How Should a Widow Cope with the Loss of Her Spouse?
By Anne Fielding
When my husband, Sheldon
Kranz, died in 1980, even as I had enormous sorrow, I had the
inestimable good fortune to be studying Aesthetic Realism and learning
how to use even this to like the world, to care for people more truly,
to value objects more deeply, to be a better critic of myself and of my
dear husband. My husband and I both
had the honor to study in classes with Eli Siegel, the great American
poet who founded the education of Aesthetic Realism in 1941. I saw that
what Mr. Siegel told me in an Aesthetic Realism lesson in 1957, when I
was newly married, was still true when I became a widow: "Your desire
is to see everything as well as you can. But when you marry, you take
on the job of seeing your husband as well as you can and yourself as to
him." The desire "to see everything as well as [we] can," I have
learned, is equivalent to our desire to like the world—which
Aesthetic Realism teaches is the purpose of marriage and of life
Women need so much to know this. More than ever, there are support or "bereavement" groups all over the country, where widows can meet and
talk, and these certainly are useful in having a woman feel less
isolated. But too often, what is called "support" is really unkind,
hurtful flattery: a woman is encouraged to find one friend or a
"support network" of other widows who will listen to her and sympathize
"unjudgmentally," uncritically. There is that in a woman that should
not be supported one bit: namely her desire to have contempt for the
world and people — which is a widow's biggest danger, and exactly the
same danger she had when her husband was alive, only now it is more
I want women to know what I have experienced intimately: that what we
really need at a time of loss is the beautiful, life-giving,
mind-strengthening criticism-as-encouragement only Aesthetic Realism
provides — which opposes our contempt and enables a woman, even as she
is sorrowful, honestly to like the world.
A representative book is the 1990 Widow's Journey: A Return
to the Loving Self, by Xenia Rose, a psychotherapist, wife of the
late, very fine cellist Leonard Rose. The author says that when her
husband died, she was shattered, and that she wrote this book in order
to have women feel, "there are ways to make widowhood a little more
bearable, and no widow is alone."
When Mrs. Rose warns widows not to "take to your bed and disconnect
from the world," she is hinting at what Aesthetic Realism makes
blazingly clear: a woman needs for her happiness and well-being to be
in a proud relation to the world and other people. But because Mrs.
Rose has not studied Aesthetic Realism and does not know that the
very self of a person is his or her relation to the world, throughout her book she implies what most widowed women feel: that they
are essentially alone in a cold world. Under the heading "Who’s Really
Going to Take Care of You?," she writes, "if you don't do it nobody
else will either." About "the old world that you miss so much," she
tells widows: "It's gone."
This author and the women she is writing for need to learn from
Aesthetic Realism that the questions a widow has are essentially
like those she had when she and her spouse were in the first flush
of courtship or newly married. She writes: "The people, ... the hopes,
... everything that made up the old life is changed." This sounds very
poignant, but it is simply not true — "everything that made up the old
life" is not changed.
When we asked Mrs. Hale in a phone consultation from Bangor, Maine, "is
the cup you are holding in your hand just as delicate and sturdy as
when your husband drank from it?" she said, "Why yes, it is." And when
we asked, "Is the table you are leaning on still steady, able to
support the weight of your elbows and the cup?," she was beginning to
see that even though her husband had died, the world itself was not
just frightening and strange — it was also kindly familiar, and she
immediately felt both lighter and more solid.
Contempt: A Widow's Greatest Danger
Mrs. Hale also began to learn that the big danger for a widow is to use the loss of her husband
to have contempt for the world, to feel it is senseless and cruel. She
learned too that contempt was the very thing that had interfered with
her marriage long before his death. For example, she used to punish
Ronald Hale with what he called her "Sunday afternoon grouches."
When a husband dies, the contempt a woman has nourished in the daily
life of her marriage can intensify and ravage her. In one of the most
beautiful documents ever written, "The Meaning of the Hebrew Kaddish," Eli Siegel explains:
When a great grief
comes, there is a tendency to retreat into ourselves, and there be
glumly dismal. Grief can make for ... an indifference unwilling to see
color in anything, goodness in any person, meaning in the universe ....
The purpose of the Kaddish is to stop our changing grief and fear into
selfishness. It tells us not to change sorrow into a dislike of what is.
