Advice for the Young and Widowed from a Former Young Widow
My late husband passed 25 years ago of complications of a rare and deadly brain cancer. Nothing could have prepared me for the chapter of life that ensued. I quickly learned that grief is like the sudden and perturbing ringing in the ears that makes it hard to focus on things and won’t subside until it decides to. Grief rings throughout my body at times, even today.
All this happened before the advent of social media. I would have liked to have talked to other widows and listened to their counsel. I only knew one other young widow and she couldn’t talk about her loss and experiences because it happened about the same time my husband passed, and we were both in shock. Widowhood is for life. Once it happens, it can’t un-happen. Every moment of every day is informed by the loss of Mark, whether I am consciously aware of it or not.
I follow grieving groups on social media. Some are just community-oriented, and others are led by therapists of one type or another. One therapist in particular asked us if going to the grocery store and seeing our late-loved one’s food was a hardship like it was for her since the passing of her husband. Her posts seem to center around her brand of grieving, and are rarely inclusive of different expressions of grieving. When someone speaks up about their differing experience, she tends to reply sharply or dismissively, or doesn’t reply at all. Perhaps that is her expression of grief. And perhaps she is a widow who is also a jerk and one of the many therapists and psychologists who enter the field to fix their own issues. After many adverse experiences with influential mental health professionals that I happened to work with on committees, leadership councils, or was neighbors of or co-workers with, I’m not a huge fan of the industry. Dealing with the mind is a serious and potentially dangerous thing. There needs to be stronger vetting of mental health professionals before turning them loose on the world after graduation.
I shudder to think that in closed rooms this grief “specialist” gives advice to the emotionally grieving and vulnerable. I’d like to share a bit of my experience with you to encourage you to identify and assert your own grieving needs.
I remember taking my son with me to the grocery store more often than I needed to just to be around strangers who didn’t know my sad story. I would drive to the neighboring city, which was a major city, and go to grocery stores and places where I knew I wouldn’t run into the pitying stares and interrogating and intrusive questions of the casually concerned.
Looking back, I should have moved out of that metropolitan area to a new place where my son and I could start over, but I thought I needed to stay close to what was familiar for his sake, when in fact, I needed to reestablish our new family dynamic as a single mom and her son without so much manipulative, controlling, and unhelpful chaos from outside sources. I should have gone to where our circle of influence didn’t see us through the filter of mutual loss.
It’s not that I didn’t want to talk about it or share in the grief of others over my husband. Sometimes talking about it was and still is helpful. I just didn’t want my son and me to be so constantly burdened with other people’s sadness about Mark’s loss when we had our own to deal with. Most conversations centered around death and loss, and it was a struggle to deal with the discomfort of others while being in a prolonged state of shock. It was untenable.
Like a rare species in a zoo behind glass, my son and I were a curiosity to be observed but not embraced, and no longer full people like we were before the death. I was 21 years old with a baby and a dead husband, and it was bloody lonely because there were a lot of people who suddenly no longer felt comfortable around me because they didn’t know what to say or how to act around a young widow, or who understood what it took to get up every morning and be as high-functioning a parent as possible while still reserving the right to cry in the shower so no one would hear, and then over breakfast laugh at funny things my son did, or get excited about a cake decorating class just to get out and be a person once a week for two hours. I was a person with the need to grow away from the vortex of grief and into the new person that I was becoming.
Looking back I spent more time comforting than being comforted. All people could see in my son and me was the reflection of their own sorrow and discomfort around the grieving. They didn’t see us. Strangers don’t dwell on their mutual loss when they didn’t lose that person. They form a normal relationship to and with you when death is not at the core of it all. It’s difficult, but I try not to think about what I would do if I could go back to my younger self and give counsel. Hindsight is hard to avoid. Despite trying not to cultivate regret, over the past 25 years I have thought about it enough to know what I would say. Perhaps I am saying this to you in the hope that it might help support you in choosing your own needs first, and not fulfilling the expectations of others. Stand strong against the temptation of shrinking yourself to ease the discomfort of others. You have so much life and love ahead of you that must only be on your terms.
When grief is your companion your relationship with and to it needs to be on your own terms. It can infuse meaning and purpose or not. If you listen closely to your heart you will hear it guiding you toward deeper ways of feeling and thinking. It needs you to understand it so you can understand yourself and those around you who are also grieving. When the cacophony of the grief and commentary of others drown out the sound of your own heart, it’s time to assess your boundaries and clean out your personal space so you can hear, listen, and feel whatever you need to experience in order to grow away from the vortex that grief can become.
Who I was before grief was shallow and untried in comparison. The world took on new dimensions, and I more easily saw the pain others carry. Death made me realize that the unburdened heart is a privilege, but not one that does much good in the world. Am I grateful for my grief? In a way I am. I don’t enjoy Mark’s absence in my life. It has been rather horrible at times for both me and my son. I have since remarried and had more children who are now entering adulthood. Moving on is not an antidote to grief, and time has nothing to do with healing wounds. Nothing. But I have reconciled myself to this reality that grief will ring in my heart when and how it needs to, and so I have made a companion of it and studied it so that I can enrich my grieving with understanding and compassion.
You can do this, too. I know you can. You’re here reading this article, which means you are a great success at surviving. Let me share these thoughts with you that you might inform your grief a little more. Let it be an encouragement to give yourself more grace and tend to your own needs first. No matter who comes and goes, you are the one constant person in your life, and the most important.