It’s been almost two years since my last article here on P-Mag. In that time, I had some wonderful adventures and moments – before my husband’s brain cancer began to really change the quality of his life for the worse in 2012. He was in Home Hospice service for about eight months before he passed away on September 11, 2012. He had turned 28 years old in August of that year.
At age 25, I became a widow.
In the four months since that day, I have learned quite a lot. Some things I plan on expounding in later articles on Widowhood**, things nobody ever hopes to become an expert on, things like what happens to someone’s social media accounts and digital property after they pass. It seems so small, but in the new “information” age, this becomes increasingly relevant, along with the digital presence of anybody who has left a large technological mark.
I have learned a lot about my own self, in physical and mental as well as emotional ways. In some ways, I have changed and become more sensitive, quicker to despair. In other ways I can look back on some days and see part of the Crucible I have gone through and managed to come out from, though I do not have any false ideas that “the worst” is past with his death. His death was really just the start of the hardest part of living; going back to being alone after making a commitment to spend a lifetime together. Suddenly the “Until death do we part” not only becomes so much more real, but it gives a large emotional space of loneliness.
The house that was once a home, filled with love, people, sound, and life, is now so much quieter, replaced with a calm that did not exist before.
Photos take on different meanings; what was once a reminder of happy moments can at times seem to be mocking the happiness that will never happen again.
Family and friends change. Perhaps my personal interactions are aberrations, however, from several other bloggers who have also been widowed it seems to be the “norm” now to have a portion of the widow(er)’s family and friends just”¦ disappear. For example, Ann Bacciaglia wrote that she thought the distance she felt after losing her husband came from people’s unpredictable reactions to death.
In my own case, as a very young widow, with the majority of my local or long-time friends being in their 20s, I feel perhaps for some it is just too much a reminder of the mortality of us all. My husband never asked to have brain cancer when he was 25 years old. His cancer was not contagious and yet some friends had to leave. If he could get terminal cancer, what is to stop it from happening to anyone else? That begins the rabbit-hole that always end with, “At some point, we all die. I will die.” I feel my peers of the same age do not like confronting this thought; perhaps this is true for peers of any age. My peers are finishing their graduate studies. They are starting careers. They are buying homes, getting settled, having (or trying to have) children.
My peers who are getting married seem to fall into two camps; those who cannot stand to be around me (and perhaps my invisible widow stigma? I often wonder if I should sew a red “W” on my clothing?) and those who welcome me into the celebration of their happy day. Those in the latter camp are the friends I truly cherish. Though I was only married 1278 days, my marriage did not end due to either of us wishing it so. It hurts to see the happiness of others as they begin to share their life together, but in a way I know I will overcome. It is the emotional equivalent of a hard workout; there is pain, moments where one thinks they can push their selves no further, but they do. It hurts, yes. Pain. Under that pain, though, is the knowledge that it is working toward something new, some change; be it physical muscle or an emotional hardening after a traumatic and/or life altering event.
The friends who stood by my husband through his illness, not to my surprise, are most of the same people who currently act as the wonderful support to a young widow that is so desperately needed.
Four months can seem like a lifetime, and a fraction of a second. Each day as a widow, every morning I wake up alone in the bed we used to share and try to hold a memory. Some days all that comes to mind are visions of sad times, painful moments, tears at the future we both knew would come. Some days begin happier, a happy dream I saw my husband in, or a gleeful memory to revisit. Every day is a process through my own grief.
At four months in, I can look and see with some evaluation my own progress working with my grief. I do not say “working through” or “working over” my grief; that implies that is it possible to “get over” the loss at some point. As a young widow, having lost the man who I was going to spend my life with and have children and hopefully decades together, this is not anything I will or can ever get over. I can only work with my emotions and grief each day or in each moment as things change.
KÃ¼bler-Ross’ theory of “5 Stages of Grief“ is well-known, but in reality there is no “timetable” on grief or loss. There is not truly any order to how one feels with their own grief. Beyond this, many scientists now wonder if the “last” stage of “Acceptance” might be more closely related to personal emotional resilience after a loss than a multi-stepped grief process.
Something I did not learn until I woke up on September 12, 2012 was that there really are no rules for widows. There is advice from other widows, though that comes with the caveat that each person feels love in their own personal way, and thus, they feel loss in their own personal way. No loss of a loved one can be “more” or “less” than another loss. It is, of course, true that feelings of severe helplessness, depression, anxiety, or suicide after a loss should be shared with a doctor or a trusted adult who can help get services to address those feelings. That is not to say any of those feelings after a loss are abnormal. To judge another person’s loss and grief is to open yourself to judgment about your emotional love.
Sadly, this kind of judgment is something widows of seemingly all ages face. Carole Brody has written a short series of articles about her own experiences after she was widowed. Some of the “worst” questions she was asked or told as a widow were listed including this compassionate gem:
When someone says: “You should be “˜over it’ already.”
What the widowed are thinking is: “Well, I’m not “˜over it’ and I’m sorry if my healing timeline doesn’t fit your timeline.“
The timeline of grief is an interesting thing. Everyone has a different idea as to how fast or slow the process takes. Public grieving or mourning adds another level of complexity to an already maddening situation. How long is “appropriate”? Does the public get to dictate how fast the mourner moves? Is the public merely a form of emotional voyeurism to the mourner?
With my husband’s permission, I began to write about the process of his cancer in 2009, a couple months after his diagnosis. We had both been greatly moved earlier that year by the story of Jade Goody and her own public showing of a terminal cancer. She passed away only a week after Wash and I had been married. When we learned his cancer was terminal a few months later, he wanted to be public with his own trials. He fully felt that as someone who had a rare cancer (for his age) and one that was aggressively terminal he could leave a legacy of showing others what the process was like. He did not want to be “hidden away” to die without notice.
His decision was not fully supported by some of his friends or family, but it was his choice to make, and mine to support. In the spirit of my late husband then, I choose to be open about my own grief and mourning. Some of my own friends and family do not support my decision, and I no longer have my Wash for support, save for in memory.
In this ever-changing world, ever increasing in digital access and expanding world-wide online communities I see chances to share our story, much like Wash was honest about his life with brain cancer, I can let other young widows know they are not alone.
We show death. We show dying. We show brief moments of “after” in our Western society, but very little conversation about dying and those left with loss. Are words and discussions about death and dying more terrifying than facing the mortality we all share?
As his life had value, I want to make my widowhood have value. You are welcome to come watch me on this journey.
**For clarification purposes my use of “widow” can refer to any gender, or committed partner situation. Legal marriage is not necessary.