A Widow’s Guide To Grieving
LESLIE GRAY STREETER: I mean I was mad at God. I was mad at his heredity. I was mad at what did - I think the night before he died, we went and had Greek. So there was probably a lot of like, you know, tzatziki happening. I was mad at everything and everybody, and it felt so much better just to say I am angry about this. I'm not just sad about it. I'm pissed.
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot….
….and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
The Christmas after Leslie Gray Streeter’s husband died… she bought herself a ring.
LS: A, uh, ruby that's surrounded by diamonds and it's a ring that I bought — technically I bought physically, but Scott really bought it with our insurance money. And this was like the last gift he was gonna give me.
Scott Zervitz was Leslie’s husband. He was 44 when he died suddenly from a heart attack, five years ago.
LS: I had lost the stone of my, um, my actual engagement ring earlier that year when I was running. And there's so much going on, he's like, we have to replace it immediately. And I was like, no, no, we just, 'cause we were trying to buy a house maybe in a year, and we had the baby. And I was like, it's not important, and just wait 'til Christmas. And he was dead by Christmas. So I thought to use the money in that way—it wasn't, I didn't use all of it, obviously—but to use some of it that way, to do something I knew he wanted to do, um, felt right to me. And it felt like, it's like, you know, people in movies are like, you know, "He would want me to have an affair with a 23-year-old pool boy, because he'd want me to be happy!" It was not that thing, but it was like, I knew he was on record saying, I want, I want to buy you this. So he technically he did.
ANNA SALE: You didn't want to pool boy, you wanted a ruby.
LS: I wanted a ruby, I would not mind—I don't have a pool, so that would, I would have to go—it'd be rude to like find someone else with a pool.
Leslie is an entertainment writer. She writes for the Palm Beach Post in Florida. Her sense of humor comes through in the TV and movie reviews she writes, and in her new book, called "Black Widow." It’s a funny, raw, honest account of all the different ways grief has shown up since her husband died.
LS: One of the reasons that I wanted to write the book was our inability to talk about the ongoing parts of grief. Like for instance, any movies about widows. Like, Hallmark? It's like, it's the five years after you've gotten over your - it’s the sad widower who's the town janitor or whatever, the carpenter, and then he's ready and he meets the woman who comes into Apple Valley or whatever, and they fall in love—they've papered over the sad part of it.
LS: Now he's ready to date! They didn't get the, like when you literally wake up and you forget what tense you're in? Or like, um, I couldn't even see my phone was dead. I would say like. My battery has lost charge. I couldn't say the word dead.
Leslie and Scott’s love story began when they were both in their late 30s.
AS: Where were you in your love life at that point?
LS: Sad Carrie Bradshaw.
AS: Aw (laughs)
Leslie and Scott had met years earlier, as teenagers. They went to the same high school outside of Baltimore. When her graduating class started organizing their 20 year reunion, Scott reached out to Leslie on Facebook. They agreed to meet up for coffee.
LS: And I was like eh, this is just coffee. It’s a thing. And he came and he had really thick glasses and he took his glasses off and I went, "Oh, he's cute!" And I was like, why do I care he's cute? This is just coffee. But, um, he was funny and he was very gracious. And then an hour and a half had gone by. We'd never stopped talking.
AS: So when you noticed that you realized that he, you thought he was cute, like was it, um, did Scott sort of fit the profile of, of, uh, the kind of guy that you thought you were going to end up with?
LS: Nope. Well, he did and he didn't, he fit the profile. I've always kinda liked, like sort of bigger dudes, so, and he was a bigger dude. I never really thought about bald guys before. Um, I thought that I was gonna marry or kind of hoped, sorta, whatever, that I was gonna marry someone who shared my religion. Um, but he had the things that, that mattered, that he loved his family. We would, we used to say we could have fun sitting in a box, if we were trapped in a box, we could, would have fun 'cause we'd never run out of things to talk about. We both watched Days of Our Lives growing up and our first date we sat on the beach in Fort Lauderdale and kissed and talked about villains on Days of Our Lives. You know, um, I not only loved him, I liked him, you know, um, and he was someone that I wanted to be friends with, not just - I was very much in love with him, but also, you know, we liked hanging out.
