When I became a widower, I was hopelessly lost. My senses went into overdrive and my feelings were so intense and alien to me, I was in a complete state pf panic and a total fog. It felt like I was in a freefall. It was as if the rug that I had been walking on all of my life had suddenly and dramatically been pulled out from beneath my feet and there was no floor underneath me. The sensation of falling into an abyss had never been more acute.
The saving grace were the friends and family that showed up for me in that moment. Some old friends from High School I had not seen or spoken with in years came out of the woodwork, checking in on me, asking how I was, regularly contacting me to tell me they were thinking about me. There were also new friends and neighbors who did the same. The comfort of knowing people cared was palpable.
By the time I reached the one-year anniversary of Suzi’s death, most of the calls, visits and messages had ebbed to insignificance. That was in August 2019.
It’s now March 2020 and all those calls, texts, emails and messages are even fewer and further between. The friends I used to count on, those who I thought would be there–friends for decades, etc.–have either disappeared into the ether or are actively avoiding me. It’s almost as if the concept–the idea that my wife died and I am now widowed–is somehow contagious. Being a widow is not like catching a cold or the measles or coronavirus. But here’s a little secret… If you are in a long-term relationship, chances are 50/50 one of you will end up in the same place I am.
Despite that fact, there are so many people I know and love who are no longer part of my life. Most of them through their own choice, not mine. Is this simply because they have chosen to evade, ignore or obfuscate replying to me when I reach out? Yes and no. The list includes family–both mine and Suzanne’s. While I had been made aware this phenomenon exists because I now have many friendships with other widows and widowers, I have still found it incredibly difficult to accept or to navigate.
Suzanne dying was the hardest thing I have ever had to bear witness to. There are no words I could ever use that could describe the sensation of my heart literally breaking into pieces and feeling as if it would never heal after that moment. The physical pain was so real, it felt like I could easily have also died right then and there. My heart was quite literally in such a tremendous amount of pain, if I had been hooked up to an ECG or some other monitoring equipment, I am fairly certain it would have shown the same signs of heart attack.
But in that time of unbearable pain, my friends and family helped me to pull through. I felt cossetted in a blanket of love and affection being provided to me by people near and far. It came from friends and even from strangers (to me) who knew Suzanne and who loved her energy and her personality; those who wanted to share with me that same sense of light and love that she had given to everyone and everything she touched.
But the light she shared has started to fade for others… Some friends text me occasionally, just to tell me that they still miss her and her light.
I miss her light EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.
No, I am not shrouded in darkness, that extinguished light still burns brightly in my heart and soul, even if I can no longer see it. It still burns in my girls. It still burns in my undying love for Suzanne.
In the wake of Suzanne dying, there have been many new people who have come into my life. New friends who have made the transition to acceptance somewhat easier than it may have been without them. I am thankful for social media for enabling this aspect of my healing process. Many of these new friends are people I have never, and may never, actually meet in real life, but they are part of this same shitty club I have had no choice but to join. Others are not.
But what continues to hurt me most is the sense of what we describe as “secondary losses”… What does “secondary” mean? It means losing the plans and dreams I had made with Suzanne, the life that we had planned together in the future. You know, the things people do and ask themselves when they are looking forward to a long and happy life together… like, “When and where do you think will we want to retire?”; “What will we do once we have an empty nest?”; and, “What do we want to do this weekend?”
But another secondary loss many of us experience is the loss of close friends. This is not something I say to make anyone uncomfortable. It’s merely a byproduct of the circumstances. It happens when people go through divorces, too. But, for widows and widowers, there is so much more complexity to it. Yes, most friends have their own lives to live. They have work. They have their families. They have their hobbies. They have their routines. But mostly, they have fears. Some fear saying the wrong things… like, “Maybe you should move on”, or “It’s been over a year, why are you still grieving?” and “What are you going to do with your life?”
Others fear that no matter what they may say, it will hurt me. In fact, the idea of not saying anything hurts even more than saying the wrong thing. Not reaching out. Not returning calls. Cancelling plans when they are made (using excuses like “the kids are sick”, etc.). All these things hurt more than saying or doing the wrong thing.
In some respects, I would be grateful to hear those things from some of the friends and family I used to know and thought I could count on, because at least I would know they are still thinking about both me and Suzi. But now, I don’t have any expectations. If they are hurting because they mourn Suzanne, imagine how it feels to be me… I already know.
Most people say, “I can’t imagine” what I am going through. Thing is, they can. They simply don’t. They don’t want to think about the inevitability of their own demise, or they bury their heads in the sand and believe it never will happen to them. But it will.
Thing is, I know that when it does happen, those same friends and family will likely turn to me for comfort, for understanding and even for advice. They will come and ask me how I managed to do it. They will ask if it hurt me as much as it is hurting them. They will ask if the pain ever goes away.
And you want to know something? I will be there. I will show up. I will stay with those friends and family and be present. I will answer those questions with honesty and without judgement or platitudes. I will not assume they will ever “get over it”. Because they won’t. I will not tell them “it will all be okay”. Because it won’t.
It’s truly okay to not be okay, and it is truly okay to live with the gaping hole in your heart where that person once was.
But it’s not okay to abandon someone you care for… and I don’t want to judge or criticize you. It’s not okay to shun someone simply because they are grieving and you can’t handle it. It’s not okay to ignore a friend who probably needs your kindness, your friendship and your kinship more than ever. It’s not okay to walk away from a lifetime of friendship because it hurts sometimes to hear what I am going through.
But if that’s who you are, and that is what you need to do for your own mental health, then I will not try to stop you. I will not judge you. I will not forget you or our friendships and relationships we had when Suzanne was alive. And I will still be here if you ever want to be friends. That is what love means. It means to love those who lose their sense of knowing what to do in this situation, even if they become paralyzed by inaction or by fear. I will welcome you back into my life if you ever want to be part of it.
For now, I am grateful for the tribe that have become my close knit group of family and friends. These are people that I have come to count on because they are who have accepted me for who and where I am. This includes some of the most intimate relationships I have (spiritually, emotional and intellectually). These friends are mostly those who relate to my experience. They are predominantly widows and widowers, and “they get it”. But they are not the only people I have room for in my heart and in my life.
For those of you who are my friends and see yourselves in what I have written here, please do not be angry or upset–either with me or with yourselves. I understand. I do. I never would have believed myself capable of not staying in touch with any of my friends who were widowed, but I did. Even some I know that have lost children have probably felt the same way I do. But I am here for you. I am here with an open heart and open mind for you.
When you’re ready, come back and let’s talk. Let’s tell stories about Suzanne and let’s share the light she brought to all of us. Without it, the world becomes a bigger, emptier, darker place than it is when we can share memories and shine the light of Suzanne’s love on all of us.
With love from me…