I was at a party a while back and I met a group of single people. The host introduced me to them after I mentioned the difficulty of meeting people outside my circle of (mostly married) friends. Everyone was kind (though no one shook hands, because even though it was February, we were still being cautious – you didn’t know what you could catch!) and we started chatting about nothing. Eventually, people started sharing stories of how they’d met each other, and a couple of them talked about getting divorced and finding support in other divorced people. They could share stories with each other, and also commiserate about parenting.
I mentioned that I have three children of my own, and we talked about mundane things like carpool lines. A few people added in comments about sharing custody, and eventually I could tell that they were wondering if I was also divorced.
I could have let it go. I mean, what did it matter? I was unlikely to see any of these people again, and my marital status wasn’t necessarily something that was important to the discussion.
But I didn’t. It wasn’t really that I didn’t want them to think that I was divorced. I think if I was, I could have bonded much better with them. It’s just that I felt like I was pretending to be someone I wasn’t.
“I’m actually a widow,” I said, “so that’s why I have my kids all the time.”
I could have picked their jaws off the floor. “Oh no!” one woman said, “that’s so terrible!”
I actually appreciated her response. It IS terrible.
But then there was the man standing next to me. His eyes got really big, and he choked a little bit on his drink. “Um, uh, um,” he said a couple of times, before pretending to refill his drink. Then he excused himself.
I tried to smooth over the situation. This is a skill I’ve really honed over the past two years – making other people feel better about my bad luck. “It’s been some years,” I said vaguely to the remaining group, “and I’ve been lucky to have my kids through it.”
This is always the line I use, because it’s vague and also because I’ve found it to be the one that soothes people in the best way. Yes! You have your kids! And time has passed! It’s all okay now!
Of course, it’s not really how things are for me. I can still be up-and-down, and my kids don’t truly alleviate the grief I experience on a regular basis. I am not healed, even if I am healing.
But you can’t say all that at a party. Instead, we kept chatting about parenting, and being single in DC.
Across the room, I could see the man who had left our circle. He glanced at me, and smiled nervously.
I have no idea why he reacted like that. It’s not actually something that happens to me very often. Yes, when I tell people I’m a widow (and they see that I’m not 75) sometimes they seem shocked, but usually I am able to manage their emotions and move the conversation to an easier place.
But not always. Every once in a while, there’s a guy like this guy – someone who just cannot handle it.
I’m never quite sure what to do about it. I mean, maybe he had experienced recent loss, and just didn’t want to cry in front of the group. Maybe his sister is a widow, or maybe his mom is. Who knows.
I try and think the best of others. But I’m always interested in these people, the ones who disengage with me when they learn I’m a widow.
It’s like they don’t want to know that bad things happen in the world and I am a reminder that they do. Or that they can. I am a reminder that death exists, even at a fun party in a neighborhood with young people and manicured lawns.
“It’s okay,” I wanted to say to him. “Bad things do happen. But it’s not something you can control.”
And maybe, I could have added this:
“It’s also not something you can catch.”