When death comes to someone we love, our world changes and we are forced to change with it. When we go out in public, we bear the marks of grief. We are numb and in shock, yet most of the world doesn’t seem to notice.
We sense people staring at us, especially those who know us well, because the face that they were used to seeing is gone. People also treat us differently because we are dealing with something that scares them, and they don’t know how to handle it.
In the weeks after my wife Evelyn died, I did not look at people. I stared at the sidewalk when I walked to work, unable to comprehend what had happened, and not wanting others to see how broken I was. I did not want to be seen. I wanted to be anonymous and did not want to stop and chat about everyday concerns that no longer mattered to me. Those who knew what had happened were cautious, not knowing how to reach through the trauma and find me.
In all honesty, I don’t think my face showed any emotions in those first weeks, but my eyes must have looked terribly sad and lost.
Two months later, I threw a birthday party for Ev because I had promised her, before the unexpected happened, that I would. Now I wanted her friends to have a chance to celebrate and share their stories of her. The memorial service had been rather somber, and I thought a party would be a good way to send Ev off on her journey across death’s sea, like the Irish did with their kin during the potato famine, putting them on ships to America, not knowing if they would ever see them again.
The party was held in Tilden Park high in the Berkeley hills on a warm day of sunshine. Evelyn’s friends laughed and sang, danced to a fiddle and a Celtic drum, and there was cake with lots of frosting, which would have delighted her. Although it was hard for me to celebrate, I saw that other people were still happy, and I needed to know this.
Yet, if they reminded me that joy still existed in the world, did I remind them of the presence of death? People want to believe that life is a happy affair. They don’t want to be reminded that death can come at any time, and that it doesn’t matter how good, rich, or beautiful we are.
Invitations to dinner gatherings slowed because most of our friends were couples, and I was now a single. This presented a problem for table seatings. If I was invited, I knew that another single person would also be there and we would be expected to interact with each other all night. At work, the single people I knew were twenty years younger, and although they were caring, and surprisingly curious about grief, we weren’t likely to hang out in the same places or listen to the same music.