At First Glance
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.
I think this quote from Joan Didion’s book “The Year of Magical Thinking” is relevant here:
“People who have recently lost someone have a certain look, recognizable maybe only to those who have seen that look on their own faces. I have noticed it on my face and I notice it now on others. The look is one of extreme vulnerability, nakedness, openness. It is the look of someone who walks from the ophthalmologist’s office into the bright daylight with dilated eyes, or of someone who wears glasses and is suddenly made to take them off. These people who have lost someone look naked because they think themselves invisible. I myself felt invisible for a period of time, incorporeal. I seemed to have crossed one of those legendary rivers that divide the living from the dead, entered a place in which I could be seen only by those who were themselves recently bereaved. I understood for the first time the power in the image of the rivers, the Styx, the Lethe, the cloaked ferryman with his pole. I understood for the first time the meaning in the practice of suttee. Widows did not throw themselves on the burning raft out of grief. The burning raft was instead an accurate representation of the place to which their grief (not their families, not the community, not custom, their grief) had taken them.”― Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
One of my favorite books. And a beautiful quote here – thank you for sharing!
“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 think it may not be necessarily because you have an imperfect life, but the fact that you may be able to understand them better having gone through an incredibly unfortunate and terrible situation yourself. It also seems that they trust you more because you won’t judge them for sharing their story, knowing how vulnerable that experience is.
Well, I hope that comes through. We’re all just trying our best, for real. I actually said this to my 5-year-old the other day when he was complaining about something being unfair. Judging others helps no one!
I love this and the excerpt from Joan Didion. I think some of why people share with you is that you are open, but you’re also a good listener and have thoughtful perspectives. You have dealt with pain so gracefully that I think others seek you out.
It really is crazy that we all think others’ lives are perfect.
Thanks, friend. And yes, it is CRAZY. And yet, it’s how we often feel. More vulnerability everywhere can certainly help such a collective mentality, I think.
I’m twenty years on in the process, socializing with scores of people who never knew her, and a dwindling number of people who remember the days before or after her demise. I feel like we widowed bring to every social situation a certain…Gravity? Insight? Perspective? that serves as an empathy check for those who have not been in our shoes. I don’t know if we bring this as a gift or as a burden to those situations, but we bring people a chance to be kind, or act on best intentions, or to reflect on their presumptions and their insensitivities. So often people can be clueless, but we at least give them a reason to reflect, whether they want to or not. And, if they do choose to be introspective, we present them with a living example of what they too will someday have to endure. As if we didn’t already have enough on our plates!
Oh, this is beautiful. I especially loved what you wrote here: “I don’t know if we bring this as a gift or as a burden to those situations, but we bring people a chance to be kind, or act on best intentions, or to reflect on their presumptions and their insensitivities.”
For the whole year after my husband’s death, people kept recounting me all the horrible things that were happening to them and all the ways how their world sucked. I did wonder why they thought it is a good idea, or why they thought I was the one who could help them somehow or who would properly understand. What it mainly did was convince me that life is definitely not worth living, not for me and not for anyone else.
I think there are certainly times and places for sharing – and in the initial few months/year it is not appropriate. But I hope there is still hope out there for you – the world can still be beautiful. (And for you or anyone else who is suffering, there are a lot of great places out there for help. Here in DC, we have the Wendt center, but there are other grief centers that can help, so please do find them if you still feel this way.) Sending hugs.
Love that quote and that book has now come up twice this week so I clearly need to pick it up. I totally agree that there is a certain fellowship of the sad and sorrowful. Once you’ve experienced that deep loss, it does seem to send a certain signal out to the world that you ‘understand’ because you’ve been there. I’m constantly shocked and amazed at the pain people hide. I have often described my family as being ‘tragedy adjacent’ in that we’ve had cancer, addictions, depression, job loss and career set backs but we’ve lucky and have survived it all so far. So many people close to us and not so close to us haven’t been so lucky. I am acutely aware that we will not always be so lucky and that loss and death come for us all but I could not be more grateful for you and your blog for helping those of us who have been lucky enough to be just “adjacent” prepare for the day when it feels like we’re drowning in it. And I completely hear you on confidentiality and wanting to share so many stories but not necessarily having the permission. It helps to know you’re not alone. It helps to know others have go through this and survived. It helps to know no one’s life is perfect no matter how manicured their lawn or how crisp their shirt is in their family photo. You just reminded me that I need to do a blog post on my travels with the kids this summer. So many people have commented on how “perfect” the trips looked from the photos I posted and I have a moral, social and personal responsibility to explain that it was far from perfect because it was LIFE! Love you, love what you are doing and thank you for this. xoxo
Oh, thank you my friend! And yes, I think you’re right – perfection is so far from our lives, often, even if it may seem that way (especially on social media.)
when i go to the River, i can see her on the other side waving…we don’t speak but i tell not that all is well but that things are different now…the torrent separating us runs deep and fast… it is this life that separates us…i hope she is there next time…
Another most welcome post, Marjorie, as are all that I have occasion to read. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it: this chaplain most heartily agrees… Every well-wishes, Mike
I’m sure you hear these sorts of things as well! Thank you for the well wishes!!
I think sometimes people want empathy and not sympathy, and they know that you understand what real hurt and heartbreak feel like.
I think that’s true for almost anyone – no matter what, empathy over sympathy is the way to go!