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.