Last year, several weeks after my husband died, I had dinner with an old friend whose summer travels brought him past Rambling Farmhouse. At the end of the evening, as we made our farewells with a hug, I suddenly felt safe, and it was such a relief. Until that moment, I had not realized what a frightening place my world had become or the degree to which fear was informing my decisions. Though the world was no less frightening when the hug was over, that brief solace made it possible for me to see, and seeing is the first step toward coping.
I used to say that I had lost my invincibility when I became a mother. In the moment that I realized another being depended on me for sustenance and protection, I suddenly became aware of how vulnerable human beings are, how we take risks as we live our daily lives. It was frightening at first, but life is worth the risks, and I learned to live with this new awareness.
I thought that motherhood had allowed me to see through the illusion of my own invincibility, but widowhood showed me that the illusion of invincibility, albeit in fainter form, was still with me. Part of the tenacity of the illusion comes from the way we talk about risk, I think. When we hear statistics like the risk of death in a car accident is 1 in 6,700, it's easy to disregard the one. That one will be someone else, someone distant, someone unconnected to us. But someone has to be the one.
It has been harder to learn to live with the new awareness of vulnerability this time, in large part because I don't have a partner to lean on.
Though I recognize that fear is a normal part of grief, I find that it manifests itself in unexpected ways:
Like the way my mind gets caught in a hamster wheel of worry and doubt over things that shouldn't be worry worthy.
Like the way I avoid making estate-related phone calls because I imagine they will be awful, even though they are almost always less bad than I build them up to be.
Like the way I don't send pages to my dissertation committee because I worry they will say my work is awful.
Like the way I make poor choices about how to spend my work time because finishing my degree is frightening, even though I simultaneously really want to be done.
Everything is harder when lived through the lens of fear.
I sometimes wonder if we need the illusion of invincibility, if it is that illusion that allows us to rationalize the risks that we take every day. I'm not sure, though. Perhaps it's not an illusion of invincibility that we need, but confidence in our resilience.