At first it starts with the looks or rather the lack of a look. Death has an insidious way of making a person turn inward on themselves with grief. Eye contact doesn’t last long and the unending pats on the arms and bone crushing hugs that are wrapped up with so much unsaid, seem to go on forever. Then there’s the other side of it, the people who know you’ve lost someone but they can’t bring themselves to offer any comfort. They freeze up and slide their eyes elsewhere, searching the horizon for some clue as to what to say.
After my mom died last March I went back to work after my bereavement leave, bracing myself for those who would descend on me and encase me in love and well-meaning but tired platitudes. The people I expected to find me and offer a few kind words avoided me. If we were walking on the sidewalk, they would cross the street to be free of my orbit of grief. And then there are the people who think grief has a shelf life: okay, it’s been 4 months, shouldn’t you be over this already? Wow. With the power of that pep talk I am now free of my grief! Hallelujah! It’s a miracle! Grief has no shelf-life. There isn’t an expiration mark on me anywhere to tell me when grief will be done with me.
In Jonathan Tropper’s How to Talk to a Widower, Doug knows all about grief. His wife Hailey died a year ago in a plane crash and the man has been steeped in grief ever since. We’re talking mourning drunk every day for a year, the house packed to capacity with his dead wife’s presence. Doug’s seen as a bit of a loser. I don’t think he’s a loser but society – so good at making people miserable after being brainwashed into what they should be doing in their lives at a certain age – sees him as a slacker with no ambition.
And that was before his wife died. Before marrying Hailey, Doug just floated through life: not picking a career, going from one job to the next, excelling at being seen as a giant disappointment to his family. Especially by his father who was never an affectionate man until a stroke rewired his brain and he’s now ‘wild and unpredictable dad.’ Doug’s mother is a 1950’s throwback: a bottle of wine finished by midafternoon helped along with generous helpings of her anxiety medication.
She especially didn’t want Doug to marry Hailey. Not only was she 10 years older than Doug, but she had a teenage son to boot. But they fell in love despite the age gap and were prepared to live, well, if not happily after, at least satisfied ever after. But then Doug gets the call in the middle of the night that Hailey died in a plane crash on her way to a conference. Thus began Doug’s exile from happiness to abject despair over the loss of the love of his life.
A year goes by. Doug doesn’t see his stepson Russ much because the kid has gone to live with his father now that Hailey is gone. One night in a boozy haze, an officer shows up at the front door with Russ in tow, busted for being stoned. Russ told the cop Doug was his father. Doug thanks the officer and tucks Russ into his bed in his old room, unsure of what to do with the kid. Hailey’s dead; Russ isn’t Doug’s problem anymore.
After a full year in mourning, people begin to give Doug advice. Claire, his twin sister and a beautifully foul-mouthed banshee, tells him he needs to get laid. She’s full of advice for someone who thinks she’s not in love with her husband anymore. Bedding a random stranger is the last thing on his mind. Well, maybe not the last thing since the ethereal cougar down the street is still making him condolence meatloaf once a week and flirting with him so hard even Stevie Wonder can see it. He’s tempted but the memory of Hailey stops him-until he finally gives in. It’s as awkward and depressing as he thought it would be, but soon it becomes a regular thing with the amorous housewife who promises there are no strings attached. If you believe that, I also have tickets on a rocket ship ready to hurl through space and colonize Mars.
Meanwhile, his stepson Russ keeps getting into trouble at school and is always being bailed out by Doug. He doesn’t know what to do with the kid’s pain at losing his mother because he still doesn’t know what to do with his own pain, except for writing a massively popular blog called How to Talk to a Widower. He’s called into the school counselor’s office one day after Russ gets into a fight.
He is pleasantly surprised by the youth of the counselor and her quirky sense of humor. He’s still boinking the luscious hausfrau, but he’s intrigued by the counselor who he accidentally runs into at the movies one day. Doug starts to feel things he doesn’t want to feel and he’s terrified. Will he ever be ready to put himself in a vulnerable position? What if Hailey was the love of his life and he spends the rest of his years comparing every woman he meets to her?
Added to the mix is his complicated relationship with his family, a family that makes the one from Arrested Development look sane. His father, once a distant man, now seems to be a different person in the second half of his life while his mother mixes booze and downers and watches the man she married decline into someone unexpected and new. Claire’s marriage seems to be imploding and his younger sister, who is savagely ambitious, needs to get the stick surgically removed from her backside. She’s about to get married to Doug’s friend. They met at Hailey’s wake and engaged in an inappropriate, non-funeral like way which Doug has not forgiven or forgotten.
In turns both hilarious and heart breaking, How to Talk to a Widower tells the story of a screwed up family, unexpected loss, and even more unexpected love in strange places.