Sunday, June 23, 2024

My husband and I are currently facing immense challenges in our marriage, and it seems like there isn’t much guidance available on how to navigate through it. We haven’t communicated in over a year. It’s difficult for me to answer our children’s questions about his whereabouts. I have taken on all the responsibilities of managing our household, along with handling various legal and financial tasks. I have had ample time to reflect on my past mistakes, but I can’t apologize.

The primary issue in our relationship is that my husband is no longer alive. Last year, at the age of 43, he passed away from an undiagnosed heart condition. To keep his memory alive, I have taken various steps, especially since we have two young children, one of whom was born after his death. Both of them will grow up without any memories of him. I have created board books with his photos, organized his tools and art supplies, and framed posters from concerts we attended. However, I question whether my actions are “healthy.”

Many individuals agree that discussing and remembering the deceased is a healthy and positive way to cope. However, at some point, you are expected to remove your wedding ring and refrain from wearing his old sweaters in public.

Recently, I have seen numerous doctors, and during every visit, they provide me with a mental health survey. Upon answering questions about my sleeping patterns, anxiety levels, and frequency of crying, I have an urge to tell the person holding the clipboard, “But it’s solely because my husband died. Wouldn’t it be strange if I wasn’t struggling?”

I used to enjoy reading advice on relationships. My husband and I had a good relationship, despite its quirks, and reading about other people’s problems and solutions reminded me that no one is perfect. However, I now realize how irrelevant that advice is to my current situation. You cannot improve intimacy, communication, or divide household tasks equitably with someone who is no longer present. You cannot learn the love language of a ghost.

Technically, I am no longer married. I have checked the “widow” box countless times on various forms. Nevertheless, being a widow feels distinct from being single. I still feel like I am in a relationship, especially since I am raising our children. I continue living in the house we purchased and making decisions based on our choices. Therefore, I attempt to live my life in a manner that would allow him to walk back through the door at any moment and resume everything the way it used to be.

During a grief therapy appointment, I mentioned to my therapist that I frequently think about the challenges in our marriage. I didn’t have any significant regrets, but there were certain things that bothered me, which I wish I had discussed with him when I had the chance. Additionally, I have a list of things I wish I had done differently, such as making the bed before work, driving more cautiously, and understanding how our Wi-Fi functioned instead of relying on him.

Curiously, my therapist responded with, “What are your thoughts about your thoughts?”

“I think I simply want to be in a relationship with him,” I replied, tears streaming down my face once again.

Losing your spouse is anything but easy, and there are times when I wonder if it’s even more challenging for us because we came from such different backgrounds. When we first met, I was a conservative white girl from the suburbs. I struggled with city life; I didn’t know how to dress or drive around, but I possessed extensive knowledge of classical music and the Bible.

Initially, I turned down Nong’s offer to go out because he wasn’t a Christian. He had recently started working part-time as a circulation clerk at the library, where I worked as a children’s librarian. His life story seemed almost unbelievable: an art school dropout born in a Thai refugee camp, expelled from high school, homeless yet crashing at his aunt’s apartment, fired from multiple jobs but aspiring to attend medical school. He relied on public transportation, was acquainted with several homeless individuals in Providence, enjoyed comics, Cambodian cuisine, and hip-hop, and had a fashion sense that consisted of Def Leppard T-shirts and argyle cardigans.

Yet, by portraying him this way, I am creating a caricature. All these aspects are true, but they do not capture the essence of being around him. At first, he was reserved and liked to crack jokes that only he would understand. He always prioritized others over himself and dismantled objects to understand how they worked. These traits reflected both his personality and survival strategies.

It took me years to comprehend the extent to which his experiences were influenced by his dark complexion, immigrant status, childhood lacking basic supplies and winter clothing, and being a young man walking through city neighborhoods at night while wearing a hoodie.

Throughout this past year, there have been countless moments when I wished I could ask my husband for his opinion. Some suggest that I should know what he would say because he lives in my heart. However, I’m unsure. I don’t feel his presence, although sometimes I imagine him standing in the staff kitchen where I pump breast milk twice a day for our daughter in daycare. That room offers little distraction from my thoughts of him.

“So, what do you think?” I ask aloud, intending to know his thoughts about the person I am becoming. Occasionally, I wear headphones and listen to the sports podcast he used to enjoy while we cooked dinner. I used to do this in the car, but crying while driving is dangerous.

Certain cultures have established rituals that involve communicating with the dead, such as lighting incense or leaving food out for them. Unfortunately, I have only a vague understanding of these practices. Communing with my husband feels like something I should do, but also something I don’t believe in.

On some level, I know I must come to terms with the fact that our relationship is over. When he passed away, I searched for messages from him. I reread old texts and emails, sifted through his sketch pads, scrolled through his open browser tabs, and resisted the urge to inquire if he had mentioned me to his brother at the hospital on the day he died. Successfully guessing the password to his laptop made me feel like an Indiana Jones, but I discovered nothing new.

Even if I stumbled upon a message, what would it change? I must learn to “let him go.” I emphasize the phrase because I understand it to be the right advice, but I struggle to comprehend its true meaning. My husband is already gone, yet I am still holding on with all my strength. Letting go is incredibly challenging.

When I initially began writing this essay, I hoped that by the end, I would have some relationship advice for those married to deceased individuals. Writing has always aided my self-discovery, and if there was any chance of finding something, writing would lead me to it.

However, I found nothing. I have no advice to offer. All I have are questions: if the ghost of my husband will be with me forever, how do I live with that presence? How do I prevent myself from forgetting everything? How do I adapt into a different person than the one Nong knew and loved? How do I come to terms with the fact that he will never change, that his process of growth and development has concluded?

In case it’s not evident, this essay serves as my attempt to reach out to my husband while simultaneously letting him go. I believe that words read by individuals I have never met in places I have never been will possess a special power. They will travel to places I cannot reach, and perhaps a part of me can go along with them, to wherever my husband may be…

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