Not long after Rob died, I ventured out to a social gathering, my first foray into the world post-loss, beyond the comfortably anonymous grocery store and post office. After a brief pep talk in the car, I smoothed my sweater, smiled in the rear view mirror and climbed out of the car. “Straighten your shoulders, Clarissa,” I coached myself as I walked across the parking lot. “Stand tall. You can do this.” Rob and I had tag-teamed in social situations for so long; I knew well the challenges I’d face without him beside me. So I’d prepped myself in advance with possible conversation topics. I was ready to smile and engage and ask open-ended questions, envisioning him beside me as I tried this on my own.
As I walked in the door, I realized I wouldn’t get the chance to practice all I’d prepped in the days before. All eyes glanced in my direction then quickly looked away. Weak smiles faded off faces as folks returned to their conversations. I headed to the refreshments table and grabbed a drink. “At least I’ll have something to hold,” I thought as I filled my cup. This was going to be harder than I thought.
I attempted to circulate that evening like the elephant in the room. My grief seemed to be bumping up against everybody, stepping on their toes, making them feel squeezed and uncomfortable. I’d barely said a word. “An odd by-product of my loss,” said C.S Lewis in A Grief Observed, “is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet.” Making sustained eye contact in that room was harder than at a junior high school dance. No one wanted to look me in the eye.
In a moment of relief, I found a seat on the edge of the room. I’d nurse my drink, give my regards to the host and be on my way. Even there, a wallflower, I couldn’t be inconspicuous. A dribble of uneasy, well-meaning folks wandered by with vanilla pleasantries. They could barely make eye contact; but I realized, to my embarrassment, that their gaze was still on me. They were looking at my hands.
A widow’s hands are the most fascinating part of her body. Her hands are the woman in the low-cut blouse, the teenager with the multiple facial piercings, the little girl with the chocolate milk mustache. Folks may not be able to look me in the eye, but they can’t take their eyes off my hands. They’re looking to see if I’m still wearing my rings.
Six months later, I wear my rings like always. I don’t ever take them off. Regardless of what the law or society might say, I still feel married to Rob. My finger bears the imprint of those bands that have rubbed against it for so many years. Marriage has shaped even my hands.
After Rob’s death, I didn’t remove a ring; I added another. For Christmas, I bought myself an anniversary band, 17 tiny diamonds to celebrate our 17 years of marriage. I wear his wedding band on my right hand and my rings on my left. I look at my hands, my collection of rings, and think, “I’m more married now than ever.” Those rings have meant security and belonging and love and faithfulness for so long. It is hard to let these find new meaning as I learn to be alone in the world. It’s even harder when it feels like everyone is watching.
I don’t know when or if I’ll want to remove my rings. This is more than a choice of jewelry. It’s another deeply painful part of saying goodbye. Unfortunately, I have no doubt everyone will notice when I do. I’d like to say … Stop gawking. Just act normal. Don’t draw attention. Don’t make this harder than it is. If they’ll look me in the eye, perhaps I’ll get the chance.