Wednesday, April 18, 2018

A Memoir of Love and Grief: The Bereavement Phase of a Marriage

Photo courtesy of an interview for the VIUPoints feature in a recent issue of Vancouver Island University's online magazine 


I want to say a few words about a very special book I've just finished, and I've decided that rather than attempt to review it, I'll try to explain why it means so much to me -- and also suggest why you might find it meaningful as well. The book is called  Minerva's Owl: The Bereavement Phase of My Marriage, and you'll find more information about it by clicking that link to the publisher's website, but perhaps you'll hold off for a few minutes and let me tell you why it matters to me.

Last week, I made the ferry trip over to my old stomping grounds, and I was lucky enough to squeeze in visits with four good friends. One of those visits was with my neighbour of twenty-plus years, an inspiring woman with whom I shared many treading-water chats over the years as we'd wade into the chilly Salish Sea from our beachfront homes.  Carol and her husband Mike (whose colleague I eventually became when I joined the local university's English Department) were still in the quaint little hexagonal cabin they'd bought as a getaway from their home in town when we began visiting the cedar cabin we'd bought next door.

Their daughter was already finished university by the time we settled in on the island, but Mike and Carol got to know our older two as they moved through university: Carol helped our oldest craft her application for grad school; both of them taught our second oldest in one of their classes. They watched our younger two move from childhood through adolescence and were wonderful friends and mentors to them through those years and beyond into their adulthood. I'm not sure the "Open-Door Policy" was official nor entirely Mike and Carol's idea, but my kids (and our Golden Retriever at the time) seemed to think so. (And who else would have thought to give an eleven-year-old boy a book of Shakespeare's insults and then encouraged the lively exchange of same, modeled with dramatic flair)?

In fact, when my son and daughter-in-law announced their engagement six winters ago, with plans to marry on our beach that August, I wondered if Mike might consider picking up a marriage commissioner's license; he would have been such a perfect Officiant. Instead, and with shocking speed, Mike fell ill, was diagnosed with cancer, and two months after my son shared his happy news, he sat beside me at our little island's memorial service for Mike, wiping away tears.

And Carol. Carol got through that day remarkably well, considering. She managed a few words, but the "celebration of Mike" was her concession, I think, to an island community that needed to let her know how much her husband had meant to us, that needed a place to mourn his loss. Really, it was too early for Carol, whose grief was still very raw. She and Mike had been married for 47 years, and their relationship was an inspiring one in the interest they still brought to conversations with each other, their collaborative (and regularly--and entertainingly--quibbling) erudition a delight to see and to be included in. Their beachfront home (renovated by now, as had ours been) smelled wonderfully of good food and the faintest hint of Carol's perfume and then the books. Books collected over half a century, but never left to collect dust. One or the other of them would regularly pause, mid-conversation, to hunt for this or that volume, then begin paging urgently in search of a particular corroborating quote,  a poem that needed to be read aloud.

So.  Carol, alone. . . that was tough for all of us to see, a friend deep in sorrow, a marker of Mike's absence. She watched my son and daughter-in-law's wedding from her own front deck, and I never told her that I'd dreamed of having Mike say the words that would join them together. But sometimes over tea or a glass of wine on her deck or at my dining table, or travelling on the small passenger ferry that took us into town or back, we talked about her loss, her adjustment, about my memory of Mike saying this or that (he loved to grumble about students who "didn't know how to spell their own names," his mock-rants at newfangled spellings of classic monikers), about her latest dream of him being with her, disappearing as she opened her eyes.

And I'd ask her if she was thinking about writing her way through this loss, as she'd written, years earlier, on being diagnosed with, and treated for, breast cancer, in a book that marvellously and inspiringly, folded in the material, physical spirituality of the labyrinth (She returned to write again about labyrinths in Questions for Ariadne: The Labyrinth and the End of Times.)

For the first year, understandably, she wasn't ready, nor the second. At first, the practical tasks. Emptying closets. Sorting accounts. Writing painful letters.  Responding to comforting ones. Then the decision to sell, and with it, the huge and hugely emotional task of winnowing. Boxes of books and of correspondence and memorabilia. Finding a home for Mike's papers in an institutional archive that would know their value and keep them available. So many lists, so much work. . .

