By Peter Lichtenberg
Twenty, two thousand, thirty-five, and one. Numbers.
Numbers have always been important to me as a way to mark significant parts of life and living. When I was growing up, and Hank Aaron was my favorite player, while everyone else loved Willie Mays, I kept close track of his batting average and home runs. When my hometown Philadelphia Phillies were awful, I tracked Tony Taylor’s best season—could he end up hitting .300? He did and batted .301. When I had an All-Star baseball set and played constantly, I had season averages, lifetime averages and an assortment of other statistics always in my mind. During my first year of graduate school, while walking to class, I would count the number of days I would live in West Lafayette, Indiana. When I became a researcher, I began to count my numbers of publications. First, because it was a marker for promotion and then because numbers just stay with me.
In ten days, September 18, 2019 I will mark the 20th anniversary of
my marriage to Susan. I have journaled and written about Susan so often,
(including my own short book,
“Grief and Healing: Against the Odds,” of being widowed twice, at 25 and 55). How miraculously she came into my life and allowed me to begin living fully—for the first time since the death of my first wife, Becky, who died suddenly at age 25 from an arrhythmia while jogging. Susan was not only my wife; she was my colleague, my best friend, my tennis partner, my hiking partner, movie critic partner, parenting partner, and my partner in noticing and reveling in the small things in life. Susan once wrote to me that “being married to you is the easiest thing I have ever done in my life”—wow!!
How would I not celebrate and mark the 20th year!?
Two-thousand! Two thousand days ago Susan died. Her heart gave out after battling Stage IV breast cancer for 44 months—enduring all sorts of treatments. It was sudden, her death, and it was a blessing that she did not know she was going to die that day. She grieved so the idea of leaving me, of leaving her children and step-child ages 21, 12 and 9 behind.
One Thousand. I took a long walk on her the 1,000 day after she died and reflected on how much grief I had experienced and how much hurt remained. I also reflected on how much I kept Susan close to me and how her spirit enabled me to heal and to continue living with a zest for experiences and joyful moments. At two-thousand I am back to the regular rhythms of day to day life. Happily re-married for eight plus months and so relieved to see my children doing so well and finding their day to day rhythms too. Susan is everywhere in our home and her smile and laughing, joyful and beautiful pictures give me energy and pride—I’m so proud that Susan chose me to be her one and only.
Thirty five! In two months and six days it will be 35 years since Becky died. I just had brunch in Chicago with her college roommate (and my friend too), Mary. We each reflected on how grateful we are that Becky graced us with her love and friendship. Mary had shared with me letters Becky had written her when we first moved in together, and on this trip told me of her last call with Becky and the loving things she said about me and about our marriage. I was always in awe that Becky chose me. She was the funniest, the most spirited, the smartest and the most capable person in any room.
In Chicago I stayed two blocks from where we spent the first days of our marriage. As much as my mom loved Susan and boy did she—Becky was the daughter she never had (had 4 sons). I cried more during the five years after Becky died than I ever thought possible. Grief was overwhelming and lonely. Nevertheless, I survived and grew and Becky’s influence on my life and her presence at key times of my life have been amazing. She handed me to Susan.
One! Despite being married to Debbie for slightly over 8 months, we finally moved in together only one month ago. We each had sons who were seniors in high school and we knew it was so important to keep them in their respective routines and graduate from their respective high schools. Then, like a whirling dervish, Debbie pulled off the impossible. She got her house packed up and ready for sale and sold it within a few weeks. Watching her was exhausting and intimidating. How could someone be so organized and so effective with things!!
She (and her 3 young adult children) moved into my house, since Sophie was just about to enter high school and wanted to stay put. Debbie has been an incredible blessing not only to my life, but to all three of my children’s as well—and I think among them especially Sophie! It is my life that Debbie has impacted most. She is my best friend, my hiking partner, my dining out partner, and my business partner. I wake up next to her, make us coffee and breakfast and cannot believe that once again I am blessed with such a happy home and such a healthy relationship. She has done the impossible in other ways too—whereas Susan accepted and embraced Becky, Debbie has embraced Becky and Susan and Susan’s children.
