How Should a Widow Cope with the Loss of Her Spouse?
By Anne Fielding
September 1, 1998
When my husband, Sheldon Kranz, died 18 years ago, even as I had enormous sorrow, I had the inestimable good fortune to be studying Aesthetic Realism and learning how to use even this to like the world, to care for people more truly, to value objects more deeply, to be a better critic of myself and of my dear husband. My husband and I both had the honor to study in classes with Eli Siegel, the great American poet who founded the education of Aesthetic Realism in 1941. I saw that what Mr. Siegel told me in an Aesthetic Realism lesson in 1957, when I was newly married, was still true when I became a widow: “Your desire is to see everything as well as you can. But when you marry, you take on the job of seeing your husband as well as you can and yourself as to him.” The desire “to see everything as well as [we] can,” I have learned, is equivalent to our desire to like the world—which Aesthetic Realism teaches is the purpose of marriage and of life itself.
Women need so much to know this. More than ever, there are support or “bereavement” groups all over the country, where widows can meet and talk, and these certainly are useful in having a woman feel less isolated. But too often, what is called “support” is really unkind, hurtful flattery: a woman is encouraged to find one friend or a “support network” of other widows who will listen to her and sympathize “unjudgmentally,” uncritically. There is that in a woman that should not be supported one bit: namely her desire to have contempt for the world and people—which is a widow’s biggest danger, and exactly the same danger she had when her husband was alive, only now it is more intense.
I want women to know what I have experienced intimately: that what we really need at a time of loss is the beautiful, life-giving, mind-strengthening criticism-as-encouragement only Aesthetic Realism provides—which opposes our contempt and enables a woman, even as she is sorrowful, honestly to like the world.
A representative recent book is the 1990 Widow’s Journey: A Return to the Loving Self, by Xenia Rose, a psychotherapist, wife of the late, very fine cellist Leonard Rose. The author says that when her husband died, she was shattered, and that she wrote this book in order to have women feel, “there are ways to make widowhood a little more bearable, and no widow is alone.”
When Mrs. Rose warns widows not to “take to your bed and disconnect from the world,” she is hinting at what Aesthetic Realism makes blazingly clear: a woman needs for her happiness and well-being to be in a proud relation to the world and other people. But because Mrs. Rose has not studied Aesthetic Realism and does not know that the very self of a person is his or her relation to the world, throughout her book she implies what most widowed women feel: that they are essentially alone in a cold world. Under the heading “Who’s Really Going to Take Care of You?,” she writes, “if you don’t do it nobody else will either.” About “the old world that you miss so much,” she tells widows: “It’s gone.” This author and the women she is writing for need to learn from Aesthetic Realism that the questions a widow has are essentially like those she had when she and her spouse were in the first flush of courtship or newly married. She writes: “The people, … the hopes, … everything that made up the old life is changed.” This sounds very poignant, but it is simply not true—”everything that made up the old life” is not changed. When we asked Mrs. Hale in a phone consultation from Bangor, Maine, “is the cup you are holding in your hand just as delicate and sturdy as when your husband drank from it?” she said, “Why yes, it is.” And when we asked, “Is the table you are leaning on still steady, able to support the weight of your elbows and the cup?,” she was beginning to see that even though her husband had died, the world itself was not just frightening and strange—it was also kindly familiar, and she immediately felt both lighter and more solid.
Contempt: A Widow’s Greatest Danger
Mrs. Hale also began to learn that the big danger for a widow is to use the loss of her husband to have contempt for the world, to feel it is senseless and cruel. She learned too that contempt was the very thing that had interfered with her marriage long before his death. For example, she used to punish Ronald Hale with what he called her “Sunday afternoon grouches.”
When a husband dies, the contempt a woman has nourished in the daily life of her marriage can intensify and ravage her. In one of the most beautiful documents ever written, “The Meaning of the Hebrew Kaddish,” Eli Siegel explains:
“When a great grief comes, there is a tendency to retreat into ourselves, and there be glumly dismal. Grief can make for … an indifference unwilling to see color in anything, goodness in any person, meaning in the universe …. The purpose of the Kaddish is to stop our changing grief and fear into selfishness. It tells us not to change sorrow into a dislike of what is.”
