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.

Grief Reboots after Holidays

(Please forgive the shouting capitals that follow.)

The tinsel and lights are down, the trees await recycling, and the yearly battle (or pretense) to lose holiday pounds has begun. Around the globe, people brush hands together in satisfaction (and relief) that “the holidays” are past while life slips back into normal routines. Except … In the post-holiday “normalcy” of decorations coming down and social calendars clearing, the emptiness of bereavement surges.

Have you ever unwillingly started over? Imagine access to NONE of your personal or professional contacts or calendars, property, medical records and appointments, project files, programs, passwords, accounts, or data? Multiply that by at least a thousand and you may begin to imagine the rewriting that occurs in the hearts and minds of the bereaved. (In many cases, when a loved one’s or business partner’s death left unknown account passwords or non-transferable titles, this rewriting is not only in emotional and mental processes but also in practical matters.)

For those whose loved ones have died, “normal” no longer exists. (So please, please, please, NEVER tell a mourning friend that “life goes on.” Never ever. It is NOT comforting! Ever.) It’s true that in the earliest months after my husband’s death, I observed that (A) other people’s lives “went on” exactly as they had before, and (B) I was more-or-less alive, so in some fragmented slivers of my soul I (eventually) saw for myself that life continued. I didn’t want (or need) to hear “life goes on,” because life for my family and me was FOREVER ALTERED. Our lives did NOT “go on.” They shut down without warning in an agonizing rebooting that left no backup files and required each of us to learn unfamiliar operating systems in a foreign language not compatible with our hardware.

I’d like to thank you if you were among the neighbors who dropped off casseroles, the friends who attended funerals, or the well-wishers who sent notes of condolences to coworkers, family, or even acquaintances who lost loved ones in the past year. Well done. (And on a personal note, I’m forever grateful to those of you who have comforted me and my family by mourning alongside us in both trials and triumphs through the years!) Thank you all for “being there” at the beginnings of friends’ grief journeys.

Now, whether you did or didn’t step up at that time, pardon me for sounding bossy, but GET BACK TO WORK at it. (Please.) Your grieving friends probably need your support more now than they did in the earliest days, weeks, and months after the deaths.

For those whose loss(es) occurred recently, the blurring fog of shock obscured traditional transitions from the old year to the new. As they reawaken to the disorienting world around them — life as they did NOT know it before — caring gestures of friendship and concern may help them reorder their surroundings. They won’t be ready to rebuild yet, but gestures of kindness (whether messages of ongoing awareness or invitations to interact) will help newly bereaved friends begin to feel the ground under their feet, even if they aren’t yet strong enough to stand upon it.

For those approaching anniversaries of loved ones’ deaths (whether in the first year or beyond), such demonstrations of caring and commitment are just as important. People need to know their beloved departed aren’t forgotten. Let them know that you know it has been a year (or two) since their dear ones died. Let them know that you are thinking of them on the birthdays their loved ones will not be present to celebrate.

Let your friends know you respect their grieving as acknowledgment that love lives on, even past death.