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As I greeted people at my husband's memorial service last August, a friend pressed her lips to my ear and said, "Your ass looks great in that dress."
I wasn't offended. I can think of very few occasions when, should my ass happen to look great, I wouldn't want to be told. The remark was a welcome departure from all the platitudes, however heartfelt, lavished upon the bereaved. For a culture so steeped in sharing, healing, closure and related psychobabble, many of us are unable to express simply that we're sorry for someone's loss without describing a comparable loss of our own.
Howie was twenty-five years older than me and remarkably fit. Just days after his usual squash game and spinning class, a checkup revealed some heart blockage. With his doctors' breezy assurances that he'd do just fine, Howie went in for open-heart surgery the following week. Something went wrong. He never really woke up, and died after a month in intensive care.
In the weeks after his death I was exhausted and numb. Gifts of chocolate proved both heartening and helpful. Offers of a session with a shaman/priestess/afterlife facilitator did not. (I imagined my husband saying through the medium, "I put a salmon steak in the freezer. Eat it before it goes bad.")
But enough of that. I made my friends promise to bop me on the head with a rubber mallet if I began whining about who could've, should've called, or how this person's response was disappointing, that one's suffocating, another's missing-in-action. I grew up in constant earshot of such judgment orgies, and found them as irritating as they were unproductive. Newly in mourning, I vowed that except for the occasional grouchy outburst,
I would try hard to remain above them.
I live in a small, amiable town where it's not unusual for folks to dash into the Grand Union for onions, and emerge an hour later hoarse from socializing. For many weeks after Howie died, I was in a zombie movie, an unending parade of acquaintances lumbering toward me with outstretched arms. I'm not one to thwart a hug. As a new widow, I was hugged to distraction, and subject to the brand of chaste pat-downs and back rubs reserved for the bereaved, the mortally ill or the massively pregnant. Laid bare by my new and very public status, I allowed myself to be scrutinized and stroked. I didn't go into hiding. This tender outpouring felt mostly good. A gregarious and successful cartoonist, Howie was much beloved in the community, and I felt loved, too.
"Has anyone hit on you yet?"
My brother asked me this a few months into my grieving. "No," I told him. "Of course not. I have widow cooties."
A young-ish woman who's been widowed and single for years needs sexual healing. A young-ish woman who's been widowed for less than a year "needs a hug." I get that a lot — attractive men declaring, "You look like you could use a hug." I'm not sure this is a good look. Then again, who am I to argue? I'll take a hug, sure. Hey guys: I am here, all alone in my nightie, waiting to be your hug slave. Suddenly my unapologetically sexual nature would, I was sure, be viewed as unseemly. But I realize now it doesn't matter how on or off I feel, sexually speaking. Others see only what they need to see: a woman in sleep mode from the waist down.