Widow chronicles incapacitating grief

October 19, 1993|By Gerri Kobren | Gerri Kobren,Staff Writer

Widowhood came down on Ruth Coughlin in an agony of despair, When her husband, U.S. administrative law judge and novelist William Coughlin, died, she fell into a dark labyrinth in which she could do no more than grope around for most of a year.

"It has been just over four months since the day Bill died, and still I am paralyzed. I am a woman without a country, an alien who has dropped to earth from some other planet," she writes, and that's just the beginning, literally; it's on the first page of her book.

By the second and third, we know: She can't read newspapers; Bill used to read and discuss them. She can't watch baseball games; they used to do that together. She hates to touch the New York Times Magazine; Bill used to do its crossword. Music? He used to listen; now she can't. His toothbrush and comb? She's using them herself now.

Book editor at the Detroit News, and before that a feature writer and an editor at the publishing house that produced Bill Coughlin's books, she knows well enough the limitations of this kind of memoir. Books and articles by other widows helped her not at all; likewise, her story may or may not speak to anyone else -- except as validation. "Am I the only nutcase around here?" she wonders, and anyone who has experienced grief will answer: No.

On the other hand, she seems to know that grief, in solid doses, doesn't win friends and hold readers. So there are short chapters that weave an account of her months of misery after her husband's death into the story of his months of battle before it -- from his diagnosis in June 1991 to April 1992, when the cancer won the war.

Fifteen years her senior, Bill Coughlin was 54 and the widowed father of six grown children when they wed. It was a nine-year marriage that appears to have had its ups and downs. They had at one point visited a marriage counselor, and, at another, when he refused to plan a trip to Paris -- he had a book to finish -- she flew off alone.

Still, the relationship, on the evidence presented here, must have been strong and close. Bill Coughlin comes across as affable, affectionate, exuberant, an altogether remarkable man. Continuing his judgeship until a month before he died, he also finished his 15th book, the lawyer-thriller "Death Penalty" as he was facing his own.

At the same time, she is being pummeled by losses. In August that year, her father dies, and she flies to New Jersey to be with her family. Then their dog dies. And then, as Bill's days are winding down, her mother is hospitalized, and she must fly East again:

"My father: gone. Lucy [the dog]: gone. My mother: sick. My husband: sicker. Will there ever be an end to this? It is a question I ask no one but myself. And, of course, I already know the answer."

If one begins to suspect that this present-tense journal began before Bill's death rather than after, one must also concede Mrs. Coughlin's skill. The junctures are seamless, and her husband emerges as the more interesting character, while she, in the totality of her despondence -- or perhaps in her decision to let it all hang out -- seems to be indulging herself in suffering. As she acknowledges: "There is to mourning a narcissism that borders on the pathological. . . . All-consuming, the desolation that hammers you can be perceived as wildly selfish and disrespectful of the world and people around you."

Yet, as the author of Ecclesiastes knew and Mrs. Coughlin discovers -- more abruptly in the book than it could have been in life -- there is a time when weeping ceases and life begins to return. Ten months after Bill's death, she realizes she can say "I" instead of stumbling over "we," that she can sleep in their bed, that she can go through his things, "that he will never leave me and I will never be without him. I know that I can let go and continue on to the next phase of my life without giving him up."

Gerri Kobren is a copy editor in the Features Department of The Sun.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Grieving"

Author: Ruth Pollack Coughlin

Publisher: Random House

Length, price: 176 pages. $17

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