A few weeks ago, as I was chopping vegetables, Claire came into the kitchen and started talking to me. We chatted for a while about our lives, including when my boyfriend Chris was going to come back to stay with us again. “He’s back home for another week,” I told her, “but then he will be here for a long stretch. He’s really excited to see us again.” She smiled, did a little hop and said “yay!” It was quiet for a moment as she looked at me to see what I’d say next. As I sat in that space, I could feel her thinking.
“Mama,” she said eventually, “if Dad came back to life, who would you love more? Dad or Chris?”
I choked a little on the tea I was sipping. Kids have a way of really getting to the point, don’t they?
“Well, Claire,” I said, trying to keep my voice even, “that can’t happen. Dad died, and he can’t come back to life.”
“I know, mom,” Claire said, “but what if it could happen? Who would you love more?”
“Claire,” I said, “you know it’s not a competition, right?” She nodded. Then I did the best job I could explaining what it’s like for me to fall in love as a widow. I told her that I will always carry my love for her father with me. But I also told her that I’m in love with Chris now, and our love isn’t something that’s second place.
“Does that make sense?” I asked her when I finished. She said it did.
I’m not quite sure why I expected an 11-year-old to understand something that’s difficult for me to put into words. But she seemed content with my answer. Still, it brought up questions that have been swirling in my head for months.
What does it mean to be a widow who falls in love again?
This question is particularly relevant right now, as today would have been my 16th wedding anniversary with Shawn. The past few years, I’ve spent this day with my cousins, lounging by a pool and drinking too many margaritas. I’ve tried to make the day pass quickly. I’ve tried not think too deeply about the fact that I no longer wear a wedding ring and am no longer married to the man who I was with for a decade and a half.
But this year is different.
I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to do today. I mean, I guess “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do” is a theme of this entire blog. The problem, however, isn’t that I don’t know what to do – I could take a long walk or go to the cemetery – it’s that I’m not totally sure how to feel.
Because here’s the deal: I woke up this morning and didn’t feel overwhelmingly sad.
I felt nostalgia for that day 16 years ago. But I did not feel the same sadness that I did last year, or the year before.
Does that mean I’m some sort of different widow now? Are my changing feelings a result of my new romance, or would I have felt them anyway? Am I still a “real” widow if I’ve fallen in love again?
I’m not totally sure what the answers to all of these questions are. I don’t know how I’m “supposed” to be feeling today and I don’t know how I’m “supposed” to feel every day going forward.
Being a widow is complicated. Sometimes I’ve been so sad I can’t do much of anything, but other times I have felt happiness and even outright joy. It took a while to learn how to balance these emotional states. I remember the first time when (for a few hours) I somehow forgot that Shawn had died. It was blissful….and then I felt horribly guilty.
After a while (and a lot of therapy) I realized that I was just going to have to learn how to live with more than one emotion at the same time. Or at least I had to accept that I would have multiple emotions throughout each day. I could feel joy and then sadness and then joy again. I might even have a day when I didn’t actually feel sad, and that was okay.
So I’m not going to try and feel a certain way today. I’m not going to tell myself how I “should” feel.
I’m going to let myself smile when I think about that day, 16 years ago. And I’m also going to smile when I go downstairs in a few minutes and see the man I love standing in the kitchen, making me a cup of coffee.