A year ago, a longtime friend lost his wife, Jenny, to a brain cancer that killed her in two months. When Jenny died, he was adrift in the rambling house she had filled with her paintings and sculpture. An ebullient woman with a hooting, wild laugh, Jenny brought two young sons to their twenty-year marriage; Dave thrived in the vibrancy of family life. By last Christmas, he had a new girlfriend, Martina, news he announced during our holiday phone chat.
"Women grieve, men replace", another friend had once tartly commented, but by this spring the romance had withered. When I asked what happened, he said, "She wanted me to call her every evening to talk about her day, my day." Martina, widowed too, but ten years earlier, was eager for connection.
I listened beyond his bald words: Dave was not ready for the dailiness of coupled life, to be "us". "I think I used her to get out of grieving", he said, and told me that last week he'd taken a solo road trip. Overcome by the empty seat next to him, he pulled to the shoulder and cried.
A growing number of friends are now like Dave; what was once the province of my mother's bridge group is upon us. The bereaved cope with with waves of lurching sadness, the hallucinatory sense that the partner is just out of sight, and their friends' notions of support.
To be a friend to a widow is to witness the past, to tend their beloved's memory. Dave likes to talk about the small details, about how he handled the interior cleaning, she did the exterior, because she hated dusting and vacuuming. "Jenny's still looking after the garden", Dave told me, "because I use her pension cheques to pay the landscaping service."
And in time, being that friend may mean welcoming someone else. A new companion of the widow or widower is under the microscope, that's for sure, and friends' assessments are more severe after a death than a divorce. Unlike an ex, the decedent is remembered with all luminous qualities intact, even magnified: no one could roast a chicken like him, and the way he told a story!
The newcomer who steps into the clique is brave, but given a chance, will in time be seen for his or her merits. (One friend says she will never again date a recent widower, having been told by one man's protective pal that she "sure wasn't our Gretchen". "I couldn't agree more", she replied.)
Occasionally the opposite happens; the prospective partner is hailed with enthusiasm usually reserved for a free pair of courtside seats. Relieved friends can joke again, the chair at the table is filled. Sometimes, a fervent wish for the widow's renewed happiness makes them overlook warning signs. When Grace introduced her new boyfriend, Cam, it took awhile for her friends to admit that he was a scarily heavy drinker; when Grace brought it up, they initially told her no, it wasn't out of hand. But one weekend when Grace and Cam were guests at a cottage, he passed out, and everyone had to face facts.
I ran into another old friend in a shop last time I was in Toronto. I recognized him immediately, but who was that brunette? He said, "This my new partner, Sarah." She extended her hand. I must have paused a second too long, thinking of his marvelous wife, who had died a couple of years ago.
He smiled sympathetically, and said, "La vie continue."