Since I lost my fiancé almost 2 years ago, I have been acutely aware of how uncomfortable my very presence makes people at times. I talk about it less and less on Facebook, and even with my closest friends and family. It turns out people really don't like being reminded of death. Who knew? I've started to feel like I am carrying around some bad omen on my back - like some I'm some messenger of death now that brings a black aura everywhere I go. It's definitely a shitty part of this journey - feeling like my very identity upsets people or makes them uncomfortable. Which is made to suck even more by the fact that I am one of those people too - I also don't want to be around my own pain and this new unwanted identity of "widow". It is a constant battle for me to try and make peace with this new part of who I am that reminds me of everything I do not have.
Not entirely sure of what to expect or how it will help me with this identity crisis, last Friday I hopped on a plan to go to Camp Widow for the first time. If its new to you, this is a conference for widowed people held three times a year - the only one of its kind. Upon arrival I am surrounded by a few hundred others just like me. I even meet a few close friends for the first time in person. These people are incredible. They are not famous, they are not peace prize winners or hollywood actors, they are just you and me - all of us regular people - deciding to show up even though life has completely broken us. There we all are… still trying to find hope and healing and something good in life. Despite it all… Still fucking trying!
I meet Tanya, who's fiancé died in the 9/11 attacks and whose story both drops me to my knees and simultaneously fills me with so much hope and strength that my soul overflows. I meet a woman who lost her husband just three weeks ago - and somehow she managed to get out of bed AND get on a plane AND show up at this massive event. And Jennifer - the warrior - who is only 32 and has already been widowed twice and is raising six kids now on her own. I meet a woman who traveled alone all the way from Australia just to be there - knowing no one when she got there, and her husband died less than a year ago. I watch my dear friend Kelley do an incredible stand-up comedy act all about death and the death of her husband - getting widowed people to laugh harder than they probably have since their partner died. I mean wow people. Who needs Oprah when we've got all these widowed people around?! And somehow we are all just opening our hearts fully - with tears and with laughter. SO much laughter. So much understanding and kindness.
There are moments that I just stand there in this great big ocean of courage and take it all in. The unfathomable pain of everyone there crashes into me like a ten foot wave, but the love… the love and the extraordinary strength of so many willing to share themselves fully changes my entire perspective on what it means to be widowed….
I leave the conference on Sunday and head for the airport… I am wearing my "Hope Matters" shirt, and I realize… I am different. I am changed and I can feel it. No longer am I a woman who is fighting with all her might against the idea of being a widow… suddenly, I AM a widow - and no part of me is fighting it inside. I am walking around a crowded airport literally wearing my identity, and for the first time in this whole horrible, excruciating, exhausting, terrifying, earth-shattering journey… I am PROUD.
I am proud to call myself a widow. I am proud that anyone around me can read it right there on my shirt. I don't want to hide it away. I don't want to hide myself away. I don't care if I make every single person in a five mile radius uncomfortable. Because the thing is… there will be someone in that crowd who is hurting just as bad as me. And if I can be honest about my pain, it helps them be honest about theirs too. That is what all these brave people taught me - they were honest about their pain, and they allowed me to let my guard down and be honest about mine (and it turns out, I am still SO NOT OKAY with ANY of this and have been putting on a really good brave face for a long time). Everyone there helped me to realize that I really am strong, even in my most broken moments - we all are.
I don't think I even realized how much of a wall I had built up over the past 2 years, it's so easy to do and happens so gradually. This life may not be pretty a lot of the time, and everyone may not want to look at it or hear about it, but I have been reminded that hiding myself and my truth away does not help me - or anyone else - to heal. I need to be who I am, where I am, exactly how I am and to keep letting people into my life who can support that. I also need to make sure I am sitting with my pain and honestly seeing it too. I guess I just needed an army of other widowed people to help me remember that.
This experience definitely opened my eyes and made me realize that now, in my new life, this is a club I DO want to be a part of. And I plan to be, for a very very long time, coming back to Camp Widow each year. And I hope that next year - if it feels right for you - you will join me too.