When I Understood What ‘Till Death Do Us Part’ Really Means


“‘Til death do us part.”

When I said those words at the end of our marriage vows, I wasn’t thinking about death. I was thinking about living and loving as long as I could.

Our rabbi reminded me of them a few weeks ago, and the idea that the vows I had made were not open-ended, but only in force until death came, hit me like some kind of Old Testament revelation.

Death came, there was no denying that. A specific year, month, week, day, minute, second, recorded and shrouded in paper work. One could not get away from it. Death was instant. Everywhere in my life.

But the parting? There is nothing instant about that. Instead, it has been been slow, drawn out, merciless, emotional torture. Death brings absence. Fine. We don’t accept it, hate it, resent it, fight it, but it is a fact, so we absorb absence into our heart, our soul, our mind, our life and think, Ah-ha! I am moving forward.”

But parting requires more than absence. It requires acceptance. And it comes in segments, surprising you, throwing you off balance. Just when you accept that there will never be anymore of this, you are suddenly reminded that there will also never be more of that, and that, and that. And so it goes, month after month, the perpetual parting. Every moment you shared together has to be parted with, let go… there seems to be no end to the discoveries of what death has taken from you, what you must reconcile yourself to be parted from, to do without.

I acknowledge now that I have been purposely resisting the parting that is part of death. I did not want to permit it, felt that somehow any healing, any movement away from grief would be a betrayal, a kind of infidelity. Intellectually, I know that is foolish, but the heart and the intellect are often strangers.

And yet, however much one hoards one’s grief, the parting does come. You do learn to sit at the table and eat breakfast alone. You do learn to do up your own zippers, carve your own meat, balance the checkbook. You accept that there is no one beside you to share the laughter, get the joke, understand your anger, hold you in the night. You realize, finally, that the ties that bind are now fastened only to you. There is no one at the other end. You may not want to part, but the parting takes place. Like death, it is inevitable.

You don’t want to forget either, but you do forget. Yesterday I was trying to remember a joke that my husband told over and over and over — so often that I would grit my teeth. Now I can’t remember the punch line. I am not forgetting him, but I am forgetting the little things that were such a part of him.

The grief is still there. But suddenly, from somewhere, almost 18 months later, I do now occasionally experience the unadulterated joy that I never thought I would again. To my surprise, I am no longer numb. The flowers in the park, a small child patting my dog, the flight of a bird, planning a visit with my grandson with his friends — these things bring a lift to my heart that, for the first time, is not shadowed with the thought, Nothing is any fun without you.

I miss him terribly. I mourn his absence every day. Still. But there is a lightness to me now that I truly thought I would never feel again. I was not only sure that life was over, I wanted it to be over. Now I hear life knocking at my door. Does that make me any less of a wife, turn me into an unfaithful widow?

Next month, we will observe the traditional ceremony at the cemetery that, in the Jewish religion, officially marks the end of mourning. This should have been done in January, a year after his death — I put that off, giving the weather as the reason, but in truth, I didn’t want to end my mourning. I wasn’t ready.

Am I ready now? I do not know. What I do know is that when death comes, parting is inevitable. That one can forget and not forget. One can live with death and still be alive; mourn and still feel joy.

Because death, parting, forgetting, a return to life —  none of those things pose a threat to the love we shared. That will always be.

My husband died. But not love. Love never dies; it is endless, stronger than death, stronger than parting, strong enough to say, “Enter,” to life, knocking at the door.

joan straus

Joan Sutton’s essays on Alzheimer’s, caregiving, and becoming a widow are now available in a book (hard and soft covers) and ebook: The Alzheimer’s Diary. 100 percent of the author royalties from her book go to the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation.

the alzheimer's diary book cover

A version of this post originally appeared on Sutton’s Place.

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