Putting the Widowed in a Box

I went for a checkup yesterday. I hadn’t been to that provider since the year my husband died, so I had to fill out a new medical history. How difficult filling out such forms used to be (and sometimes “still” is)! If you own or manage a business that requires personal information of its clients, make sure your paperwork and/or website includes “widowed” as a category.

At least this form offered me the option of "Other" where I could write in my own category: widowed.

At least this form offered me the option of “Other” where I could write in my own category: widowed.

I can’t count the number of times I sobbed through inadequate, limited options during the first year and a half after his death. (I do remember specific waiting rooms where people were leery enough of the crying woman to move to the other side of the room, sending not-so-furtive glances my way.)

When I was newly widowed,  EVERYTHING reminded me of my loss. It was hard enough coping with grief on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis. I hated having to acknowledge my husband’s death in clinical black and white on the many forms I had to fill out — and there were a LOT of forms. It was excruciating to complete paperwork that ignored the existence of my life-altered status.

  • I was not “single.” (I’d been married for 24 years and hadn’t done anything that changed or negated that. Neither had my husband — except for his dying.)
  • I was not “divorced.” (See above.)
  • I was not “married.” (Even though both of the above still applied, my spouse was no longer there — he was NEVER coming home.)
  • I was “widowed.” (Still am.)

Too often, company  (and government) forms offer no appropriate box for widows and widowers to check under “marital status.” On paper I write in my own category, even when there isn’t an option (or enough space) to do so. But online forms can incite scream-inducing, option-lacking frustration.

(And yes, during that first year or so, I sat at my computer and screamed at such websites — and at whatever offices or organizations had sent me to them — even though I had never been a person who screamed. But I’d never been widowed before, either.)

It has been nearly five years since my husband died. Socially, I’ve come to see myself as single again — most days, anyway.  But legally, “widowed” still feels like a better fit.

I still check the “Mrs.” box (rather than the ones for Ms. or Miss).* Online, that often opens a dialog box for my husband’s contact information. (Good luck trying to reach him, I think.) If I leave blank his current address and phone number, or type “deceased” (or, when I’m in a snarky mood, if I enter the word “cemetery”), such sites red-line my responses with please submit a valid phone number and street address. (Sometimes that makes me want to scream again.)

I don’t appreciate paperwork forcing me back to the start, forcing me to redefine myself according to its guidelines.

As a widow, I’ve had to do enough starting over — and redefining — for myself.

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*If you don’t know what a widow prefers to be called (Mrs., Ms. or Miss), ask her. She won’t bite, and she’ll appreciate that you respect her enough to want to heed her preference.

Taboo Topics When Someone Dies–Part 5, Legal Status

When someone dies, what should you say to surviving loved ones about their legal status?

[While you wait for the answer, listen for sounds of shy, exhausted crickets …]

[… and wait …]

[… and wait …]

Is the silent treatment getting a bit uncomfortable? Only slightly? Then let’s wait a bit more …

[twiddling thumbs]

[looking around the room, avoiding eye contact]

[clearing throat to break the awkward silence]

… and … you’re still waiting, aren’t you?

Get used to it, because I can’t think of a single thing it’s appropriate to say about the legal status of deceased loved ones — or their survivors. Broaching the subject will cause far more discomfort than a pregnant pause.

What seems like a gazillion grief years ago, I started a mini-series of posts on taboo topics* with these assertions:

All grief is personal, but please don’t impose personal comments on the newly bereaved.

Unless the mourner asks you, or it pertains to your already established professional relationship, don’t bring up the bereaved person’s politics, religion, money, physical appearance, or legal status. 

Last week’s Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality reminded me I hadn’t yet posted about why legal status is a taboo topic if you want to console the bereaved. When your relative, friend, or colleague has lost a loved one, the only legal certification that should matter to you is the word deceased

Whether you’re a fundamentalist Christian preacher or the chief organizer of a pride parade or a number-crunching hospital administrator, whether the departed and their surviving loved ones are old or young, gay or straight, zealots or atheists, when you learn that someone died, your only concern should be to offer nonjudgmental consolation and comfort in any way you can.

  • Do estranged surviving spouses suffer more distress than long-term partners who stood by loved ones in unwavering fidelity? Should one group have a say in making funeral and other arrangements while the other has no say?
  • Does it matter to a mourning mother whether her child’s birth (and death) was connected to her by biology or by adoption? Does a father who truly fathered a stepchild (by day-to-day manning up to meet his kids’ emotional and physical needs — whether he legally adopted them as his own or not) grieve less fervently than one whose birth certificate – documented “fathering” was over and done with long before that child died?
  • Do bereaved best friends (who talked twelve times a day) deserve less consolation and consideration than surviving siblings (who exchanged little more than annual Christmas and birthday cards)?
  • Do legal residents mourn departed kin more than people without papers do?
  • Do felons (or their families) deserve less respect and support when someone they love dies?

Of course not.

Grieving has no limits graphic compiled by Harmony Bruce

Grieving has no limits graphic compiled by Harmony Bruce

Grief is an outcropping of love. When death severs us from those we love, grief pours from the wound. Like love, it cannot be legislated into neat little boxes on government-issued forms. What can be, and should be, and now has been legislated, is greater ability for people to decide who will deal with the business and legal sides of their final goodbyes.

Whatever the mourner’s legal status, whatever the legal definitions of relationships between people, it’s not up to anyone else to concern themselves with the details. For the rest of us, our job is to simply say “I’m sorry” and to show up without comment, bringing with us only our kindness — whether that’s demonstrated by casseroles, consolation, or (if appropriate) even cash.

___

*To see the first post in the taboo topics series, visit
Taboo Topics When Someone Dies–Part 1, Politics