I read an article tonight by Jennifer Elison. It appeared in the “My Turn” section of Newsweek magazine. The magazine has my name on it, but I don’t know how it got here, as I don’t remember ordering it. Anyway, Ms. Elison lives in Helena, Montana. The full header for the article is: “The Stage of Grief No One Admits To: Relief – When my husband was killed in an accident, I refused to let society dictate how I should grieve.” She also doesn’t care a whit why her husband died.
Why do I want to write about this article? Let me tell you. Rather, let me tell you Ms. Elison’s story briefly. She writes that she married a young doctor, and they had a daughter together. He restricted her from working or going to school, belittled her, showed scant regard for her feelings. To others, they had an ideal marriage, but her husband and she put up a good front in public. In private, she was unhappy.
“I was only 27,” she writes. “One day in February of 1985, I told him I wanted a divorce. The next day he was dead, killed almost instantly when his compact car was hit by a semi truck on a dark stretch of highway.” These matter-of-fact sentences come in the middle of an article about grief, and about the relief she could not relate to others because that’s not an acceptable feeling to have when your spouse dies. She felt relief that her husband had died, and in this article she confesses her secret.
What catches your attention in these matter-of-fact sentences is that her husband may have committed suicide. It must have crossed her mind that if her husband died on his way home from work the day after she told him she wanted a divorce, the two events might be connected. If that thought came to her mind, she would know that it would come to her readers’ minds, too. They would see the connection even more readily than she would because they have more distance. Yet she calls the collision an accident, and does not say anything about what could have caused it.
A lot of things could have caused the accident. The collision could in fact have been accidental, with no connection to her announcement of the previous day. He could have had a few drinks to deal with his pain, and that could have led to the collision. He could have been so deep in thought about this terrible turn in his life that he was distracted from driving, and so didn’t see the truck coming. Or he could have pulled in front of the truck on purpose, knowing that he would not survive the crash.
“To be glad someone is dead is a powerful taboo in our culture,” Ms. Elison writes, and she pointedly breaks the taboo in this article. Another powerful taboo, at least a generation ago, is to say publicly that someone in your family killed himself, or to acknowledge that you had something to do with it. Since her article deals with a mortal taboo about grief, why doesn’t Ms. Elison deal with the other obvious, mortal connection: that her request for a divorce might have had something to do with her husband’s fatal collision?
One possibility could be that she actually didn’t think of it. If she didn’t think of it, her editor certainly should have. I saw the connection the instant I read the lines quoted in the second paragraph above, and I was a casual reader. Surely someone who read the article in advance of publication would perceive that other readers would make that connection, and warn the author to deal with that likelihood somehow.
But the accident report gave no evidence of suicide or distracted driving, the author would say. Besides, the only witness to the collision was the truck driver, and he couldn’t know anything about her husband’s state of mind when his truck hit her husband’s little compact. That’s the whole point. We don’t know what her husband was thinking in the moments before he died. That’s why her article needs to mention the uncertainty. She wants to be honest about the feelings she had after her husband’s death. How can we credit her with honesty, though, when she omits such an obvious possibility: that her request for a divorce had something to do with her husband’s collision the next day?
Every husband who reads this article will understand immediately how despondent the young doctor would have felt throughout the next day at work. Every man who has worked so hard for his family, good husband or not, happy marriage or not, will understand how preoccupied that doctor was as he drove back to his wife and daughter, back to his home where he’d been rejected. Every man who has undergone pain of that kind knows that the collision might have been an accident, it might have been intentional, or it might have been something in between.
How could Ms. Ellison not recognize that? Perhaps she didn’t have any men read her article before she published it. That’s not a shrewd comment at all, though. Other women would see the possibility, too, as would she if she were to reread the article. Either she saw the connection and decided to leave it out, or did not see it to begin with. Either way, her omission truly hampers the impact of her thoughts on grief. Why do we want to hear about the feelings of a woman who tells her husband – “one day in February” – she wants a divorce, then adds insouciantly, “the next day he was dead”?
She wrote her article to tell us that she did not want to be married to her husband, and that it’s okay to feel relieved when an onerous spouse or other family member dies. Yes, she’s entitled to say what she likes about her husband, about her marriage, about the way her husband died, and about the way she grieved after he died. But I can tell you, what she doesn’t say about the end of her marriage says a lot more about her than she intends. I can tell you something else: I would not want to be married to her.
Originally written January 27, 2007.