The new widow’s handbook

Joyce Carol Oates’s new memoir is raw, blackly funny—and surprisingly practical
The new widow's handbook
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On Feb. 15, 2008, three days before her husband Raymond Smith died, Joyce Carol Oates returned to the car she’d parked haphazardly in her rush to visit him in the hospital. On the windshield was this message: “LEARN TO PARK STUPPID BITCH” (sic). Though crazed with worry over her spouse of 48 years, the acclaimed author had the perspicacity to notice the spelling error and take a lesson from the rebuke, as she recounts in her magnificent memoir A Widow’s Story: “The Widow-to-be, like the Widow, is made to realize that her situation, however unhappy, despairing or fraught with anxiety, doesn’t give her the right to overstep the boundaries of others, especially strangers who know nothing of her.”

Such sensitive, sharp insights fibrillate through Oates’s new book, an engrossing cri de coeur that traces her nightmarish dislocation from fulfilled, happy wife to devastated, unmoored widow. “I can’t let Ray down,” she writes, as she struggles to organize his estate: “This is my responsibility as his wife. I mean, his widow.”

Inevitable comparisons will be made with Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. A Widow’s Story is far more raw, poetic, blackly funny—and practical. She wrote it in 2009, drawing upon her journal and emails, in a bid to be helpful, Oates says on the telephone from Berkeley, Calif. “It’s the only incident in my whole life where I felt I was representative of other people. My experience of being a writer, a teacher seemed entirely my own.” The widow’s experience is shockingly impersonal, the 72-year-old says: “There’s so much you need to do. And no one prepares you.” Some advice might seem trivial, like “always put your keys in the same place.” But it’s crucial, Oates says: “You lose everything; your concentration is so scattered.” One tip arose from her cat peeing on Smith’s death certificate: “MAKE DUPLICATE COPIES OF THE DEATH CERTIFICATE. MANY!”

The widow’s reality can be absurd, even surreal, Oates writes: “Do not think that grief is pure, solemn, austere and elevated—this is not Mozart’s Requiem Mass. Think instead of Spike Jones, those unfunny ‘classical’ music jokes involving tubas.” She was particularly horrified by a deluge of “sympathy” baskets of gourmet fare bearing the warning: “Decorative mosses should not be eaten,” a directive inspiring her tart rejoinder: “A widow may be deranged but a widow is not that deranged.” Oates says she made the scene funny but that the experience was depressing: “My house was filling up with flowers as if it was some sort of celebration. It was so unintentionally cruel.”

What kept her going, even as she contemplated suicide, was being a “professional person” who met commitments: “If I said, ‘I can cancel now; I’m a widow, I can just go to bed,’ then one thing after another would go downward—even though I wanted to do that.”
Others’ good intentions could be hurtful, she writes: “I am thinking of having a T-shirt printed: YES MY HUSBAND HAS DIED/YES I AM VERY SAD/YES YOU ARE KIND TO OFFER CONDOLENCES/NOW CAN WE CHANGE THE SUBJECT?” Tact is required: “Don’t say ‘Are you lonely?’ Or ‘What can we do?’ The widow doesn’t want fussing.” What is helpful to the widow, she says, are good friends who bring food or drive her someplace or who say, “Let’s go to a movie.”

Advice Oates didn’t include in the book, but wishes she had, is to say “yes” to invitations. That’s how she met neuroscientist and fellow Princeton professor Charles Gross in August 2008 at a dinner party. “A friend thought it would be nice for these two lonely people to get together,” she says, recalling their meeting fondly: “It wasn’t a Heathcliff, wild kind of thing. He brought the pizza.”

They married the following spring. “I wasn’t looking for a husband,” Oates says. “It was this particular person.” But she likes being married, she admits: “I love being a housewife.” Gross, who has suffered his own losses, was attuned to her grief. “Charlie said to me: ‘I’m not Ray; I’m not taking his place. I’m very different,’ ” she says, adding: “But he’s not all that different. What was important is that he understood.”