I will never be able to make sense of what has happened to me. I miss Becky and I miss Susan—Susan, especially as we went through so much and went so deeply together. I cry at the drop of a hat—commercials, comics, and any sentimental scene I see. I hurt. I long for. I am grateful, too. Grateful for all the joys of my life and Debbie’s gift of love and a life to lead together strikes me as the most unlikely joy of all. Twenty, two thousand, thirty-five and one—there are stories behind the numbers.
Peter A. Lichtenberg
September 8, 2019
Much to my surprise, I discovered two major things this holiday season. The first was that I was ready for a joyful and meaningful Christmas. I had really enjoyed buying gifts this year but I wasn’t certain how the actual day would go. It was calm, happy and celebratory. The second was that I came to recognize how much my own triggers of grief and abandonment fears had been affecting me. I couldn’t describe why it was happening but I was often feeling like a pendulum swinging from the present to the past. Bringing these two together, and with an amazing amount of patience and support from Debbie, I not only had a wonderful Christmas with my children, but also found myself wanting to be ever present in my current life.
Across these many months Debbie and I have been quietly building the roots for an ever more satisfying and deepening relationship. Our increasing understanding and acceptance of each other, along with the fun, conversation, adventures and closeness we share came even more to light. This may be my last blog because I am learning that letting go is part of moving ahead. Not forgetting, of course, but letting go of the past relationship for sustenance and esteem. I will still share my story in presentations, and help others to share theirs, but my own emotional life, my home life with my children, my relationship with Debbie and her children, and my friendships, occupy my heart and mind now.
Two Christmases stand out for me as my very favorite ones. The first began on the morning of December 23rd, 1983 . . . On Christmas Eve, my in-laws were supposed to arrive from Elkhart to join Becky and me for Christmas. When I came out of the library after working on my studies all day at 4:30 pm, darkness was just falling over West Lafayette, but it was still light enough to see that there was a blizzard going on and that the temperature had dropped to near zero degrees. Sure enough this blizzard shut the major north south interstate from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky. Becky’s parents would not be coming, and I had Becky to myself for Christmas for the first time ever! I felt as if time stood still as Becky and I got to luxuriate in each others company. I was surrounded by love and fun the entire Christmas weekend.
I have many memories of Christmas with Susan. The Christmas we drove to my parents in Philadelphia and told them Susan was pregnant with Thomas; the Christmas seasons we hosted the neighborhood holiday party (10 years in a row), the times we stayed up late getting the presents ready for Thomas and Sophie. And the last Christmas in which we had such a great day, but at the end of the day when Susan went to bed, I knew she would never have the same energy again.
The Christmas I remember as my favorite was the first Christmas Susan and I spent together — in 1997. First, it was a wonderful surprise that Susan was around for Christmas since I had thought she was heading to her parents’ home in Spokane, Washington. Susan decided to stay in Michigan and spend the long Christmas weekend with me in her apartment. We took long runs in the morning, read, watched movies and had romantic dinners and evenings. Susan and I would duplicate this type of long weekend many times; always happiest when we had uninterrupted time together.
A widowed friend of mine looked at me the other day and said “when your loved one is terminally ill you accept their death, and you are more prepared to accept it than if they die suddenly. But,” she went on to say, “that isn’t the same as grieving; you only grieve later.”
I found these words profound. I spent so much time during the first two years after Susan’s death focusing on my children’s needs, managing my household, making sure work was okay (indeed work has been phenomenal) and although I had many periods of terrible sadness and pain, the issues related to persistent grief were put off. Now, in the past six months I have been grieving the permanence of my loss. I miss knowing that Susan will be home to greet me or vice versa, that the story of love and friendship that we created will never evolve more, and that the warmth, intelligence, humor and smile that simply emanated from Susan will never again capture me wholly and totally.