AS: You grew up in a, in a Black Baptist church in Baltimore. Did it give you pause that Scott was Jewish?
LS: Kind of. Only because it was very, it was very apparent very quickly that he was super serious about this and that I was going to have to make a decision about how important that was to me. Um, and I was, you know, went to church every Sunday and that kind of thing. And I thought, I'm 38 years old, I'm going to have to decide. And I went, "Yep." It wasn't even a question.
AS: Oh really? You're like, I'm going to have to decide. And when you pause to decide -
LS: I went, yep. It was like, it wasn't even like - it was like the end of the sentence I had figured it out.
AS: Huh. And what was it like telling him about how, um, how your faith had made you choose to make some decisions about what you wanted your sex life to be like? What was that conversation like?
LS: [Laughs] It was so - um, it's the kind of thing that like, you dread having to tell someone that you really like. It was our first official date, and it was fantastic and we were kissing in the car. And he said something like, you know, "The first time that we make love, we should go someplace very, very special." And I was like, first of all, that's cheesy. Second of all. And like, the defense came down, in my brain. I was like, listen, listen, you should know that I'm not planning to have sex before I'm married, and we're probably never going to get married, so we're probably never going to have sex. And he went, "Okay." And I was like, excuse me? And he was like, okay.
AS: Were you - before you reconnected with Scott, were you at peace with the idea that you might not get married, might not have sex?
LS: [Laughs] At peace? No. I guess I was kind of like, something's gonna happen, right? And I had hoped that I wouldn't like be the kind of person that got married just so I could do that and make everyone happy and then divorce two months later?
AS: Yeah. Did you pray about that?
LS: Yes, frequently. Frequently. And it came in a package that I did not expect. Um, but I think that's how things happen, right? You know? The person that I was supposed to be with showed up. And I'm, I'm happy. I mean, obviously I wish that we had more time together in all of those ways in every way. And I wish we'd had more time to be sexual with each other.
Leslie and Scott got married after they’d been dating for about a year. They wanted to become parents, but after a few years of trying, Leslie hadn’t gotten pregnant, so they decided to foster a baby boy, Brooks, with hopes of eventually adopting him.
Things were falling into place. But then in July of 2015, Scott suddenly felt sick in the middle of the night. Something was seriously wrong.
LS: I turned the light on, the light was behind my head and his head was shaking and I thought, oh, I don't, I didn't know what was happening. 'Cause like shock makes things happen both very quickly and very slowly. And, um, I don't think I realized for a couple seconds how seri - that something very serious was happening.
LS: And I remember yelling, what's wrong, what's happening, what's happening? And he passed out. And I called 911 and I have no idea how long it took, but, um, I was still in that just before something really tragic happens state where you think you can control things. And everyone else sees like a crazy frantic person and you think you're holding it together and you're not. Um, and so I called a friend and her husband, uh, they came over and he stayed with the baby along with one of my neighbors. And we went to the hospital.
AS: When do you remember realizing that Scott was gone?
LS: Um. When we got to the hospital and the clerk said, "Oh, Mrs. Zervitz, um, please wait in that room." And I was like, aw, no. 'Cause they didn't, it wasn't like - I didn't hear something frantically happening. We were in the ER. I didn't hear like, you know, people running around and yelling "stat!" It was too quiet and I thought, no, they're not trying to save him. Something has happened. And they put us in what I referred to as the bad news room.
LS: So when the doctor came in and there was a doctor and some nurses and stuff and nobody was smiling, and I thought, okay. So he told us. Um, you know, we tried to do this and unfortunately we were able, unable to save him. And I remember hearing myself saying the words, "So he's gone then." And I also remember thinking, because this is my pop culture reporter's shock wrapped around, "I wonder if I sound - is that what you should say? Is that a normal thing to say?"
