Monday, March 23, 2009

On Being a Widow/er in a Married World

I have often struggled with exactly where and how I fit into any given situation. I have always been pretty confident in who I am - I’m just not always sure how that works out in relation to everyone else.

Never was I more comfortable in most situations, though, than I was when I was married. My wife had a way of drawing me in and making me feel like a part of every social situation in which we found ourselves involved. To say I loved being married would be an understatement. To say I loved being married to her… there truly are no words. And making two into three when our daughter was born? Well, that was simply the icing on the cake.

One of the many things that came crashing down around me on February 26, 2007, was my sense of where I fit in. Suddenly I wasn’t part of “the norm” any more and more importantly, I was no longer part of my own epitome of social comfort. It was sort of like trying to find a lunch table on the first day of high school. The cafeteria is crowded. Everywhere you turned you’re met with unfriendly, upper-class faces. You know your friends are in that crowd somewhere, but you sure as the world can not seem to find them. What probably took mere seconds seems like an eternity as you finally see a slight wave of the hand and scurry over to the safety of their table.

Yeah, it was a little like that. Only a lot worse.

Eleven months before my wife passed away, my whole family identity was brought to light by a single friend of mine. A mutual friend from out of state was staying at our house, and he and she were working on a relationship, though it ultimately did not pan out. There was something wrong with our van, so I was out in the driveway attempting to fix it when he left. As he passed by, he turned back and looked at me for a second, then said something along the lines of: “You are so blessed. Here you are fixing your van. You have a beautiful house and wife and daughter. You’re like a real grown-up.” To which I replied, “Yeah. This is exactly who I always wanted to be”.

And it was the honest truth. I have never been more comfortable than I was during those years.

Over the past two years, I have begun to learn how to be more comfortable, though it is still a far cry from the five and a half years prior to this. Now I am most comfortable with close family and friends and in situations where I just get to be Dad. I’m adjusting pretty well to those, even when Single is added to the moniker.

But I still really struggle with how I fit in among other couples. I don’t want to be a third (or fifth or seventh…) wheel in group settings, and I don’t want to be “that poor widower” either. I have one set of couple/friends where I can truly say I have never felt any distinction being made, and most of our/my other close friends have adjusted over time so I don’t feel so out-of-place anymore.

But situations still crop up from time-to-time.

Just yesterday I started a new Sunday School class at church. The teacher had developed a “getting to know you” style activity that involved answering several background information questions in a rapid-fire interview format. One of the questions dealt with our first date with our spouse. Which in turn sparked many internal questions of my own. Do I tell this group of stranger/acquaintances about what a great time we had that June night in the big city, walking in the cool evening air, standing by a gorgeous fountain, watching planes take off and land? It was an incredible evening. Definitely one worthy of sharing. But if I do, are people going to be weirded out because she’s not here anymore? Are they going to make assumptions about my living in the past and/or not dealing with my present reality? I ultimately decided to skip the question, and no outward harm was done.

A couple months ago, about two weeks prior to Valentine’s Day, we were at a birthday party for the daughter of some friends of ours. The kids had gone outside to play, and the adults’ conversation turned to an upcoming “not-so-newlywed” game in which one of the couples was to soon participate. They were trying to preempt their competition and had gone online looking for sample questions. As they listed each question, they gave their individual answers and the other couples joined in. I, being the only single parent present, listened quietly while the conversation swirled about me. I had answers to each question, and I’m pretty sure I might have known what her answers would have been as well, had she been there to provide them. But it was another situation where I chose to maintain my silence for fear of any one of the aforementioned reactionary possibilities coming to fruition.

Further still, and perhaps one of my most uncomfortable “widow/er in a married world” situations also happened at church. (A side note here: I really enjoy the church I attend and have no hard feelings toward anyone that was present/responsible for these situations. It is just one of the places I go where people have not had the chance to get to know me as well as my friends or co-workers, mostly because I am with them once or twice a week vs. five or more days a week). Now back to the post:

I had just started attending Sunday School after a long absence, not quite a year after my wife passed. At the end of the class it was announced that people needed to sign up for the first ever “Widows and Widowers” dinner. Thirty pairs of eyes became immediately trained on me. I could feel the temperature rising, could sense the tense catch in the young adult pastor’s voice, could almost see everyone shifting uncomfortably in their seats. Suddenly there was a snafu in a very well-intentioned outreach. What do you do when your intent is to have a dinner to reach out to and get to know the elderly widow/ers in the church and you suddenly have a not-quite-thirty year old widower in the class that’s supposed to be spearheading the dinner?

Where exactly did I fit in?

I made it easy on all of them (after the class) by saying that I would like to help serve rather than be served. Had I said that aloud during class, I’m certain the collective sigh of relief would have been audible.

So where exactly does that leave me?

