‘Widow talk’ has its own language


I recently interviewed Linda Andrews, a Maine woman who just published a book on grieving titled “Please Bring Soup To Comfort Me While I Grieve.” It’s a wonderful and totally honest look at spousal loss and grieving.

She and I talked for nearly two hours. Some of what we discussed was on the record for a story I wrote for Bangor Daily News on her book, and some was just widow to widow.

The more compelling part for me was the widow to widow sharing. We spoke in a language unique to widowhood. I marveled at how much we shared regarding our “widow” feelings, yet how differently we have dealt with them. She has been widowed for 4.5 years; I have been widowed for 5.

Even today, we both feel insecure and lack self-confidence and have a difficult time with family gatherings or anything in which we would have been part of a group of couples if our husbands hadn’t died. We also both marveled how every action we undertake is a big deal and takes on a life of its own, how we hardly dream anymore when we sleep, how we don’t recognize ourselves when we look in a mirror, how we have felt raw and broken and how widowhood has given us a new level of sensitivity to the world.

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We share many other things too.

We both chose to stay in the old farmhouses we had shared with our husbands, who both were named Jim. I gutted the living room and redid it to more of a den atmosphere. She is overhauling her bedroom. But we both needed to make something that carried our own stamp; a place we could go and give a sigh of relief from the memories and painful jabs bombarding us all of the time.

Neither of us has a solid plan for the future. I was going to retire or semi-retire at age 55 so that Jim and I could have some years together with a more casual schedule. Linda and her Jim had a plan too. But now neither Linda nor I have any idea what our retirement or post-retirement plans are.

We both feel driven to work because it’s the one thing we do that feels “normal.”

She is an educator and a registered nurse. I am an editor and writer. We were those things before our husbands died. We stayed those things when they left us here alone. Consistency. Normalcy. Work is the only place we get those feelings.

When my Jim died, I had more of an introverted reaction and narrowed my circle to those involved in dog sports, often leaving other family and friends out of my inner circle — protecting myself from new hurt, or just unable to relate at the moment to those people who have known me and loved me for a long time.

Linda had a more extroverted reaction, embracing family and most friends with a fierceness that reflected the depth of her loss. She fell into their loving arms and let them help carry her through those awful early months. She still relies on their emotional support, while I have begun to embrace the family and friends who couldn’t reach me before.

We both have trouble dealing with labels like “widow.” She just recently was able to say the word out loud; I recently removed my “married” status from facebook.

We both have learned that grief and spousal loss is not age-specific, so age is less important. Linda said people tend to discount deaths of people who are older than 60, as if it’s OK their lives were cut short because they aren’t in, say, their 20s. So she steers conversations about death away from age.

Travel, weddings, funerals and special occasions have been very difficult for both of us. We are both finally able to take part in some of them. She has been comfortable with most of her girlfriends all along, but is becoming more comfortable doing things with her girlfriends and their husbands.

I understand what she means by that. The empty chair Jim should be occupying is felt more acutely sometimes when I’m attending something with couples. But I don’t think of myself as a single. I see myself as part of a couple with half of the couple not attending. If I had to think of myself as a single, I would feel more awkward.

Neither of us trusts ourselves to make decisions, whether big or tiny in scope. We both are getting better at it, but having shared finances, the responsibility for children, property, and goals makes you think that since you always made those decisions together with someone, you alone are inadequate to make those decisions by yourself.

It’s ludicrous. We are both educated, intelligent human beings, and intellectually we know we have the ability, but emotionally we are disabled — broken.

Linda said the most difficult chapter of the book for her to write was “The Deep Dark Hole,” in which she describes her dalliance in actual depression. She writes: “No one could help me, no one could see me, no one could possibly understand. What was the point? I could not go on. I could not manage this grief any more. It was just too hard.”

She called her sister, who had never seen her in this state and did not know what to do for her, but stayed with her.

“I really was in that place. A lot of people didn’t see all of it. You hide some with your bandage, and it was the hardest thing to acknowledge that to the world,” she said during the interview.

I know what she means. It is a place where there is no past, present, future or perspective — only pain. I have been in that hole too, however briefly. And it was terrifying.

We both have become ambassadors of grief, of sorts. Linda through her book; I through my blog. And we both are in some stage of transition. Starting a weekly blog was my next step in my journey; publishing her book was Linda’s. Through those journeys we’re both trying to define who we are and the paths we will follow.

There was so much we didn’t say to each other; so much we didn’t have to say. So much that never could be said.

We both consider ourselves to be gaining ground, but recognize that we clearly still are works in progress.

And I totally agree with Linda’s last comment to me: It’s time to turn energy toward healing.

 

 

 

JULIE HARRIS

About JULIE HARRIS

As a longtime employee of Bangor Daily News, I have served many roles over the years, but I now have a dream job as Community Editor. I live in Hermon with my four Brittany dogs: Sassy, Bullet, Thistle and Quincy, who keep me busy in various dog sports. I was widowed at age 51 when my husband, Jim, died of pancreatic cancer.