I saw her necklace from across the room; the silver, heart-shaped pendant had a large picture on it–much bigger than you’d see in a locket. I walked closer so that I could make out the picture. It was worn by a frail, elderly woman, considerably thin, neatly dressed although her clothes looked too big for her frame. I introduced myself and told her I had admired her necklace from across the room. She brought her hand up to it and held it out.
“It’s a picture of me and my husband,” she said. “I lost him earlier this year. Wearing this makes me feel close to him.”
When I asked her how long she and her husband had been married, she told me they’d been married 71 years.
“I was 15 and he was 21 and about to leave for the service,” she said.
She shared with me that she didn’t know how to keep going any more. He was all she knew. “He was my life and my joy; everything that I lived for,” she said.
I believed her.
Grief was so heavy on her body and face and in her voice. She was around a table with other seniors at a luncheon, but not interacting and only picking at her food. She told me her daughter lived a couple of houses down from hers. I was relieved to know this; that someone was checking on her. I thanked her for showing me her necklace and gave her a hug.
After only 27 years of marriage when someone would say to me about my husband’s death, “It’s going to be okay,” I had a difficult time believing it in the beginning. I felt that I’d lost a part of my own body when my husband died. Losing him made me really understand Ephesians 5:31 “…and the two will become one flesh.”
She had lost a part of her–not just a husband but a part of herself; the mystery of two people separate but melded together for 71 years. The person to finish her sentences is gone, the person who followed her from room to room turning off lights is gone. For seven decades, she planned meals, outings, vacations, holidays, and doctor’s appointments that had meaning because of her husband. Marriage braids you together, long marriages connect you through the mundane and important moments of life — funerals of friends and loved ones, celebrations of their children, nieces and nephews, caring for and burying parents, sitting in hospital rooms worrying about each other, living in plenty some years and paycheck to paycheck other years. Two will become one. This is the profound mystery.
After hearing her story, I thought about that widow for days. I’ve never met a widow who was married that long. I wanted to tell her she would be okay eventually and meaning would return to her life, but I also know that’s a personal decision. And, if I’m going to be honest saying, “It’s going to be okay,” comes from my own discomfort of not knowing what to say to someone when they are hurting. So sometimes I carelessly toss out that sentiment: It’s going to be okay, like a flower girl throws rose petals down the church aisle. The fact is, a part of her died that day, and she gets to decide if she will be okay or not.
What do you say to someone who has lost a husband after 71 years? Nothing. I am to just hold space for them and listen to their heart; and I have to be okay with that.