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Death Notice: My husband's passing was searingly painful. So why couldn't I stop mentioning it?

Novelist Leslie Pietrzyk blogs at WorkInProgressInProgress.blogspot.com.
Novelist Leslie Pietrzyk blogs at WorkInProgressInProgress.blogspot.com.

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By Leslie Pietrzyk
Sunday, November 30, 2008

People don't like to be reminded that they're going to die. Duh. Who would be so rude as to do such a thing?

Actually, me, seemingly every time I meet someone new. The moment always comes when I say, "You know, my first husband died about 10 years ago." Silence, as my new buddy pauses to absorb this information and ponders the response, which generally goes like this: A stammered "sorry," followed by the same questions: How? Heart attack. How old? Thirty-seven, and I was 35. He must have -- and here come a few variations -- had heart problems or eaten bacon sandwiches twice a day or been morbidly obese. No one says, He must have been unlucky, which is about what it was.

Why do I have to tell them? I'm not sure, but if it seems as though this is going to be a lasting relationship, I do (meaning clerks at Giant and Ann Taylor are spared, as are waiters, even when they say, "Hi, I'm Brent, and I'll be your server tonight.")

Right after my husband died, I had a strong need to bring it up right away. I wanted the world to know that while I might look normal, I wasn't. I got a full range of responses:

A year after he died, I was with a group at a happy hour, flirting with a guy. Within 10 minutes, I mentioned that my husband had died (yes, Dear Abby, probably too soon). The stammered "uh" receded in the distance like an ambulance siren as he raced off to the bar.

A month after my husband died, I was at a work-related luncheon for my organization's board of directors, sitting next to an important man I barely knew. After we dissected the weather, I said, "My husband died recently." The Awkward Moment, and then he said, "I guess you'll have something to write about." At the time, that almost seemed sensible -- and certainly not untrue.

A week after my husband died, I was outside planting a memorial dogwood that someone semi-thoughtfully had given me (fully thoughtfully would have been coming to my house to dig the hole). But, dang it, I had to get this tree in the ground; it had to flower in the spring to honor my dead husband. Concrete-hard dirt and a cheap shovel were not going to stop me. I sobbed with frustration at having to dig this giant hole that my husband should be doing except that he couldn't because he was dead, when two young men came by to save my soul. They were so young -- all acne and peach fuzz -- and I said: "This isn't a good time. My husband died a week ago." The savvy one said, "We'll help you dig." The less-savvy one said, "If you want to see him in heaven you'd better talk to us right now." Ah . . . a place to focus my anger.

No one likes to hear about such a loss. Euphemisms help: a loss. Passed on. I refuse those words because they're soft, hiding the reality that this could happen to you; someone you love could drop dead one Sunday morning while eating cornflakes. (Or that someone could be you.)

Some people are better equipped to handle my revelation, usually someone who has experienced their own traumatic loss. Often it's a matter of age -- at a certain point, everyone will have had something bad happen to them -- and that's why I can be forgiving of those young proselytizers. I was once that young. I remember profiling the incoming chairman of the board of directors when my job was writing the newsletter for an area chamber of commerce. It was a straightforward piece: family background, quotes about looking forward to a great year. I faxed the article for his review. He called to request "a major change." I had written, Mr. X and his wife have two adult daughters. But he and his wife also had a son who had died as a teenager. We spent 20 minutes trying to figure out how to work in that fact. He, a busy man, spent that time because that distinction was important. I'm ashamed to admit I didn't get it. "The kid is dead," I complained to a co-worker. "Does it really matter?"

Yes. Yes, yes, yes.

I'm happy in my new life, and it has been 11 years. (But who besides me is counting?) Yet it matters that people know, even though they don't want to hear. Now, years later, I've read the grief books, gone to counseling, learned my life lessons, filled a gratitude journal and cycled through back to being my cranky, ungrateful self. I'm remarried to a wonderful man who understands when I say, "You better not drop dead on me." I have "moved on," found "closure."

Yet I persist in telling everyone that my first husband died. My life is made up of zillions of facts; why must this one always push its way to the front?

Even the most empathetic person stammers when I speak. Our conversation halts, stutters, slowly recovers. Eyes shift nervously. There's a step backward or arms cross tightly. This body language means one thing: I don't want to know.

I know, I sympathize. Truly I do. I don't want to know, either.

E-mail: XXFiles@washpost.com.


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