Culture » November 22, 2014
On the Death of a Spouse
Karl has died.
One death may be very like another and yet everyone everywhere has to go through this experience of a quite particular and unrepeatable loss, one which prefigures your own death, seems to bring it closer.
Asked by a man sitting next to her at a dinner party where her husband was, a friend of mine replied, “He’s gone to his maker.”
“Ah, Jamaica,” said her neighbour, quick as a flash, before proceeding to deliver a long speech about the history and current problems of the West Indies.
“No,” my friend insisted, “my husband has died.”
What can people say? What am I to say? My husband has died, too. He died at home, surrounded by most of his family, having fallen downstairs after watching the one o’clock news with me, eating his lunch, and then making off upstairs to his bedroom and an afternoon sleep. Instead, he crashed to the ground. When I tell people what happened, they look stricken, and that’s enough.
The Indian woman who lives opposite me shouted across the street, “How’s your husband?”
“He’s died,” I shouted back, twice, because she didn’t hear the first time.
When someone you know and love dies you are confronted by the unique, particular shape of the hole they leave, by the utter specificity of their absence. That strange, contradictory, complicated person will never exist again. Though my husband spent a lot of time writing about “doubles” in literature, there will be no replicas of him. Yet just as you’re trying to make sense of that distinct absence, you realize you’re also joining the destiny of the entire human race. One death may be very like another and yet everyone everywhere has to go through this experience of a quite particular and unrepeatable loss, one which prefigures your own death, seems to bring it closer.
All our lives we play with the idea of our own death. Karl was given to announcing that he’d be in his coffin and no one would care. Or even that he’d rather be dead than … oh, dozens of mildly disagreeable tasks or meetings. Or even “Over my dead body.”
When it looked as though he really might die, he talked about it less. But I’ve been living for several years in an almost permanent state of anticipation, of imagining his death, of fear that I’d find him dead in the morning. Yet I was still shocked, taken by surprise, my back turned, my eye on something else, when he fell downstairs. It is almost as I imagined it but it is also as if I have imagined it and it hasn’t really happened.
And now I’m a widow. Karl has been dead for more than a month, and I’ve thought about nothing else. There’s been a funeral and a cremation. I became quite friendly with the undertaker, a man Karl would have regarded as “lacking affect,” who told me that he gave up teaching for undertaking because he preferred adults to children. Dead adults, I suppose he meant. He read Private Eye at the cremation. There’ve been visits to dispensers of death certificates and to lawyers for whom I am now “the beneficiary.” And I’ve written more than a hundred letters and emails.
There is a whole language of comfort and consolation, and by and large it has comforted and consoled me. People I hardly know have hugged me. It has been harder sometimes to digest other people’s more public accounts of Karl as an editor, an academic, a writer, and set them alongside the jerky hand-held film of our 60 years together as it exists in my head. One woman wrote that having spent her life with a difficult husband, she felt for me having done the same thing. There’s been advice: Sell your house. Take life one day at a time. (I had not thought of taking it in any other way.)
The worst bit is that I want to tell Karl everything that’s happened since he died, what people have said and written. He’d have been interested in who hadn’t written. I want to describe the paramedics I called when he fell, the posse of policemen who carried him off to a public mortuary for a post-mortem, the decent, smelly registrar in the town hall. I want to pass on the praise and the criticism, tell him about the funeral in the middle of London, the charming gay vicar who didn’t blink when only one member of the congregation joined him in an “amen,” the outpourings of love and admiration, his weeping children and grandchildren. One of my sons told me that he’d cried so much it had cleared his sinuses. Karl would have been so pleased by that.
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Jane Miller first worked in publishing, then as an English teacher and finally at the London University Institute of Education. She retired as Professor Emeritus in 1998.