Here is an excerpt from chapter two of Andy Steiner’s wonderful book, How to Survive: The Extraordinary Resilience of Ordinary People. This one follows the story of a remarkable 92-year-old lady named Norma.
How to Survive the Death of a Spouse
I was only eight at the time, but I still remember Norma’s call. My mom answered the phone in her bedroom, listened quietly for a few moments, and then shut the door. After what felt like a long time, she emerged, her usually smiling mouth set in a tight, serious line. “That was Norma,” Mom said, letting out a deep breath. “Wally died.” My mother, who’d lived through a war and rarely cried, looked shaken. Wally was her best friend’s husband, a kind man I hardly knew, a decorated World War II veteran who’d lost his leg to a land mine. While I didn’t know Wally very well, I did know Norma. She was the next-door neighbor with an infectious laugh, the first person my mother told when she suspected that, rather than going into early menopause at age 41, she was actually pregnant again, 11 years after giving birth to her fifth child. I was that unexpected sixth pregnancy, and as the only kid still at home, I spent a lot of time with Norma and my mom, enjoying their jokes and easy camaraderie. But this situation was different. Something serious and scary had happened. As I scanned my mother’s face for cues, the sadness and mental health challenges slowly gave way to determination. She had a job to do.
“This is how deep our friendship was,” recalls Norma, her memory still keen at age 92. “I called your mother and told her that Wally had died. I said, ‘I don’t want to have a meal after the funeral at the church. I want it at my house. Would you take charge?’ Your mom said she would and she organized that meal. I’m not sure how she did it: There were 135 people in my house that day and everybody got fed.”
Worrying about feeding funeral guests seems like the last thing a person would think about just hours after losing her spouse of twenty-eight years. But from Norma’s perspective, that’s just the way things get done. She’d grown up in a small town during the Great Depression, and when people died there, she explained, the ones left behind turned to practical responsibilities, doing their grieving while cooking meals, sweeping the floors, and opening the windows to let in the fresh air.
When I was in my first year of college, I learned this Emily Dickinson poem:
The Bustle in a House
The Morning after Death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon Earth —
The Sweeping up the Heart
And putting Love away
We shall not want to use again
Until Eternity —
My professor explained that the poem was a metaphor about the practical side of death, about the way people in Dickinson’s day almost immediately turned to the real-life work of preparing a home for a wake or a funeral almost as a way to process their loss. This is what Norma did, and what my mom did.
By keeping their hands busy, they stayed in the land of the living, Norma says. “Wally had died, and I was very, very sad, but I knew that I couldn’t give up. I had to keep on living.”
From death, a new life
It’s not that Wally’s death wasn’t a shock and a tragedy. The happily married couple had five children, two still teenagers. “Our relationship was very strong,” Norma says. “We loved each other.”
When Wally died, he and Norma were away from home at his mother’s eighty-fifth birthday party. A few years earlier, Wally had had a heart attack, but this was mid-1970s, years before angioplasty became a common treatment for patients with coronary artery disease. After his first attack, Wally received the standard treatment at the time: A weeklong hospital stay, and a bottle of nitroglycerine pills.
Norma recalls that on the night of his death, Wally seemed more tired than usual. “He usually stayed up later than I did,” she says, “but that night he went upstairs to bed and his brother and I stayed up to watch the news.”
When Norma finally came up to the bedroom, Wally had left the light on, so she read for a few minutes before falling asleep. “I was just drifting off,” Norma says, “when there was this terrible commotion in the bed. I turned the light on and Wally pointed to his nitroglycerine. I put one under his tongue. By this time I was up and on his side of the bed. The next thing I knew he collapsed in my arms. I know now that by then he was already dead. I had just learned CPR, so I started it on him, but nothing worked. He never responded. The family called the local firemen to come, and they rushed Wally to the hospital. He was dead then. He was done, but nobody admitted that at the time. Even when we got to the hospital, the doctor kept pretending to do CPR on him. They were trying to protect me from the truth.”
Norma felt blindsided by her husband’s death. Her children did, too.
“The first heart attack was a warning, I know, but you’re never really ready for it,” she says. “If I’d spent my time thinking about the possibility of him having another heart attack after the first one, I’d never have been able to live a normal life. And I was living a normal life. We were very happy. I’d started a job that I loved, but I was still in the thick of raising our two youngest kids. I never thought I’d be a single mother. The kids never thought their dad could die.” When Norma called home to tell her youngest children that their father had died, her daughter refused to talk to her on the phone, Norma remembers. “She said, ‘No. That’s not true. You are not my mother. You are somebody playing a Halloween joke.’”
But it wasn’t a joke. It was the truth, and despite her no-nonsense approach to handling the practical details of her husband’s death, Norma grieved. She cried, she got angry, she asked for—and accepted—help from friends. It took years for Norma to feel like she had healed from the experience, but she believes that the clear-eyed way she faced the reality of Wally’s death made her recovery possible.
Excerpted from How to Survive: The Extraordinary Resilience of Ordinary People. All rights reserved.