Monday, April 27, 2009

On Visiting the Stone

One of the many difficult decisions I had to make in the days surrounding my wife’s death was where she would be “laid to rest”. She had unwittingly made her wishes regarding this known to me in a conversation one day as we were driving around town. Simply put, she wished to be buried in her hometown. So in a way, it was a no-brainer when the decision actually had to be made.

What I could not know at that time was how living 800 miles from her “final resting place” would affect me, and more importantly, my daughter.

From our very first trip back to the Midwest following her funeral and burial, I have always made it a point to sneak away to the cemetery for at least a few moments of unadulterated grieving. Prior to that first trip back, there were some questions I had to mull over regarding the cemetery visit.

The first question was whether or not I would take my then three-year-old daughter with me. We visited twice that summer, and the headstone was not placed until mid-November, so I opted not to take her or mention it to her during those summer visits.

This, in turn, answered the second question: that of what, if anything, I should tell my in-laws I was doing. On the first visit my daughter fell asleep during the two hour drive between my parents’ house and my in-laws and continued to sleep soundly while I stood at my wife’s graveside for the first time in the absence of other mourners. So that solved the problem initially. But when we returned later that summer, I was left to ask them to watch her for a few minutes. I felt awkward explaining that I needed to go to the cemetery for a little while. Then, between waves of tears and emotion, I worried about what they were thinking knowing I was there at that moment. I tend to over-think things a bit sometimes, but burying her there denied me the luxury of visiting whenever I wanted, unbeknownst to everyone else.

The next visit was a bit less awkward, but I again went alone as there were several inches of snow on the ground and it was the first time I would see the stone I had designed for my wife at 29 years of age. Of all the things I could have been designing at that age – baby furniture, a piece of anniversary jewelry, an area for entertaining outdoors – somehow a headstone wasn’t even on the list.

Our next visit was spring break a year ago. It had been about thirteen months since my wife had passed, my daughter was a year older, the stone had been placed, and there was no snow on the ground, so I explained what going to the cemetery entailed and asked if she would like to go with me this time (I did this a few days in advance so that we could revisit the topic and she could opt out if she changed her mind). She decided to go with me, and thus began our current ritual of visiting the stone on the journey between the grandparents’ homes.

I refer to it as visiting the stone, because essentially, that is what we do. The term “paying our respects” would suffice as well, but we’re not doing that. That seems like something you do when an acquaintance or co-worker’s family member passes away. Not your wife. Not your child’s mother.

Yes, we’re remembering. But we’re also grieving.

My daughter understands more of this process than any child should, especially at such a young age. She understands that Mommy’s body is under the ground there. But more importantly, she understands that Mommy is not there.

Sometimes when we go she looks reverently at the stone. Sometimes she runs her fingers along the engraved words, my attempt at capturing the highlights of a short life well-lived. Most times she cries, but not always.

This time, for the first time, she did something different.

When we walked over to the stone, I stopped at roughly the same point I always do at first, but she continued and walked right up to the stone itself. I had resolved that I would be strong for her while she was with me, then would likely sneak back later in the week to cry more heavily on my own. But after what happened next, I could not have held my own tears back no matter how hard I tried. She stopped as she stood right in front of the names, the dates, and the symbols.

Then she leaned over and hugged the stone.

She didn’t say anything. She didn’t cry. She just stood there for a few moments with her head resting atop this rose-colored stone and a forlorn look on her face. Then she came over and reached for me to pick her up, which I did as I half-heartedly attempted to push back my tears.

The rest of that visit went like the others. We cried. She asked questions. I answered them. We stayed until she was ready to leave and could look once again with excitement at seeing her grandparents in a few minutes.

After that, I thought this would be the only visit for me that week. I had been able to realize my own grief for a few moments, and really, that’s what visiting the stone is for me. It’s the one place and situation where I feel free to let all of my anguish surface and spill over unashamedly. That’s not to say that I don’t still cry at other times, though those times are fewer and further between than they once were. But those times are random and inconsistent. Visiting the stone gives me the license to grieve fully each and every time I am there.

As it turns out, I needed to realize my grief twice that week. As I left to fill the gas tank the night before we headed home, I felt compelled to go visit the stone again, even though I knew it would soon be dark. My daughter was with her grandparents, and though I knew they would figure out where I was when I didn’t return within a reasonable amount of time, I have also grown past the feelings of discomfort I once had with them knowing when I am there.

