When I was with my husband, he was the one that everyone gravitated to. His big open smile, his friendly conversation with anyone he met always guaranteed that he would make a new friend in the next five minutes. I could follow along in his shadow, popping out now and then to contribute and then retreating again.
But now that he is gone I can’t hide behind him anymore. I do take my service dog with me everywhere and he helps deflect that attention. He’s a big mop of a dog and people are naturally drawn to him, pretty much ignoring me, which is how I like it. They will approach me and ask me questions about him while he just laps up all of the attention. He’s the star of the show, I’m just the stagehand on the other end of leash. Again, that’s how I like it.
But now I feel as if I have a huge label plastered over my forehead: widow.
It’s an unseen label. People who look at me, and didn’t know, would never see it, but I still feel like it is there. In huge neon letters lighting up the hemisphere, putting me smack dab center stage.
We all have many labels attached to ourselves. Mother, sister, wife, friend, daughter, employee….etc. And subconsciously we alter our outward being to fit the definition of that label that best describes us at that moment.
For instance, we all act differently when we are around our own mothers than we do when we are around our kids. It’s inevitable and even necessary because there are different rules to abide by for each role. We know the rules, the ins and outs of these parts we are required to play.
But now I’ve added that new label and I don’t know the various aspects of it. How to act, what to say, how to feel. It makes me feel as uncomfortable as if that spotlight was shining on me brighter than ever. I don’t know the rules.
For instance, how is one supposed to bring it up in polite conversation? Our friends and our family know about my husband’s death. But there are many people out there that fall into the acquaintance category. People whom we’ve never exchanged phone numbers, text messaging, Facebook, twitter or any other tether that social media binds us with. But still people that know me and my husband, at least by sight.
You know whom I’m talking about. Those people you see all the time at the grocery store, sporting event or at any other venue. You’re not quite certain of their name so you make certain to keep all statements fairly generic. You are adept at inquiring about their family, their children, their job without saying anything specific that would give away a clue that you really have no idea what you are asking about. And the ironic thing is, they are probably doing the same thing to you.
So how do I tell them about my husband’s death? Wait until they bring him up in a conversation? Drop it into the middle of an exchange of greetings?
“Hey, how are you? Wow, you look great! What’s been happening lately? By the way, my husband died. And how’s your family doing? How about those Bears?”
See? There’s really no insertion point to any conversation where that tidbit of information doesn’t become awkward.
And I’ve checked. How to handle this is definitely not a chapter in Miss Manners’ Big Book of Etiquette.
This lack of knowledge on how to handle this situation often lead up to another set of socially bungling incidents.
Because I have no clue how to broach the subject, I don’t. We exchange polite chit chat and move on. Then I see them a week or two later and during that conversation they bring up my husband. Now I have an opening and I tell them what happened.
Okay, there are two different scenarios that usually take place. One, the most common, is a look of shock and horror on their face as they stammer out how sorry they are and they didn’t know and is there anything they can do to help. That one is simple to handle. I smile sadly, tell them that ‘yes, it was sudden’, thank them for their condolences and assure them that I’m doing okay.
The second scenario is one I have trouble figuring out what to do. In this scene, they still have the same look of shock and horror on their face, but this time it is tinged with anger. They ask when it happened, I tell them. They then state that they had seen me since already and why didn’t I mention it to them? Underneath they seem angry that I caused them to commit a faux pas in public, unwittingly embarrassing them about their lack of knowledge.
Once again Miss Manners fails me on how 1) I could have told them before and 2) I answer them now.
Other little things are unknown and untaught. Do I still check married on forms? I still feel married, but by law I’m single, or am I? When a form asks for my spouse’s information if I do check the married box…what do I put down for him? Occupation: Deceased?
And then there is the form of address. Am I still a Mrs? Ms? Or should I be addressed like in a Mark Twain novel as the Widow So-in-So?
I slipped into the role of wife very easily. Role of daughter…that’s a no brainer since that was appointed to me at birth. All of the other roles I’ve gathered up in my life also came easily too. But this one…widow…not so much.
Putting on the mantel of being a widow feels awkward, uncomfortable. It makes my shoulders hunch up and my skin twitch. It feels binding and twisted and constricting, like a bad fitting suit.
Maybe it’s the name. Widow has so many ingrained meanings. There’s a perception of what widows are and do, none of which is based on reality all thanks to Hollywood. Maybe we should call it something else. Like ‘reluctantly single’, or ‘suddenly spouse-less’, or ‘bereft and alone’. All, in my opinion, much more descriptive than the word widow.
There are so many things to take care of, change, edit, alter or erase. DMV, insurance, bank accounts, credit cards, social security, online accounts. All items left by my husband for me to take care of. I’m still finding things I need to adjust for legalities.
But the biggest adjustment is that label of widow.
I doubt if it will ever be a comfortable fit. I imagine I will inwardly squirm every time I think of slipping into that role for as long as I live.
But I’ll stumble along trying to figure out the rules of this persona. Because I have no choice.
And when and if I ever do figure this all out, Miss Manners will be the first person I will send it to.