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Memoir guides readers through a widow's grieving

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A man who knew both Judith Stitzel and her husband called them "twins."

So when her husband suffered cancer and then died, Stitzel's grief after loving someone for more than 50 years was palpable.

In her new book, "Field Notes from Grief: The First Year," Stitzel takes us inside her grief in a way that is both scary and beautiful.

Starting in 1965, the two began living in Morgantown where they both worked for West Virginia University. Judith was the founder of the university's Center for Women's Studies; she started her career at WVU in the English Department. Bob earned a doctorate in pharmacology and started in WVU's School of Medicine. When he retired, he was director of the WVU Graduate Studies Program.

For years, Stitzel kept a daily journal, and she turned to her journal to record Bob's illness and her grief. A friend, Claudia Giannini, illustrated the book with pages from the handwritten journal as one element for each artwork. Each journal page is spread out over a map; most of the maps include Morgantown and its environs. Giannini has drawn plants and added pictures so that each page becomes a work of art.

In one of her first ventures away from home after Bob died, Judith wrote: "The closer I get to Morgantown, the harder it is to maintain the intermittent illusion that I will see Bob when I get there, that I will wake up -- finally -- from this ridiculous dream."

Judith and Bob were blessed with a wonderful marriage. They shared a son, many friends, their careers and travels. All of the goodness of their marriage makes it harder and more painful for Judith to be without his support, his guidance, his sharing.

As she wrote checks, she missed the common, day-to-day moments they shared. "The twoness of it all."

The two loved each other deeply. In death, the survivor wonders if she will ever feel that loved again. "I miss being the main source of his delight. Even taken all together, the people who care about me don't come close to a thimbleful of his exclusive love."

Her husband's battle with cancer and his death were horrific enough. Then her only brother faced the final stages of his illness and died two months after her husband. Naturally, she faced emotional and physical exhaustion as she tried to help her brother, Ivan Gold, and his only child in those final days. Gold was also a writer and teacher.

The two deaths, of course, are reminiscent of the trials of writer Joan Didion. Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, had been visiting their comatose daughter in the hospital, and later that evening he dropped over, dead. Didion wrote "The Year of Magical Thinking," a book devoted to her husband. Soon after she wrote "Blue Nights" as a tribute to her daughter who died at age 39, as a way to come to grips with her grief.

To readers who think Stitzel's subject matter might be too painful to attempt, I would say do not miss out on what she has to say. Yes, the book is a sad examination of loss. But Stitzel writes beautifully and offers unexpected gems throughout the book.

For example, she wrote about a friend who reminded her of some good memories. "I imagined him in her vision, recognized and alive, and happiness nuzzled my sadness."

From inside her grief, she also offers readers some bits of wisdom. She and her husband loved to garden and also to walk in wooded areas. "Sensing the air with an insect's precision, I do not feel alone. Spring exists without Bob or me, inevitable in its brevity and its recurrence. Not life, not death, but the improbability of one and the inevitability of the other."

She gives many passages to ponder like this one: "We never know what we'll remember and what we will not be able to forget."

Their son, David, and his family live across the country in Washington state. So Stitzel must maintain her home and vehicle alone in Morgantown. "Grief leaches my confidence, assailing past and future both," she wrote as she struggled to take over the responsibilities she once shared with Bob.

Death brings with it legal demands and plenty of paperwork. She wrote that she was tired of "the whole death business." In frustration, "enough already ... You've been dead long enough. Come home!"

Everyone who has lost someone dear knows the first year is especially painful. Her son's first birthday without his father, Bob's first birthday. In grief's calendar, the dates roll around like they always do, but they serve as painful reminders during grief's famous first year.

Now a single woman, Stitzel was always a singular woman. She knows now she can do whatever she wants with her life, maybe even something she would not have been able to do with her husband. She was frequently honored for her work. She fostered the artistic pursuits of many graduates. Maybe she could strike out into a completely different direction.

But she wrote, "I hate all this freedom."

The book can be purchased from Amazon and from www.wordassociation.com.

Reach Susan Williams at susanwilliams@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5112.


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