Women Learn the World Was Not Over with Spouse’s Death
Geraldine Hale was surprised when she saw that even as a young wife she had had a tendency to be “glumly dismal” with her husband. In a class Eli Siegel said to There Are Wives, Aesthetic Realism consultants to women, with whom I am proud to teach, that the consultation trio should never put aside the central question: “How much do people want to like at all?” He explained: “People do not want to be pleased with what is not themselves.” If a woman has spent years having the spurious victory of not liking the world—and most women do—when a husband dies she will use his absence to be even more displeased and to love herself exclusively. This “dislike of what is” can take the form of not wanting to get out of bed, talk to people, or eat. She can also, as Xenia Rose says she did, “rage … at the world,” be angry at a sunny day, hate it that other people are having a good time, resent women whose spouses are still alive.
I remember with shame that shortly after Sheldon Kranz died I saw a woman about my age walking with her husband and felt: “why should she have her husband when mine is gone?” Thank God I was able to criticize myself, to ask, “Are you proud of this feeling? Would Sheldon respect you for it?” I immediately saw how unjust and selfish it was, and I changed.
In Widow’s Journey, the author recalls her husband “saying that in the long run all that really mattered was us.” That sounds romantic, but it represents the very ordinary wifely use of a husband to approve of herself in a narrow way while disdaining other humans. We have asked women: “If your husband had goodness in him, didn’t that goodness come from reality, which made him—and is it still in the world? If he had strength and gentleness, for example, can you find these same opposites in ever so many places?”
The Beautiful Job of Knowing
A question There Are Wives has learned to ask a woman is: “How big is your desire to know?” We have seen that most wives prefer owning and managing their husbands to knowing them: this is why a woman feels so guilty when a husband dies. And a woman mourning a husband can also be angry with him because, through his dying, she can no longer own him, have him serve her and make her important.
In an Aesthetic Realism lesson my mother had the honor to be given in 1952, shortly after my father’s sudden death, Eli Siegel explained to her that a central reason she felt desolate and responsible for his dying was that she had not sufficiently wanted to know him and she felt now it was too late. I remember how magnificently Mr. Siegel showed her that the feeling she had nothing to live for was really contempt, and that it wasn’t too late. He said that she could use her thought right now to know who this man, with whom she had lived and raised two daughters, really was — to see how my father was related to everything. And I saw my mother’s life at the age of forty-nine literally begin again.
In Geraldine Hale’s first consultation, we asked: “Do you think you still have things to learn about Ronald Hale—and would he like that?” And I asked her a question Eli Siegel had asked my husband at the time of his mother’s death: “Is [Ronald Hale] as much related to things now as [he] was three years ago?” After a pause she said, “Yes, I think so,” and her voice had a new lift in it.
“Even after someone has died,” Eli Siegel said, “the job of knowing that person goes on.” Mrs. Hale began to learn that though her husband was no longer here, sitting across the room from her, or holding her next to him in bed, the beautiful “job of knowing” him and the world was not over, in fact, it was just beginning.
“All beauty,” Eli Siegel stated in a principle of Aesthetic Realism, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Mrs. Hale studied the world’s opposites in objects: roughness and smoothness in a melon; curve and straight line in a pair of scissors; constriction and relaxation in a large white gardenia; flexibility and firmness, separateness and togetherness in a wicker table. Of this table she wrote: “It was built in a country many miles away and I think of how many hands were needed to produce the finished product and the hope of those involved. This brings me closer to them.” She wrote a soliloquy of her husband, including his criticisms of her. She wrote about the feelings of a neighbor, and the hopes and fears of a child in Baghdad. Her life, once constrained and narrow, became vibrant and wide. At age 77 she even wrote in a letter: “I no longer think of this portion of my life as the last quarter, but the fourth quarter. I am a happier person and … more compassionate. [Because of what I] have learned from the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel, … I am not afraid of the future.”
* * *
Anne Fielding, an Aesthetic Realism consultant with There Are Wives, teaches the monthly Understanding Marriage! class with Barbara Allen and others at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, a not-for-profit educational foundation at 141 Greene Street in Manhattan, (212) 777-4490. Articles by Miss Fielding published in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known include “How Can Marriage Succeed in a Failed Economy?,” “Justice in Marriage,” and “Contempt: the Enemy of Marriage.”