This year was supposed to mark thirteen years married. It was supposed to be the anniversary we woke up and made a joke about unlucky numbers and silly superstitions. Instead, it was my fourth year waking up on my anniversary without my husband. My fourth year as a widow, raising two kids alone. My fourth year wondering what might have been. As it turned out, it was also something more — my first year embracing the ugly parts of my grief.
The morning of my anniversary, instead of waking up to a flurry of “Happy Anniversary” texts as I did during my first few years of marriage or the bevy of “thinking of you” texts as I did during my first few years of widowhood, I got the normal weekday rush. Kids late for school and a dog with a vet appointment and a pile of laundry no one else would wash.
After all of that was done, I went to the grocery store. A cookie cake sat in the bakery display. On it the words “Happy Anniversary” were written in pink icing. I stopped in front of the display and fumed. In an alternate universe — one where my husband didn’t die from brain cancer — I would have bought that cake for my anniversary. (Cookie cake is hands down my favorite.) Unfortunately, I’m not in that universe. It’s not a happy anniversary.
I circled back to that cake a few times during my shopping trip. I reached for it a few times. Not to make something meaningful out of the day or to celebrate the love we had and I still have. I had no plans to commemorate the day that I think of as my most favorite day ever. I was going to buy that cake for one reason: to spite the unknown person who would come in and buy the cake. The unknown person who I didn’t know, couldn’t imagine, but who in that moment, I resented because their partner was alive, because they could bring home that cake and share it and make the jokes that I could not. I was going to buy that cake so they couldn’t.
Enter the ugly part of grief.
Grief is so many things: heartache, loneliness, nostalgia, fear. None of those are pretty emotions. They’re all uncomfortable to sit with and uncomfortable to sit beside while a friend is dealing with them. But they’re all understandable. They’re the emotions we talk about, the ones I write about.
Grief is so much more. It has ugly parts, parts we don’t talk about because they’re even more uncomfortable than those uncomfortable emotions and because most of us want to be good people who are gracious and put good out into the world. We don’t want to walk around being resentful, jealous, and angry — at least I don’t.
But I am. At least a part of me is. The impulse to buy the cake so the unknown person can’t is there. The jealousy that snaps into place when another couple posts anniversary pictures is there. The anger — at the universe and every person in it — is there. And it ain’t pretty. (Of course, rationally I recognize buying the cake doesn’t mean a happy marriage, and the posted pictures are only one side of the story — but grief is rarely rational.)
For a long time, I tried to convince myself those ugly parts of grief weren’t there. I don’t want to side-eye the person who does buy that cake. I want to wish them well. I want to recognize they’re probably fighting their own battles, and they need grace and a cake as much as I do. But I couldn’t do that while pretending a part of me wasn’t hoping the cake dropped in a puddle on the way to the car.
What I realized standing in front of that cake display is this: I’m tired of pretending that a drop of resentment isn’t a flood on this particular day. It’s exhausting to pretend I’m not angry that we were supposed to have forever, and we didn’t even get ten years. And pretending all of those ugly parts aren’t there, isn’t making them disappear. As it turns out, all that pretending and ignoring is doing the exact opposite. It’s giving all that resentment, jealousy, and anger the space to grow.
I realized then that grief (at least, my grief) has ugly parts that I’m not proud of. Hiding those parts doesn’t make them cease to exist. They’re there and they’re human and normal.
And there is something beautiful in giving human feelings — all of them — space to exist. The key is to give them space, embrace them, but then work to keep them from defining us. The key is to find a way to keep that drop from becoming a flood. The way to do that is embracing the parts we want to ignore.
I didn’t buy the cake that day. I brought my resentment into the light of day and decided not to let it define me. Hopefully, someone who was buying the cake for the right reasons now would.
But I did do something for myself — something that brought me joy as I sat with my resentment, jealousy, and anger. Something that ensured resentment didn’t define me that day. I bought myself an anniversary gift — an absurdly fancy coffee maker, which I’d never buy for myself but which my husband would buy and delight in giving to me. I’m drinking coffee from it as I work right now. It’s better than cake — and promises a longer shelf-life.