Tuesday, January 26, 2016

You Don't Look Like a Widow

"You don't look like a widow." You'd be surprised at how often I hear that one. I'm never quite sure if I'm supposed to be flattered or offended by that statement. And what exactly does a widow look like? The answer of course is invariably the same: old. The stereotype of the lonely, little old grey haired widow. I'm so glad I got my hair done this week. While it's true the majority of widows in Canada are over the age of 65 (which really isn't old), there are in fact far more widows under the age of 65 then you may realize. And no, you'd never know to look at any of us that we are widows, it's not as if we have a capital W branded on our foreheads after all.

Cancer, war, suicide, accidents. Every single day wives become widows. We come in all ages, ethnicities and religions. Some mothers, some not. Some working, some not. Despite these differences, we are all supposed to fit in the same neat little box called widowhood. But here's the rub: widowhood is not the same for each of us. Being widowed at 43, with three teenage children is not the same as being widowed while pregnant at 24, nor is it the same as being widowed at 83. Having your husband die as a result of cancer is not the same as having your husband die suddenly in an accident. All equally tragic, all equally sad and devastating, and all different. Each widow's story is uniquely hers, and  how we grieve is also unique to each of us. And yet we are still lumped together in one widowhood box, with the same expectations of how we should grieve and when we should move on with our lives.

This may shock you (but I doubt it): I don't much like the widowhood box. I don't like being told how I'm supposed to feel and when I'm supposed to move forward (because you don't move on, you move forward) with my life. The last time I checked, I was an adult who is perfectly capable of making her own decisions. But people still do it, all of the time. At eleven months I was told it was far to early for me to start dating. Too early for whom? Not for me, and shouldn't I be the one making that decision? Ironically, I wasn't even planning a date at that point in time. But you know, just in case.

I actually knew a bit about grieving before Dan died. I'd previously lost both of my grandmothers, whom I loved dearly but their loss was not the same as the loss of my husband and the father of my children. I'd also studied grief in university (studying it and living it are two vastly different things, of course), so I was well aware of the stages of grief. Fortunately for me, I also knew the five stages of grief are bullshit. (You can read why here: No Stages of Grief.) Over the last 40 years, what was meant to be a guideline became an almost absolute. The author Elisabeth Kübler-Ross "constantly stated that the stages didn't all happen and not necessarily in order, if at all." And yet the myth of the stages of grief still persists, a myth that has caused me and many others a helluva lot of grief, for want of a better word.

Thankfully, the majority of the people in my life don't believe in the myth. They were the ones that just let me feel what I felt, they never told me how I should feel. They were the ones assuring me that life would be good again, they were always supportive, always encouraging.

But there are some who are still influenced by the myth of grief. When I made the choice to be happy, I was in denial or I was rushing my grief. When I said I wasn't angry, they assured me I would be. When I said I didn't feel guilty, they told me I would eventually. They seemed to have all of the answers and yet how could they? They're not me. I'm not sure if they are even aware of how much of an extra burden they placed on me. I certainly never told them. I should have. I went to a counselor because I began to believe there was something wrong with me: because I wasn't angry, because I didn't feel guilty, because I wanted to be happy. Think about that. Just stop for a minute and take that in. I thought there was something wrong with me because I wanted to be happy:

When you told me my life was going to be awful, you took away my hope for the future.
When you told me I must feel guilty for being happy, you implied that it was wrong for me to be happy.
When you told me what I should feel, you invalidated everything that I was feeling.

 I'm not sure who my counselor was expecting the day I sashayed into her office, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't me. She listened to my diatribe for about ten minutes before she raised her hand to stop me (I seriously thought she was going to yell UNCLE). "Monica there is nothing wrong with you, you are perfectly healthy." Silence. "Really? Are you sure? Because I think I might be crazy."  "You are NOT crazy" (don't worry, I was shocked too). When they talk about watershed moments, that was mine. I'm sitting there looking around her office; she has all of the right certificates on the walls, and this wasn't her first trip to the rodeo, so she clearly knows what she's talking about. There is nothing wrong with me. There is nothing wrong with me. I'm going to be just fine. I have never felt so liberated in my life. It was as if a 40 pound rucksack had been lifted from my shoulders.

 I own my happiness. Me. It's my responsibility. Nobody else can ever make me happy, only I can do that. This may not be the life I planned, but it's my life, and it's up to me to make it a good one. I had to accept Dan was gone and never coming back. I had to let go of what should have been, and accept what is. And (this is the one I struggled with the most) it means that I have to accept there will always be those who will never truly understand my choices, and that's okay, they don't have to, it's not their life. I believe acceptance is the most important thing. When you find acceptance you will find peace. As a wise padre once told me, acceptance catapults us forward. Each of us finds that acceptance in our own time, and in our own way. Grief is as individual as a fingerprint. No two people will ever experience loss in the same way. We can never truly understand someone's loss unless we suffer a similar loss, and even then our grief will be different. We can walk the proverbial mile in some one else's shoes, but our miles will never ever be identical.

I hope you never have to walk that mile, but if you do, I'll be there offering you the hope that someday life will be good again, not perfect, but good (and it will be). And then I'll say something ridiculous to make you laugh. I can't walk that mile for you, but I'll come along if you'd like company. If you don't have the energy to put on your shoes, don't worry, you can lean on me while I help you put them on. If it's winter, I'll probably suggest you wear boots though, oddly enough snow is pretty cold on the toes. But hey, if you really want to wear sandals, I'm good with that too. After all, they're your feet. And it's your mile. It's up to you how you walk it.

Even if happiness forgets you a little bit, never completely forget about it. ~Jacques Prévert

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