You probably know a widow or maybe even a widower (we are about 10% of the widowed population, so a little rarer to know one of us). You probably know me if you’re reading this.
You probably read a few things on the internet about what it’s like to be widowed.
You probably have even seen some terms that you think might be appropriate to use when asking about our lives since losing our spouses.
You might even sometimes ask me how I am doing. My “normal” reply will invariably be, “I’m doing Okay.”
The reason this is my “normal” reply is because there truly no longer is anything that I could describe as normal in my life. Nothing is normal. There is no normality, no consistency, no sense that anything about my life is normal any longer. It hasn’t been that way since 19 August 2018.
You’ve read terms like “moving forward”, “new normal”, “chapter two”, “moving on”, “stages of grief”, etc. And while all are very well meaning, they really all are meaningless, even when used by widows and widowers.
My life is not normal. What is “normal” when everything I wanted, worked for and hoped for, all evaporated when Suzanne died? What is “moving forward”, when all I want to do is to go back to what I had and be able to have it all again?
What is this whole “chapter two” thing all about? My life is more than one open book. In fact it’s numerous open books. Since Suzi died, I have had no choice but to start writing the next book.
The books of my life that I choose to recall are not all autobiographical. The first was my childhood. That came to a screeching halt when I got in trouble with the law as a teenager.
The book of my teens was as boring as it was shocking. It could have been as salacious as 50 Shades, just without the sex (sorry, not divulging anything more than that 🤷♂️😂)… The next book began when I moved to London in 1990 after graduating college.
But the longest volume so far written started on 4 August 1995, the day I married Suzanne. The prologue started on 12 December 1994 when I asked her to marry me and she said yes. That story ended on 19 August 2018.
That volume, that tome, was a love story, a tragedy, an adventure and a romance novel all wrapped up in a non fiction memoir. It had heroes and villains, trials and tribulations, ebbs and flows, fortunes and famines. It touched the lives of thousands of people over more than two decades.
But that story does NOT comprise a single chapter. There are hundreds of chapters, thousands. Some are short like little pecked kisses from a small child or long like embraces by the fire on cold winter nights. They are fleeting like butterflies flying freely after emerging from cocoons, and as sultry as humid summer days.
Yet, when we ask a widow or widower how they are, what they are doing, have they “moved forward” (or more offensively, “moved on”), have they found a chapter two, etc. we devalue the volume that we have had to place on a shelf.
For some, this book of love (the volume of our life we had with our spouse/partner) forever remains open and unfinished. For others, the book is finished, placed on a shelf and holds the most prominent place of pride where we can see its golden encrusted cover each and every moment, day, month, year we carry on living. Like a great work of art, the book can be reread, but it can never be relived. That volume, no matter how long or short, is it’s own masterpiece. It was our lives. It was our everything. It was our normal.
There is no “new” normal. There is nothing normal (FOR THOSE IN THE BACK I SAY IT AGAIN, THERE IS NOTHING NORMAL) about this life any more.
When we have had to come to terms with—accepted—the existence we now have to live, that’s when we may seek to find a new, blank book to begin writing a new love story. This is not a new chapter, but always a new story. Remember those vows we took? Especially that sentence we utter that says, “Til death do us part”? Well that’s us.
That’s what widows and widowers have done. We did not end our love or our relationship with our now dead spouse. The marriage, for all intents and purposes, is sacrosanct and intact. But the story, the book of that marriage, has finished. For some, it came to an abrupt and tragic end without closure. For others, like me who got to say goodbye before Suzi died, it came to a gentle, though very premature end.
Whatever you may believe or think, all of our new stories will be heavily influenced by the book that holds pride of place in the bookshelf of our hearts and souls. Everything and everyone we touch in this life after being widowed is colored by that large volume that holds such a large part of our hearts.
So, if your are lucky enough to still have a living spouse, and as you wander through life unaware of the real feelings of the widowed, do not judge. Do not think for one moment that because the book of love we wrote with our love that died is in any way devalued or cast aside by the introduction of a new partner. These terms “second chapter” and “new normal” are merely a veil to cover the truth that many truly can’t handle. They are terms we bandy about without care or consideration of how they land on the shoulders or in the minds of the widowed. They hurt and do not really describe what we experience.
It takes an enormous amount of energy and feeling to open your heart again to a new love. If you are fortunate enough to be loved by a widow or widower, consider yourself extremely lucky. It takes so very much to break through the fog and despair we experience to truly find love again. Beware that with many of us, the death of our spouses has awakened deep rooted trauma and many of us suffer from PTSD. You will find that sometimes we have increased and uncontrollable emotions, fears, anxieties and sensitivity not only to new people but also to basic social situations.
When you speak with a widow or widower, please be sensitive to the reasons why we may or may not use certain terminology to describe the way we think or feel. I don’t speak for all widowed people. I only speak about my journey and where I am. The feelings of many of my widowed brothers and sisters are similar, though. Many feel these terms are inadequate and devalue what we truly have to live with every single moment…
And the truth is, love—no matter where it comes from or who it is given to—is truly the answer to most of questions you have to ask of a widower. How are we doing? We are in love with a spouse who is dead, and that will never change no matter what we do. Adding a new person to your heart is not difficult, for those with children, ask yourself, did you stop loving your first child when your second was born, your third? Of course not. Your heart and your love expanded.
That’s the thing about love. It’s infinite. And grief? Grief is all that love with no one to give it to. So, if a widow/er is open to loving someone new, it’s not because they are moving forward or starting a new chapter. It’s because s/he has chosen to open his or her heart to the possibility of loving again. It takes enormous strength, courage and energy to do it. It also scares the shit out of us…
If in doubt, instead of asking a (seemingly) benign question like, “how are you doing?” Instead, you may want to ask, “how are you feeling?” and make yourself available to listen to the answer. Don’t expect us to be totally open… You could also also ask something like, “do you want to join me for (insert something nice here)?” It’s a lot more powerful if you truly care and want to know what’s really going on in our lives. Hold space and listen—don’t judge, try to solve our problems, ask about moving forward, chapter twos or use platitudes. And most of all, never ask if we are moving on… we can never move on from the death of a spouse, because we can never forget that work of art sitting on the bookshelf of our very badly broken (shattered) hearts.