The Dead Need Us

A little over four months ago, my wife of nearly forty years died. It is the worst thing I have ever experienced; and yet also the most powerful-and in some ways the most beautiful.

What could be beautiful about death, this awful and absolute separation of body from body? In the aftermath of loss, sentimental and well-meaning clichés, even words of religious assurance, fail to dispel the stunning physical absence of the beloved. They do not alter the fact that no one is sitting across from you over coffee in the morning light. They can never recreate the unspeakably tender, unspeakably sad moments in the car where she sat, her small shoulders closing in, exhausted from a four-year bout with lung cancer. To me, the very vagueness and desperate clue-searching of many spiritualist practices underscore the hard reality of bodily absence. And yet, paradoxically, they direct the griever toward another level of reality, another kind of presence.

As a recent widower, I am beginning to understand something about where I need to look and what I need to do. As C. S. Lewis suggested in A Grief Observed, we are cheated of the full experience and meaning of loss if we settle for anything less of the beloved than “her full reality, her otherness.” By “full reality” I take him to mean the beloved as a real, historical person, and not some sanitized reconstruction. From his own experience of mourning Lewis extends a caution to all grievers. He challenges himself to see his beloved honestly, “not, as in my worst moments, all foreshortened and patheticized and solemnized by my miseries, but as she is in her own right.”

Distressingly, “as she is in her own right” means first of all, for me, not there: it means the she who no longer lies next to me in the small universe of our bed. But-and here I find the ground of my hope-it also means my beloved as she now needs me, and as I continue to need her. With an understanding drawn from the lifelong expectations of my Christian faith, I am trying to find her, as Lewis suggests, in her “otherness,” her new state as a spiritual being; and with her to discover the difficult yet compelling reassurance of an abiding mutual need.

And I do mean a mutual need. It is hard to imagine how a soul can be ready to pass from the last temporal flutter of breath to the deathless vigor of divine love. So much dross remains: the unresolved anger; the fear-spotted faith; the abiding vanity and stubborn prejudice. So much baggage impedes our entry into the kingdom prepared for us. This is why, as a dear nun recently reminded me, “The dead need us.”

I have found in this insight a guide to recovery and purpose. It tells me that my enduring vocation, as widower, is to continue to work on my marriage. This means I must continue to console my beloved over our bodily separation-and to seek consolation from her. In this way I hope to meet the challenge of Lewis’s caution not to “foreshorten” or “patheticize” or “solemnize” my beloved. No settling with her physical absence through some anxious apotheosis or guilt-driven beatification. To do so would paradoxically make her even more absent. To say “she was a superb wife and mother” is both to tell a truth and to diminish it in abstraction. My heart, strangely, finds greater solace in regarding her as my flawed beauty, my imperfect singer approaching the heavenly choir.

If grace works through nature, then it is through this most natural-and terrible-sense of loss that I must seek out God’s will for me now. I must not demean the mystery of this moment by reducing it to sentimental assurances or the consolations of common sense. Mysteries are meant not to be grasped and resolved, but to be entered. In the mystery of Olivia’s death, I reach out in my grieving for my beloved “as she is in her own right”-now spiritual and (I hope to discover) more real than ever. In the mystery of belief, I shall hold her the more closely as I come, with her, more closely to the presence of God.

I hold her this way, and my arms ache less with emptiness. I hold her this way, and the house, so often a silent, sterile place these past months, regains old echoes and scents. I hold her this way, and love rises from the ashes of my grief: love refined by time and trial, still imperfect and crying for continuance; love ever and ever becoming.

I hold her this way, and the world becomes real again. I can get through the day. I can believe in joy again.

Published in the 2005-09-09 issue: 

John Savant, professor emeritus at Dominican University of California, lives in San Rafael, California.

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