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.

___

*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.

Don’t Bury the Living with the Dead

One aspect of grief that blindsides many mourners is the sensation of being forgotten after the earliest phase of their loss — as if they died, too. Immediately after a death, an amazing outpouring of loving support comes from family, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances. It is wonderful, but it fades away. As time passes the bereaved are still making tremendous, painful adjustments while their friends’ unchanged lives shift back into “normal.” Grieving survivors often feel as if no one cares for them anymore.

I’ve networked with thousands of widows and widowers since my husband’s death, so I’m drawing this example from my experience with this population of mourners (though the principal of post-funeral isolation applies to other losses as well). Bereaved spouses often find themselves no longer asked to join other couples they regularly socialized with before losing their partners. I’ve heard widows say they felt as if married friends didn’t trust them around their husbands anymore. (“As if I had any interest in someone else’s hubby while grieving and wanting my own!”) I’ve heard widowers say they felt as if they no longer mattered to anyone without their late wives. (“I guess the people I thought were ‘our’ friends were really just ‘hers.'”) I’ve heard widows and widowers from their 20s to their 80s say they “lost” not only their spouses but their friends, too. (“After my husband [or wife] died, it’s like I died to our friends, too.”)

Even if you’re afraid of saying “the wrong thing” to a friend who is “still” grieving, saying something — saying anything — is better than saying nothing at all. After my mother’s death I made the mistake of assuming that Dad would hurt more if I mentioned her to him than if I let him “forget” the pain of her loss. I held debates with myself on significant dates every year. I was hurting that she wasn’t with us, but what if he’d forgotten it was her birthday or their anniversary? Would my saying something about it make him remember and feel worse? It was ridiculous (and hypocritical) for me to think so, because I found such consolation in having others speak of her!

Between the bereaved and those not directly involved in that loss, a greater gulf can separate good intentions from the ability to offer meaningful, long-term consolation. Communication is better than assumption. In the weeks and months following the loss, ask the bereaved what support would most benefit them. Listen, then ask again a few weeks later, too, because they may not know themselves, and if they do the answers will often change.

It wasn’t until I began recovering from the initial shock of my husband’s death that I realized an inkling of my foolish assumption. I wanted people to remember his birthday as much as I’d wanted (and still want!) them to remember Mom’s. I didn’t feel like celebrating my wedding anniversary — our 25th was the first I faced without him — but I needed to have it acknowledged.

Whether your friend’s loss is recent or not, jot down some dates in your calendar now: the deceased’s birth and death dates, your friend’s birthday (and anniversary, if applicable). If you don’t know the dates, ask. Make reminders to acknowledge the dates when they approach. During the first year, let your friends know you’re thinking about them as “that” day of each month approaches. You don’t have to say why (unless they ask), but it will boost their spirits during tough times.