In my work with grieving families, much of the coaching I do is to help young grieving parents communicate their needs to their friends/relatives so that those close to them, who may not have any previous experience with perinatal death, can be supportive and nurturing rather than adding to the burdens of the grieving.
Then, in my own life I became a rare statistic, one of the 1.8% of women in their 40′s living as widows. My research showed that 2.6% of 40-something women are widowed, 1.8% not remarried. Slightly over 1% of men the same age are widowers with less than 1% not remarried.
Before I go any further, please let me recognize that (especially in Catholic life and tradition) there are those of all ages who choose to maintain devotion to their marriage and/or experience an evolution in vocation towards consecrated life in (or out of) a community after the death of a spouse. My own grandmother chose to consider herself a married woman after 47 years with my grandfather and scoffed at any suggestions to the contrary. I often wondered if my husband might consider the priesthood if I were to die while he was young enough for that to be an option. As much as I respect this option, I want to focus on those of us who continue to consider ourselves as marriage-minded after spousal death. You may have one or two peers navigating the choppy waters as a new widow/er.
A safe general rule in grief is to let the griever set the tone for interactions. If the griever is in a calm, more content moment, share that moment with her. If he is weepy and taken over by a wave of sadness, stay steady with him but don’t try to fix him like a broken toy. I would have been insulted early in my grief if had anyone suggested that a future relationship would improve my happiness; it would have sounded to me like that person was saying my husband was disposable. However, as I healed and began to look up and past the clouds of the moment, I began to have hope for the future and that included the possibility that I might eventually love again, but I needed to get to that place on my own.
What has genuinely surprised me (and the main reason I wanted to write on this topic) is the overbearing sense of expectations I perceive coming from others and how it really hurt me and complicated my healing. I urge you not to do this to others in my circumstance.
I have heard it said that a marriage is like a house with no windows. No matter how close you get, you can never look in. It’s probably a good thing that I can’t discern if it is harder to reflect on the good memories or the bad ones because I wouldn’t share that information anyway. The movie We Bought a Zoo tried to show the pain of young spousal death and I was amused watching it because it didn’t even come close. How a spouse processes the deep grief of loss is profound and extreme and primitive and very, very private. Trust the griever. Trust that she did the hard work whether it took her 5 years or 6 months to face down that dragon. Trust also that he doesn’t owe you any explanations about it.
Living in a situation where gutting pain lurks in every drawer and around every corner is surreal. Imagine how hard it was for me to try to find hope and begin to socialize again, only to be met with the too common reaction — people asking how long it had been since my husbands death.
I eventually realized that my whole life I have heard people make snarky, overreaching, and nosy comments on this subject (alas, it is a societal oddity), but it never hit home because I never imagined myself in this situation.
I always felt I was a really good wife. I was a military spouse for 18 of our 26 years of marriage, with the unavoidable deployments, moves, and hardships that come with it. I was faithful, loyal and devoted. But when people impose their expectations on me, it’s as if they expect me to prove my devotion to my husband all over again, as if none of our life together counted.
While we need to be cautious and protective of widow/ers who may be so fragile and vulnerable that they could be easily victimized (emotionally, financially or otherwise), I have come to see comments like, “What do you mean she is dating? Its only been a year and a half since her husband died!” as extraordinarily harsh to the point of cruelty. How long does a person have to be isolated to prove they were hurt when a spouse died? Do people who say that grasp the magnitude of the inference they are making about the bereaved who are trying to heal and create a life for themselves? I was even afraid to write this column lest someone–anyone–accuse me of not being devoted enough.
So why did I write it?
I wrote it because this is an ideal topic for a Catholic column. Our societal stupidity on this subject is really contrary to our faith teaching, and if we apply actual teachings to this we can nurture hurting people and do better than our society teaches us to do.
The vow we take is “until death do us part.” Let grieving widows and widowers set their own time table without dumping extra expectations on them. The widow/ers I have known who remarried fastest were the ones with the best marriages. Their willingness to consider another love was a witness to the positive aspects of marriage.
Having your spouse go to Purgatory is a huge chance to use intercessory prayer as a tool for his or her well-being and we can ask for ask for our spouses intercession also.
I had the chance to demonstrate the fact that I really believed what I said I believed. My husband’s death gave me a chance to witness to others. As much as I agonized over the sudden and unchangeable absence of my life partner, I had the opportunity to rejoice that he died in a state of active and earnest living of his Catholic faith. I picked the readings for his funeral knowing that I had a captive audience, the 6th chapter of John and 1 Thessalonians 4:13. “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope.”
Last, allow me to express gratitude to my (forever) Mother-in-law, the same one from the We Can’t all be Good Cooks column. She was incredibly gracious and kind the day I called to tell her that I had become reacquainted with a male friend from childhood who was kind to me and respectful of her son’s former place in my life.
Her reaction: “Every day since he died, I dreamed of this day.”
Her only question: “Will he protect you?”
What a lovely, selfless, and hopeful way to react. Again we can learn from her.
© 2013. Tammy Ruiz. All Rights Reserved.