Man’s letters, bound in loss, help him work through grief
“Only one month ago today, we gathered for another celebration, your 48th birthday. The boys ate chocolate cake, I played happy birthday on my harmonica, and again you smiled through your suffering.
“You’ve been gone almost four weeks now. I face each new day yearning for you and loving you more than ever.”
In the blur of days after his wife of nearly 11 years died, an old friend mailed Ralph Moses a blank book, empty pages that came with no instructions, no prompt. Just the hope, perhaps, that it might become a book of healing.
Moses wasted little time. The next morning, before his sons, Jonathan and David, then 5 and 7, awoke, he began a ritual that would carry him through the heartaches of the next 12 months: He penned a letter to the woman he still calls “his forever love,” Ann, who had died Aug. 4, 2008, of complications from breast cancer, leaving him alone to raise their two boys.
Writing letters had long been at the root of Ralph and Ann’s connection. And, in the end, it would be letters – the spelling out of his love, his worries and his shattered dreams – that would carry him through the anguish of losing his wife far too soon.
“When Ann and I started dating in 1996, we wrote notes to each other every day, left in our mailboxes at work,” says Moses, who worked as a social worker at a school for severely disabled children, where Ann was a special-education teacher.
“Wouldn’t it be something, I thought, if I could just write her every day? Memories, both good and bad. How I’m feeling that day. The purpose was that I could stay connected to her.”
He did write every day, for the next 375 days, filling two books. He wrote of the incidental and the monumental. A light snow is falling, he wrote one January Tuesday, “just enough to leave a new coating on your grave.”
Or, one October Sunday, he wrote that Jonathan had sighed that morning and said, “Mama was our heart. We lost our heart.”
For Moses, grief poured out in words on paper. To read through the journal is to enter into the shadow and the dappled light that is the journey from utter loss to a life rearranged – empty, yes, but moving through the seasons.
For many men grief comes haltingly and with particular pain. It is not so commonplace to let your broken heart ooze. And therein lies the pain atop the pain.
“When we have great pain, we need to find something to do with it. Writing doesn’t remove it, but it spreads it around,” says Fran Nathanson, the bereavement counselor at Midwest Palliative and Hospice CareCenter, who worked with Moses, and for more than a year listened to his weekly reading of at least one letter.
Men are more inclined to work through grief in a style that’s often less about talking and more about taking action.
Kenneth J. Doka, co-author of “Grieving Beyond Gender: Understanding the Ways Men and Women Mourn” (Routledge/Taylor & Francis, $34.95), is a professor of counseling who has been studying grief since his days as a pediatric chaplain at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York some 39 years ago.
Doka is considered the leading authority on the subject of grief and gender. He identifies two distinct grieving styles, each more commonly associated with, though not restricted to, a particular gender.
Men tend to grieve in what Doka terms an “instrumental” style: taking action, working through the pain by doing. He tells of a man whose 17-year-old daughter was killed in a car accident; on the morning of the funeral, the father, bereft, was outside fixing the picket fence through which she crashed.
Women are typically “intuitive” grievers, a style Doka describes as “more feeling-oriented, with waves of emotion, and much verbalizing.” Intuitive grievers often find ways to express feelings in a group, or with a therapist or confidant.
“What’s key is to understand that grief is a reaction to loss, and we all react differently,” says Doka, senior consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America. He sees journaling as a therapeutic tool that is both instrumental (writing the letters) and intuitive (pouring out feelings).
“Most people aren’t inclined to call anyone at 2 in the morning when they’re tossing and turning. Letter writing can be an outlet anytime,” says grief counselor Nathanson.
“So many times people feel this mass of emotion. When you put words down on paper, it’s one thing at a time. It has the potential to organize what feels like a jumble of emotions.”
Moses, who started every heart-wrenching day for 375 days with just such a letter, knows the power of those words.
“It was a way to stay connected to her; I couldn’t let her go,” he says. “It wasn’t denial; as a social worker I know what denial is. Physically, I had to let her go. Spiritually, I never will.
“What it did was it carried me through the stages of grief. It carried me through deep sorrow, intense feelings of loss, and gradually into other stages, depression certainly, then over time into acceptance.
“In writing I could see still the longing, the intense love. If anything it’s stronger than ever. But gradually I was getting more comfortable in my new roles, whereas in the beginning I was almost paralyzed.”
And he knew when it was time to write the final passage. On the day that would have been their 12th wedding anniversary, he boarded a bus with his book of letters, and sat down beside his wife’s grave. He wrote one last love letter.
“As time has passed since you died last summer, I’ve begun to notice within myself that what once seemed so recent, like only yesterday, now feels like so very long ago.
“All of this used to feel like it just happened. Now, it almost seems like ancient history. I’m afraid that for me, reality has finally set in.
“To my always, from your forever.