Yes, it’s hard to go through a divorce. Yes, it hurts. But it’s not the same.
This gets said surprisingly often to new widows. The fundamental difference, even if the divorce happened out of the blue and without your approval—you’ve got a live person to be angry at, to rail against, to work out the final details with. While I’m generalizing here and everyone’s situation is different, I expected my marriage to go on. Then, it was over. And I could not even pretend I had options. It. Was. Over.
Let me assure you that John and I did not sail in undisturbed marital seas. We had a rough time of it for several years. John had affairs because like the crow with the shiny thing, he just couldn’t pass up foolish attention and I simply got fed up with it. In fact, I did everything I could to get him to leave. I made him move out of the house and we separated for nearly a year. (While we had deeply painful struggles through this time, we nonetheless spoke every day either on the phone or in person. Always about some trivial thing. We truly loved one another, despite this, well, rather fundamental problem of him having these ridiculous affairs. But that’s another posting.) Ultimately, we chose not to divorce. Or rather, since I’m the survivor here and history belongs to the living, I chose not to divorce him. He clearly wasn’t leaving.
Anyway. We reconciled. We worked hard at it. We loved each other even more for having fought it out and won. And I know not every couple does. Still, even at the worst of times he was there. Now he’s not. It’s not the same at all.
What can you do instead for the widow if you’re the divorcée? Take her out to dinner. Drop by for coffee. Bring her to a party. Get concert tickets and go together. Go for a walk. Invite her into your book group. Set an exercise goal and work together toward it. You know how it feels to be newly single and how hard it can be. Go show her how it isn’t so hard. One single friend of mine came over for dinner and we had a great time learning about making easy dinners for one. Teach her some of your hard-won lessons. Teach her how to be single again.
Just don’t compare how you got there.
My oldest brother died on May 23, 2007, six months before John died. Just out of the blue. Existing one minute, not existing the next. No one saw it coming, most likely least of all him. Turned out his heart just stopped. He was a big man and he did have a big heart in every sense of the word, but we all certainly thought it would be ticking a lot longer than this. He was taking his morning shower and simply. dropped. dead.
There’s no term for “survivor of a sibling” like there is “survivor of a spouse”. Also, no term for what my parents are now. Seems like there should be a word that identifies your new status, “My child has died” or “My sibling has died” in the same way that “widow” now also categorizes me. Odd that there is a word for “divorcee” but nothing to succinctly describe this. Would it all just be too many labels?
This is insanely depressing. Surprisingly, some widows say it to new widows. You’d think they’d know better.
Perhaps it is meant to pose the question, “What is with you widows and flogging this whole grief thing? Why on earth are you still talking about it?” I’m not sure. But if it’s said to a widow within a short time, let’s be conservative and say a year, it’s horrifying.
I met several other young widows after John’s death. Those who were most helpful acknowledged how badly I was hurting and instead of yet another aphorism about Time Healing All Wounds, acknowledged the seismic life change. Some sent me books that had helped them to get through, for which I was deeply grateful. Most just nodded and listened.
The ones that Did Not Help were those who outlined in detail the agony they were still going through. I think that would be easier for me to take now, a year out from the loss, but did these people completely forget what it was like to be newly widowed? Have they forgotten the intensity of feeling you’ll never come up out of this crushing grief? That hope is lost?
I got “fixed up” with one widow a week or so after the funeral. She spent our hour together detailing every moment of her husband’s death. Once she had finished with that, she mournfully spoke about how empty and lonely her life continued to be without the husband. Even her daughters were of little comfort and nothing had changed for her since his death—and it was five years after his death. I could barely stand upright. By the time I escaped it took me days to even consider talking to someone else again.
So I offer up this little prayer:
Please don’t let me do this to someone who is experiencing a new loss. Please help me to offer comfort. Please let new widows know that the bone-crushing grief will get easier to handle although it will not disappear. Help them bear the struggle one small step at a time. Please let me—and others in grief—learn to keep moving forward and embrace love in all its forms. And please let the Mariners have a winning season this year.
The Practical Widow
About a month after John’s death, I went out to dinner with two other couples. Three of us got to the restaurant first, and the maître d’ asked how many of us there would be. I immediately answered, “six”… she replied that the reservation was for five. I insisted, no there would be six of us.
Until, of course, I realized that there would only be five of us, two couples and me. I was so used to counting myself as two I simply didn’t realize we were one short. I can still recall the shockwaves that went through me, kind of a public awakening that I was now a table for one.
I was 45 when John died. I didn’t think I belonged in the elderly category of widows, those over 75 say, who have lost their spouses. On the other hand, I wasn’t young anymore either. I feel pretty well seasoned, especially now.
So in looking for support after John died, I had a little trouble figuring out where to go, what category I fit into. Also, we didn’t have children, which made things different. Most of the younger widows had children to raise, a whole kettle of fish I couldn’t even begin to understand. Now I’m in specialized sub-category:
Old enough to have been entrenched in marriage and all that a long relationship entails. Young enough to have another life ahead of me. Old enough to be enraged at having to start over after all those years of work. Young enough to know starting over is possible. Old enough to know children of my own are out of the picture. Young enough to be resentful of my friends with loving families of their own. Old enough to have experienced over twenty years of a deep loving connection with one man. Young enough to feel cheated at only twenty years.
I still don’t know where I fit in on the scale.
I was supposed to warn you?
Honestly, someone said this to me at a party. For a minute or two, I was speechless. Did they seriously think that I was “prepared”? And that I wasn’t shocked by his death?
This is a personal pet peeve: the idea that you could be “prepared” for death. I heard a radio show on hospice care a few weeks ago, and a social worker said, “There is no dying. There is living. And there is dead.” That very much resonated with me. During a prolonged terminal illness, it’s undeniably miserable and the outcome is sometimes obvious. But in the moment whatever it is, there is life. Perhaps a life that is difficult and struggling, but nonetheless it is life and you’re in it. Death? Well, that’s crossing a line from which there is no return. You are here. Then you are not.
My brother died suddenly—completely out of the blue. Alive one minute and dead the next. That was shocking. John died more slowly, tilting at the windmills of bad health from the time he was sixteen, and battling hard for ten days at the end. That was shocking.
They were both shocking losses. Just in different ways.
So if you must say something along these lines, think about how you’re phrasing it. Saying, “I’m so sorry for your loss, what a terrible shock.” is significantly better than telling the widow how she feels vs. how you feel. Just a matter of shifting around a few words. But it makes a world of difference.