Life After Death

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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 was in a zombie movie, an unending parade of acquaintances lumbering toward me with outstretched arms.

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.


As far as widow cooties go, there are far worse strains. In this country, widows in general — and especially widows who displayed the faintest carnal longings — were still demonized well into the eighteenth century. And in many parts of the world, widows are still degraded and marginalized. Though the practice is officially outlawed, there are still parts of rural India where widows throw themselves on their husbands' funeral pyres, a practice called seti. In Vrindovan, India's infamous "city of widows," thousands of women endure lives of hopeless poverty after fleeing physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their husband's families. Widows in parts of Africa are subject to "cleansing," a cruel euphemism for forced sex with a husband's relative. African widows often have their property snatched by relatives, and the practice of forced remarriage persists. Widows who are particularly frisky, industrious, or in the wrong place at the right time are branded as witches, such as those set upon by villagers in India recently, blamed for casting a spell in the form of tuberculosis.

But widows are also equal-opportunity contenders on online-personals websites, and even have some dating sites of their own, like WidowsOrWidowers.com. On blogs, however, I found men expressing reservations about dating widows — they're depressed, they're sexually paralyzed, their bedrooms are shrines to their dead husbands. Widows' first timid forays between the sheets often include that age-old deal breaker: uncontrollable sobbing. I recall my first sexual encounter after I separated from my first husband. I cried the whole time. It did not go over well. Not long ago, a man gave me a back rub that could have easily escalated into something more. Then I heard myself say, "My husband rubbed my back every night," and that was the end of that.

A close friend who is gay lost her partner to cancer just weeks before my husband died. We compare notes about our eating and sleeping habits, our loneliness, anger and frustration, and our propensity for spending money we don't have on stuff we don't need. We've dubbed this practice "widow shopping." I'm into handbags and bedding. She's got a thing for swimsuits.

Widows' first timid forays between the sheets often include that age-old deal breaker: uncontrollable sobbing.

And she's a flirt, which confuses her. "I'm not ready," is her mantra, though she can't stop buying bikinis and making dates. It's every widow's mantra. And if we don't say it often enough ourselves we hear it from everyone else. It's right up there with "You have to take care of your-self."

"You're not ready to date."

This insight was imparted by the dental hygienist. She said these words with airtight confidence. We'd met for the first time a half hour earlier, and began girl bonding even before she plunged a ice pick into the recesses of my upper-right molar. Here, basically, is what we'd learned about each other: I'm in my early fifties and widowed almost a year; she is slightly older and never married. And yet my lack of readiness was, to this stranger, as indisputable as the gunk on my only surviving wisdom tooth. At times I am unfit for human consumption, but I need to know I'm still in the game. And since I'm not expecting to light up like a preheated oven, I suppose if I'm attracted to someone, I'm ready. I know a woman who was really cagey about her sex life after her long-time boyfriend died suddenly of a heart attack. At the time I was upset with her for shutting me out. I thought she was acting weird. Now I understand her much better.

This same friend was rumored to be seducing — or at least trying to seduce — other people's husbands. I wonder now if it was all fabrication, a latter-day witch-hunt. I've fallen out of touch with at least one close friend because his wife deems our relationship "inappropriate" and forbade him to see me. Somehow in my huggable yet stigmatized state I am still a threat. I could have said to this woman, "Not to worry, I'm still grieving." But that wouldn't have been completely honest. The main reason I will never sleep with her husband is because I'm simply not attracted to him.


"And you never know, you may want to hop in the sack with someone at some point."

The above words sprang from the mouth of that old sage, my accountant. Not known for his bedside manner, it was a gentle suggestion that I might not be filing individual income-tax returns forever. But "hop in the sack?" I recently met a man on the verge of divorce. We spent one Sunday walking along the backshore for hours. He is a lovely, sensitive man and a talented carpenter. I wish I were attracted to him (my house needs some work), but I'm not in the least. A friend said, "He's so nice, maybe that will change." It won't. I know I'm operating at a disadvantage here, but I still expect "the sack" to deliver more than genial companionship.

"That's how it is for women in our situation."

This was my mother speaking, sharing the helpful reminder that the dinner invitations will slow to a trickle and couples will not abide a "third wheel" at that fine restaurant my husband and I were fond of. My sweet father passed away almost three years ago, and certainly my mother knows widowed life. But her widow-sister counsel made me cringe. It left me feeling dried up and old.

"I never wanted to be with a man after my Herbie. He was the only one for me, the love of my life."

My elderly relatives and acquaintances (the quote is a composite — I don't mean to be uncharitable) are being sincere. For some, it's been decades since they were touched by a man who wasn't billing Medicare for the encounter. But is this true? That no one could possibly fill the shoes, or at least the pajamas, of the guy who, when he wasn't fused to a recliner and snoring like a power drill, berated her constantly? The guy whose fiscal wrath was the reason she used four credit cards to buy one pair of shoes? I can empathize with the need to replace the reality of one's marriage with something almost mythically unassailable. But what happens to sexual longing? Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun?

I can't imagine that, at least not for me. I am a woman of hearty appetites — for food, for adventure, for sex. After years of loving and being loved I may even be a lot better at it than I was in my youth, in the days when one or two dances was a good enough reason to have sex with someone, in "the sack," the car, the coat closet or a grassy field.

"Mom tells me you have a friend."

This, from my brother, a few days after my second really enjoyable, chaste dinner date with a divorced man. I'd mentioned it to my mother and now it was all over town. "He's just a friend," I said, realizing that at least in the year or two to come, my encounters with heterosexual males will be monitored with an interest that is deep and perhaps a bit patronizing. As for the man in question, he is just what I needed. "Are you nervous?" he asked at the start of our first evening together. "Actually, yes," I said. "Well you don't have to be," he replied. "It might hurt a little at first because you're unused to the size, but then it'll be okay."

Now this was more like it: after all those hugs, someone to talk dirty to me.  

Hear Susan talk about the difficult task of writing this essay on the Nerve Insider blog.

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©2008 Susan Seligson and Nerve.com
Susan Seligson's reporting and essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Salon.com, The Atlantic Monthly, Redbook, Outside, Allure, and many other publications. Her weekly advice column, "Ask Susie," appears in the Provincetown Banner. Seligson's travelogue, Going with the Grain: A Wandering Bread-lover Takes a Bite Out of Life, was published in the fall of 2002 by Simon & Schuster. A memoir, Stacked: A 32DDD Reports from the Front, released in 2007 by Bloomsbury USA, was named one of the 100 best books of the year by Publishers Weekly.