AS: So you were feeling this odd like awareness of how you were performing.
LS: Yes. You know, are you the person that like breaks down crying? Which I'm not. Or, um, do you like start cussing at people or you just go, "Well thank you very much"?
Coming up, Leslie takes on all the logistics of death and being a single mom, while also figuring out how to just be.
LS: This thing we put on the grieving, particularly widows, that you're supposed to be sad enough but not so sad that you harsh the next party they invite you to? I remember thinking, you know what? I'm the widow now and I don't have to, I don't have to care what people think of me. I don't have to care of how people think that I'm grieving.
We’ve talked a lot about grief and loss here on Death, Sex & Money. And about how different it looks for everyone.
I almost felt betrayed by God. I was so hurt.
Usually the sadness overcomes - overcomes the anger. You know, it’s, you get angry for a second but that just turns into sadness.
I felt a lot of pressure to reassure everybody that it’s going to be okay. So that’s the mode that I snapped into.
Now you’ve got to be this plate for everybody else’s feelings about your dead husband. You don’t get around to your feelings until maybe a year or two after the funeral.
Those are excerpts from conversations that we’ve had about the loss of a child… a parent… a sibling… a spouse. And we know that a lot of you are grieving right now. Some of you, alone. So we put together a playlist of some of our episodes that focus on grief and loss. It’s on our website - you can find a link to it in our show notes.
And something else we’ve been thinking about here at the show is childcare. A lot of us are trying to make good choices with incomplete information. And the stakes are very, very high.
Nobody has all the answers...but we want to know what’s on your mind:
So if you’re a child care provider, tell us: How has your work changed because of the pandemic? Is it working for you?
If you’re someone with children: How’s your child care changed because of the pandemic? And is it working for YOU?
And we want to hear from everyone: What’s the hardest conversation you’ve had about child care in the last few months?
Record a voice memo or send us an email...to email@example.com. I think we’ll have a lot to talk about together.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
For Leslie Gray Streeter, part of what made the sudden death of her husband Scott so devastating was that raising their child together... was better than Leslie had even hoped for.
LG: I knew that he was going to be a good father, but I did not realize, for instance, that I was going to be the person carrying the baby bag, 'cause he always wanted to hold that baby.
LG: He was hands on, like literally. Most of the pictures are Brooks under the age of two are with Scott.
AS: How old was Brooks when Scott died?
LG: He was, let's see. Scott died the very end of July and Brooks's his birthday's in September, so he was almost two.
AS: Before Scott died, had you talked about what would happen if one of you died?
LS: Yes, actually, which is weird. Because after he died, I would have conversations with people and say, well, he would want this for the funeral, and people looked at me like, how do you know this? Why have you thought of this? It's because we had had so much death in our lives. Both of us in the five years, six years, that we were together, five years, that we were married, we both lost a parent. Had both lost a grandparent. So we had been to funerals together and had had discussions just like, like if you go to a wedding, you go, hey, what would you want your song to be? And you go to a funeral and you'd say, well, what would you want to be? I said, so what kind of funeral do you want? He goes, I want a Jewish funeral. I want a plain, plain pine box. I don't want to be like stuck on ice for a long time. Um, I want it to be fun. I was like, your funeral would not - and it was fun, but I was like, who would be having fun at your funeral? I'd be too sad. And he was like, no, just have it like me.
AS: What was it like for you as Scott's wife, um, to need guides, uh, who weren't your closest family and closest friends, um, to help you plan a Jewish funeral? What was that like?
LS: It was so...lovely. Um, I wanted to do something for him. 'Cause this was the last thing you can do, you know, in that way, that's specifically for him. So asking for help, which is not always easy for me. I knew this was not my, um, my thing. Scott's cousins, you know, and just one of his coworkers who told me about, you know, the minyan for the, um, the Kaddish. Kiddish? I never pronounce that right. They were all around to make sure — like, I had no idea of where you get yarmulkes, and they found yarmulkes. I had no idea like -
LS: - you know how you did certain things and they, they were there to do it. And like I said, it was all of us doing something for Scott that would've been important to him. And that meant something to me that made me closer, I'm now closer to that side of the family, because of that.
