About two months after Shawn and I started dating, we went to Vietnam for a week. I know this may sound like major excursion, but we were living in Japan, and Vietnam was just a few hours away by plane. We made a plan to start in the south and take the train north. We had no hotel reservations or timeline of events, except that our plane flew into Ho Chi Minh City on a Saturday and out of Hanoi a week later. It was the type of plan I often made in my early 20s, which consisted of, “I’m sure it will be fine.”
We spent a great first day in Ho Chi Minh City, but when we went to get train tickets, we found out that they were sold out for the next day. We still needed to head north, so we found an overnight bus that would take us to our next stop, and we packed up our things and headed to the bus stop.
The bus was terrible. I mean, I think it cost like $4, so I don’t know what I thought it would be like, but it was definitely not a luxury coach. Furthermore, the roads were poorly lit and the bus was overcrowded. About an hour into the ride, I was exhausted and complained that I wasn’t going to be able to sleep. “Put your head in my lap,” Shawn said, “I can sleep sitting up.”
It was a lie, though I didn’t know it at the time. I put my head in his lap and minutes later, I was asleep. I felt so safe and comforted. He stayed up the whole night.
Over the past few years, I’ve frequently thought back on this story. I remember the feeling of safety that I felt that night, and how it was a constant during my entire relationship with Shawn. I am reminded of this story every time I get a message from another widow, telling me about her husband. Because do you know what one of the most common things is that widows tell me? How safe they felt with their husbands.
And how unsafe they feel now.
Most of them aren’t talking about physical safety, although that’s something that single women can feel. Rather, most of them are talking about a lack of safety that’s unique to widowhood. In those early days without Shawn, I had this nagging sensation that there was no one that I could rely on.
There was nowhere that I could rest my head when I was tired.
It got easier, of course, as the months and then years went by. I learned how to be that emotional safety net for my kids and then eventually for myself. I learned that I could be the one who stayed up all night, making sure that things didn’t go wrong. I learned how to be the one providing the safety, rather than receiving it.
But it was hard.
And it was unexpected. It felt somewhat normal to feel sad and shocked and even angry in the early days of widowhood.
I didn’t expect to feel so scared.
And yet that’s been my experience of widowhood. One of the first things I felt when I was all alone was fear. Not just because I was a single parent. But also because I knew I was facing the world alone.
It’s doable, this “facing the world alone” thing. As I was preparing to write this blog post I looked back at all of my writing about fear, and I realized I hadn’t written much on this topic. This was shocking to me, because one of the things I remember most acutely about the first few months of widowhood was how often my heart would race because I felt so unsafe in the world without Shawn. I was truly scared of being alone.
It wasn’t something that was easily fixed. It took months – okay, really it took over a year – before the fear started to subside. I wish I could say that I had a magic bullet as to how it got easier, but there wasn’t one thing.
I guess what happened is I just kept living through the fear. And somehow, it eventually took a bit of a backseat in my emotional life.
I still felt scared after that first year, and if I’m honest, there are still moments I feel scared now. I don’t have a tool kit that helps me to always feel better. But I do have my life experience – one that tells me that everything turned out okay on that bus in Vietnam. One that tells me that I’ve faced that fear over the past two and a half years and come out on the other side.
But that fear that resides in early widowhood – and sometimes later widowhood – is very real. In fact, it may be one of the hallmarks of my experience.
People kept telling me I was brave.
But I just felt scared.