originally from Jordan, he had lived in the United States for nine years and was going through a very rough time. His wife had divorced him three years earlier, and after that he lost his job as a journalist. Until recently, he'd been an Uber driver, but a collision with a truck that ran a red light had totaled his car, and without it he had no way to make money. His initial pleasantries soon gave way to confession, a slow and deliberate unfolding of pain and loneliness no doubt made easier, if not entirely possible, by the anonymity between us.
I listened patiently, without interruption, as Akbar unburdened himself.
Underlying his devastating pain and loneliness was the loss of his wife. She was still in his heart, he told me. He felt like he might be alone for the rest of his life.
Finally, I spoke.
And I do. Because I have experienced the same in the four years since my husband, John, died of a rare and horrible cancer at age 50, making me a widower at 46.
I soldiered on, taking one clumsy step after another toward a destination I wasn't quite sure existed.
The first year of my slog through the river of s--- euphemistically known as a "grief journey" felt like a scene from a war movie. A part of me had been violently ripped away. Dazed and wounded, I soldiered on, taking one clumsy step after another toward a destination I wasn't quite sure existed.
A grueling rehabilitation followed. Over 17 years, John and I had built not only a life together but also an elaborate, enigmatic routine. Our every move, every action, every decision was a coordinated effort of long-rehearsed maneuverings, both physical and psychological. Losing him felt like losing an arm. I had to relearn how to do everything myself. Every chore I hated was now mine alone to complete. Even the simple act of feeding myself had to be re-learned; for nearly two decades, John, who loved cooking and could happily spend hours in the kitchen every weekend, had provided all the sustenance I needed.
Then, John vanished. The sunny apartment we'd shared so happily became a crypt I rarely left. My heart, ragged inside my chest, felt much too puny to keep me alive. I didn't know what to do with myself. I had never been so lonely. I fell into a deep depression. For weeks, I sat on my sofa in the dark.
When I eventually emerged from my stupor, I was besieged by a flood of fierce, contradictory emotions. I became consumed with intense jealousy. I felt cheated, and I fumed at couples — whether I knew them or not — who had the nerve to be happy.
Then there was the shame. I apologized nonstop. For making people uncomfortable when I cried. For annoying people with my sadness. For taking too long to "get over it." Astonishingly, I actually felt like what I was feeling — my actual, inconsolable grief — was too burdensome for other people to deal with.
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It took more than three years of consistent, agonizing forward motion — in such microscopic increments that often I felt I wasn't moving at all — before I finally arrived at something approximating "acceptance." Three years of therapy, of support groups, of forced socializing. Three years of frequent, unexpected sobbing in places private and public. Three years of learning to let go. Three years of reminding myself "this is my life now."
I started to listen to songs that reminded me of him again. Then, the pandemic hit. And suddenly, it all came rushing back.
It was all I had. I began going out with friends more, meeting up for dinner or drinks. I developed a habit of seeing multiple movies a week. I attended plays, concerts and live shows regularly, filled with a determination to do the things I loved most because life was too short to do otherwise. I started to listen to songs that reminded me of him again.
Then, the pandemic hit. And suddenly, it all came rushing back.
I was alone in my crypt once again.
It's remarkable how quickly I slipped back into the familiar rut of depression. Almost immediately, feelings of abject loneliness returned. The immediate cause of confinement was different, but the result was the same.
As we continue to grapple with this pandemic, the physical pain of grief has returned. My heart once again labors against the familiar, invisible hand that squeezes it with merciless vehemence. Tears erupt with increasing regularity. With little reason to leave my bed on the days when I don't have to work, often I don't.
It's just too easy to recall how John and I survived similar periods of confinement. We'd had our share of blizzards and blackouts over our 17 years together. We got through them by making each other laugh, by reassuring each other when needed, by sharing the burden of our discomfort. We were in it together, and that made all the difference. Now, I have no companion to blithely spend my weekends making sourdough bread with.
