Monday, October 24, 2016

After the Doorbell: Twenty-Five Things I Didn't Know About Being a (Military) Widow




Before I was widowed, I had absolutely no idea what being a widow really entailed. The military spends a lot of time preparing soldiers to go to war, but they don't really prepare wives to become widows, they don't issue us joining instructions when we are widowed. I had been a military spouse for almost twenty-one years. I was actively involved in our military and regimental communities. I attended every pre-deployment briefing, ironically even including one Dan held for his own regiment before they deployed to Wainwright. But over all of those years and over all of those briefings no one ever told me what really happened, after the doorbell rings.

In the days and weeks after Dan died, I turned to books and the internet for information on being widowed. I needed to understand what I was going through and I needed to know if what I was feeling was normal. There was a lot of helpful information for widows, information on grief, practical information on finances, cautions on not making any big decisions in the first year. But most of the information was generic, written for the much older widow. Being widowed when you are elderly is a much different experience then being widowed when you are forty-three with three teenagers. I did find one book with a very short chapter on some of the unique challenges facing a younger widow, such as single parenting and dating. And another that very briefly mentioned war widows, apparently they do better because "they have a built in squad of cheerleaders." Perhaps that's not an entirely accurate statement, but support from women who have experienced a similar loss is very important, support that I didn't have when I was first widowed. I didn't have a squad of other military widows cheering me on, in fact, at the time I only knew one other military widow and I hadn't seen her in over fifteen years. At any rate, I'm not a war widow, I'm an accidental military widow. And mercifully, Dan was the only one killed in the accident, so there was only one of me.

Eventually, of course, I did meet other widows. Military widows, civilian widows. Older widows, younger widows. Widows with children, some without. Some widowed long before me, some widowed after. All of them amazing, courageous, resilient women who inspire me and who have taught me so much. We are the same, and yet not the same. All of our losses equally tragic but all of our experiences and stories as unique as we are.

There is no rule book on on how to move forward with life after loss, it's up to each of us to move forward, in our own way, and in our own time.

I have learned some things about being a widow. Ask another widow, and her list will be similar but different. Because there is no one list that fits all for widowhood.