But Carol is a writer, as was Mike, and gradually, it seems, words began to form on pages, on a computer screen. Guided by C.S. Lewis' claim in A Grief Observed that "Bereavement is not the truncation of married love but one of its regular phases--like the honeymoon," she's written of love and of grief in a manner both intensely personal, concrete, and particular, but also relevant and illuminating to all who have faced the loss of a loved one or to those of us who wonder how we might weather such a loss to come. Even for those of you who didn't know Mike, didn't see how he and Carol were as a couple, this slim volume might invoke tears. But it's also surprisingly funny, heart-warming, and it's infused with Carol's wisdom, her fascination with etymology, her wide reading.

She meditates, for example, on the dual meaning of "cleave." That a husband may cleave to his wife (and vice versa) in marriage, but that death can cleave the couple as an axe cleaves a log.  She marvels, with some wistfulness but also some awe, that she can see Mike again the way she did in their honeymoon years, that the distance and the longing she experiences in bereavement mean that she appreciates him from a fresh, if often painful, perspective.

And all of this meditating and marvelling is done in a sort of epistolary form: she addresses Mike directly throughout. What becomes very clear through this intimacy is that while we, the eavesdropping reader, note that Carol recovers herself, that she "carries on" with life, Mike is still and always with her.  We watch her find strength in herself to take on tasks that Mike had always looked after, see her picking up her social life, becoming involved again with community volunteer work, even travelling solo to Montreal, making the trip they'd done so often together.

Carol writes this so much more eloquently than I do, but here's the nub of the book for me and for anyone who worries about how they might cope after the death of a partner: She carries on solo as well as she does because Mike is still with her. Bereaved, she is still his wife; he is still her husband. She cleaves to him even after they have been cleft apart. She draws her strength for moving in the world without him from knowing how he loved her, seeing herself through his eyes, remembering his advice and his wisdom and his humour.

I sense myself on the verge of maudlin here, so I'll stop and transcribe these few words from a card I sent Carol last week: The book is wonderful -- I'm alwaysalready halfway through now and you're right -- there is much in it to alleviate the tears. Most of all, a great big love story, and then the lashings of humour, your examination of words, the literary references, the various geographies. It's very rich for such a small book. I marvel most at how much work it must have taken to rein in emotions while giving your reader enough detail to make your wisdom on bereavement convincing. Platitudes wouldn't work, obviously, but neither would overwhelming your reader with the raw personal. Managing to keep that tone, the intimacy of a letter to Mike, knowing we're reading over your shoulder, that must have been tough, technically and emotionally.



Let me close, now, with a few words from Carol, her answer to a question posed during this interview

Tell us about your book and what motivated you to write it. What message do you hope people will take from it?
I started writing about my bereavement for myself, not for publication, as a way of sorting out my thoughts and feelings about the terrible grief I was experiencing. It was good for me to write it. At first I felt vulnerable about sharing what was a deeply personal experience, but I became persuaded that it could be meaningful to others experiencing loss. A friend told me she thought the book was important not just for bereaved people but also for those who have not yet lost a beloved life partner as a meditation on paying attention and making sure to live hard and well together. I would be very pleased if that is so. The message I hope people will take from it is to pay attention to the time we have with the people we love.

Minerva's Owl: The Bereavement Phase of a Marriage is published by Oolichan Press, a small (well-respected) literary press here in BC. Their website does not have an online shop yet, although they suggest that if you're unable to find the book elsewhere, you can email and arrange to have them send you a copy. I've ordered a copy through Chapters/Indigo and I see it's available through Amazon as well.  My preference is always for an independent bookseller, who, if they haven't a title in stock, will often order it for you. . .

(This early post of mine features a number of Carol's earlier books.)


43 comments:

  1. What a beautiful tribute to an amazing woman!

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  2. Wow. So lovely, Frances. Bet you shed a few tears as you wrote this post. Love what Carol said in her interview about "paying attention and making sure to live hard and well together."

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    1. Might have been Kleenex involved, yes.
      And that alone is a good take-away from the book. It's wonderfully steeped in literature as well, although light-handedly so -- a real reader's book in many ways.

