What I want you to know about being a widow

What I Want You to Know is a series of reader submissions. It is an attempt to allow people to tell their personal stories, in the hopes of bringing greater compassion to the unique issues each of us face. If you would like to submit a story to this series, click here. Today’s guest post is by Dawn R. 

What I want you to know about being a widow: I’ve been a widow for 7 month and 28 days. Those stats might lead you to believe that I have some chart affixed to my fridge where I’m crossing off days each morning as I reach for the creamer for my coffee. That would be wrong. I just looked at my calendar and quickly and unemotionally did the calculations in my head. It wasn’t always that way. The first couple of days after he left I couldn’t get past 3:07 pm without a lump forming in my throat, then it was Wednesday afternoons that were a hurdle and at this point I still take pause each month on the 4th—it’s doubly bad if it happens to land on a Wednesday. I suspect that eventually one of those 4ths will pass by without my noticing and I will have reached a new sense of freedom in my widowhood. But today, I'm still well aware that Monday will mark 8 long months without my husband.

I became a widow at 44, nearly 22 years after I became a wife. We planned to have a big celebration when the years that we had been married were longer than the years that we hadn’t. We didn’t quite make it. The time we had together was good--not perfect because its participants were far from perfect. But as I look in the rear view mirror at it, we had a solid, healthy and really fun marriage. I could tell you a thousand reasons why my husband was an amazing man who loved me completely and faced his failing heart bravely, but I won’t. Lots of women have wonderful husbands who fill nearly all their needs and only occasionally drive them completely crazy—mine was one of those.

There are a couple of things that widows have in common. We all carry around the story of our rite of passage into widowhood. For some widows, it’s those last minutes with their husband, for some it’s a phone call that changes their status and for others it happens while they sleep. However it happens the end result is the same—a passing away of the old and an ushering in of the new. My transition came one December afternoon while the snow blanketed the world and brought along with it a coldness that never entirely lifts. I told my failing husband, “Help is on the way, they’ll be right here. You’ll be just fine.” As those words left my mouth, I’m certain he was experiencing a kind of heavenly help that I could never imagine in my wildest and most amazing dreams. Widowhood crept in as the ambulance attendant asked, “Who can we call?” The weight of it became even more real as I helplessly pleaded with my sixteen-year-old, “Is today the day, is this how it all ends? Is he really going to leave us?” One minute I was his wife and in his last breath, I became a widow.

Another thing we have in common is that we hate the word widow—but there’s no other word. Survivor is a more accurate term, but that’s used for lots of things: the list of family on an obituary, reality show winners and cancer patients—which I also happen to be but I’m saving that for another submission, What I Want You to Know About Having Breast Cancer While Your Husband Passes Away…yep, sometimes truth and my life is stranger than fiction. I was informed by a friend that I should be thankful to even have a word—thankful? Having lost a 9-year-old daughter several years ago she pointed out that there’s no word for losing a child. She’s right—children without parents are orphans and spouses without spouses are widows and widowers, people who can’t or don’t have children are barren or childless, but there’s no word for losing one of your children when you have others. Someone should come up with a word for that. They, of anyone, deserve to have a word. So with that kind of perspective I’m glad to have a word, even if I’m not a big fan of joining the club.

I also know that you struggle to know what to say to me about losing my husband. Here's a quote from CS Lewis' book, A Grief Observed--a brilliant and angry book that Lewis wrote after the death of his wife. "I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they'll say something about it or not. I hate it if they do and if they don't." Lewis nailed it. I feel exactly the same way. I recently had dinner with some friends and no one asked about my widowness. In my mind I felt a little like my left arm was on fire and no one offered to get up from the table for an extinguisher. On the flip side, I certainly don't want the whole conversation to revolve around the fact that my arm is on fire, I'm completely aware that there are topics that are much more interesting and upbeat. But even a "Wow, that must really hurt..." would have been better than simply ignoring my smoldering arm. It makes me reflect on a couple of meals where I probably let someone's arm be reduced to ashes while I munched on my salad. Sorry for that.

Being a widow (and reading CS Lewis) has showed me that loss is always part of love. Did my husband and I think we would die together in some tragic exit from this life--the likelihood was slim. If most couples are honest, they know that one of them will always leave the other behind. Here is Lewis' quote, "...bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love. It follows marriage as normally as marriage follows courtship or as autumn follows summer. It is not a truncation of the process but one of its phases: not an interruption of the dance, but the next figure." Should we be so surprised about this part of God’s plan? Sure, I know that I'm relatively young and he was, as well, but part of the strength of our marriage was that we did spend a good deal of energy preparing for the possibility of an early departure by him. It was an ironic blessing of our marriage and one that I hope others take away from our experience.

Last, but certainly not least, a widow spends most of her days suspended between two things--honoring the memory of her husband and moving at a healthy pace away from that life she knew with him. I loved my husband the best that I humanly could and he loved me right back. His fingerprints and words are all over my children and our household, but he of all people would want to see us march bravely forward without him. I can never forget him, no more than I can forget about my ash covered left arm. It will always be with me. He will always be part of my life story, our story. I am a widow, but if I let it be the biggest label in my life it will cripple me and my household. I need to give it its proper place but focus on roles that have life and a call to my future--mother, daughter, friend, sister, child of God. That being said, I accept the label Widow with honor because it means that I belonged to someone. I was the person he pointed to across a crowded room when was telling someone about his wife. I mattered to him so this label still matters to me as much as I might want to kick against it. It is the leftover shadow of my amazing role as my husband's wife.

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