Early in the marriage separation process, a dear friend tried to shore up my flagging courage. "I know this is going to sound awful," she began. "But what if "R" (my husband) were dead? You'd have to somehow survive and carry on."
I thought about her remark for a long time. Then I had an epiphany: My husband -- of nearly 30 years -- is dead, even though "R" is still alive. I felt like a widow, but because my situation didn't fit the standard definition, I was left to mourn on my own, without the traditional support given to a woman who has lost her husband. I responded to my friend: "My husband is dead. Here's the difference: Nobody's bringing me casseroles."
I realized that I had been left to deal with all of the grief, loneliness and despair of widowhood, but without the outpouring of sympathy and support that people would naturally provide to an actual widow.
In our culture, casseroles are a symbol for the expression of comfort from others. When a woman becomes widowed, everyone in the community instinctively comes to her aid, bringing casseroles and other food, offering to help with household chores, childcare, etc. However, when a woman's husband leaves her (but not the planet), she is often also abandoned by the people around her -- including some of her closest friends. Some may view her situation as threatening, worrying that if this couple's long, apparently happy marriage broke up, the same thing could happen to them. Other friends want to reach out, but aren't sure how to proceed. They don't know what to say, or they may assume the woman doesn't want to talk about her situation. So they keep their distance and remain silent. Some acquaintances are merely "couples" friends. They enjoyed going out with the husband and wife, but they wouldn't think of socializing with a single woman. Also, people are busy. They have their own relationships, jobs, kids and challenges.
There are so many reasons (plausible and otherwise) why people keep their distance and withhold support from someone experiencing a breakup. If only they would realize how much a simple casserole -- real or metaphorical -- would mean to a grieving, frightened, newly-single woman.
Don't let it happen to you. If you're a separated or divorced woman experiencing "nobody's bringing me casseroles" syndrome, here are three ways you can make it easier for others to provide the support, advice and socialization you need (and which they would provide if they only realized how much you need it):
- Don't project a false image. When my husband and I first separated, I made a point of regularly posting pictures of myself on social media showing how fabulous my newly single life was. Because I write about the theatre, I see a lot of Broadway shows and concerts, so I showed myself with various celebrities in exciting New York City settings. This was an attempt to show the world (and my ex, who is still my Facebook friend) that I was doing just fine on my own, thank you very much. However, the real story was that I wasn't doing very well. I was devastated, depressed, scared and lonely. But because my online hype was so convincing, people didn't reach out to me. They figured my life was swell and that I didn't need anything from them. (I'm not recommending that you use social media to rant against your ex or to overshare depressing details of your life. But keep in mind that if you paint too rosy a picture, people will assume you're living the high life and that you're not in need of their friendship).
Also consider: Take a class (foreign language, yoga, personal finance, etc.). Volunteer. (This provides a triple pay-off: it's a great way to help others, to meet nice, caring people, and it will help you forget your own troubles). In addition, check out your local library for free educational programs.
Most importantly: Make sure you, in turn, reach out to help others in need. Remember: sometimes everyone needs a casserole, whether real or metaphorical.