Social media is filled with photo upon photo of the joyfully yoked in cities or country escapes. They fill me with venom. John and I would have been in our own tiny cabin in the woods, if only he hadn't died. With him gone, I'd been forced to sell it. I lost my husband and I lost my home, I seethe, and you have the audacity to enjoy both.
My heart aches in wretched protest at the injustice of it all.
I remind myself over and over: I'm blessed. Every night before bed, I count the many things I'm grateful for: my health, my home, my family and friends, my job. Every night I list as many things as I can, no matter how trivial: my comfortable bed, my cozy sheets, my scented candles. And I make sure to include the Big Ones; the doctors and scientists working on a coronavirus cure, the medical professionals putting their own lives in jeopardy to save those of others.
I am fully aware that countless numbers of people around the city (and the planet) are suffering far more greatly than I am during this health crisis. And once again, the shame returns: How can I be so selfish?
But grief is a wrecking ball, oblivious to logic. It crashes through the carefully formed structures of my rational thoughts. And I'm left with just my grieving — and grievous — thoughts about my future.
A few weekends ago, desperate for a change of scenery and for some reason greedy for a glimpse of the ocean, I ventured out to Coney Island. On the sparsely populated boardwalk, I sat down on a long park bench. At the opposite end sat an elderly woman, bundled up against the chilly breeze. She hunched over the knapsack on the bench next to her, applying hand sanitizer and rubbing it vigorously into her palms.
"Do you mind if I sit here at the other end?" I asked.
"No!" she shouted, turning to me and bracing her arms outward, as if to defend herself from my very existence.
In an instant, a surge of grief pummeled me. If only John were with me. I'd entertain him with made-up coronavirus-related lyrics to his favorite songs.
Stung, I walked away. Farther down the boardwalk, I found a vacant bench and collapsed onto it. Through bleary eyes, I gazed out over the empty beach to where the waves rolled in and out as they had done for millennia, oblivious to the trifling suffering of humankind.
In an instant, a surge of grief pummeled me. If only John were with me. I'd entertain him with made-up coronavirus-related lyrics to his favorite songs. I would laugh as he, an indubitable curmudgeon, would grumble about the lines at Trader Joe's and Rite Aid, the inconvenience of wearing a mask or any number of personal affronts both real and imagined. He would cook for me; I'd keep the apartment tidy. We'd walk through the neighborhood, enjoying the eerie spectacle of the silent spring — a dazzling burlesque of blossoms and buds performed for an audience on lockdown. Even if the world didn't make sense, we would make sense, and that would be enough.
Before I knew it, I was sobbing. I called a fellow widower friend and unleashed my sorrow. As I knew he would, he refrained from platitudes. He barely spoke at all. Instead, he did exactly what I needed: He listened with a sympathetic ear.
I cried for the loss of John, my loneliness and the suddenly uncertain future to I faced on my own. But I also cried for a world where people are terrified of one another's presence. Where holding hands and hugs are deadly acts. Where the sick are dying alone in hospitals, isolated from their most beloved. I cried because it's all just so unbelievably, unbearably sad.
I also cried for a world where people are terrified of one another.
I understand, I told Akbar, as he unleashed a similar torrent of sorrow on me. When he had finished, I shared my story with him. As our conversation came to a close, I reassured him he wasn't alone in his pain. I implored him to speak to a counselor. And I urged him to keep trying to put one foot in front of the other. To take those tiny, microscopic steps toward deliverance, even if he wasn't convinced it actually awaits.
It's a proposition that all of us are going to have to adopt, in some way or another, as we find our way forward in the aftermath of this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. Everyone who has lost a loved one, lost a job, lost a dream, lost a way of life will have to search for that voice of encouragement deep within them: Just put one foot in front of the other ...
I repeat this same plea as a mantra to myself each day as I count my "success" in showers taken, teeth brushed, mail retrieved. All I can do is continue to take those Lilliputian steps, as I did for so long after John died, hoping that, once more, they'll get me to where I need to go. Once more, I remind myself, "this is my life now."