Today this thought struck me as I rode my bike: Rob is never coming back.
A year after his death, you might say, “Duh.” And part of me would heartily agree. Even a cursory look at my everyday life makes it obvious. The dentist no longer calls with Rob’s appointment reminders. Our bank accounts bear my name only now. Rob’s razor is gone from the shower, his shoes moved from the hallway closet. A year later, I don’t expect him to walk in the door anymore.
After 17 years of marriage, it’s hard to pretend your other half lives in your house when his absence is so evident. I’ve begun to acknowledge Rob’s death in myriad outward ways, to accommodate for his absence as best I can. But recently I realized that my heart has held out hope much longer. Over the last twelve months I’ve clung to the idea that I could keep loving Rob the same way I always did. Everything outward might change, but surely my love could stay the same.
The year mark of Rob’s death has come and gone, and what would have been our 18th wedding anniversary approaches next week. These milestones speak to me so clearly. He’s never coming back. And just as Rob’s side of the bedroom closet looks different a year later, my love for him is changing too. I feel a lump rise in my throat as I reflect on this reality again. The realization breaks my heart. Of all the changes, I’ve dreaded this one most sacred thing.
As Long As We Both Shall Live
When I married Rob I promised to “love him, comfort him, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to him as long as [we] both shall live.” I’m an Enneagram six; we’re wired for loyalty. I took my vow to love seriously.
For 17 years I kept my vows to Rob the very best I could, ardently, if imperfectly. I held him when he cried. I honored his leadership in our home. I loved him in his sickness and in his health. But I can’t do any of those things any more. He’s never coming back. Even if I wanted to resist this reality, I look at the vows I spoke to Rob 18 years ago next week; and I realize I have no power to prevent this change. Losing this part of loving Rob is part of grieving his death. Some parts of our vows simply don’t work without two people present.
In my grieving process, I have encountered catch phrases like “After Death, Love Lives On.” These phrases are popular in the grief counseling community. I think they try to capture the idea that when our loved one dies, we don’t stop loving them. We don’t simply ditch them and “move on.” If that is the intention, I subscribe wholeheartedly.
However, if I am to grieve in a healthy way, I must admit to myself that the love I carry for Rob, the love that remains after his death, does not stay static. Love may live on, but it changes too. Like other loving relationships, my relationship with Rob will evolve and mature with time. Even if his death biblically, technically, released me from my marriage vows, I promised Rob “as long as you both shall live,” and I’m still here. I am loyal and don’t make promises lightly. I heartbreakingly acknowledge that my love is changing. But what kind of love lives on after death? What does loving my husband look like when he’s no longer alive? How does my loving change when I must acknowledge he’s never coming back?
Over the last few months as I have contemplated this change, I’ve discovered within my marriage vows the very answers I have sought. There are many ways I cannot love Rob anymore. Practical, physical ways. If the entirety of love was service and sex, our love has ended. But many of the promises I made to Rob all those years ago I can still keep, even as they evolve and grow according to my new life after his death. I can love Rob. I can honor him. I can be faithful to him. Even if he’s never coming back. If my heart breaks to see my love change in the face of death, I can hold on to these things. I can still love Rob well.
What Love Looks Like Now
A year out from my husband’s death, what does my love look like now? In some ways, it looks the same as it always did. I love him. I love Rob deeply, with all my heart. I want the whole world to know I love him. I’m still attracted to him after all these years. When he’s absent from the room, I long for the physical love of his presence. I honor him. I speak good words about him. I do not use his absence as an opportunity to malign him. I honor his voice in our family. I reflect his wishes in my parenting decisions. I consider his values when making choices. I am faithful to him. I remain faithful to our shared vision for our family. I faithfully and gladly acknowledge that I am and always will be Rob’s wife first.
I also acknowledge that healthy love does not remain the same. That my desire to freeze our love in time was a desperate response, not a healthy one. As I release my grip on the love Rob and I shared, I find I am actually able to love him better. Less selfishly, more open-heartedly. Love expressed in his absence necessarily looks different from how I expressed it during his life. But this love can still grow if I cultivate it, even as the years of his absence pass by. There is so much I must leave behind. Nevertheless, so much love still remains.
My love for Rob is just as strong as it ever was, even if it’s nuanced by his death now. I miss his presence every day. I miss all of the ways he loved me. I miss all of the ways I could express my love for him. We said, “as long as you both shall live.” Even in Rob’s absence, I fully intend to keep my side of the promise. Even as my love takes new shape in the years to come, I will love Rob for the rest of my life.