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Higher Places in Paradise

Grieving the Loss of a Spouse

S. Michael Wilcox - January 31, 2012

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After losing my wife to cancer, I had to learn to live, love, and grieve all at the same time. I'm still learning to feel my way without her physically beside me, but I am learning more of the deeper meaning of eternal love.

Click here to read our article on losing a spouse--whether you have or someone you know is struggling--and how to cope.

Love is a redeeming emotion and grief is love’s shadow. I am now living in that shadow, the diminished light cast upon me by the death of my wife a short eight months ago. These have been days of pain and, yes, fear and questioning, but also of profound love felt in previously undiscovered depths of my soul. 

I kept a small notebook near me during my wife’s battle with cancer and her eventual passing. I tried to record what I was learning about living and loving and grieving. I did not initially intend it for publication but was reminded that we are under divine injunction to mourn with those who mourn and offer what comforts we can. To that end, and by way of tribute to the woman I love, I wrote the book Sunset, my own passage through the landscape of a loved one’s passing, desiring that it might lift others who share the path with me or who will one day find themselves on our road, hoping someone left a few signposts to help them find their way. Grief is a searching, desiring emotion. It is the heart’s hunger—the soul reaching out to the limits of mortality’s boundaries.

Writing of Laurie helped to open the windows of my soul and let some of the sadness depart. Both love and sorrow are meant to be shared—love that it may grow and sorrow that it may diminish. Writing was a continued sharing of life, with the paradox that when I finished, it was like losing her a second time. My world was thinner. Yet, a wonderful Muslim friend of ours told me, “When we speak lovingly of those who have passed, we lift them to higher and higher places in paradise.” That was comforting. Sunset was my lifting.

I wrote that others may find in a shared experience permission to feel what they feel, realizing others truly do understand. Life now has a strange, unfamiliar quality to it. I’m on a stage in someone else’s play. I act out my roles. I interact with the other players. I say my lines and execute my entrances and exits. It’s a good play, certainly not a tragedy, and the scenes are filled with wonderful people and much joy, even laughter. But the genuine life, the loving life, is somewhere else. I wait for the play to end. The other actors will go home, the crowds will thin, and I will see her waiting in the wings. We’ll walk off together, Laurie and I, and have toast and hot chocolate in the kitchen.

I have watched countless sunsets in the past months, many of them over the ocean. As the sun nears the horizon, it spreads a narrow golden ribbon of reflected light across the water. It shimmers like an inviting pathway reaching my feet. I have thought many an evening that one day I will step out onto that shining, beckoning stretch of light and walk out over the ocean, past the waves, past the horizon and into the sunset. Laurie will come to meet me, reach out her hands, and grief will end. Until that day, I search for her in other ways. Perhaps my searching will help others.

There is a love that is developed between two people who look across at each other and love what they see. It is found in the face and features, in the heart, hair, soul, and mind which each accepts as a gift from the other. But all this is enhanced by the love that unites when both look from each other to something else and each loves what the eyes see equally.

Our marriage was more than just us. It was everything we both found dear, or satisfying, or comic, or lovable. It was the Shakespeare Festival, and Chinese art, the sea cliffs of Ireland, and the red rock hiking trails of Southern Utah. It was BBC mini-series and Poirot mysteries, orange juice with popcorn and French toast in the morning. I am learning to reach for this love, the warm flowing over the soul, the quiet awareness of someone looking with me. It is akin to retrieving an early morning dream or a forgotten lyric which trembles just on the rim of the mind. 

I am also learning the deeper meaning of that eternal love which begins with two kneeling souls in a temple. We speak of the everlasting nature of love, its infinite scope. I always imagined it as stretching down the long corridor of welcoming time, past setting suns and turning galaxies, but my vision was always a future one of time unspent. Now I feel it pulling me backwards, through every moment of her childhood, her growing preparatory years, the seasons of dolls and dances, first lipstick and earrings, times I did not share with her but were now as precious as if I had always known her, always loved her, had never lived without her. I sense in this backward yearning that when the day comes that veils and closed doors will part and open and our sight search forgotten time that the reach of love will encompass all the eons of the past so that eventually there will never be a time when I did not love her.

I am not speaking of the belief that we knew each other in a pre-mortal life. It is not that! But something deeper, more holy, first created in the temple, at the altar where the eternal motion towards both future and past begins its infinite longing reach. Was she ever not there? Was there ever a time I did not love her? No, it seems in this that love is retrospective and captures all the moments of the past and makes them part of the now, one eternal round, all things in the present, time in perfect wholeness, union before union. Ironically, it is death, the perceived ender of things that has given me this gift of enhanced ages. 

With that vision I offer to all my own deepest prayer.

“We mourn, Father, be with us in our mourning! Though thy scriptures so triumphantly ask, ‘O death, where is thy sting?’ we know where to find it. We love, Father, help us in our loving. Teach us to walk the path that leads forward, into the arms of those we long for.”

© LDS Living, January/February 2012.
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