About a year ago while out to eat at a nice restaurant, my boyfriend at the time told me something interesting that he’d learned about the fiancee of a friend: she was a widow. She had lost her husband after I did, in 2002 0r ’03, I can’t remember exactly. I knew she’d been married before–sometimes you can just tell–and I’d assumed she’d been divorced. But then I recalled an incident before a club ride when someone had expressed confusion about a last name or something and she’d awkwardly mentioned something about the name being from a prior marriage. She’d said it under her breath in an off-handed, “leave it alone I don’t want to go any further into the conversation” way that I knew all too well. I dismissed it at the time, but when my boyfriend told me that she was a widow, it all came together. Even though she was seeing someone, there was a slight awkwardness still for her in the discussion of the last name. And I knew that feeling.
Now, I’m sure my boyfriend was telling me this information so that I could feel connected with the woman. Probably I was one of the only young widows he had ever known, at least I was the only one he’d ever dated. He knew I was still struggling with a lot of widow-related issues of my own–even though I was sure I’d surpassed all my grief stages–and I think he was hoping that such information about a friend would comfort me.
It didn’t. It had the complete opposite effect. Suddenly, I found myself inexplicably angry. The initial emotion when I learn that a widow/widower has gotten remarried is completely irrational: I feel betrayal. It’s as though one of my own kind has left the fold and gone to the great land of Moved On. Which is healthy, I know, but at the same time, it seems almost unhealthy to me. Were they really ready? Are they in love for the right reasons? And who am I to judge the level of a person’s readiness for a new relationship, anyway?
The feeling of betrayal also extends to the person’s late spouse. I think, Well, maybe she didn’t love him as much as I loved my husband. I think about how I would feel now if I got remarried. Even if I loved the man, it smacks to me of betrayal on some level. I stood before all my friends and family and I swore I’d love Mike until the day I died. Until death do us part. And, really, the “contract” is over because Mike had died; however, I’m still alive. No matter how hard I try, part of me screams betrayal of my love for my first husband when I think about marrying someone else. This is why when I think of remarriage, I always imagine having a much more sober wedding than the one I had with Mike. A part of me does not want to eclipse–outdo–the ceremony I had with Mike. (A part of me also thinks a woman having a second marriage that contains all the pomp and circumstance and huge dressiness of the first always looks ridiculous, especially when the woman is over 30.)
The second wave of emotions I felt when learning this friend was a widow were accusatory. Great, now every one who knows us both has someone to compare experiences to. Do they think she is the more healthy one because she has chosen to remarry? Do people wonder what’s wrong with me? I was widowed at least a year before she was and I haven’t feel ready to remarry. I’m still dealing with the fact that I must involve myself in a relationship with someone who isn’t and never will be Mike. I’m still battling with trying to find unique qualities to love in someone else and to accept that a relationship with someone else is going to be completely different from the image I have in my head of how a marriage is “supposed to be” based on what I experienced in the only (very loving) marriage I had. I’ve dated four men since my husband died and at least one of them could have been a perfect mate, but I tossed each one aside, chasing them away with my grief, comparing each always to my husband until he could not take it anymore. Even when I tried not do this, I did it on some unconscious level. Not one man I’ve dated since Mike has not said to me, “I feel like I will never measure up to Mike.”
I guess the problem with me dating at all is the fact that every time I engage in a relationship with any man, the feeling of betrayal kicks in. Even on the most minute level, with a guy I may be crazy in love with (and there have been at least two who I’ve felt this way about), I can’t fully commit because I feel like I’m betraying Mike. Even though I knew that if Mike could see me somewhere behind the veil of the afterlife, he’d be the first to give me blessing to find someone else to love. He wouldn’t want me to live forever with his memory as my only mate.
Of course, if you–or any other non-widow/er person–tried to say as much to me, I’d bite your head off. Such advice coming from others seems so condescending in tone to me. It’s playing the “Mike card” against me which is affronting on some level. Whether you knew Mike or not, you can’t put words in his mouth. Not even I can. And I don’t need people giving me unsolicited advice on how to be a widow or how to ascend widowhood.
