I was really nervous about attending my first spousal loss group. The first group I went to included two people who were there to grieve their dogs. (I’m serious. You can’t make this stuff up.) So I wasn’t sure what to expect when I walked through the door.
As I entered the therapy room, the first person I saw was an old man in a wheelchair who was probably 90 years old. Great, I thought. I sat down on the couch and smiled at him. He looked sad. More people filed in. I was glad (in a bizarre way) to see that there were a few other young people.
It was then that Abena walked through the door. She was dressed in a suit and looked way more pulled together than I did. At that point, it had been just six weeks since Shawn died and I was barely managing to change out of my pajamas. I definitely wasn’t back at work. I was impressed that she was so pulled together.
It took a few sessions, but slowly, Abena and I started to share more with each other. We discussed caring for our husbands and parenting small children. We talked about the impossibility of dealing with the medical system, even though my whole family is in medicine and she worked at a research hospital. We cried together a lot.
Abena first found out her husband, Joseph, had cancer when he had a seizure while they were on vacation. She was eight months pregnant. What followed was a years-long battle with brain cancer where Abena cared for their two young children and navigated his care.
But Abena didn’t just talk about her husband’s death. One of the things I loved the most about Abena was how she talked about how Joseph lived and thrived even when he was sick. He was a high school math teacher and loved to create things. One day, she brought in a piece of woodwork that he’d done and told us all about the work he did outside of the classroom. It was impressive woodwork, but that wasn’t what I noticed. What I noticed were Abena’s eyes as she talked about his carving. By springtime, I felt like I knew not just Abena but also Joseph. It was a good model and allowed me to start talking more about Shawn with many of my other friends.
At the end of the group therapy, I stayed friends with Abena. She was moving, so I went over and helped her pack. We met up for coffee often after that and I cried more with her than maybe anyone else. I didn’t always have to tell her why. Sometimes, I just stared out into space and cried and cried. She was never uncomfortable with it, probably because she felt the same way.
Slowly, Abena and I made friends with a few other young widows. We gathered for wine and talked and cried and laughed and felt….a lot less alone.
One day, more than a year after we met, Abena texted me, “listen, I just got my hair done and I want to go out. Let’s do it this Saturday!”
I told her I was flying in from my vacation that day, but I’d do my best to make it. And that’s how I found myself rolling my suitcase into 18th Street Lounge one Saturday night.
Abena didn’t disappoint. She wanted to dance and so did I and we stayed out way too late for two single mamas. We laughed a ton. She and I were out on the dance floor for much of the night. At one point, maybe sometime around midnight, we were dancing and I thought, “God, this is so fun.”
I looked at her and saw her face was shining. She looked truly joyful. There we were, acting young and alive and yet bonded by this terrible shared past. Anyone looking at us would have thought we were just two girls out for a night on the town.
And we were, actually.
We are widows, and really young ones at that. But we are also friends, and we have decided that no matter our circumstances, we are still going to keep living. Yes, Abena was my first “widow friend” and we can talk about things that I just can’t broach with many others, but she’s also become a friend separate from our shared loss.
“How do you know each other?” a man asked our group that night.
“We met in a spousal loss group,” Abena said, and the man looked at us like we were crazy.
“You’re kidding, right?” he said.
“No,” she said. “Our husbands all died. That’s how we met.”
He was too stunned to speak. Abena said something comforting to him and then whispered in my ear, “girl, it’s time to get out on that dance floor.”
And we did.