Last week, I went downtown and spoke at an event in Shawn’s honor. It was a beautiful and deeply important night, and I was so glad that my entire family could be there. Over a hundred other people showed up as well. Those in attendance talked to me about Shawn’s life, our children and how much he had meant to each of them.
It was perfect, but it was also difficult. It was difficult because I was reminded yet again that he’s no longer in this world. But when I reflected on it a few days later, I realized it was difficult for another reason as well: I am no longer of that world.
The world I speak of is the downtown world of US national security. I still have friends connected to that world, sure, but I’m not going to catered parties and black-tie balls. I’m not meeting interesting dignitaries and being escorted into events by uniformed men. I’m not doing any of this because I’m not Shawn’s wife anymore.
In the overall picture of my life, it’s obviously not what I miss the most about Shawn. It’s an extra thing that was an interesting and fun part of my life before. But when I reflected a bit more about my life, I realized that it was emblematic of what I’ve been starting to grapple with lately. I am not who I once was.
I am not Shawn’s wife anymore.
Four years before Shawn died, I was pregnant with Tommy and we decided that I’d go to part time. Since then, I worked 3 days a week and did a majority of the childcare. I prepped our house for parties and went to Costco. I always attended the elementary school events and I organized the backpacks. When Shawn got home, I loved listening to his stories about work and sharing mine from the day.
I also went to his parties – and God, I loved his parties. Because I don’t know much about national security, I spent those parties telling funny stories or asking people about their kids or chatting up the bartenders. I sampled all the food. I held his hand as he introduced me to everyone. I didn’t feel diminished in this role. I loved it. I relished my role as Shawn’s wife, and it almost never annoyed me that people didn’t ask much about my job or the things I did at home. I was important because I was Shawn’s wife.
So what am I now? I’m Shawn’s widow, certainly, but I’m not his wife.
This shift in identity has been a powerful one for me, and one that I’m only just beginning to explore. What does it mean to be seen only for who I am, and not for whose hand I hold? And if I’ve been part of a duo for so long, how do I even know who I am without my other half?
I’m trying to figure that all out. As an older friend said to me a few weeks ago, “you were the ‘wife of Shawn’ and that was your role for so long. It’s hard to figure out what’s next.” She didn’t mean to diminish what I did when Shawn was alive. I don’t mean to do that either – being at home and working part-time was what was optimal for our family and I was instrumental in making sure that everything was the best that it could be for the five of us. Still, Shawn had the job that society considered “more important” and I didn’t mind being known downtown primarily as the wife of an influential man.
But that woman was a different person than I am now. As I look to the future, I’m starting to think, “what’s next?” I wish I had a real answer, but it’s only in the past few weeks I’ve actually started to look towards the long-term future. Not just to what I might do with my career or with my finances, but also to what I might do in the long-term with my life. I’ve started to think about who I might be.
I am not Shawn’s wife anymore. I recognize that I still have the same personality and many of the same values as I always have had. But I do not hold the hand of anyone anymore, unless it’s someone under ten years old. As I face the future, I face the unknown and I do it with some degree of uncertainty about my own role in this world.
I know who I am and I don’t know who I am. Maybe that’s the strangest part of widowhood.