We were an improbable pair. My Jon died of cancer. Cindy’s husband Lee suffered cardiac arrest. Cindy is petite with long, shimmery blond hair. I’m five foot six and can’t decide if I should go with my natural curls with chlorine low-lights or straight like Cindy’s. I continue to work as a freelance writer and publicist. Cindy, an attorney, took over her husband’s businesses after being out of the workforce to raise her two daughters.
Jon and I had just become empty nesters when he got sick. Cindy and Lee were on the cusp, dreaming of a house they were going to build out west.
We’re different in other ways. Cindy is a Republican who once ran for State Representative in Illinois. I’m a Democrat who was thrilled to shake Barack Obama’s hand when he ran for the U.S. Senate. Occasionally, I accompanied her to campaign events but kept my head down. We’re also the same. We both lost the loves of our lives. Although we’re still standing, each of us understands—and jokes about privately—the desire to call it a day. Instead we call each other. A lot.
Cindy is not my only widow friend, but she is the first for whom I became a reluctant mentor, and I use that word loosely. Our tragedies are a year and a half apart, yet in the school of grief you might think we’re in the same grade. Early on, we could finish each other’s sentences, gasp with the same velocity and horror at the well-meaning, though ultimately unhelpful, things that people would say like, “He’s in a better place”; “You’ll find someone new one day”; and the especially galling, “You’re lucky. Most people never experience that kind of love.”
But when you’re grieving and in shock—particularly in the early months—you are not feeling very lucky. On some days, you’re not feeling much of anything. Cindy gets that.
Still, in spite of our mutual indignation, I like to think that we’re each becoming more tolerant and compassionate. Even with its jagged edges, loss is the great equalizer and a jarring reminder of how much we are all alike.
Steve, a widower we both know, made this particular shiddach(Hebrew for a match between two Jewish singles). While we have no plans to marry—not to each other, anyway—our bond brings me untold comfort. One spring afternoon, Steve asked if I would speak to Cindy, a friend of his brother whose husband had just died. Steve lost his first wife nearly twenty years earlier and knew, more than most, the depths of my sorrow.
Not long after my husband died, a few friends asked the same question, which was equivalent to asking if I wanted to pilot a plane from O’Hare to LaGuardia. It was too soon and I was still raw and learning about grief. This time, however, I brightened at the request. This must mean I’m better, I thought. Steve wouldn’t ask if he thought I was still a mess.
Still, I responded tentatively, because the last thing I wanted to do was make her feel worse. “Are you sure?” I asked. “You don’t think I’ll say something stupid?” Losing my husband had turned my entire life upside down many times over, and took an enormous—and surprising—toll on my self-confidence.
I thought about the women who quickly stepped into my diminished world to offer comfort. They’d lost their husbands, too. “You will feel joy again,” said one. “It takes a long time,” counseled a friend of a friend. “You’ll need a vibrator,” whispered another as we stood in line at Trader Joe’s. I heard them, but the time it took for their words to register seemed like days. Still, they spoke my language, not because of whatthey said but rather in their collective ability to understand my pain, bewilderment, and indescribable fear. Maybe I could at least be a good sounding board. I told Steve to give Cindy my number.
We texted for nearly two weeks before we first met. Cindy was out of town, helping her oldest pack up after completing her first year of college. Cindy came over for dinner, the first of many we would share at my house, hers, and occasionally at neighborhood restaurants.
I don’t remember but I think she must have brought three bottles of wine, five different kinds of cheese, olives, nuts, and flowers. Who else did she think I had invited?
There are moments like this in grief when you lose your memory. Am I supposed to be somewhere? Did I pay that bill? Did I talk to my brother yesterday or was that a month ago? Friends who haven’t lost a spouse reassure me that we all feel this way, which I appreciate hearing but doubt nonetheless. Sharing these lapses with Cindy and my other widow friends nets a certain groupthink that actually feels healthy and normal.
As we got to know each other it didn’t take long for me to move from being a so-called mentor to a peer. I quickly discovered that we could shift from crying to laughter in sixty seconds, something I still consider a small miracle. And we both like to swear. Liberally. You could say the basis of our friendship comes down to swearing, grief, laughter, and the occasional cocktail.
Also a lot of texting. I tell friends that if anyone should read our texts, they’d say, “Those two should be hospitalized, but on separate floors.” It’s meant to be funny, though truthfully, those frequent texts helped me crawl from one excruciating moment to the next. Each rant, each unanswerable question, and each observation contains an implicit understanding that the other gets it, no matter what “it” may be.
Sometimes it’s the offensive television commercial hawking the services of a local funeral home; we find the ad featuring the dead husband narrator particularly loathsome. Or one of us is weeping over a song we heard on the radio: “I’m going to sue Tim McGraw for intentional infliction of emotional distress,” texted Cindy one afternoon. Add some colorful language and you have the makings of either a very bitter outlook on life or a truer one, and a lively conversation that I hope never ends.
Occasionally, when our behavior seems particularly off the rails, one of us imagines our husbands drinking beers in a sports bar in Heaven. Jon is still rooting for the Cubs. Lee is cheering on the Sox. But they are unified as they reflect on the antics of their brides back on earth. Sounds crazy, but it works for us.
Cindy, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, always has my back. When I share a story that begins “Can you believe . . .” she takes my side. This isn’t necessarily a good thing for personal growth, but it’s validating nonetheless. Anyone who’s ever felt fragile for a really long time knows the value of a friend who accepts what you say, no questions asked.
I was especially moved as the third anniversary of my husband’s death was approaching. Cindy knew I’d be going to the cemetery.
“Do you want me to go with you?” she asked, as if I were going to pick up dinner versus visiting my husband’s grave. “Would you?” I said hopefully. We brought blankets, sunscreen, cashews and water bottles (which did not contain water), and lay on our backs as if we were poolside at a Mexican resort. If the scene had been filmed, a close-up might have hinted at a saccharin, Hallmark movie moment. Or “Thelma and Louise.”
Last February, for the second anniversary of Lee’s passing, we switched out the water bottles for thermoses of hot chocolate and donned hats and gloves. But the temperature forced us back into my car where we toasted Lee and the gifts he left behind. Through it all, Cindy and I still manage to laugh.
One night we sat side by side on my couch as I attempted to stream the first live concert of my son’s band. Unsuccessful, I said, “I’m going to see if I can find the obit of that guy’s wife.” I was tentatively scheduled to have coffee with a widower I’d met on a Jewish dating site. I didn’t find her obituary. Instead, my would-be date’s police photo popped up on my iPad.
I’ll leave out the details, but you should have heard the two of us screaming as I pointed at the screen. That’s a bonding experience like no other. When I am feeling particularly weary of (and really, really bruised by) the entire dating process, Cindy gently steps in with words that soothe and lift, and sometimes scorn and scathe, which invariably makes me laugh.
Early on, we used to say to one another, “I wish we had never met.” But that line of magical thinking is no longer true, because I believe that Cindy has hastened my recovery.
One often hears that grieving is not linear. I don’t know if anything in this life follows a straight path anymore. What I do know is that if you have a friend like Cindy accompanying you on the rough trails that lead to scary places, the arrival points are not as startling or dangerous as they first appear.