One of the most devastating emotions after the death of a loved one is the feeling of isolation. The great loss of connection is very often coupled with a sense of being abandoned by the one most loved and trusted. In this widows’ group, each member is in a different stage of grief, in their journey back to life. As a symbolic ceremony, they form a chain with those newly bereaved at the end of the chain. Using this chain, they start bringing each other forward with a symbolic tug. Motion is the only way out of grief. When people feel that they want to get back into life, this is a good way to get going. This process forges a strong chain of healing—link by link.
At the end of this group’s meeting, they were asked to hold hands and do an exercise of remembrance, which lets them honor the one they love by saying one word that brings back a memory of that person. The memory word did not have to be explained to the group; it was like a secret code word that only they knew the real, true meaning of. The list of "magic" words; hamburgers, ocean, Rover, chocolate, Babe….essentially expressed the same thing - a remembrance that gives both pleasure and comfort, the comfort of release. It is always just one word that say it all. And that word always means exactly the same thing: "I love you and I miss you."
Rachel had been a widow less than a year. After a few months of devastating mourning - she seldom got out of bed before noon and almost never left the house - she came to our widow’s group.
Reluctantly, she visited our Wednesday night group. Silently, she listened and observed without joining in. When we spoke our closing words of "remembrance", she remained outside the circle. She left abruptly, with a simple thank you to the group, and I thought that was the last we’d ever see her.
The following week Rachel appeared again as if nothing had happened. Once again she observed the group in silence, and once again she remained detached and aloof. At the end she thanked us and left. I wondered if she would return, and she did.
In time, she became part of the group. But when the chain was formed at the closing, she was always at the end - by her choice. Even after three months, she kept assigning herself the last link. Others who had joined the group after her were moving along. But Rachel insisted she was still at the end of the chain.
One Wednesday night, the subject was honoring and remembering how, after our loved one has died, we can remember and honor them with our life and our living. Susan had just begun to talk about some of her memories of her husband when Rachel suddenly stood up and started shouting.
"Stop it! Stop it!" she screamed at us. "Stop talking about remembering. I hate that!…What’s the matter with you all? How can you talk about remembering? Where’s your pain?" She stopped suddenly and faced me directly. "Don’t you get it? I don’t want memories - I want my husband!"
It was a truth we all knew and lived with, but seldom spoke of. It was the very core of our grief.
A memory is a poor substitute for the real thing. A memory can’t hold you in its arms or fill you with pleasure, or laugh at your jokes or pitch a ball, or brag about your cooking and fight back unfairly, or surprise you on your birthday. In a world where the living are diamonds, memory is a paste imitation - a lackluster copy of the gleaming original.
No one wants a memory. We all want the real thing.
Rachel raged on for a few minutes more, and then faced with our stunned silence, she sat down, hands folded primly in her lap, and waited for us to respond. I wondered who would answer her, and hoped it wouldn’t have to be me because I didn’t believe I had the words. Thankfully, Barbara did.
"For weeks now Rachel, you’ve assigned yourself the last link in the chain and we let you. We let you because all of us have been there and don’t really want to admit that we are moving along - making progress. Moving along seems like forgetting. Moving along seems like infidelity. Moving along says ‘I have stopped caring and loving.’ So we let you stay there for your own good and your own comfort."
"But tonight, dear friend, you have moved forward and you have brought us with you. You have said the words we all fear and hate and opened all the old wounds we thought were healing. Your rage gives meaning to your love and to ours."
She reached out her hand to Rachel. "Not one of us wants to settle for less than the real thing, but the real thing is gone. Margarine isn’t the real thing. Butter is. But if there is no butter, then you make do with the next best thing.
"I don’t want my life to be dry toast. I want it covered with rich golden butter. But my butter is gone, and all I have left is the memory of its richness, its pure golden quality, its sweet taste. The margarine of memory will never, ever, replace or even approximate the real thing. But, Rachel, it is far better then dry toast!
"Stewart is dead, Rachel, dead and buried and gone. Forever. Your butter is gone, just like mine is, and everyone else’s in this room. All you have to do - all you can do now - is decide if you want the rest of your life to be dry toast."
In silence we all examined the loss of rich, golden butter in our lives and knew that it was the prospect of a life of dry toast that had brought us here together. There, in our group, we shared our recipes for a life, using margarine.
That night as we held hands and closed with our one word memory, I asked Rachel to start.
"Butter," she intoned
And I completed the circle, whispering, "Butter."