I am taking the time to grieve the permanence of my loss, and at times the sadness is simply piercing. I’m finding that my social support system has changed greatly. Several people have dropped off and my circle is smaller. Perhaps my grief chased them away. Yet I am finding that by owning up to my grief I am opening up more to Debbie, and I am incredibly grateful for her patience and presence because when I spend time with her I enjoy it so totally. I used to say this after Becky died and before my life with Susan: “Healing always takes longer than you expect.”
I was out to dinner with a close friend and colleague right before Thanksgiving, when word came across the Wayne State alert system that an officer had been shot. Twenty-nine-year-old Officer Collin Rose was shot while on duty, patrolling off campus.
Our campus is one of the safest in the nation because our trained police force, so highly skilled (each a college graduate and most with master’s degrees), does community policing; policing around a 3-mile perimeter of the campus. Only one other time had an officer been shot—in the leg—36 years ago.
The day after the shooting Officer Rose died from the gunshot wound to his head. Acute grief surrounds us, and this week there will be a candlelight vigil, a public viewing and a funeral. Grief will continue for those close to him. When doing research on my own grief, I discovered that grief is often the most difficult when it is sudden, and viewed as preventable. My heart aches for those in his private and work life, and especially our Chief of Police, who will grieve Officer Rose and his shortened life.
Today is the one-thousandth day since Susan’s death. It makes me chuckle to think about my semi-obsession with numbers like this. Since August I have been counting down to this day; as if it has a special meaning. It must have a special meaning because I again found another “gift from Susan.”
In looking for some Scotch tape I found a papyrus bag filled with the most wonderful unused occasion cards. I always loved the cards I got from Susan and the ones she gave me to send out. Here today, I came upon her stash. The cards are funny, touching, unique and special: So was Susan, as was her joy of finding things like these cards. She had a special joy in discovering things, like music, or a new dress or slacks at a second-hand retail store. How I admired her patience and her joy, her taste and her sensitivity.
I’m so grateful to Susan for allowing herself to share all of who she was with me, and to let me love her, wholly and unconditionally. I hope in the days ahead to regain more of the equilibrium I enjoyed in the summer and to become more accepting again of Susan’s absence. It is the challenge of grief; how to incorporate those feelings of loss into a life of healing. I don’t have the answers, but I’m still seeking them and still choosing to heal.
On November 14, 1984, I awoke at 6:47 am and knew that Becky was dead. The person I had cherished was gone, and my life as I knew it was over.
It strikes me that Becky’s role in my life was so important that it wasn’t until a winter night in 2015 that I decided to write my book; not until I had Becky’s voice to share. It was a very cold night, and even getting out of the car in the garage was quite chilly. I walked into my home, and my eye caught sight of a handwritten letter, almost a package, or at least a full envelope sitting on the counter. I casually walked by and looked down at it. I can no longer read without my glasses, so I could not see who it was from. My curiosity soon got the best of me.
I got my glasses and saw that this letter to Pete Lichtenberg was from my college friend, and Becky’s college roommate senior year, Mary Fabrini. I had just been thinking about Mary. Had I ever written her to tell her about Susan’s death? Eagerly, I opened the letter and at once the tears started to flow; inside were three letters from Becky to Mary. Even before I read them I responded to seeing Becky’s handwriting. Some time ago I had misplaced the few letters I had from Becky. I started to read these; one from August 1981, one from September and one from October of the same year.
Right there in front of me Becky told Mary of her happiness and later of her engagement to me. I was transported back to that time and place and the forever feeling I have when I think of Becky; the feeling of joy and happiness. Then I read Mary’s note and cried even more: Tears of Joy? Tears of Sadness? Tears of Life gone by? Yes, the tears were to all three. I was ecstatic to see these letters and reading their contents was incredibly affirming even 34 years later!