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  3. Thank you Mater for the beautiful introduction to your friend, Carol and her book. I ordered Minerva's Owl: The Bereavement Phase of My Marriage from Amazon and awaiting delivery. Thinking back to the first few months after my son died, I found a lot of comfort from books especially those by authors who had experienced their own loss, and how they coped. "A Grief Observed" by C.S. Lewis, "The Year of Magical Thinking" by Joan Didion, and many more by other authors. This quote by C.S. Lewis' was highlighted and read over so many times. It was like my beacon...don't despair, you're on course. “Bereavement is not the truncation of married love but one of its regular phases—like the honeymoon. What we want is to live our marriage well and faithfully through that phase too. If it hurts (and it certainly will) we accept the pains as a necessary part of this phase.” Whether a son or a husband, the process is almost identical. Looking forward to reading Carol's book. ~Amelia

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    1. You're very welcome, Amelia. I know you won't regret ordering this, and I suspect you'll find much to relate to; although your loss was of son rather than husband, the process is very similar, as you say. Carol refers to C.S. Lewis and Didion, Julian Barnes' (his Levels of Life) as well. I'll be keen to hear what you think -- if you come back to this post to comment, even weeks or months from now, I'll be notified.

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    2. Mater, there will be no regret on my part. I really look forward to reading Carol's book. It's going to be a keeper. Hubby and I have been married for 45 years. We are healthy and happy although which ever one of us is the last to go will definitely needs the wisdom from Carol's book. I want to quickly mention a book that was given to me by a friend. It's very good and covers grief at the loss of a child, "Bearing the Unbearable: Love, Loss and the Heartbreaking Path of Grief" by Joanne Cacciatore . Thank you. Amelia

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    3. Thank you for the book recommendation, Amelia. I, too, lost a son - two years ago last month.

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    4. Jeannine, I am so sorry to hear that you've also lost your son. My heart goes out to you for the pain and heartaches you've been through and still going through. I hope you'll find the book helpful to you. Take good care of yourself. Sending my regards and love. Amelia

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    5. Thanks for these recommendations, Amelia, and Jeannine, I’m so sorry you lost your son.. I hope you’re finding some solace in memory, in friends, in family. Take care.

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    6. Hi Mater, so I'm back to let you know I've finished Minerva's Owl. I was done on Sunday night. My computer decided to have a blue Monday. The Geek Squad got to it today and whipped it back to shape. Here we go and I'll try not to get too wordy. I LOVE CAROL MATTHEWS BOOK "MINERVA'S OWL...". I wish it was out during the first couple of years after my son died. If I had a copy then, it would have been in tattered for being read and re-read over and over... I had the tissue box close to me while I was reading and reached for it several times. This book is a gem. I ordered four more copies of Minerva's Owl from that giant juggernaut. I'll try not to mention the name here again :) A copy for my daughter, sister, and two of my friends. One of those friends lost a daughter. I'm hoping to see Minerva's Owl on the bestseller's list. "It's very rich for such a small book". Worth its weight in gold. Thanks Mater! Amelia

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    7. I thought I'd answered this already, Amelia -- very impressed that you got and finished the book so quickly. And Carol's so pleased that you think it helpful to those who have lost loved ones. Thanks for taking the time to come back and let us know what you thought.

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  4. What a wonderful,bitter-sweet,poignant post!
    You are such a good writer and good friend-memories interwoven.....
    Dottoressa

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    1. Thank you, D. Carol (and her book) are very special. . .

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  5. Thank you for telling me about your friend and her writing. The books seem impossible to find in the UK so I have ordered Minerva's Owl from Amazon (yuck!). I should also love to find her earlier book "The First Three Years of a Grandmother's Life" as I go through that myself.
    I can well understand how difficult it was for you to leave the island with friends and neighbours like those there.
    Ceri in London

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    1. Like you, Ceri, Amazon would be my very last resort, but they do seem to be efficient (as juggernauts tend to be!).
      I know that Chapters/Indigo https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/ (the Canadian kinder, gentler, smaller version of something-like-Amazon) has copies and does a good job of online sales, shipping, etc., but I don't know how exorbitant the international shipping is. Let me know if you can't get it and really want it and I'll see how I can help.

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  6. I was surprised and pleased to find that I could order your friend's book through a small local internet platform (no capital A...) - delivery will take about two weeks. Although the experience of a long term marriage relationship you so vividly describe is foreign to me, I agree with Amelia above that many of your friend's insights certainly also apply to love in other settings, as between parents and children.
    For Ceri: Have you tried Blackwell's? Minerva's Owl is available in their online shop. But I haven't been able to find "The First Three Years..." there.

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    1. You're lucky to have such a good online service! I'll be keen to know what you think of Carol's book. I think you'll find it rich, despite (or even perhaps because) the experience of long-term marriage is foreign to you -- always interesting to peek at other's lives, but also because I think nonetheless there's so much in the book that does pertain to other aspects of our shared human experiences of love and grief. And sheer joy of companionship. . .
      btw, I love seeing these conversations between readers, the German prof (retired) offering book-buying advice to the British fairly-new prof (If I'm remembering Ceri's circumstances correctly. . . If not, I'm just embarrassed, but it's still cool the international connections, right? ;-)

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    2. Good grief, what an astounding memory you have, Frances. Right name, not quite right city (unless the life of Ceri in London is mirroring mine more closely than in name alone). Carol sounds like a wonderful writer - so brave to share so much of her emotions.

