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Book Excerpt: From Grieving to Surviving


In this extract from her memoir, Minerva's Owl: The Bereavement Phase of My Marriage,Canadian author Carol Matthews explores bereavement – not as the end of a marriage – but as a predictable phase of an ongoing significant relationship.

February 2012. Your death was sudden. Shocking. Just 17 days after you were admitted to hospital. Nine days in which we thought you would recover and then eight days in palliative care. I wept for your pain, vulnerability, the indignity of it all. I wish I'd been able to do more to help you, but know that, through the years to come, I will have to face all you endured. At length, helpless, without you.

They say our bodies are formed from stardust, and when we die we return to the stars. That sounds true. When my father died, I told my young daughter that I now thought her grandfather was up among the stars. I didn't believe in life after death, but it was easy to look up into the night sky and tell her that somehow, somewhere, he was a part of it. I would gaze at the Milky Way, the constellations of the horoscope, and think of deification. Apotheosis. The hero raised to a godlike stature.

On the day before you died, I read you a stanza of Eliot's Four Quartets, one that you'd recited to me in the first days of our courtship:

Garlic and sapphires in the mud
Clot the beaded axle tree . . .
The dance along the artery
The circulation of the lymph
Are figured in the drift of stars

As you lay dying, your dog asleep at the foot of your bed, our daughter Alison on one side of you and me on the other, each holding one of your hands, I assured you that it wouldn't be long until we'd all be together again in the drift of the stars. I didn't know what I was saying, yet, without intention or forethought, my words were full of conviction.

Did that offer you comfort? It doesn't console me. Nothing does. The grief is more intense than I could have imagined.

Our word "grief" is derived from the Latin graus or gravis, meaning "heaviness." Grief brings a heaviness to the spirit, the psyche, the body. I sleep deeply and at length, but dread morning. I am weighed down by the loss of you.

In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis notes that the sensation of grief is like fear. The same fluttering in the stomach, the restlessness, the yawning. For me, it is also nausea. Every morning, I wake disoriented, panic-stricken, nauseous; my whole being rejects the approach of another day without you.

The word "bereft" comes to mind, with its roots in the Old English bereafian – to deprive of, take away, seize, rob, despoil. Yes, you have been seized from me, ripped away. I am robbed, despoiled by my loss.

I turn to words for solace, but there are no words sufficient for this aching void. No way to describe it. And yet everyone tries. When a loved one dies, people bring the death books, and there are a great many. Even friends with whom you and I joked about the death books will find a way to bring words they think will be of comfort – a little book about loss, a distinguished author's account of bereavement, a collection of poetry, a manual on mindful grieving.

My inclination is to dismiss these books because I know in my heart that my grief is like no other, and yet I end up reading them. And I find, of course, the bereaved have much in common in their experience of loss.

I thought I was the only one who wrote letters to her dead husband until I read Natascha McElhone's After You. When her 43-year-old husband died, leaving her with two young sons and pregnant with a third, she said writing letters to him enabled her to "keep him here" long enough to come to terms with her loss.

Similarly, in The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion writes about trying to keep the dead alive "in order to keep them with us." As long as I can write to you, you are still with me, even though we are in separate worlds.

I hadn't previously read any of Daphne du Maurier's novels, but her essay On Death and Widowhood resonates with me. She speaks of how, to ease the pain, she wore her husband's shirts and used his pens in order to feel closer to him. I've learned that many grieving people wear their partner's shirts, sleep in their pyjamas, bury their noses in a favourite sweater to catch a hint of scent. We sit at their desks, use their pens, keep up the rituals, and try to capture threads of our partners' presence. It takes a long time to change the joint message on the telephone answering service. We don't want to let go.

In our later years, you and I sometimes talked about the predictable bereavement that one or the other of us would experience. A sort of Abbott and Costello routine like Who's on First? Who's on first, What's on second, I Don't Know is on third.

It would be best if I died first. I wouldn't want to leave you, but I think it would be best.

That's silly. I couldn't manage without you.

I hate to think of you on your own, but you'd manage better than I would.

I wouldn't manage at all, you idiot! I'd die without you. Whereas you would be all right. All sorts of women would come around with casseroles.

I don't want their stinking casseroles.

Maybe we should do the long swim together. Plunge into the waves and head out past the point of no return.

No, not the long swim . . . not yet.

Maybe we should die together in a plane crash.

Yes. On a holiday.

On the return trip, our way back from a holiday.

Together. Or else me first.

That's nonsense.

A predictable transition, yes, and one we often discussed, but not one we could ever plan for. As P.K. Page said in her poem Preparation, what happens is never like what you prepared for: "It is where you are not/that the fissure occurs/and the light crashes in."

In those last years I'd turn to see your face on the pillow next to mine each morning and would say, happily, "Well then, another day." You always seemed so vital, so indestructible. I was sure you would outlive me. I thought you'd live forever.

And now I envision your face out there in the starry sky in the constellation of Cancer, which is in between Gemini, the sign for you and Alison, and Leo, for our granddaughter, Charlotte.

"Don't you find it strange, Nana," Charlotte asks, "that we're part of the Milky Way and yet we can see the Milky Way?"

A good question, I tell her. I feel that you are still a part of me, Mike, and yet I can only imagine you as being far away out there in the drift of stars.

Excerpt from Minerva's Owl: The Bereavement Phase of My Marriage by Carol Matthews (Oolichan Books, $17.95). Copies will be available at local bookstores, through online retailers or by emailing

Carol Matthews is the author of four books of memoir, including The First Three Years of a Grandmother's Life and Incidental Music, a collection of short stories. She has received the 2017 PRISM international Jacob Zilber Prize for her short story The Boat, as it Happened.