Right after Shawn died, I was talking to a girlfriend of mine about how I missed going out to dinner. “We can go out anytime,” she said. “If it’s easier, we can just go out with all of the women.”
She was trying to be compassionate. She understood that it could be hard for me to go out with a group of couples, especially so recently after Shawn died.
But I didn’t want that, and I told her so. The men in our group – they are my friends too.
I appreciated that she was trying to be mindful of my feelings. But what I appreciated even more was that she asked me what I wanted to do. She didn’t just assume how I might feel.
Some widows don’t want to be around couples. And to be fair, it’s not always easy for me to be the only single person in a packed room of happily chatting duos. But – and this is important – it’s worse for me to feel excluded.
I’ll give you an example. For a long time after Shawn died, none of my girlfriends would talk to me about any disagreements they had with their husbands. They were trying to be thoughtful, and also I’m sure they imagined that it could be annoying for me to hear about such trivial issues when I was dealing with tragic loss.
I appreciated it at first. But as time went on, I noticed when people would fall silent when I entered a room. I noticed when it was obvious that the conversation shifted when I joined a group at a party. I started to feel like I didn’t really know about other people’s lives. I started to feel like an outsider in the world of couples that surrounded me.
I told my friends Beth and Brian this the other afternoon as we all drank wine in their kitchen. Beth nodded along. Brian listened intently, and then said, “I think I understand now. Everyone is trying to help and make you feel better by not discussing their relationships and not always inviting you to events comprised just of couples. But that doesn’t make you feel better. It makes you feel excluded.”
“Yes,” I told him, “exactly.”
So what is a friend of mine (or any grieving widow) to do?
I guess there’s one thing that can always help: ask. And then ask again. Because sometimes we change our minds. And sometimes our feelings on any given topic can evolve. In the beginning it may be hard to be around couples, and later it could be easier. Or vice versa. Either way, it’s really hard to convey this to friends if they don’t ask. It’s even hard for me, and I’m an extrovert.
Another option? Figure out a third way. My friend Becky did this the other day with an invitation she sent out. She didn’t know it at the time, but the invite made me cry (in a good way.)
As background, for many years a group of us have thrown a school fundraising party (you can see my blog post on the last one here.) There were 4 couples who threw the party together. Now the invite should be from 3 couples plus me.
Instead, Becky signed the invitation from all of us without our last names, with the women listed first followed by the men. We became not 3 couples + Marjorie but instead just 7 people throwing a party. It read like this:
“90’s Party Hosts: Becky, Katy, Marjorie, Meg, Josh, Reynolds and Kevin”
I know it’s a little thing. But it’s those little things that make me feel a part of my community, rather than feeling like an outsider.
It takes extra effort to think like this. I certainly don’t expect everyone to constantly recalibrate their lives to accommodate my daily emotions and I don’t want friends walking on eggshells to make sure they don’t upset me. That makes me feel even more excluded.
What I think is really helpful, for me and for many others who might be in a similar situation, is when other people around me take an extra second to imagine what it might be like to be in my shoes.
I think we could all do this a little bit more. Not just for widows, but for anyone who might be sitting on the sidelines.
I have a million examples of people doing this for me. In fact, just recently, I was at a costume party with a group of my friends. We were going to another party down the street, and people were slowly trickling out.
I wasn’t sure who I was going to leave with. I scanned the room. At that moment, Beth came up behind me.
“Brian and I are leaving now,” she said. “Do you want to walk with us?”
I did. We left, and walked – just the three of us – up to the next party. Brian took a few photos of Beth and I in our costumes and we all laughed about the fake mustache of another party-goer.
I was not a third wheel that night. I was simply their friend.