Geraldine Hale was
surprised when she saw that even as a young wife she had had a tendency
to be "glumly dismal" with her husband. In a class Eli Siegel said to There Are Wives, Aesthetic Realism consultants to women, with whom I am
proud to teach, that the consultation trio should never put aside the
central question: "How much do people want to like at all?" He
explained: "People do not want to be pleased with what is not
If a woman has spent years having the spurious
victory of not liking the world—and most women do—when a husband
dies she will use his absence to be even more displeased and to love
herself exclusively. This "dislike of what is" can take the form of not
wanting to get out of bed, talk to people, or eat. She can also, as
Xenia Rose says she did, "rage ... at the world," be angry at a sunny
day, hate it that other people are having a good time, resent women
whose spouses are still alive.
I remember with shame that shortly after Sheldon Kranz died I saw a
woman about my age walking with her husband and felt: "why should she
have her husband when mine is gone?" Thank God I was able to criticize
myself, to ask, "Are you proud of this feeling? Would Sheldon respect
you for it?" I immediately saw how unjust and selfish it was, and I
In Widow's Journey, the author recalls her husband "saying
that in the long run all that really mattered was us." That sounds
romantic, but it represents the very ordinary wifely use of a husband
to approve of herself in a narrow way while disdaining other humans. We
have asked women: "If your husband had goodness in him, didn't that
goodness come from reality, which made him—and is it still in the
world? If he had strength and gentleness, for example, can you find
these same opposites in ever so many places?"
The Beautiful Job of
A question There Are
Wives has learned to ask a woman is: "How big is your desire to know?" We have seen that most wives prefer owning and managing their husbands
to knowing them: this is why a woman feels so guilty when a husband
dies. And a woman mourning a husband can also be angry with him
because, through his dying, she can no longer own him, have him serve
her and make her important.
In an Aesthetic Realism lesson my mother had the honor to be given in
1952, shortly after my father's sudden death, Eli Siegel explained to
her that a central reason she felt desolate and responsible for his
dying was that she had not sufficiently wanted to know him and she felt
now it was too late. I remember how magnificently Mr. Siegel showed her
that the feeling she had nothing to live for was really contempt, and
that it wasn't too late. He said that she could use her thought
right now to know who this man, with whom she had lived and raised two
daughters, really was — to see how my father was related to everything.
And I saw my mother's life at the age of forty-nine literally begin
In Geraldine Hale’s first consultation, we asked: "Do you think you
still have things to learn about Ronald Hale — and would he like that?"
And I asked her a question Eli Siegel had asked my husband at the time
of his mother’s death: "Is [Ronald Hale] as much related to things now
as [he] was three years ago?" After a pause she said, "Yes, I think
so," and her voice had a new lift in it.
"Even after someone has died," Eli Siegel said, "the job of knowing
that person goes on." Mrs. Hale began to learn that though her husband
was no longer here, sitting across the room from her, or holding her
next to him in bed, the beautiful "job of knowing" him and the world
was not over, in fact, it was just beginning.
"All beauty," Eli Siegel stated in a principle of Aesthetic Realism,
"is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what
we are going after in ourselves." Mrs. Hale studied the world's
opposites in objects: roughness and smoothness in a melon; curve and
straight line in a pair of scissors; constriction and relaxation in a
large white gardenia; flexibility and firmness, separateness and
togetherness in a wicker table.
Of this table she wrote: "It was built in a country many miles away and
I think of how many hands were needed to produce the finished product
and the hope of those involved. This brings me closer to them." She
wrote a soliloquy of her husband, including his criticisms of her. She
wrote about the feelings of a neighbor, and the hopes and fears of a
child in Baghdad.
Her life, once constrained and narrow, became vibrant and wide. At age
77 she even wrote in a letter: "I no longer think of this portion of my
life as the last quarter, but the fourth quarter. I am a happier person
and ... more compassionate. [Because of what I] have learned from the
Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel, ... I am not afraid of the future."
Originally published September 1, 1998
Anne Fielding, an Aesthetic Realism consultant with There Are Wives, teaches the monthly Aesthetic Realism and Marriage class with Barbara Allen and Pauline Meglino at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, a not-for-profit educational foundation at 141 Greene Street in Manhattan, (212) 777-4490. Articles by Miss Fielding published in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known include "How Can Marriage Succeed in a Failed Economy?," "Justice in Marriage," and "Contempt: the Enemy of Marriage."