My dear fellow member of the Club No One Wants to Join,
I started Widowhood Wednesday just under a year ago. I was almost seventeen years past my first widowhood, almost three past my second.
I was accompanying (to the extent it is possible that another person can accompany another in the freshets of recent grief), my recently widowed friend Sumita.
By “accompany” I mean only that I was bearing witness. Saying, yes, that is what it feels like. Saying, no, it is not insanity, it is grief.
Sumita was in that rough stage when the immediate anodyne shock of the death has worn off, and the length of time one has to live without the beloved is settling in. That time when the first year is over… after which, you, and often other well-meaning friends who had not yet been through widowhood, supposed it would be better (because after all, you would have lived through all the anniversaries, right? And would there not be some sense of closure, of a cycle completed, of relief?).
Yet, because the inherent nature of bereavement-grief cannot be “healed” (here’s why), that first year has come and gone, and one still feels ripped open, gutted like a fish by longing. It feels, impossibly, as bad or worse than it ever did, and it feels equally impossible to imagine it will ever get better, because, how could it? He, or she, is gone and will not return.
Though it does get better. Not healed, but better (here’s how).
HOW WIDOWHOOD WEDNESDAY BEGAN
Sumita was not the first widow I walked part of the way with. And, when I was myself new to the terrible country of widowhood, others had walked a ways with me (though, because I was young, I knew no fellow-widows). But somehow, her particular unmitigated sorrow gave me a sense that it was time to start putting out my hand towards others, who were still reeling, living each day in disbelief that this — this endless and unthinkable absence, this insult to every conception of what life was supposed to be — was what their days had become.
And since I had the perspective of being a long-time widow and the long practice of writing, usually attempting to do so with personal transparency, I suddenly felt called to crack the widowhood conversation as wide open as her broken heart, a break I recognized so well. Thus, without much forethought, I began Widowhood Wednesdays.
Perhaps I should not have been as amazed as I was at how much there was to say.
THE BIGGEST QUESTIONS, AND THE SMALLEST
For widowhood goes right to the heart of the biggest questions human beings grapple with (Why did this happen? What does love or happiness mean when it can be torn away so easily and absolutely? Will I see him or her again in an afterlife? What can I believe, when my old beliefs seem like dust now?).
Yet widowhood also goes to the innards of the small, particular questions, too (When is the right time to clean out her side of the closet? Will I ever be able to smell spray starch — he ironed his own shirts — without crying? And what the hell is the A.G. Edwards account password, and why didn’t she leave it somewhere I could find it? And why the hell does his sister want Grandpa Smith’s signet ring back, when he gave it to me?)
And perhaps I should not have been as amazed as I was at how these posts led to my meeting so many other widows / widowers (I tend to leave off the “er”; in my language everyone who has lost a beloved life-mate is a widow), though perhaps I should not have been. Each of whom had their own variations of this terrible passage, though it is universal to all human beings who are coupled (except those who die at the same time, as in an accident).
ITERATIONS OF LOSS
And the variety, the shades and range and particulars of their situations. Widows with young children to suddenly support solo, or with teenagers who had been angry at the now-vanished father. Widows with no children and felt, hence, “he was my everything.” Widows with adult children, some of whom carried their own heartbreak or lack of resolution, some of whom were able to help.
Too, I kept meeting widows whose situations caused them to get even less support than “normal” widows.
Widows who had lived with their partners but were not legally married. Widows who had been in long-term gay partnerships that were either closeted or not recognized by families. Widows who were mid-divorce, or mid-counseling/reconciliation when their spouse died suddenly. “Suicide widows.” Widows who endured terrible cruelties by in-laws or siblings or estranged family members. Widows who fought shocking battles with institutions, over things like pension plans.
TO THOSE OF YOU WHO FOUND THEIR WAY HERE; I AM SORRY YOU NEEDED TO
Every time I thought my heart could not possibly twist up in sympathetic grief in one single more way, one more single time, I would hear some unbelievably shattering iteration of loss and I would feel stunned at all life asks of us, and how little prepared for it most of us are.
That so many widows found their way to these posts, and received from them some small moment-to-moment relief, perhaps merely in knowing that others had trod and were treading this same bewildering tract stunned me: in less than 6 months, readership of my blog had jumped 4000 per cent.