Comfortable being a son/brother among family members? Check.
Comfortable being a daddy among daughter’s friends and classmates? Check.
Comfortable being a professional among co-workers? Check.
Comfortable being a widower among married couples?

Well, that one remains to be seen.


  1. I remember how anxious I was to have those married couple situations right after Mindy and I tied the knot. It seemed a quick process to get engrained into the social norm of making two people into one entity.

    But it's an entirely different process, one that seems significantly longer, to find an acceptable social awareness of the two that are now one. I find that people often get uncomfortable in the quest of making sure I'm not uncomfortable in these social situations.

    It seems to me that widower is okay for them to handle, but young widower is a category they are not well equipped for and it's nice to know that I'm not alone in stumbling into these situations. I probably would have opted for the same choices you made given the context.

  2. The Widower Dad - I find that most people are uncomfortable with the "young" part as well. It was less than six months before someone asked me if I was dating! I was kind in my response, but made it clear that dating was not even remotely on my radar due to the immense grief I was (and am) coping with. There seems to be a desire in our society to "normalize" those who are found to be in somewhat abnormal situations. I hope that we, and others like us, can help to change those perceptions.

    Well stated, as usual.

  3. I have felt what you have felt on many occasions... And still do sometimes. The thing is, I think at some point I stopped caring about what other people thought. So I'd just say something that comes to me at a moment, even if it relates to my late husband. I stopped worrying about whether or not people thought it was dysfunctional. My comparison has always been to any other relative who has passed--is it dysfunctional or inappropriate for me to bring up a memory of my grandma when something around me happens that inspires it? No! No one would think twice about me talking about my grandma. But if I talk about my husband, then, suddenly, people think I'm not "moving on" (and I HATE those words--how does one "move on"? The people you loved, if you loved them, are always in your heart, forever, no matter what events take place in your life, ie, you get married again).

    At the same time, I'm careful about revealing my status to new people. It always inevitably (and awkwardly) comes out, though, if I'm with them more than once. Despite my carefully editted stories of places I've been, where I've carefully removed my husband's name from it, as though he never existed.

    That church situation--totally get it. I would have been really embarrassed with the mention of the widow/widower dinner. It would have made me feel put on the spot. And, you're right, as a young widower, you just don't quite fit in with the older generation of widows... At the time I was widowed, I didnt even fit into the young widows because the "young" widows in the group I attended were in their 40s; I was 26. I'd only had 20 months of marriage with my husband. We were still newlyweds. These people had their spouses for at least 10 years or so, even. I didnt have kids... (we wanted to at some point, but we never got there).

  4. Mars Girl - I, too, am hesitant to reveal my status to new people. In fact, I think I most likely give the impression that I am still happily married on first meeting. It's so much easier to avoid it, but makes it so much more difficult if you encounter those people again and eventually do have to explain yourself.

    The only thing I hate more is when I leave a room and know that someone else is doing the explaining for me.

    Thank you for your insight.

  5. As Mars Girl said...while once a more tolerant person, I now care less of what others think. I'm also annoyed when friends complain about their spouses...remembering at the same time I once did as well.

    Thanks to all above for the well worded thoughts...I'll be following along.

  6. Sven - My wife and I made a deal early in our marriage not to complain about each other to our friends/family. It's easy to do, but nothing good really comes of it. When we had a problem we worked it out together. Most of my friends have started to get the hint that having someone to complain about is better than having to mourn her loss.

    Thanks for sharing.

  7. Split-Second--My husband and I had the same deal!!! We didnt want to taint each other's image in our families' eyes. We kept our arguments between ourselves. Also, I just think it's kind of passe to complain about your spouse. Everyone does it, time to put a good spin on marriage for a change. We teased each other lovingly in front of friends, instead.

    Sven--TOTALLY agree with you. I get so annoyed at people when they complain about their spouses. I just won't even listen to that crap anymore. There's still that snap judgment in my head that says, almost jealously, "At least you HAVE your husband. Love him for today because you don't know what will happen tomorrow!"

    Thankfully, I understood this idea all along. Mike and I always parted on "I love you." (Well, most of the time, we weren't perfect.) So I am confident in the knowledge that my husband died knowing he was loved. At least there's that. It would have sucked to have lost him in the middle of a tiff and have never had the chance to say I was sorry. That'd be just one more thing to kick myself in the head for now.

    I think, in a way, were I to ever get married again, I'd be an even better wife than I was the first time. I dont think I would sweat the small stuff so much... I think I'd have a better understanding of how quickly things can change.

  8. Mars Girl - We also (almost) always parted on "I love you" sometimes multiple repetitions of it! Because of our situation, I was actually able to see my wife before she died (though at that point we actually thought she was pulling through). I reminded her of all the people who loved her and wanted her to get well. The last two "I love you's" mentioned were for my daughter and myself.