AS: When you were alone after Scott died, Um. What did that feel like, when you got to just, just be by yourself and also feel that Scott wasn't there?
LS: It was relief and torture at the same time, because I really wanted, I needed to be alone with your thoughts, but your thought is, "And now my husband's still dead." He's not here. He's not going to be here. He's not going to come in on that side of the bed. You know, I still sleep on my side of the bed five years later.
AS: You do.
LS: I do.
AS: And when you think about the last five years, like when you, when you think of, um, if you had a, a dark period or a period that felt the darkest, like when in time did it happen for you?
LS: It was right after, it's like I ate and drank and cried and just watched stupid television shows and just in any way — and I couldn't completely commit to that because once again, I had a small child, so I couldn't even like -
AS: You couldn't fully fall apart.
LS: I couldn’t completely commit to my darkness. Who has time to be dark all the time? The baby needs changed, you know? But, um, we had so many plans, like he was starting a job. Or just having to be "never" about things, like he's never going to have that job because he's dead.
LS: But, um, I think in those moments of my mother who was a miracle, um, allowed me to, to do that, and there would be times where I would just go, I need to go be in my room. And she would go, I know. I get it. It's okay.
AS: I mean, she, she, it occurs to me that she, she also was a fairly recent widow. Your father died three years before Scott did. Um, did you all talk about what it was like to be widows together?
LS: We did, and it's a thing that - and she said to me, I'm so sorry that you understand this. Because I got it. I mean, even though she, my dad had been married, you know, 40-something years, you know, when, when he died, and we had been married five and a half. Um, so we talked about it and we talked about like, just the having to do the practical stuff while your heart's breaking, you know, and like how you do that. And like when my dad died, I didn't crowd her. You know, I was like, I'm here if you need me, I'm here if you need me to drive you someplace, I'm here if you need me to do something. And when Scott died, same thing. I was in the house. And it's like, she's like, I'm over here if you need me, if you need me to hang out with baby, you need me to go make popcorn. You know, whatever, we can do this. Um, and just knowing - when people say, "I know how you feel." And they don't, no one does. Um, and having someone who had been through it, um, was really crucial, I think, to not feeling alone and not feeling weird about it.
As Leslie continued to grieve… she was still going through the adoption process. One of the things she had to decide was what Brooks’ last name would be, without Scott.
LS: He wanted Brooks's name not to be hyphenated. But when Scott died, I knew that just for so many reasons I needed him to have my name. But he had to have Zervitz in it. I wasn't going to write Scott out of it. I couldn't, he's his child, you know? So I hyphenated it and I knew that he wasn't, that he wouldn't have wanted to, he didn't want to have it hyphenated. But you know, I'm making the decisions now and he died on me. So it's my turn now. You know. And I do that sometimes. I'm like, well, you know, if you wanted to make this, this, this, and you shouldn't have died on me. And not in like a blame way, but it's like, what are you going to do? I can't do anything about it. My therapist told me that, um, it was okay to be mad at him for dying whether or not it's rational because nothing about this is logical or makes sense. That you - and that was really, being given permission to do that was really important to me, um. Even though I know that he never in a million years would he have chosen not to be with us, and it's really not fair that he's not. He's not. So [laughs]. And I'm angry about it. Because my life isn't what it's supposed to be. My life sucks. But it can't completely suck 'cause I got a, I didn't have a full staff of nannies to like raise my kid while I like, you know, luxuriated at some place at a spa and was sad. I had to keep it moving. And that kind of helped me keep it moving 'cause I had to get up 'cause the kid still needed to eat.
AS: How do you understand your son's relationship with Scott now? How does he think of his dad?
