Death of a spouse leaves a hole in your heart forever

This Saturday is my birthday — the first one in 33 years I haven’t celebrated with my husband, Jef, who was always there with chocolates, champagne and a fine feast on the deck. I’m glad my niece Jennifer is here because — in the midst of grieving — we’ll do something quiet and simple.

One thing I’ve learned about grief is you must go at your own pace, which can be hard in our hurry-up world of emails, tweets and text messages. We’re so used to jumping from one news story to the next, frantically clicking links — so it’s little wonder some people expect widows to be back to normal in a few months, a year, two years.

But there is no timetable for grief. One well-meaning person told me, “You’ll get over it!” when my husband had hardly been gone two weeks. This reminded me of someone walking into a hospital room and telling a man whose leg had just been amputated: “Buck up! This too shall pass!”

In “A Grief Observed,” C.S. Lewis compared the searing sorrow he felt when his wife, Joy, died from cancer to the agony someone experiences upon losing a leg. Even if you get an artificial limb, the pain and the shock — and the loss — will be with you forever.

“Bathing, dressing, sitting down and getting up again, even lying in bed, will all be different,” he noted. “At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again.”

He was exactly right because the death of a spouse leaves a hole in your heart that never quite heals. Jef and I shopped for groceries together, went to Mass and prayed together, took daily walks, laughed at life’s ridiculous moments, celebrated the bountiful blooms on our orchids and doted on our hamster.

I would read my columns aloud to him, and he’d tweak a line here and there. He would show me his drawings, and sometimes I’d chime in with “Is that arm too long?” — and he’d get out his trusty eraser.

It will soon be four weeks since his sudden death — the longest I’ve gone without seeing that fuzzy-faced fellow in 35 years, counting the two years we dated. I feel like I’ve lost half my heart, along with part of my brain.

In “Good Grief,” Granger E. Westberg wrote that people who mourn often experience numbness and disbelief at first, which explains why a widow may seem stoical, even upbeat, at the funeral.

People will say, “Why, she’s doing so well!” and “She’s so strong!” and “What deep faith she has!”

What they don’t realize is you are completely in shock — which is why your blouse was inside out at the funeral Mass and why you nearly got lost on the way to the cemetery.

You can’t remember if you drove, or your sister did, nor do you recall what you said to the kind people who offered condolences at the reception. You remember a bunch of people in the house and plenty of food, but you can’t recall eating.

Even now, you still find yourself repeating stories, misplacing your glasses and wandering through the house in a fog.

Numbness is one of God’s mercies, since it gives you a buffer zone between the event and the horrible realization of what really happened. But as with surgery, at some point the anesthesia wears off, and you’re left with a stomach-churning pain.

You know the Lord is with you, but like Jesus, you sink down weeping in your own Garden of Gethsemane.

There is no drug that will dull the agony of losing a husband or wife, nor is there any easy fix. When someone has lost half their heart, please don’t hurry them along or urge them to get over it quickly. Just stand by with a ready hug and endless prayers.

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Lorraine Murray’s email address is