Maybe part of the problem is the fact that I know how true the words are. And they hurt.
These feelings and words are proof that I’m not as much over the grief as I think I am. I’m still living, in some sense, as though I expect Mike to walk back into my life any day. I’m leaving things available for him, on some level, including myself by never fully committing to anyone. And I realize it’s dysfunctional. In widowhood, I’ve learned that I can look at myself from the outside, realize how ridiculous I’m behaving, but be completely unable to change the behavior. Feelings are hard to change. You have to spend a lot of time talking to yourself softly and repeating sentences to yourself to change an idea. In this case, my words would be, It’s okay to love. Mike would want you to feel for someone else what you felt for him.
I know this language because I’ve got a lot of anxiety issues and I’ve dealt with depression my whole life, and after therapy, I learned that most of the change you make within yourself is not pharmaceutical but mindset. I have to talk myself through a lot of things to change the pattern my mind has set forth. But it’s very hard. Incredibly hard. Yet I try every day to make myself a better person and part of this effort involves working through these complicated and reactionary feelings. I don’t always succeed.
I didn’t succeed in this case. When the friend finally did elope, I could not bring myself to attend the reception they had a few weeks later. I left my boyfriend to go alone–feeling awkward by himself at a party where everyone knew he was dating me–and instead went skiing with some new friends of mine. I played my Widow Card instead, stepping in time to the Avoidance dance I know so well. At eight years since my husband died, playing the Widow Card is a pathetic move. Surely, the same comparisons between the “healthy” and “unhealthy” widow that I sought to avoid were now brought to the forefront for anyone to observe if they so desired.
In a fit of selfishness, I shamefully abandoned the celebration of two friends who’d found each other and seemed really happy together. I’m sure they hardly noticed or even care at this moment that I wasn’t there, as so many of their other friends were there, but I know what I did and I feel bad. I hadn’t played the Widow Card at a wedding in a long, long time. I even went to a wedding that happened the same year Mike died–which also was on Mike’s birthday, nonetheless–because I loved the two friends so much. It’s sad that I couldn’t get over myself enough for these other two friends because one was a widow. Instead of using that moment to bond with someone else who had gone through what I had gone through, I childishly chose not to deal with it.
If I had to do it all over again, I would go to the reception and just deal with the overwhelming emotions that flood my veins like fire when I think about the situation. To be a good friend to someone, you have to get over yourself enough to celebrate others’ joys even when they remind you of your deepest sorrow. You can’t begrudge people for what you don’t have. I can’t begrudge other widows for finding what I have not allowed myself to feel. Nor can I compare my grief to anyone else’s, and vise versa. And neither can you. Some people are ready to move on* before others. That’s just how it goes.
I struggle with dealing with my emotions over other widows and dating. I involuntarily flinch when I read a blog entry from a widow in which they mention dating again. Sometimes I pass judgement on them that it’s too soon, which is hypocritical as I dated someone six months after my husband died. It was a mistake and I truly was looking to fill the exact void left in my heart by Mike. But I did it. I know now that I should have waited a full year before trying to date again, but it’s easier in theory to avoid than in true practice in the heat of the moment. That relationship only lasted two months. Of course. And then I didn’t date again for another year when I was better equipped (but obviously still not ready). Still, we all have to do things to the beat of own internal drums. For me to pass judgement on another widow is just as bad as those non-widows/ers who pass judgement on me about how long I should be grieving…
I would love to get married again. I long for the kind of companionship I found in Mike. I want to love. I want to think I’m ready to love. However, I still have a way to go as far as opening my heart enough to let someone else in there. And you, my caring friends, are just going to have to accept that. I’m not dysfunctional or unhealthy; I’m dealing with emotions at my own internal pace.
But I will try to behave less selfishly in the future. That I can promise you.
* = I hate the phrase “move on” and try to avoid using it as much as possible. It’s been overused on me and, I’m sure, many other widows when people seek to sweep under the carpet a thought you’re having about your lost love. However, I can’t find a kinder phrase to describe a movement forward in the grieving process, if only it implies moving to the next stage of grief. “Move on” is used loosely here to describe those who have found new love despite the sorrow of their past.