In early 2020, before the pandemic hit, I went out with the Cabal to an Irish pub, where we flirted with the bartenders and told funny stories and cried a little and laughed a lot. It was exactly how many of the Cabal gatherings always had been – filled with every possible emotion.
I think our stated reason for the gathering was that someone was celebrating a deathiversary (and yes, that’s a word – otherwise known as the anniversary of someone’s death – see my posts on January 9th each year.) In any case, we definitely spent part of the night talking about loss. But we also discussed lighter things, like the fact that I had a date planned with this guy who I thought looked good online and we found out he was the boss of another member of the Cabal! What were the chances?
Alongside all of these themes of grief and survival and perseverance, we were also there to celebrate one more thing: the very first engagement of one of the members of the Cabal!
It was somewhat unbelievable to all of us. Our friend Elizabeth had found love with a man that was thoughtful about her grief and brought her great joy in her daily life. And he was cute, too! How was it possible that one of us – yes, one of us! – could find something like this again? We marveled at her. She smiled and yet also seemed a bit shy.
I could tell she wanted to be thoughtful, both about how she approached a new partner and also in how she shared it with us. Hadn’t we just spent the first part of the night grieving together as we remembered someone who had died tragically young? Wasn’t it weird to then pivot to outright celebration? We had done it before, of course – the Cabal is known for our ability to laugh and cry in a 2-minute time period – but this celebration was different and we all knew it.
This wasn’t a good first date or new patio furniture we were talking about. It was marriage.
Elizabeth’s face was full of joy, but I could sense just a bit of hesitation. If I’m being honest, I felt a bit of hesitation myself. What did it mean to celebrate her impending marriage? Did it mean I didn’t think she was still sad her late husband was dead? How was I supposed to react?
But in the back of my head, I had this nagging sensation. I started to think about what it must feel like to have to navigate a new relationship after being widowed.
“You can just be happy,” I blurted out to Elizabeth. I don’t know what caused me to say it, but it felt important in the moment. I tried to explain myself, saying something about how I knew Elizabeth still felt grief but that she didn’t have to feel it at this moment, if she didn’t want to. I wanted her to know that she could just be happy with us, and that we would hold her joy.
Did that mean that we didn’t feel conflicted at moments afterwards? Of course not. I’m sure Elizabeth felt that too. But what I wanted to convey was this: widowhood doesn’t have to always mean hedging on the happiness you feel.
Yes, the grief remains, even years later for every widow I know. But there may be times when you feel only joy, and in those moments, it’s okay to not feel sad at all. You don’t need to feel conflicted or guilty about it. The grief and the loss doesn’t go away because you have times – moments or days or weeks or even months – when you feel joy. It’s okay to just be happy sometimes.
Of course, Elizabeth is a thoughtful person who didn’t ever want to make anyone feel uncomfortable. I hope what she felt was nothing but support from all of us. After I wrote this post, I sent it to her, and she said I could include her name and her story. She told me a lot about how the Cabal had supported her in her new relationship, and then she said this:
I remember I was VERY into Will after our first date and I was talking to Whitney about it at that party at Alexi’s house. She teased me and said “You’re blushing! You’re in loOoOoVe!” and her saying that to me was weirdly revelatory for me. If one of my sister widows felt like it was so okay for me to fall in love again and to tease me like that…. it felt completely ok for me to allow for that possibility. It totally sucked the heaviness of those feelings out of the moment (we had a second date later that night).
I loved this note she sent me. I didn’t know about it at the time, but I knew that we were all secretly in awe of Elizabeth – she was actually falling in love again. And when she told us about her engagement, I saw only one thing: joy. It was a beautiful thing to see. Not just because it meant she was happy, but also because she was reminding me that the moments of joy I was having then, in early 2020 – with my job and my kids, and later, with Chris – were ones to be celebrated.
Not everyone in the Cabal has fallen in love again, though some of us have. Others have gotten new jobs, new houses and we even have one new baby in the mix! We have had our own joys, and we have celebrated them with the excitement they merit.
Sometimes, you can just be happy.