LS: It's interesting. Um, I mean, he's six now and there are times when he doesn't want to — some, sometimes he'll want to talk about it. Like sometimes he would meet people and go, "Hi, my dad died."
AS: When he was how old?
LS: Like four, you know, five maybe.
AS: It felt like a central fact.
LS: It's a central fact, because when you start to go to new schools, people ask, where's your dad?
LS: I try to keep him present. There are pictures. I don't want it to ever be a shrine, you know? I don't want it to be - like - I mean, he will figure out how he feels organically and then we will deal with that, but I don't to be a person that keeps him as this perfect person that you have to like worship. Any of that thing. I just want him to know that Scott was a human and he loved him more than he loved breathing, more than he loved air. And that's important for me that he knows that.
AS: When, when did you start going on dates?
LS: Um, I think my first official, I think, I think I went back on Match, which was a disaster. Um, a year later?
AS: A year later. And I, I'm curious when you, when you decided to do that, when you decided to say like, I'm just gonna - we're just going to see. Um, what did it feel like you were, you were like inviting into your life? What did you, what did you want to bring into your life that wasn't there by dating?
LS: Um, well. Once you've been in love and been loved fiercely like I was — and my marriage didn't end because either of us chose it.
LS: So my healing was not the same as my, the healing of my friends who've been divorced. Where they're dealing with the very real and awful ends of this thing where you love this person and now you can't be together anymore. So I missed being in love, I think everyone misses being in love, but I was like, I literally had it last week. Okay. Now it's been three months. Now it’s been six months, whatever. Um, I think I thought that I would find someone — which is hilarious, that I would find someone and like getting married really soon, or like a year or two. It's like, it was, it took me a thousand years to find the first one. It's not like — and now I'm like that much older. It's like, yeah, it's super easy to just find dudes who just want to marry a single mom! It is not. I feel like the Ron Howard as the narrator on Arrested Development. Narrator: "It was not, it was not." Um, but I knew that there would be no more knuckleheads. There would be — I was very upfront when I was dating online in the very, from the very beginning that I had a child. Widowhood I'm much better at going, not a thing. Move on. Not a thing, move on. Um, I knew that I was not, I remember when Scott died. I thought, well, now am I gonna be, am I like a casual sex person now? No, I am not.
AS: You're not. You're not.
LS: I'm not. Um, it's just, it's, it's too much logistics and I haven't done that. It's like -
AS: Wait, what kind of logistics?
LS: Like, I don't want to get a babysitter to go do that.
LS: And I don't even know you. You are not worth a babysitter yet, dude. And I, I'm not in a hurry to do it, because one of the lovely things about having been loved the way that I was loved is that I think that for awhile, when you're looking for that, you just want validation that you're lovable. You know? That someone loves you enough to want to be with you that way? And now I know that. I know that I am worthy of being loved and able to be loved and that I can be in those relationships. So I don't need to be with someone to know that. I don't need the validation of another person to tell me that right now, because I know that about myself.
That’s Leslie Gray Streeter. Her new book is called "Black Widow." Since we talked, Leslie has decided to move with her son back to Baltimore — where she’s originally from, and where she and Scott first met.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. I’m usually based at the studios of the investigative podcast Reveal in Emeryville, California. Katie Bishop produced this episode. The rest of our team is Anabel Bacon, Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn.
Thanks to Ayo Osobamiro for her work on this episode.
And thanks to Joy Shioshita in El Cerrito, California...who is a sustaining member of Death, Sex & Money. Join Joy and support what we do here by going to deathsexmoney.org/donate.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I’m on Twitter @annasale, the show is @deathsexmoney on twitter, instagram and Facebook.
Leslie told me, while there’s a lot she doesn’t know about how life is going to unfold, she does know where she’s going to end her days. In a grave plot, right next to Scott.
LS: I paid it off with the last half of my book advance.
AS: Oh, you did?
LS: Yes. How cool is that?
AS: That's really cool. Congratulations. You've got your little spot of land.
LS: I got my little spot of land. Got my paperwork and everything.
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.