One of the most dispiriting parts of grief is when things have been going along well and normally for a while and then some thing or things trigger grief’s reaction. The term “dispiriting” seems to capture the energy and emotional drain that grief can cause. I can see that multiple things catapulted me back into a world of fear, sadness, yearning and unfortunately anger.
I re-read my last blog and realize that I feel abandoned and/or judged by certain friends, and that is something I was determined not to allow myself to focus on. Giving into that anger instead of finding ways to solve the anger or bridge the divide only hurts me.
The cold fall winds often bring back memories of the day Becky died, and the absolute hurt and dread that I felt. This year, after a long warm fall, the cold winds immediately drew me to November 1984. The trip I took to Petoskey for work, and the sibling struggles of my 15 and 12-year-old brought on a deep yearning for Susan; we were always better doing things together than alone.
Two days ago Debbie and I went to dinner at Lelli’s on the Green and had a wonderful time; I had worked through a week of sadness and worry. But then on the weekend my children erupted into a confrontation with one another and with me, and all of the good feeling and sense of stability disappeared. It bothers me that nearly 33 months after Susan’s death I am once again in the throes of grieving.
This is Peter’s blog and his space, but I’m hijacking a bit of it to share powerful feedback that we received after one of Peter’s presentations on “Grief and Healing.” I’m in charge of media relations, making sure that what we do at the Institute of Gerontology is seen and understood by the world outside these walls. When a person takes the time to hand-write a note of appreciation, I listen. Allow me to share these heartfelt words from Mary Kumbier, director of philanthropy at United Methodist Retirement Communities Foundation in Chelsea, Michigan.
Dear Dr. Lichtenberg,
Your presentation was powerful and personal! The combination of your education, your personal experiences, and your understanding of seniors connected you to the audience in an intimate way. Candidly sharing your stories, describing grieving phases and thoughtfully answering questions, created a connection to attendees. It also provided crucial support for many people present.
One of our Chelsea campus residents shared that she appreciated your stories and suggestions for coping with grief. They helped her recognize that she was “on the right path.” This was her first outing since her husband died in July 2014.
We are honored and truly blessed that you were willing to travel to Dexter and share this presentation. Thank you.
Sometimes, especially in grief, nothing can substitute for “presence,” for being there. Thank you, Peter, for making the extra effort to share your story not only in this blog but person-to-person.
“The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities; but to know someone who thinks and feels with us and who is close to us in spirit, this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.” — Goethe
Parenting alone, and I mean all alone, with no spouse or ex-spouse in the picture, is intimidating. Parenting alone after the death of the spouse who is the most present and powerful force in the family is downright scary. At first I thought that we would find the right nanny to be a loving force for my then 12-year old son and 9-year-old daughter, and that this would add to my love and care. A little over two years and four nannies later, I gave up on that idea. Now I am it; chief cook, chauffeur and daily problem solver.
Susan and I were very conscious, and I mean both of us, that our relationship was the most important one and that only by attending to it, could we provide a basis for happy parenting. Now I feel that I need to nurture my own health, if I am to be a happy parent. Yesterday a friend told me, “You just need to love your children; they are like a mirror to yourself, and you should put all of your energy in parenting.” This unsolicited advice sounded a lot like a lecture: “Peter, you don’t love your kids enough.” This brought me face-to-face with one of the biggest challenges of grieving—unwanted and unhelpful advice. As if to say “Peter, if you only listened to me your grief and healing would be over.”
Does grief scare people so much that they need to “solve it”? It reminds me that Susan loved and accepted me; all of me. She knew my frailties and vulnerabilities (and I knew hers) better than anyone, but she always accepted and loved me, and never wavered in her deep belief in me. I did the same for her. In the past week, people have been incredulous that I lack confidence in certain areas of my life, and believe that I apparently don’t love my kids. I’m still listening to Susan; she didn’t try to solve the grief she knew I would have; she shared her love and care and let me do the same. She always told me that I was a great dad. It’s her words I choose to believe.