The Power of the Word “Widow”
A few weeks ago, I heard through friends that the General Manager of Millie’s, our favorite neighborhood restaurant, had died after being shot a few weeks prior. He left behind a wife and baby. I didn’t know them, but I can’t stop thinking about his family. Many people I know posted things on social media or shared text messages about what had happened. Everyone expressed sympathy for his wife. I reached out to a few friends who knew her, offering condolences and any help I could offer when she’s ready.
But you know what I felt for her? Sympathy. “It’s so awful,” I said to my sister. “Another young widow.”
As I thought about it, the impact of that word – widow – hit me hard. Because even though I’ve spent almost seven months using the word widow and trying to de-stigmatize it, there is still such emotion conveyed when I say it out loud.
I mean, for years when I thought about the word “widow,” I imagined a woman, probably dressed in head-to-toe black, so old and sad she could barely walk down the street. I certainly didn’t imagine someone my age, doing preschool drop-off and trying on new shoes at DSW. And I definitely didn’t imagine that a woman could be laughing at a bar with friends less than a year after her husband died.
The thing is, everything in that previous paragraph describes me. The “widow” part includes the sadness of missing Shawn (though maybe not the head-to-toe black) and it also includes the happiness that’s starting to pop up in daily life. It includes it all because – shockingly – I am more than just a widow caricature.
I feel the need to fully explain this on my blog for a lot of reasons, even though I’ve hinted at it in other posts. Maybe it’s just that I’ve got it in my head that society wants me to be sad, all the time, for at least a full year before I can be happy. Maybe it’s just that I have seen the criticism leveled at anyone who refuses to stay holed up in their basement for the year after their spouse has died. Or maybe it’s because I feel everyone’s eyes constantly watching me. To be clear, I don’t think they are keeping tabs on me in a bad way, waiting to judge. My guess is that everyone is watching me at the grocery store and the pool and at camp drop off because they want to make sure I’m doing okay.
But here’s the thing – all those caring eyes make me feel like I have to perform, at least a little. I have to be happy, but not too happy. If I’m truly happy, even if it’s only for a few hours, doesn’t that mean that I’ve stopped missing Shawn?
Nora McInerney, who lost her spouse in her early 30s and started the Hot Young Widow’s Club, had a great statement that she said in a Today Show Video. (I’ll paraphrase here – but you should watch that video.) She pointed out, “After a year, you get the sense that people want your grief to be over. But I also had the sense that nobody wanted me to be too happy.”
I know that if you’re reading this blog post, and you’re a dear friend of mine, you’ll say that you want me to be happy, and I appreciate that so much. In fact, I know you would say something like that because you actually do want me to be happy, not just because it would be what I wanted to hear. But if we’re all honest here, if you knew and loved Shawn, isn’t there a part of you that would be upset to see me get to a truly happy place without him?
Because, if I’m being honest here, there’s a part of me that’s upset that I’m getting gradually happier. It makes me feel like I might forget him.
It’s almost impossible for me to feel happy and not simultaneously feel guilty about it. I feel like I should be sadder in those moments of joy. I’m not sure why that is. Is it because of the pressure I feel from society to act a certain way? Or is it because I feel all those caring eyes watching me and think that at least some of them must have a hard time seeing a (sometimes) happy widow? Or maybe, maybe, is it because I put that pressure on myself?
I want to be happy. I want my children to see me happy and I want my friends and my family to see me happy. One thing I know for sure is that Shawn would want me to experience joy. He would want me to have more and more of it each day.
And that, I have to say, is the one thing that makes me feel less guilty about those moments of happiness. Shawn would want me to have them.
I’m happy to see this post. It feels like a sign of healing, which as you said in a way, Shawn would want for you. I also love that you’re calling out the caricature of a widow and it’s dangers. What total bull shit to have to deal with that on top of everything else, especially as a young widow with young kids.
Thanks my dear friend!
Michelle O'Hara Levin
I’m no economist (call Steph) but I think the trouble here is the sense that grief is a zero sum game- that joy and sadness are on the same sliding scale. They are not. An increase in joy is not equivalent to a loss of sadness. To grossly oversimplify: You love and miss Shawn. That makes you sad. You also love your kids, your friends, a great song, a delicious meal, that puffy could that looks like a dinosaur, an organized drawer, all sorts of stuff. You love life. AND you love and miss Shawn. All those things are true. There is no loss of one with a (re)gain of the other.
And yes, Shawn would absolutely, positively want you to experience as much joy as possible every moment. Loving life is one of the many things he loved about you (and you him).
I love love love this. And you. Thank you for being my dear friend and truly understanding!
I want nothing more than for you and your sweet 3 littles to be happy. It certainly doesn’t mean that Shawn is forgotten or you’re not grieving. Shawn’s spirit will always be with you, running deep in all your hearts. And Shawn of all people, would want you to be happy. xoxo. Love you tons friend.
Thank you, my dear friend! You are so wonderful. And I know that you speak the truth. Love you.
I agree with Michelle! We can feel two emotions simultaneously, other languages probably have a word for this state. Bittersweet is the only English one that comes to mind. I hope you continue to feel more and more joyful moments my friend!!! (I love that DSW got a shout out in this post.)
I hope so too. Joy is something I need more of in my life, and I know it’s there. I just need to figure out how to reach it more easily, you know?