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    3. Oh right! I'd forgotten we had two Ceri's. . . Imagine that! I have so many readers I get my Ceris confused. ;-)

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    4. Ceri in BristolMay 1, 2018 at 3:40 AM

      I know - your readership extends even unto those of us with the less than usual names...

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  7. What a treat to come here and see Carol's face! I too know Carol and worked with her and Mike for years; what wonderful people they were and are.

    I am going to order "Minerva's Owl,"Like Amelia, I have read "The Year of Magical Thinking," and loved Didion's clean sharp prose.

    Thanks for writing about Carol and Mike and your long lovely friendship with them. I am laughing now thinking of Mike. I was using the communal computer in the main office, and left some files on there and Mike left one for me to find, written in "Riddley Walker" style (a book we both loved): "Brenda u hav left ur leevings al ovur." I look forward to reading it. Brenda

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    1. Isn’t that a great portrait of her, Brenda? I love that photo. You must have many memories of Mike, having been colleagues together long before I joined the department. You’ll see (more of) a really lovely side of him in this book.

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  9. Kudos for this and lucky you to have Carol as a pal.

    Minerva's Owl is one of those books that people should read before bereavement visits rather than after. But, of course, no one really knows that do they? I'd suggest ordering many copies to give as gifts to people of all ages. Write a personal inscription in it so they will tend to hang on to it rather than re-gift or send it to the thrift store. Then, when the time is right, it will be close at hand for solace, laughter and all those other perfectly human traits that Carol exhibits in her writing and her life.

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    1. I know I’m very lucky to count her as a friend—she’s very special. And I like your advice about buying copies for gift-giving (although I first suspected you must work for Oolichan😉—Carol’s since set me straight).

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  10. Oh Jeannine, I am so sorry to hear that you've also lost your son.
    My heart goes out to you for the pain and heartaches you've been through and still going through. I hope you'll find the book helpful to you. Take good care of yourself. Sending my regards and love. Amelia

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  11. Thank you, I will order the book, and your own reminiscence adds so much to its meaning. I doubt anything can prepare us should we become bereaved- it seems a wild, intensely inward-turning time- but will help us to be better friends to our friends who ever more frequently go through this loss. I loved. this woman's face, what character and beauty.

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    1. I’m sure you’ll like it, K—a significant part of it is set in 60s Montreal, where they lived at the start of their marriage (and before, for that matter.)
      Doesn’t she have a wonderful face?! I wish you two could meet...

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  12. I know that I have told you before, you are an amazing writer. I will order Carol's book. I’m going to recommend to my friends. She show such courage sharing her story.
    Ali


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    1. You’re so kind, Ali. And please do pass along recommendations about the book. I’m not getting a penny for this (nor, scarcely, does Carol, to be honest, nor even the publisher!) but I’d love to make a noticeable difference to sales as I believe the book to be important. Hope to chat about it with you across a table one of these days...

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  13. This is the kind of book that can help with all sorts of bereavement. In my experience relationships can change in ways that require mourning or a period of grief for what is lost before they can be rebuilt. C S Lewis was my guide during the period my marriage broke apart, and I'm happy to say that rebuilding to a different good place is possible. I will add this book to my recommended list.

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    1. I wouldn't have thought of this kind of bereavement, but I really appreciate the comparison. So much wisdom in "rebuilding to a different good place," as long as there is allowance and time, as you say, for the mourning and/or grieving for what is lost.

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  14. Still thinking about so much from this post, so not much to say at this point except how valuable it is. "Being sure to live hard and well while we have each other" certainly jumped out at me. Like others, I found C S Lewis a resource in bereavement - a challenging one - but better for being so rather than sappy-cosy-comforting. Actually the book that helped me most at that time (losing my mother to a too-early death from cancer) was a book about birth. Birth then loss and then birth - the author and playwright Susan Hill's 'Family'. I read it and re-read it compulsively. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

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    1. Coincidence: I've just brought home a Susan Hill novel, the first I've read other than her Simon Serrailler series, which I really like.