  1. You will be in shock. When I was notified of Dan's death, I didn't cry, or scream or collapse. I felt nothing, as if I was separate from myself. I remember at one point I actually thought, "I should be crying, why am I not crying?"  I didn't know I was in shock.
  2. You will be more afraid than you ever have before. How will I tell our children? Will our children be okay? How will I support them? What am I going to do? I'm going to mess it all up. Who will look after me when I'm old? What if I fall down the stairs? No one will ever know. So many fears....
  3. You will be more exhausted then you have ever been before. Physically and emotionally, completely and utterly exhausted.
  4. You will have memory problems. I constantly forgot where I was going, what I was doing, what I was saying. To be honest, I'm still a bit forgetful but the kids tell me I can't blame it on being a widow anymore.
  5. You will have difficulty concentrating. It was 18 months before I was actually able to read an entire book cover to cover.
  6. You will have sleep difficulties. I was never a great sleeper to begin with, and even now two and a half years later I still have sleep difficulties, and I often still have to rely on medication.
  7. Widows weight loss is a real thing. I think I lost about thirty pounds in the first four weeks. Not a weight loss plan I would recommend. 
  8. Widows have a very strange sense of humour. Well, lets be honest, I was pretty funny to begin with, I'm just even funnier now.
  9. There is a business side to death. Like it or not, there is a business side to death, and there are rules and procedures that have to be followed. I will always be grateful for my Assisting Officer, I could never have managed all of the meetings and paperwork without her.
  10. You will carry a death certificate in your purse for the first two years. Because you just never know when you are going to need it. And ironically, you will also use your marriage certificate more after you are widowed than you did when you were first married.
  11. You will become acutely aware of your own mortality. If I die, my children are orphans. I can't guarantee that something bad won't happen to me, but I will be damned if my kids lose me because I was too selfish to take care of my health.
  12. You will be judged. Some people are very judgmental of widows, when you date, if and when you get married again, how much money you spend. Some even seem to think they could do it better.  "If I were you." But, fortunately for you, you're not, are you? 
  13. People will tell you how you should grieve. So many people are still influenced by the myth of the stages of grief. The truth is not everyone will go through all of the stages of grief, and yet we are told that we must and if we don't, well then there is something wrong with us.
  14. You will make mistakes. And lots of them. And that's okay, everyone makes mistakes. I've never been a widow before, I've never been a single mother before, I've never even really had to date before. You don't know what you don't know. 
  15. You are stronger than you think. You never know how strong you can be until you have to be that strong.
  16. You will get to know yourself very well.  The good, the bad, the ugly. As it turns out, I'm actually proud of who I have become. I'm not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but honestly, who is? 
  17. You are not what happened to you. I am so much more than what I have lost. I am not just  Dan's widow, as I was not just his wife. I am not my marital status. I'm Monica. Well, a slightly improved version of her.
  18. You will feel like you are stuck in between two different worlds. Being widowed is kind of like forced retirement. I often feel like I don''t really fit in in my civilian community but sometimes I'm not sure I really belong in a military one either. 
  19. You are allowed to move forward with your life. Moving forward with my life is not betraying Dan's memory. In fact, for me to do anything other than I have, that to him would be the ultimate betrayal and a disservice to everything he stood for. 
  20. Dating is really complicated. Really, really complicated. And one of the added perks of being a military widow: its hard for a "civilian" to understand your military life and anyone who wears a uniform will have a hard time seeing you for you and not your last name.
  21. You will miss sex and physical intimacy. Yes, I did just write that. Not all widows are 95, just saying.
  22. You will look at life through a totally different lens. Loss has a way of really putting things into perspective. All of those little things that you think really matter: they don't.
  23. You will be more grateful. I am so much more appreciative of what I have now. I consider every minute I get to spend with the people I love a gift. Because what if I never get to see them again?
  24. You have to own your own happiness. I'm responsible for my happiness. Me. Nobody owes me my happiness. Happiness is a choice I make and I have to work at it every single day. I can choose to be happy or I can choose to be miserable and being miserable is not who I am. 
  25. Life is too damn short. We always think we have more time, until we don't. There is never, ever enough time. 
Widowhood is an intensely personal journey. Some lessons you can really only learn if you live them. Unfortunately, there are no short-cuts through hell. You just have to keep going.

You can never truly be prepared to be a widow. But you can be proactive.

The harsh reality is people die. Suddenly, unexpectedly, tragically. Death doesn't just happen during deployments, obviously or I wouldn't be writing this blog. Accidents happen. Cancer happens. Suicide happens. Twenty-three or forty-three, private or lieutenant-colonel, husbands or wives, none of us are immune to death.

You need to make sure you have all of your paperwork in order: wills, power of attorney, insurance documents etc all should be reviewed and updated regularly.

And most importantly, you need to sit down and have that What If conversation with your spouse. It's a conversation that all couples, especially military couples, need to have.

Burial plans and funeral arrangements need to be discussed. They are not easy things to talk about, but trust me, those are extremely difficult decisions to make when you are exhausted and grieving. And you need to have an intimate conversation about life moving forward without you.

Thankfully Dan and I had that conversation. It was the most important conversation we ever had as a couple. That conversation was the prologue to this second chapter of my life. When others question or criticize my decisions, I have the surety of knowing I am honouring Dan's wishes for me and our children.

Two and half years later and there is still so much that I don't know about being a widow. My list is still evolving, as am I. I'm still learning, still making mistakes as I go, but really, isn't that what life is all about?

Learning, evolving, loving.


"Everything you need to know you have learned through your journey"~Paulo Coelho
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