So off I went. There really wasn’t anything unusual about this visit. It was just necessary for me to go again, alone.

Something I try not to think about when I am there is the patch of grass to the right of the stone. When I purchased my wife’s burial plot, I purchased my own as well. So at 29 years of age, I decided where I would be “laid to rest” too. It is not my hometown. It is two hours from there and 800 miles from the place I call home now. But I have many happy memories in that town. And someday it will be my “final resting place”.

This time I took note of that patch of grass a bit more than usual. Now that I am a single parent, I take even fewer unnecessary risks than I ever did, not that I took many before. But I simply do not like to dwell on my own mortality. I no longer have that other parent to count on to raise my daughter if something happens to me before she is grown. And while her godparents are fully capable of raising her, I just can’t allow myself to imagine her growing up in a world without either of her parents in it. So I try hard not to.

When I was designing my wife’s stone, I sought my mom’s advice, as she was also widowed at a young age. My dad’s stone is a shared one. My mom will be buried beside him and her name is already engraved there (my stepdad will be buried on her other side). The one thing I distinctly remember her saying was that it was very hard to see her name on the headstone when she went to the cemetery. So my wife’s stone is a single one. My name is only engraved on the back as her husband.

Still, there is something sobering about looking at that patch of grass, knowing that someday your body, when your soul has parted from it, will be buried below it.

But I know that ultimately I will not be there.

Just as she is not there now.

Only a stone and a patch of grass remain.


  1. Beautiful entry, Split-Second... I almost cried at the part where your daughter hugged the stone. How precious! It's too bad the stone is cold, not nice and warm like the person whom it represents... Very touching! Those places where we lay our loved ones to rest our sacred. My husband's ashes are scattered atop a mountain in Colorado... I went back there last summer. It always feels good to visit. I do feel like something of him roams there. If only my memories floating around the spot.

  2. beautiful. i went almost daily to "his spot" for about a month. then i moved back home, and now it feels like it "belongs" to my in-laws. When i bought the spot and picked it out, I only remember repeating over and over again, "he is not here. it is just a spot."

    thanks for sharing.

  3. Yes, you captured that really well. There is a stone in our lives, too, and we've lived some similar times in visiting there. As in your case, it's where she grew up, and around 100 miles from where we live.

    My kids have never cried there (although I have, many times). I tried as best as I could to make it a happy place for them, and that started with them running happily around as they played in the graveyard.

    There was another sad backstory to the stone as well, since there was a long dispute with her family about the words which would appear on the stone. That was desperately hard to cope with, and it threatened to split that relationship wide apart. It didn't, not quite, but it wasn't easy, either.

    Best wishes and much admiration to you, from London.

  4. I'm a bit lagging in my blog reading and just came back to read you again today. Ironically I just went to my wife's stone this morning. When I picked it out I debated back and forth if I wanted the place next to it. I wasn't ready to commit so I put it off. This morning I saw that it was now in use.

    I was relieved. It's one more decision that I no longer have to ponder; someone else unknowingly made it for me. I'm still not sure it's what I would've wanted...but that no longer matters.

  5. If you change your mind, as gruesome as this sounds, I think they can put plots on top of each other... ie, you could be buried, literally, on top of your wife. So I think you if you decide you really want to buried near your wife, you still have options...

  6. Mars Girl (1 and 2) - 1. It was precious and heartbreaking all at once. Time cannot distance me from my emotions during a moment like that.

    2. I'd never heard about the "double-burial" idea. I think beside will suit me just fine...

    Chillin' - You're right, it is just a spot. I try to reinforce the idea to my daughter that her mommy is not there. I hope it helps reduce the pain and awkwardness of the cemetery visits while instilling in her mind the reality of Heaven.

    Roads - An extended family member, who was widowed just a few weeks before me, went through a similar situation with her husband's parents. I cannot imagine what that was like for her or for you. My in-laws were very supportive of what I wanted and were hesitant to offer an opinion, even when asked. I'm not sure I realized what a blessing that was at the time.

    Widower Dad - I've often wondered what I would do if I remarry (someday) and am married to her for the majority of what remains of my lifetime. Is it fair to ask her to be buried alone while I am buried next to a woman she (most likely) never met? It's just another of the questions someone our age shouldn't have to consider. (See Mars Girl's second comment for an interesting idea she had for you...)