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  15. Frances, I just wrote a long response to your very generous post about my book and seem to have lost it. As you know, I’m no good at social media, although now, after reading all the comments about your post an my book, I am inclined to take it up.

    You are a wonderful writer, and I very much appreciate your thoughtful words about our friendhip and about my book. Your words and the comments from your readers mean a great deal to me. I won’t try to repeat all that I wrote about you and your family and our good fortune in being your neighbours. I feel that those other words may be out there somewhere in cyberspace – lizhk could probably find them! – and maybe they will turn up somewhere.

    I was recalling that time we were first awakened to the sound of your two youngest children shrieking enthusiastically across what sounded like a vast distance on the beach outside our bedroom window. Mike turned to me and said, “Isn’t that a wonderful sound? Children simply being children.” We so enjoyed visits from them, classroom time with the two older children, and our conversations with all six of you. We learned a lot about family and friendship from you, and I’m very grateful that we are still friends.

    Thanks for very much for taking the time to write this very moving post. I have circulated it to others with very positive responses.

    It’s been a pleasure to have our two recent visits. Let’s keep up the pace!
    Appreciatively

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    1. So frustrating when that happens -- oh, for good old paper and pen, right?!
      I'm so glad to have this forum to be able to tell others about your book, and about you and Mike and our long friendship. (I remember you sharing that anecdote about Mike and my kids' enthusiastic shrieks, and I've always loved it. Loved that they had both of you as friends and neighbours.)
      Thanks for the kind words, even the ones still wandering about in cyberspace -- I'm convinced I can feel their warmth in absentia ;-) And yes, let's see if we can maintain that visiting pace. I always enjoy spending time with you. xo

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  16. Fascinating post Frances and fascinating book too. I shall do some exploring about the best way to get hold of it in the Uk. I tend to buy ebooks these days so hope I can find it in that form. There is not much written about bereavement as I think you can tell by the fact that CS Lewis and Didion come up again and again. It is a rare writer I suspect who can do it.

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    1. Whoops! I've replied to you below, but somehow not using the feature that would let you see. . .

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  17. I'm quite sure you'd find it entertaining and moving and even instructive. Good point about the recurrence of Lewis and Didion in the comments -- they've become the standard core. There's also Julian Barnes' Levels of Life. . . takes a rare writer, as you say, to be personal enough but not so raw that we can't feel comfortable approaching. See Eleonore's comment about Blackwell's online. . .

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  18. I missed this post when you wrote it ... was traveling then. I'm ordering it now. Thanks for sharing this book with us.

    Ann in Missouri

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  19. This morning I read cover to cover Carol Matthews’ book, “Minerva’s Owl: The Bereavement Phase of My Marriage.” I recommend unreservedly her book to widows of all vintages as they struggle to comprehend and survive their own spousal bereavement.

    I needed this book so much. Five months and ten days ago my husband died. Since then I've read countless online articles and half a dozen handbooks about how to grieve successfully the death of a spouse. The titles contain words like practical, journey, advice, loss, goodbye, hello, therapy, etc. They’re written by ministers, therapists, grief counselors, and ghost writers. But none of those writers holds a candle to Carol's ability to explore the meaning of marriage and to extend hope to someone who's lost a deeply loved life partner.

    Mercifully, Carol doesn't offer bereavement advice. She "merely" reports with clarity and candor her own experiences from the landscape of her own bereavement. And that's perfect, because at this point I could not tolerate any more advice, especially unsolicited advice no matter how well-intended, from anyone. I want only to experience fully and to endure and eventually to survive my own indescribable trauma of losing the person who made up the other part of Us. With equal mercy, Carol accomplishes this without muttering homilies of any kind, something I appreciate deeply after not even six months of widowhood.

    This afternoon, modeling what Carol did after her husband died, I began to read my beloved’s old journals kept early in our relationship and the scores of long emails we wrote to each other as we were getting to know one another. It has been a very long and good day, one with many tears, smiles and sighs. I’m not through reading, because we wrote a lot.

    Carol’s endurance and grace, shared through her book, is helping me treasure even more the enormity of what I have lost by remembering how my husband and I became Us, an entity we once believed nothing could tear asunder. Thank you, Carol, so very much.

    Ann in Missouri

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    1. Ann, I don't know how I missed this back in June, except that we were traveling at the time. I'm thinking now that I might copy it into a future post, if you don't mind, so that it could draw the attention it deserves. I'm so glad Carol's book was useful to you in your grief and mourning -- I know that's the purpose she hoped it might serve.

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I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we?

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