Below is the introductory chapter from my ebook I Know You’re Dead But I Still Worry About You, provided so that you can get some sense of the book’s messages.
The death of my wife Vickie Keener on September 7, 2001 nearly destroyed me. Vickie was closer to me than I was to myself. If you have been married for a number of years, you know exactly what I mean.
In the months and years that followed, especially the first few years, the only thing that kept me going was my fear that, even in death, Vickie still needed me to act on her behalf, maybe even to protect her. Yes, I know that sounds strange. But, I had been her protector for nearly 20 years and didn’t know how to be otherwise. So, you can see where the title of this book came from.
I published this book to give you a sense of my experiences, so you will know more about what to expect when you face the ultimate tragedy. Also, if you have a friend who has lost someone very close, this book should help you understand some of what your friend is going through.
I frequently would ask myself, Is this how all bereaved feel? Will it hurt forever? Do I need just to get a grip on myself? So, once I retired from work and had time to write, I decided to help others who are asking these same questions.
In particular, I am hoping that you can read about my experiences and say, “I can identify with what Keener went through, and here are some things I can do to help myself.” Or even, “Well at least I’m not as screwed up as Bruce Keener. Since he survived, I can.”
While I speak primarily from my experiences, I’ve added insights from friends who lost a spouse or child. This lets you gain from more than one perspective.
One key thing you will learn from this is that we all feel up-close-and-personal death differently. Of course, that is not surprising. But what may be a revelation to you is just how different we can be. For example, one man I know mowed his lawn the day his wife died, whereas I could not even eat, at all, for two days. He had to do something physical to keep from cracking up, even though he knew for five-months that her death was imminent. In my case, Vickie’s death was sudden and unexpected. I could not have cut grass if my life had depended on it.
You will see from this book that grief is inexpressible and that you can’t put a number on it or give it a time limit. Death removes some of the meaning and value from the world, forever. There is no formula that can be applied to that kind of loss. So, if your spouse or child dies, and someone tells you two months later that you should be over it and getting the “old you” back, try to understand that they have no idea what they are talking about, because they surely do not. (Unfortunately, there will be some who think that you should “just snap out of it.”)
Think about this the way a neuroscientist would: for years — every time you thought about love, beauty, kindness, passion, intelligence, adventure, suffering, determination, honesty — half the neuron connections your brain built were based on the reference to a real living human being. Now those billions of connections link to something that is no longer real. It’s like clicking a link and getting a 404 error: page not found.
You can’t rewire these billions of connections in a couple of months. Many of them never get rewired. Much of what is in your head just turns into snapshots that will spontaneously flash through your mind, sometimes reactivating a feeling of love, pain, or helplessness. Sometimes you will try to recall these snapshots, although you learn not to do so too often because each one distorts a little each time you pull it up. Out of fear of losing those precious pictures altogether, you wind up not pulling them up very often.
I am not suggesting that you will grieve forever. Your religion may even place limits on you. For example, Jewish law permits the mourning period to last only one year. And if your depression lasts longer than two or three years—and you will be depressed—perhaps you do need to get professional help. At the same time, don’t expect to reach the point of “closure,” which is sort of a fictional construct of recent psychology.
You may also hear people talking about the five stages of grief. Turns out that there is no such thing. The myth arose from misinterpreting Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ work on the stages that dying patients (not grieving loved ones) go through. Once you think about it, it becomes evident that dying and grieving are not the same thing.
In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, legendary actor Robert Wagner mentioned that he still thinks of his late wife who passed away 33 years ago. Mr. Wagner remarried many years ago, and many people would think he should be “completely over” Natalie by now. But, you wouldn’t stop loving your mom or dad or brother or sister who had died, so you should not expect to stop loving the one who is closest of all to you: your spouse or child. Your love will almost certainly take on a different form, but it does not disappear.
In my case, I was depressed, though “fully functional,” for almost three years. My actual grief lasted for another four years, though. It did not involve depression, although I had plenty of sad moments, but there was still an emptiness that I can’t quite describe. After that, my grief became less defining in my life, and I would probably label it as emptiness rather than grief.
Three of my four widowed friends remarried although all would tell you that their grief lasted a long while. One of these friends said his period of actual depression lasted about three years, like mine did.
