My husband and I are going through a really difficult time in our marriage, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of advice for how to proceed. We haven’t spoken in more than a year. When the children ask where he is, I don’t know what to say. I have had to take over all the household tasks, plus a lot of legal and financial paperwork. I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on all the things I’ve done wrong, but I can’t apologize.
The main problem in our relationship is that my husband is no longer alive. Last year, at 43, he died of an undiagnosed heart condition. I have done a lot of things to “keep his memory alive,” especially since we have two small children, one of whom was born after he died, and both of whom will grow up without memories of him. I’ve made board books with his photo, organized his tools and art supplies, framed posters from concerts we attended. But it’s hard to know if what I’m doing is “healthy.”
Everyone seems to agree that talking about and remembering the dead person is healthy and good. But at some point, you’re also supposed to take off your wedding ring and stop wearing his old sweaters in public.
I’ve seen a lot of doctors recently, and at every visit, they give me a survey asking about my mental health. After answering questions about whether I’m having trouble sleeping, whether I feel anxious or cry often, I want to tell the person who takes the clipboard: But it’s just because my husband died. It would be stranger if I wasn’t having a hard time, right?
I used to like reading relationship advice. My husband and I had a good relationship, but it had its quirks, and I liked reading about other people’s problems and solutions because it reminded me that no one is perfect. But now I’m struck by how irrelevant all the advice is to my current situation. You can’t improve sex and communication or equitably divide household tasks with someone who isn’t there, or learn the love language of a ghost.
I’m aware that I am technically not married anymore. I have checked the “widow” box on more forms than I can count. But being widowed doesn’t feel the same as being single. I feel like I am still in a relationship, especially because I’m raising our children. I still live in the house we bought, with the decisions we made. So I find myself trying to live my life in such a way that he could walk back in the door at any moment and everything could go back to the way it was.
At one of my grief therapy appointments, I told my therapist I was spending a lot of time thinking about the problems in my marriage. I didn’t have huge regrets, but there were things he did that bothered me that I wanted to talk to him about, and I wondered why I hadn’t talked to him about them when I had the chance. Also, there were all the things I wished I had done, like making the bed before I went to work, driving more safely, and figuring out how our Wi-Fi worked, instead of relying on him.
“What are your thoughts about your thoughts?” my therapist asked.
“I think I just want to be in a relationship with him,” I said. And then I started crying again.
Nothing about losing your spouse is easy, but sometimes I wonder if it’s harder for us because we came from such different worlds. When we met, I was a conservative white girl from the suburbs. I didn’t know how to dress or drive in the city, but I knew a lot about classical music and the Bible.
The first few times Nong asked me out, I told him I could never date him because he wasn’t a Christian. He had just started working part-time as a circulation clerk at the library where I was a children’s librarian, and his back story sounded unbelievable: He was an art school dropout who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, got kicked out of high school, was homeless but sleeping in the living room of his aunt’s apartment, had been fired from restaurants and department stores but was planning to go to medical school. He took the bus everywhere, knew half the homeless people in Providence, loved comics, Cambodian food and hip-hop, and wore Def Leppard T-shirts and argyle cardigans.
But I’m making him sound like a caricature. All these things are true, but none tells you what it felt like to be around him. He was quiet at first, liked to make jokes no one else got. He was always putting himself last and taking things apart to see how they worked. These were personality traits but also survival strategies.
It was years before I understood how much of his experience was shaped by being dark-skinned, an immigrant, a child who didn’t have his own school supplies or winter coat, a young man in a hoodie walking through city neighborhoods at night.
There have been so many moments in the last year when I wanted to ask my husband what he thought. Some people have said that I can know what he would say because he lives in my heart. But I don’t know. I don’t feel his presence, although sometimes I imagine him standing in the staff kitchen where I pump breast milk twice a day for our daughter in day care. There isn’t much in that room to distract me from my thoughts of him.
“So what do you think?” I say out loud, meaning: What do you think of the person I am becoming? Sometimes I put on headphones and listen to the sports podcast he used to have on when we were making dinner. I used to do that in the car, but it’s dangerous to cry while you’re driving.
Some cultures have rituals around communing with the dead, such as lighting incense or leaving out food, but I have only the vaguest idea of what these entail. Communing with my husband feels both like something I need to do and something I don’t believe in.
On some level I know I must make peace with the fact that our relationship is over. When he died, I looked for messages from him. I reread old texts and emails, poured over his old sketch pads, scrolled through his open browser tabs, and resisted the urge to ask his brother if he’d said anything about me in the hospital the day he died. When I guessed the password to his laptop, I felt like Indiana Jones. But I found nothing I didn’t already know.
And even if I found a message, what would it change? I must learn to “let him go.” I put that in quotes because I know those are the right words, but I don’t understand what they actually mean. My husband is already gone, but I am still holding on with all my strength. And the only thing harder than holding on is letting go.
When I started this essay, I thought maybe by the end of writing it, I would have some relationship advice for people who are married to dead people. The process of writing has always helped me understand myself, and if there were any chance of discovering something, writing would be the way to find it.
But I didn’t find anything. I don’t have any advice. All I have are questions: If the ghost of my husband is going to be with me forever, how do I live with that? How do I stop worrying about all the things I’m going to forget? How do I keep changing into a different person than the one Nong knew and loved? How do I accept the fact that he will never change, that the process of evolving and becoming for him is just done?
In case it isn’t obvious, this essay is one of my attempts to both reach out to my husband and let him go. I feel like words read by people I have never met in places I have never been will have some special power. They will travel to places I cannot go, and maybe that means a part of me can go with them, to wherever my husband is, if he is.
Maybe this was never about giving or receiving advice. It was just about expressing my love. It doesn’t make sense, but it’s not any weirder than lighting candles or visiting mediums, right?
If so, there’s obviously only one thing I want to say: Hey baby, I love you.