Clearly there was a need for talking about this experience, opening the widowhood conversation in a way that didn’t either candy-coat the experience or interpret it religiously.
With the response, and the stories I was hearing as well as telling, I came to feel responsible, pulled to this community of people who did not deserve what had happened to them any more than I had, who had been unwittingly tsunami’d with grief for which they were unprepared. This is what I call the Club No One Wants to Join.
The only problem was, Widowhood Wednesday as I was doing it could easily have taken over my life, as a writer and as a person.
OPENING THE CONVERSATION IN NEW WAYS
For, of course, there is so much to say and hear on this topic, and there is so achingly much need in this world to say and listen to each other’s stories about loss, that we might be better able to, somehow, bear the unbearable.
Yet I am only one person, and I work full time.
So I have been trying to discover a way to integrate writing about widowhood with the rest of my life. I want to and am very willing to, honored to, “go there” as truthfully as possible on a regular basis… but not quite as I have done it.
For my life also contains teaching (at a university, at workshops and conferences, and online). There is my other writing (mostly about creativity and food, but also the writing I do for children). There is going on walks and doing other self-care, spending time with friends. There is my work as the literary executor for my late mother, the writer/editor Charlotte Zolotow. There is travel. And, yes, there is relationship with the dear present-time-and-presumably-for-the-duration (though as every widow knows, who the eff can say how long that is?) man in my life.
Here is what I have come up with, and I would be most grateful to know what you think… if you feel this approach will meet your needs… if you would like to participate as a reader or join in the conversation in some other way, or even perhaps do some writing or be interviewed for Widowhood Wednesday.
We (my business partner / “dragon flight navigator,” and I) are going to try this model out for the first quarter of the year and see how it goes.
THE FIRST WEDNESDAY OF EACH MONTH, will offer a serious, depth-charged post, of the kind I have been doing: where we really go down into what the what and why of this perplexing, impossible, infinitely varied experience known as widowhood.
THE SECOND WEDNESDAY OF THE MONTH, join me and your fellow widows in “The Living Room,” an intimate private call for those of us in the widowhood community. I will most likely give a brief talk on some aspect of widowhood; at times, I may interview a guest who has something valuable to us. I’ll then open the conversation up; for questions and answers, experience-sharing, and just spending a bit of time together with others who get it. I am aiming for kindness, intelligence, compassion, and exploring. No one taught us how to do this; we have to figure it out for ourselves. Most fittingly, I think, the first Living Room call will take place on Valentine’s Day. CLICK HERE TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT HOW TO JOIN THE LIVING ROOM...
THE THIRD WEDNESDAY OF THE MONTH, I will offer some form of resource or “how to.” It might be a book review or a poem; it might be a post on Social Security widow’s benefits or hospice bereavement groups or how, if you decide to date again, to write an honest dating site ad.
THE FOURTH WEDNESDAY OF THE MONTH will be either by or about a guest… someone who is articulate, thoughtful, and also grappling with the vast work of widowhood. (Sneak preview / coming attraction: our first guest post, on Wednesday, February 28, 2018, will be by the brilliant and prolific — her 365th book came out this year! — multi-genre writer, Jane Yolen, whose beloved husband David Stemple died in 2006.)
Please let me know, in the comments below, if this break-out appeals to you.
Tell me, too, as well as any matters that have been troubling you, which have not yet been addressed here, and which you’d like to see discussed.
I know dancing may be the last thing you want to do right now. But nonetheless, I’m saying, will you join me? Let’s step out on the floor. We can, and will, always be able to go back to crying alone, especially in the small hours of the night, in the midst of that long silence — that is always too much available to us. But for now, just a bit, let us try a cautionary swoop and glide across the floor.
I am holding out my hand to you, you dear, beautiful, courageous widow you.
The illustration at the top of this post is a portrait of Crescent Dragonwagon, by the artist/writer/musician Crow Johnson. She worked from a photograph taken by Sweetie Berry. The painting which ends it is Matisse’s The Dancers.
Please join us in The Living Room, for a Widowhood Wednesday conversation with Crescent, starting in February, 2018. For more information, click here.