In the past week, I’ve had two different acquaintances tell me about terrible things going on with their families. In both cases, I was asked to keep the information confidential, which I gladly did.
But it got me thinking. Before Shawn died, I used to talk with my closest friends about their problems, and I’d share mine. Sometimes, these dear friends of mine had serious problems, and we’d work through them together. But I never discussed serious problems with more casual friends and acquaintances. Instead, I talked to people in my my larger circle about our daily lives, our kids and our work. We never got too serious.
When I looked around my community before Shawn died, I used to think that everyone lived happy and mostly conflict-free lives.
That, of course, wasn’t true. It just seemed to be true because that’s what I saw (and heard) around me. No one other than my closest friends wanted to reveal when their lives were falling apart.
Now, I hear a lot of stories from everyone, friends and acquaintances alike. I guess part of the reason is because I write this blog, and three times a week I reveal all sorts of insecurities I have. I show the world all the ways that I’m struggling. But it can’t be the only reason – not everyone reads my blog. In fact, I’m fairly convinced that it’s not my new online openness that makes people tell me their stories. Instead, I think the thing that makes me more approachable is the one thing I can’t hide:
I’m a widow. So the horror in my life is right out there, front-and-center, for everyone to see.
Everyone in my community knows that I’m a widow, right down to the security guard at my kid’s elementary school. Everyone knows the great tragedy that befell my family. I am sure Shawn’s death was something that was discussed on street corners and backyards and grocery stores. “Did you hear about the family, the one who lives near the elementary school? The father was completely healthy – did CrossFit, I think. And then one day he got a cancer diagnosis, and died six weeks later. Can you imagine?”
I didn’t actually hear any of these conversations, but I’m sure they happened – it’s human nature to express shock at a shocking situation. I don’t blame anyone for talking about our family. I’m sure I’d do the same if the roles were reversed.
But here’s what it did for me and my family: it made our suffering really obvious. We were enduring something terrible, and our suffering was, in many ways, quite public. Everyone knew about it.
For a long time, probably almost a year, no one said anything to me about their own problems. They didn’t want to burden me, I guess. But as I started to show that I was managing my daily life with a bit more ease, other people started to share their lives with me.
It wasn’t just my closest friends. As this year has progressed, even my acquaintances have started to tell me terrible things about their lives – crumbling marriages, dying family members, failed career moves. I have heard much more tragedy this year than I ever did when Shawn was alive.
It’s made me wonder: why?
Here’s my hypothesis: because I can’t hide my family’s terrible situation, everyone knows that my life is not perfect. Everyone knows that I don’t have this amazing life where little goes wrong. Everyone knows that I’m living a life that I wish was different in fundamental ways.
Basically, there’s no illusion with me. I can’t try and hide the fact that Shawn is dead, that I’m single (maybe forever) and that my kids don’t have a father. It’s right out there in the open.
I think, maybe, this allows people to reach out to me. Not because I’m better than anyone else. But because it’s so obvious that my life is messed up in many ways, so there’s no need to pretend around me.
Someone who is going through something terrible may look around at my community and see lots of happy, intact families with few obvious problems. And then that same person sees me. This person, the one who is hurting, may think, “Marjorie is someone who I can share with, because she isn’t like all the others. She is someone who has an imperfect life.”
I’m glad I can be that person for people outside of my inner circle. I’m glad people can see me and tell me about their lives. It makes me feel better, not worse. I just wish I didn’t have to become a widow for people to trust me with their hard stuff.
I don’t share the things that other people tell me in confidence. But sometimes, I wish I could. Not so that I could break people’s trust, but so that everyone could know how many people aren’t living perfect lives.
The picture you see out there in the world may look perfect. But trust me – there’s a lot of people hurting out there in the world. For me, my scars are ugly and visible and obvious. For others, they are hidden. But everyone is not living a better life than you.
Take it from this widow: there’s a whole lot more imperfection in everyone’s lives than it may seem at first glance.