You will see some things in this book that may seem strange. For example, you’ll learn that there have been plenty of times when I was a hard-core atheist, while at the same time standing at my wife’s grave and talking to her as if she could hear me. Also, for a very long time, I still worried about Vickie and made massive efforts to ensure I did all I could to “help her,” even when I had stopped believing that we have souls.
Similarly, I would offer my soul for destruction in exchange for Vickie’s soul being okay. Again, I did this whether I believed in souls or not.
These “moments” can happen to the smartest of people, not just to us standard mortals. For example, Richard Feynman, Nobel Laureate in physics and one of the best minds to ever grace this planet, wrote the following in a letter to his wife, more than a year after she had died:
My darling wife, I do adore you.
I love my wife.
My wife is dead.
P.S. Please excuse my not mailing this–but I don’t know your new address.
(This is from Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman. Feynman’s daughter Michelle notes that this particular letter seemed to be much more worn than the others, indicating that he reread it often.)
Feynman’s little finger was probably smarter than my brain, yet that did not keep him, an outspoken atheist, from trying to communicate with his dead wife.
Simultaneously holding opposing views is something everyone does. For homework, take some paper and write out your beliefs. You will be amazed at how many of them are contradictory. It’s just how we are wired–scientists call this ‘cognitive dissonance.’ And it gets magnified when we lose somebody we dearly love.
The crux of what I am saying is this: if you do lose someone you love, and none of us gets any younger, and Vickie was only 53 anyway, you are not going just to spend a week with a pad of paper answering the question, Okay, what’s next? Grief is not some 1-2-3 process that you work through. It takes time and it takes friends and family, and it is going to influence your thinking in a lot of areas. Your brain is not going to be completely toast, but for a while reality may well seem like a thin sheet of ice stretched over a deep, dark ocean of chaos.
I’d like now to move on into the meat of the book, which is described in the remaining paragraphs.
The chapter Vickie is where I tell you a little about Vickie and our marriage. I do not go into a lot of detail–after all, how can you describe an entire life, a person, their hopes and desires and actions and dreams and influence? Well, you can’t, and I can’t, and all God’s children can’t. Even trying to provide a summary of Vickie and our marriage feels like a sacrilege to me.
But, I do provide enough of a sketch for you to know that she was a real person, an actual living human being, just like you and me, one who cherished life and was not expecting it to end.
Fog and Tears discusses Vickie’s death and some of the ways in which it undid me. This is probably where I open up my mind and heart the widest to let you look in and see how the first few months without her felt. I tried very hard in writing this chapter to give you a sense of just how much the loss of a loved one can fracture a person’s soul. Unfortunately, the written word is inadequate for conveying our most intense feelings, and my poor mastery of the art of writing doesn’t help, but you can at least get a sense of what I went through, and what you can expect to go through.
The Final Gift discusses my final gift to Vickie. I wrote it to shed more light for you on Vickie’s fundamental nature–that of abiding love.
Weirdnesses is just what it sounds like: it’s about some of the weird things that happened after Vickie died. The kind of things that make you wonder whether they were of supernatural origin. I think all of them can be explained without reference to a supernatural domain, but one does wonder. I certainly did (and still do). From what I can tell, nearly all bereaved have some unusual experiences, and I suspect that most such experiences can be looked at as either supernatural or as having a physical or biological explanation. I share mine because they were part of my grieving, and because doing so shows how one can think about events in a couple of different ways.
I Still Worry about You describes some of what I did to “protect” Vickie after she died. I frequently asked myself, “What if Vickie needs my help in her new life?” and this chapter describes some of the ways in which I addressed that question.
Out of the Blue describes some incidents in which I came unglued months after I thought I was all cried out and could no longer be hurt.
Other Things You Should Know is, of course, what it sounds like: a collection of information that did not fit nicely into the other chapters.
Epilogue: Some friends prompted me to provide a few conclusions, which I decided was a great idea.
One more thing: I want to tell you what this book is not. It is not a make-you-cry book or a give-poor-old-me-sympathy book. It’s something I felt like I had to do. I learned from my grieving and I feel obligated to share that with you. Also, I needed to do this for me. And for Vickie.
This also is not a book in which I try to change your views about God. Most of the time, I don’t know what to believe myself, and, even if I did, it’s your business what you believe, not mine. I talk about God, both my believing in God and my disbelieving in God, but I am not trying to manipulate your beliefs–I am only telling you how it figured into my grieving.