Manicured lawn similar to that at party attended by DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley
What Not to Say

It’s Not Something You Can Catch

I was at a party a while back and I met a group of single people. The host introduced me to them after I mentioned the difficulty of meeting people outside my circle of (mostly married) friends. Everyone was kind (though no one shook hands, because even though it was February, we were still being cautious – you didn’t know what you could catch!) and we started chatting about nothing. Eventually, people started sharing stories of how they’d met each other, and a couple of them talked about getting divorced and finding support in other divorced people. They could share stories with each other, and also commiserate about parenting.

I mentioned that I have three children of my own, and we talked about mundane things like carpool lines. A few people added in comments about sharing custody, and eventually I could tell that they were wondering if I was also divorced.

I could have let it go. I mean, what did it matter? I was unlikely to see any of these people again, and my marital status wasn’t necessarily something that was important to the discussion.

But I didn’t. It wasn’t really that I didn’t want them to think that I was divorced. I think if I was, I could have bonded much better with them. It’s just that I felt like I was pretending to be someone I wasn’t.

“I’m actually a widow,” I said, “so that’s why I have my kids all the time.”

I could have picked their jaws off the floor. “Oh no!” one woman said, “that’s so terrible!”

I actually appreciated her response. It IS terrible.

But then there was the man standing next to me. His eyes got really big, and he choked a little bit on his drink. “Um, uh, um,” he said a couple of times, before pretending to refill his drink. Then he excused himself.

I tried to smooth over the situation. This is a skill I’ve really honed over the past two years – making other people feel better about my bad luck. “It’s been some years,” I said vaguely to the remaining group, “and I’ve been lucky to have my kids through it.”

This is always the line I use, because it’s vague and also because I’ve found it to be the one that soothes people in the best way. Yes! You have your kids! And time has passed! It’s all okay now!

Of course, it’s not really how things are for me. I can still be up-and-down, and my kids don’t truly alleviate the grief I experience on a regular basis. I am not healed, even if I am healing.

But you can’t say all that at a party. Instead, we kept chatting about parenting, and being single in DC.

Across the room, I could see the man who had left our circle. He glanced at me, and smiled nervously.

I have no idea why he reacted like that. It’s not actually something that happens to me very often. Yes, when I tell people I’m a widow (and they see that I’m not 75) sometimes they seem shocked, but usually I am able to manage their emotions and move the conversation to an easier place.

But not always. Every once in a while, there’s a guy like this guy – someone who just cannot handle it.

I’m never quite sure what to do about it. I mean, maybe he had experienced recent loss, and just didn’t want to cry in front of the group. Maybe his sister is a widow, or maybe his mom is. Who knows.

I try and think the best of others. But I’m always interested in these people, the ones who disengage with me when they learn I’m a widow.

It’s like they don’t want to know that bad things happen in the world and I am a reminder that they do. Or that they can. I am a reminder that death exists, even at a fun party in a neighborhood with young people and manicured lawns.

“It’s okay,” I wanted to say to him. “Bad things do happen. But it’s not something you can control.”

And maybe, I could have added this:

“It’s also not something you can catch.”


  • R Gibson

    I’m imagining myself in the same conversation and I find myself wondering how I would respond if I heard you say the same thing.
    Often in small talk like this with people you don’t know, there’s a conversational volley of limited intimacy. You can ask someone a question (how was your weekend?) and that’s an easy volley return – they answer it. Or you can make a universal observation (the weather, cost of gas) and the return volley is agreement or another similar observation. Or you can make a personal statement about yourself, to which a return volley would either be a follow up question to you, or a statement of common experience (my kids are over scheduled these days). But I can imagine what happens when you say you’re a widow is that people are unsure what their conversational volley should be. Do we ask a follow up question? If so, what question could possibly be appropriate to ask to either learn more about you or to keep the conversation going? I can imagine scrolling furiously through my mind to find a statement, a question, anything, that could possibly be appropriate to say right now to both acknowledge it and keep the conversation moving. Even sitting here by myself, I can’t think how to do it. That’s the moment it can become uncomfortable. And then people have wildly differing ways in which they *handle* the discomfort and that’s what you’re seeing and experiencing – fleeing, stammering, dumb questions or observations, etc. It’s just a theory. I wish it were easier for everyone to talk about.

    • Marjorie

      It’s tough. This is why I try to react more with a sense of “I wonder” rather than “how dare he!” I think part of this is likely because we are often really bad about talking about death and grief in American society. No one is perfect, and I get that. But the stumbled responses I received often are fine. It’s the avoidance that I just can’t fully process.

  • JustDad

    Part of understanding where I was on this widower journey was recognizing when I became able to comfort the people that I just dropped a bomb on that, “Hey, no worries, it’s cool, I can talk about it, you can ask me about it if you like.” Then you can get back to finding the things that you have in common. For me it’s better to have that info out in the open as soon as possible. Maybe it’s a bit self-centered, but I still feel, 3+ years out, that if you don’t know this one, very basic thing about me, then we’re just not going to get very far in our connection. “Widowed, full-time father of 3” is literally in the first sentence of my dating profile, for better or worse. Don’t bury the lede!

    • Marjorie

      Good point! I like the statement, “it’s okay, you can ask me about it if you like.” That’s so approachable and awesome of you.

  • John

    Ten years ago when out for a walk I began chatting with a woman in her eighties. As we talked, it was revealed that her husband had died a couple of years ago. I said I was sorry. She said matter of factly, “Well, people die. We had a wonderful life together. I have many friends and family here. I’m very lucky.” Now that I am a widower, I try (like Justdad) to comfort people that I just dropped a bomb on. The funniest reaction I remember is when I told a former coworker who hadn’t heard, he said, “Oh, I’m sorry to remind you.” I thought, as if I could possibly forget! He meant well, but people who have not experienced this kind of loss really don’t know what to say. I do the same as Justdad and tell people I’m fine with talking about my wife and my loss.

    • Marjorie

      Oh, that’s SO something people say to me often – “I’m so sorry to remind you/bring it up/etc.”!! Yes, I never forget.