Shawn always used to say that his big goal in life was to be a middle-tier bureaucrat.
It made people laugh when he’d say it. Didn’t he want to be the Secretary of Defense or something? No, he’d tell everyone, he just wanted to make policy that mattered and write things other people wanted to read and play with his kids on the weekends.
It’s something that I always really admired, even when his career was taking off. He didn’t need the spotlight. He also didn’t subscribe to this brand of “everything and everyone has to be the best in order to be good.” Sometimes, reaching for the middle was really great, too.
I’ve been thinking about this lately as I’ve been getting a lot of mail – both public and private – on the blog. I try and respond to everyone who writes me, because I see it as my calling. (I know that sounds dumb. I can’t think of a better word than “calling.”) Many of the emails and other messages are from widows who are at the start of their widowhood, and most of them are really sad.
And, wow, I feel for them. If I close my eyes, I can easily transport myself back to the time when I felt really terrible. When I thought there wasn’t much of a reason to keep going, except that my children needed me. When I was so sad I cried in the bathroom every night and I couldn’t imagine things feeling not bad.
“But everything will work out!” I want to scream to my former self. There will be fun parties and amazing trips with the kids and even a prince charming at the end. It will be like something in the movies!
But I don’t actually want to scream that to myself in early widowhood. I’d probably spit at someone who tried to spew that kind of toxic positivity my way.
I know I hated when people told me, “God will lead you to a better future,” or even the more banal but still toxic, “everything will work out the way it’s supposed to.” What kind of bullshit is that? I’d think. Everything is NOT working out. And everything won’t just “be great in the end.”
So I’m not here to preach toxic positivity. But I’m also not going to repeat what I hear from a lot of famous widows, that “the world can be bleak” and life can be really terrible, and maybe it’s just best to embrace that. There’s a time and place for simply wallowing in the terrible.
But it’s not all the time. Not even in early widowhood.
Yes, terrible things can happen, the world can really suck, and toxic positivity is the worst.
I also don’t think it’s all bleak. Even in my earliest blog posts, I had some understanding that things could get better. I didn’t know how it was going to get better and I didn’t know when it was going to get better and there were times – even a year out – when it felt like things weren’t going to get better.
But, eventually, life got better. It was a gradual sort of thing. Every few months, I’d look up and realize that things were just a little bit different, and mostly, they were a little bit better. Of course I had setbacks (see this blog post from month 14) but it was like the stock market. Not linear from day to day, but if I stepped back, there was a mostly upward trajectory.
“Well,” you may say, if you are a new widow, “you basically had a fairy tale happen! You found a man of your dreams and he loves your kids and you didn’t even lose your house!” Why listen to someone like me?
I guess you should listen to me because I know a lot of widows. Some virtually, through this blog and other online groups, and some in person. And for almost all of them, life has gotten better than it was in those first few months or first year after losing a spouse. I actually went through my roster of widows I personally know and even for the ones who are still struggling, there are so many more wins than there once were. New jobs. New houses. New joys. New drinks they discovered and new hilarious stories they can tell.
There’s joy out there! I know it’s obnoxious to hear too much happiness when you’re so sad. So instead I’ll embrace a new term, one that’s about recognizing what’s hard while holding on to the idea that the future might hold good things, too. It’s what I might call “reasonable positivity.”
Right now, if you’re a new widow, you might be thinking about two possible options: either you’ll be so sad forever that you’ll never feel joy again or that some amazing prince/princess is going to come and save you and life will be perfect. And really, neither of those things are likely true. Even if you find someone new, it won’t be that moment that makes you happy.
No, instead there will be this incremental change, one that might seem impossible to detect. You won’t notice it each morning when the alarm goes off, but it’s there, creeping along. Sometimes there are bad days that come right after good days, and it can feel like you just want to throw in the towel.
But day trading is a bad idea, remember?
Instead I hope you can hold onto this: life gets better. It doesn’t get to some magical perfect place – not for anyone – and there can still be hardship. But life has a way of getting just a little bit better, if you embrace the idea that there’s a good life out there still to be had. It’s not a totally different life than you have now.
But it’s better.