It doesn’t get any better — you just get used to it.”

Hearing this a couple of months after the death of my wife, Ella Tulin, was like a kick in the stomach, but over the succeeding year there were many occasions when this phrase was the only solid anchor in an emotional turmoil.

Meeting Sam Feldman about a year ago and talking with him about the Men’s Bereavement Group prompted me to think back to the emotional aftermath of Ella’s death five years ago and to share some reflections on the experience that may be of help to those similarly situated now.

When I was young enough to know everything and be prepared to put the world to rights, the practice of mourning seemed empty and hypocritical. I realize now that the purpose of a badge of mourning is to remind the community that the wearer is in need of the emotional equivalent of a disabled parking place, but is probably unaware of it.

This does not necessarily mean that the bereaved cannot function. I functioned like a crazy person with a memorial for 250 people in Washington, D.C., another here at the Field Gallery for about 60 and a major retrospective show of Ella’s work (including several large bronzes) in between. To achieve this I relentlessly dragooned any and every nearby friend into real and strenuous work with no regard for their own lives or sensitivities. The fact that some still speak to me is a miracle of tolerance on their part, so this is written partly as a public apology and plea for forgiveness.

For the newly bereaved, if it feels like the end of the world, in a way it is — and you are, not by choice, carrying on into a new world that is bleak in its unfamiliarity and its void. Be gentle with yourself. As suggested, you are for awhile impaired and probably will say or do things inappropriately, but give yourself forgiveness. You will need help so ask for it. Ask anybody and everybody. In this culture we pride ourselves on self-sufficiency but right now all normal rules are in abeyance. Asking for help is giving to the person you ask the gift of being needed, so do it without hesitation and you may be amazed at the natural generosity of people around you.

After the frenetic activity described above, which in retrospect was carried out under an anesthesia of shock, I entered a partial paralysis. As executor, I was obliged among many other duties to ready the house for sale, but it was some while before I could deal in any way with the contents of Ella’s studio beyond preparing an inventory. The intervention of a friend, who commissioned the building of a pair of unusual French doors, required use of the space and initiated the process of clearance. I suspect that Dan’s need was partly designed as therapy for myself — it certainly worked that way. Despite this breaking of a barrier, Ella’s intimate clothing and medications remained in their drawers until a few weeks before the final move from the house, over 18 months after her death, and were finally emptied not by myself but by a close and loving friend.

This was not a conscious avoidance — somehow even when intending to tackle this relatively small task something else always took priority. I mention this to point out that a degree of malfunction remains for quite awhile.

It was at this point, when my mind had grasped the certainty that I would end my days by myself — though I was hardly reconciled to this — that Paulette came into my life by a series of events that reach high levels of improbability, but are a story for another time and perhaps another place. This occurred at exactly the time when I was sufficiently whole to see another with the clarity that is required by a sound relationship.

So now we are here, on the Island, married three years ago on a day and at a location magically transformed for the purpose and profoundly happy.

So how can this finale be squared with the opening quote? To misquote Bill Clinton, it all depends on what you mean by “it.”

The loss can never be undone, but as time passes life builds around the hole. We are the sum of our experiences, and we cannot truly know joy without experiencing sorrow, and our capacity for joy will equal the depths of our greatest sorrow. We can and do carry both — great joy in the present does not extinguish the sadness of past loss but exists as a contrast and is undiminished by older shadows. This may appear paradoxical but is this not the nature of humanity — that odd sometimes infuriating species to which we belong.

So it doesn’t get any better — but you really do get used to it.


Nick Mosey is a woodworker living with his wife, artist Paulette Hayes, in Vineyard Haven. He was previously married to sculptor Ella Tulin, who died suddenly in January 2006. The Men’s Bereavement Group meets regularly; for information go to