In two days it will be two years and eight months since Mike died. Some days it seems like he’s been gone eternally longer than that…other days it seems like yesterday. Time is a strange thing.
The other morning I was doing some organizing and I did what I do occasionally which is to check in a certain box to be sure our wedding rings and other special bits are still where they should be. I loved wearing that ring…without really thinking I put it on my finger again. I’m not sure why. Just for a moment to feel it there and close my eyes and remember what it felt like to be his wife…the memory of the wedding on the beach in Maui all those years ago, the disbelief that it’s all over now. Nearly fourteen years of wearing that ring so proudly, so comfortably, it had become like a part of me. I still have an indentation in that finger and often wonder how long that will be there.
I shook myself from my reverie and continued on my tasks around the house. Then, hours later, I looked down and noticed it was still there.
I stared at it for a long moment and with a deep sigh I got up and put it back in its special place, which is, sadly, no longer on my finger.
I know many widowed people wear their rings for a long time, and I firmly believe it is our right to do so. (Many also add or switch to a “widow’s band” which often has black or dark stones.) But my life has changed too much to wear it now. I have a new relationship; I am, at least in practical or legal terms, no longer married. In my heart I think I will always feel married to Mike but my life has been impelled forward into a reality without his physical presence. I am no longer a wife. I am a widow, because my husband is dead.
I miss him so much.
Earlier this week I ran into a friend and former student of Mike’s while I was working at the shop downtown. He was with a friend and in introducing me, struggled with how to identify me. This is my…er,…late teacher’s…er…wife…er…late wife…er, uh…he looked at me with a worried look in his eyes. He’s a really nice guy and I know he didn’t want to say the wrong thing…so I heard myself step in to save him. First I gently corrected him with an understanding smile, I’m not late, I’m still here! I then looked at his friend and said, I’m Stephanie, Mike’s widow. Nice to meet you. Or something like that.
There it was. The word “widow” which he might have been thinking of saying but felt perhaps, in that moment, that it wasn’t “his” word to say. Or maybe, it just wasn’t part of his usual lexicon; a word that doesn’t often appear in his world. So I filled in the blank for him. He looked relieved that I had eased the moment. I surprised myself a little how easily it came out.
Two years ago it would have been a very painful moment, as that word does hold such a deep connotation. It can bring up acres of ache because of what it stands for. But I’ve come far enough along in my own grief journey that I can honestly say that in addition to that ache, I now also feel pride. I was proud to be his wife - but I can never be that anymore, at least legally. That knowledge brings a profound sadness that will never leave me, thus the moments like I had with my wedding ring. But I am proud I will always be his widow. I carry that title with my head held high, in honor of him, and in honor of all the other lovely widows (and widowers) I find in my life now. We are sisterhood (and brotherhood) bonded by our shared experience of having loved, and lost, and of finding our way again, together, through the deep dark, and through the strange new. I also know it can, and should, honor those of us who may not have been legally married, but nevertheless carry the same weight of loss of a life partner, if they choose to identify with it. I met another one this past week, in fact. She was about to be married when he suddenly died of a heart attack. I know that in the experience of those who write and read here, a piece of paper does not itself grant that title. It is written on our hearts. Her flowing tears 15 months after her loss said it all.
A couple of days later the friend I had ran into at the shop contacted me on Facebook and apologized for the awkward moment surrounding the word. I told him I understood; I knew his heart was in the right place.
It made me think of the word a lot this week. I was reminded of seeing the word “relict” on memorial stones in cathedrals in England this summer. I had to look it up, and learned that in centuries past a widow was referred to, in some places apparently, as a “relict”. I didn’t much care for that word. In definition it is said to be one who is “left over” after a loss, an archaic version of “relic”. It made me feel like an archeological artifact or something. But in the day, if I’d been used to the terminology, it would probably have had much the same meaning for me as widow does now. We are so much defined by our cultural language usage; we do define the world around us with it too. And some words are easier than others to hear, and to use, for the psychological and emotional connections they produce.
“Widow” clearly carries its own weight of connotation. I was in a state of shock for months after realizing I was now one of them. It took me a long time to go from horror to honor when I heard it. And there’s still a little horror in there too, and probably always will be. But I am also realizing the power of the word to forever connect me to my beloved late husband. I can’t be Mike’s wife anymore, but I will always be his widow and no one can take that away from me.
But I’m still not sure about the stigma? awkwardness? of the use of the word widow by other people in today’s society. Is it “our” word? Do we, the widowed, get to decide when and how to use it? Do we get to decide if we accept the term in reference to ourselves in conversation? Are we struck in the heart if it’s used without our consent somehow, or without the solemn respect it deserves, or maybe before we are ready to hear it used by people not in our terrible club? Would some people hesitate to use it in our presence for that reason? I admit I was certainly much more horrified by it in the beginning. Certainly it should never be used callously, or flippantly. I’m just really not sure about some of this…but I am sure that in that moment, with that friend, it was all ok, somehow.
I’ve come a long way on this journey that will never end.