A Widower Advises Wearing Out One's Grief Like a Suit of Clothes

updated 04/20/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/20/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

When author Richard Meryman's artist wife, Hope, died at 44 during Christmas week 1975, her passing marked both a finish and a beginning. Death signaled the end of Hope's two-year battle with cancer, but it also meant the start of a new ordeal for Meryman, her husband of 22 years and a former writer and editor with LIFE. While contending with his grief and sense of loss, Meryman struggled to ease the fears and sorrow of the couple's daughters, Meredith, then 10, and Helena, 8. It was hard. At such times "Everything is an acre of shock and pain," he notes. "You walk into a room, and you remember scenes with her, and it drives you crazy. But what you must do in mourning is use it, find the one corner of it that can be a blessing." Meryman, now 54, has recorded the experience in his poignant memoir, Hope: A Loss Survived. Last year he married Elizabeth Hauser, 40, an art historian and longtime family friend who had lost her husband, through divorce, several years before. In a conversation with PEOPLE Reporter Bobbie Stein at his Greenwich Village home, Meryman described his many months of mourning and the process by which he and his family learned to carry on.

No matter how much you're prepared by the knowledge that someone is dying, you are not ready for that final blow. Hope died at home, with us, but we were still stunned and numb afterward. That stage of mourning lasts for a few weeks. The immediate problem I had was the children. Their understanding of what's happening is very primitive, so they are open to all sorts of fears. They sometimes think that their mother didn't really die. They think maybe it was their fault. If it's not their fault, then it's their father's fault. They can be very angry. Their initial reaction is amazingly, and probably healthfully, self-centered: What's going to happen to me? They are terrified. I had to reassure them that I would be there, always. The important things are continuity and normalcy.

You move very quickly from that mourning stage to the next, which is extremely unpleasant. It's characterized by a loss of control. All kinds of thoughts are pouring through your mind—about what's going to happen to you, can you take care of the children and still earn a living, memories about your wife, grief, anger and something called "obsessional recall," a psychological phenomenon in which you rehash your past.

In this second stage of pain, I was on a kind of wild high. When I went out, I would stay out until 2 a.m. I'd talk a blue streak. I'd cry suddenly, explosively, triggered by anything. I was operating on 16 cylinders all the time, whether I was playing or escaping or crying. But it's important to know that it's perfectly normal to be crazy in this situation. Statistics show that a widower has a much higher chance of getting seriously sick during that early time of mourning.

The children were just as overwrought and began to bicker between themselves. What happens is that grief simply exaggerates all emotions. If you're angry, you're twice as angry. If you're irritable, you're twice as irritable. And eventually, if you're happy, you're twice as happy. There is a tendency to indulge the children, to feel sorry for them and want to comfort them. You forget all the rules—let bed times go crazy, let their rooms get messy. Only later did I realize what they needed was structure. Then I cracked down.

A great deal of physical activity is important. You are nervously exhausted, but you can't sleep. So if you can get physically exhausted, that somehow soothes it all. That first winter after Hope died, we went skiing every single weekend, just as we had with her. We also did a lot of roughhousing at home, tearing the bed up over and over again, wrestling on it and playing games. That was good for the three of us. It relieved nervous tension, and it was a moment when we weren't thinking about ourselves.

The children's needs for your attention are bottomless. But just as the children want someone to talk to, you want someone to talk to. I finally set up a regimen where I gave myself two evenings a week. I always felt guilty about going out, and the kids knew how to play on that guilt.

I think there was a bit of the feeling that I was their property, and how dare another woman intrude. And also, they thought that if I was interested in another woman, I was being unfaithful to Hope. When perfume ads came on television, they'd rush over and cover my eyes so I wouldn't see the beautiful women.

My social life became very collegiate for a time. I did a lot of things I'd done as a student, like listening to jazz. It was crazy to think that I was "dating." I was never terrific with girls, even when I was a teenager. I had all kinds of fears and insecurities, and when I started going out with strange women, that came back. Actually, at times there were several women, all at once. Romance was an escape hatch. It's exciting and carried me out of the pain. But no woman should be involved with a widower until he's gone through the first 18 months. A man is often impotent after his wife's death. Perhaps he subconsciously feels unfaithful. To learn that this is typical and passes is very important. But it's tough on your ego.

I talked about Hope constantly, and I didn't fight it. People complained to me about it, but I went right ahead and did it. I was feeling selfish, and I think that was good; I put my survival first. Whatever my needs were, I tried to do something about them. I imposed on friends. If I wanted to talk about her, I talked about her. If I wanted to cry in front of them, I cried. If I wanted arms around me, I went out and got arms around me. I quickly wore out my friends; they got sick of listening to me.

But you have to live through those emotions and exhaust them. If you don't they will always be with you. Only by drinking all that pain to its absolute dregs can you truly survive. Part of the process of mourning is that you simply wear out your grief just the way you'd wear out a suit of clothes.

Finally, in the third stage of mourning, everything begins to ease. Suddenly you realize, gee, for a couple of hours I felt normal. And that's terrific. You might even go for a couple of days and figure, I'm getting well. And then, wham, you're back in it. But gradually the pain dissipates.

The last thing to go, the last anchor holding you to the past, is the self-pity. Poor me. I'm a widower. I've lost my wife. I did an interview around that time with Carol Burnett. She had a very tough childhood; her parents were alcoholics, and she was raised by a grandmother. Yet she's very strong, and her great message is, if you feel bad, it's your own fault. You are responsible for you. I was really ready to hear that, and I thought, "God, she's right. I'd better snap out of this." That was two years after Hope died.

Four years after her death, before Liz and I married, all four of us went into family counseling. There were a lot of conflicts, and it seemed like a good idea. What happens in family therapy is that everybody gets to speak with equal weight. What the kids said counted just as much as what I said, and in that room, we could negotiate our differences. I learned a lot in that year. And I think what the kids got out of it was an understanding of my role and a grasp on the reality of family life that they hadn't had before.

At the end of mourning, you are looking toward the future. It is beginning life again, a new start. I can now think of Hope with pleasure. Every once in a while I come upon a place in Manhattan where something happened with her, and I remember it with pleasure. There are still a few things of hers in the house, and every time I see them, I remember her with a sweet pain, not a stabbing pain. I now share the same bed with Liz that I shared with Hope. And that's very healthy.

Successful grief, or mourning, is not just coming out of it comfortable and with equanimity; it is really coming out better than you went in. It's coming out enriched and a better person because you have lived through all of that pain, because you have assessed your life, assessed your marriage and assessed yourself. You become more sympathetic with people and have a greater joy in joy. You sense the preciousness of time. You are focused on what is important. In sum, you not only survive; you are much more alive.

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