I met an amazing group of people this past weekend. I attended something called Camp Widow. I know, two words that really don’t belong together. But in a sense they do. After all, what is camp? Besides a place that your parents send you to get a couple weeks of peace during the summer months.
A camp is a place where you are out of your familiar surroundings. A place where you learn new skills. A place where you meet new people and hopefully make new friends.
Well, this whole widowhood is definitely not familiar surroundings. I learned some very important coping skills and I met a lot of new people and hopefully made a few new friends. So therefore, I went to a camp.
I was never good at camp as a kid. Being a social misfit, I usually ended up playing with the camp dog or helping take care of the horses or rabbits or whatever wildlife they had. All the other campers would scamper off to arts and crafts and I would lurk in the shadows desperately trying to figure out how long I could hide before some overly enthusiastic camp counsellor would bounce up to me with a toothy smile and a whole mess of happy, happy, joy, joy and force me to glue popsicle sticks together in an attempt to recreate the capital building but usually ended up looking like some odd modern art piece that someone accidentally sat on.
Even as an adult I am socially inept. My husband was the extrovert. I’d follow along in his shadow, content to let him take all of the attention while I just smiled and nodded whenever I heard my name. I do have to admit that I now hide behind my service dog, Tiny. He is an attention whore and a really cool dog so people gravitate straight to him, bypassing me, which is fine by me. But I couldn’t stay hidden behind him for too long because those darn widows and widowers wouldn’t let me do that. Don’t ever get in between a group of widows and something they want. Believe me, they won’t let you win. And I’m glad they didn’t. Because I found that even though I am more often a dork than not, being a dork is okay too. Some people even liked my dorkiness. My dorkiness is loved and tolerated by my ranch family, but it does tend to startle strangers quite a bit. It was pretty hard to startle this bunch.
Another cool thing about hanging out with a bunch of widows is that when I suddenly stop talking in mid-sentence because I completely lost my train of thought, no one cared. They either picked up the conversation where I left off or gave me a moment to come back to Earth, all the while nodding with understanding and someone would more than likely say “widow fog” and everyone would laugh or smile. They also didn’t care if I suddenly had to leave the room. No one batted an eye when I quietly let myself out of one seminar because it was hitting a little too close to home. I wasn’t the only one and it felt really good to be understood. Don’t get me wrong, my wonderful ranch family treats me just the same and I love them dearly for it, but unfortunately there are other people in this world I have to deal with and they tend to get a bit testy when I just drift off in mid-sentence and stare into space.
One thing I learned is that I have been selling myself short. You see, people attend the camp who have lost their loved ones a month ago, a year ago, all the way up to 10+ years ago and beyond. Because once a widow, always a widow. It doesn’t go away. Many people told me that they admired the fact that I was strong enough to attend when it hadn’t even been six months. They said that at six months, they would never have been able to do it. At first I sort of shrugged it off. I always figured I wasn’t strong. I just did what had to be done. But then I started thinking about it.
Dammit, I am strong. Everyone there was strong. Every single person that attended that camp was strong by just being there. By still being alive when there were so many moments that they wanted to join their loved ones. I know I had many moments like that. Luckily I have Tiny the Wonder Dog who kept me here. You see, he is so attached to me that if I ever left this world, he would be shattered. I honestly think he would pine away and die. Strange as it may seem, the love of my service dog has kept me from driving off of a cliff. But even making that decision still takes strength.
Just because I’m strong didn’t mean I wasn’t broken. It simply meant that I was able to gather all those shattered bits that are me and carry them throughout whatever I had to do. Getting out of bed, going to work, grocery shopping…I am strong enough to do all of that.
Sure, every once in a while I have to drop those pieces because they were just too heavy. But that’s okay. The dropping part is not what matters, it is the regrouping, catching my breath and picking them up again.
I learned to take pride in my strength.
I also learned that it is okay to be happy. I have felt guilty because at times I was actually and truly happy. When I had a good ride on my horse. Going to a movie with a friend. Spending time with my ranch family hanging out while waiting for our horses to drip dry after a good workout. I wondered how I could actually be happy, be content in the moment. Was I forgetting my husband already? Did I not love him as deeply as I thought I did? After all, how can I laugh and have fun when he hasn’t even been dead for six months.
Well I learned that being happy does not diminish the loss I feel. Being happy does not lessen my love for him. In one of the seminars, the presenter said something that sort of hit me right between the eyes. She said, (and I’m paraphrasing a bit) “It’s easy to say you love someone so deeply that you would die for them. But can you say that you love someone so deeply that you would live for them.”
Think about that. Yes, I love my husband so much that I would do anything to be with him again, but that’s not what he would want. He would want me to continue on, to live my life, to enjoy my friends and family, to live. Do I love him that much to live for him? The answer is simply ‘yes’.
I learned other things too. Not so much in the workshops or presentations, but by watching the other widows and widowers. I saw people who had remarried. The love they had for their spouse that died was plain to see. Many were lucky enough to have such a love as I and my husband did. But they also were able to find love again. A different love, not more, not less…just different. And their new spouses were there supporting them as they celebrated their lost loved ones. Now I am nowhere close to even contemplating that. That’s so far over the horizon, I can’t even see the beginning of that path. But it’s nice to know that the path is there, and if I ever choose to follow it, it doesn’t negate what I and my husband had.
One of the biggest things I learned was that I needed to realize that I am no longer the person I was. One presenter put it this way. She said that on the day that her husband died, she was born. And it’s true. That day in January of this year, my husband died along with the person that I was. A new person was born that day. A person with different likes, different priorities, different outlook. I still don’t know who that person is, but I need to realize that whomever she is, she is never going to be what the old me was. Yes, I am moving into this new life kicking and screaming the entire way, but deep down inside I know that resistance is futile. Because there is no going back. So in a way, I am not only grieving for my husband, I am also grieving for myself. Eventually I will figure out this new person that I have become. That will just take time and a bit of trial and error, but I learned that it will happen.
There were some pretty high emotions during the camp, but there were also some pretty hilarious happenings too. I saw widows and widowers of all races, ages, genders, sexual orientation but I really didn’t see them as that, if that makes sense. I didn’t really notice race, age, gender, sexual orientation. I just saw people who had the same struggle that I have, the same overwhelming grief, the same need for comfort and acceptance. Because even though everyone’s journey through this widowhood is different, there are certain aspects that we all suffer through. And everyone was there to share and support each other.
But mostly what I saw was hope. Just that. Hope. I’ve been lacking in that department ever since my husband died. All I could see was this bleak existence I am living in now. This twilight of not really being alive but not being dead either. After interacting and talking with these remarkable people, I felt a little spark of hope ignite within me. I don’t know if it will last. I’m hoping it will (pun intended). But at least it is there now and all because of the amazingly strong widows and widowers at Camp Widow.
Oh, and one last thing I learned during that fantastic weekend: Death Sucks! Widows Rock!