I was at a holiday party with my girlfriends when the talk turned to marriage. Those in shorter marriages were asking the long-married, “How have you kept the attraction alive?” and “How do you get through the rough patches?” I tried to offer my opinions along with those who’d been married a long time, but I kept getting left out of the conversation. When I chimed in, no one responded. Then I realized, it was because I’m widowed.
It was if my entire marriage had been wiped out by my husband’s death.
If you want to help widows and widowers, let us talk about our marriages and our former spouses. My husband George’s death at age 54 was sad, but our 32 years together were full of funny anecdotes and great recipes. He was my life, beginning with my high school prom and ending with his death from cancer in 2013. I can’t just excise him from my conversations. But that seems to be what people expect.
Even at family gatherings, his relatives hardly mention him even though he was there for so much of what we talk about. He was along on the travels his parents recount and the crazy science experiments he and his cousins did together. But when they tell those stories, they omit him. And since they don’t talk about him, I can’t either. But how much more meaningful those gatherings would be if we could just include him in our conversation. George still lives on in our memories. Let’s share them instead of making him taboo.
People are so afraid that when widows talk about our late spouses, we’ll cry or become sad. But what makes me sad is having to censor myself from talking about my marriage. I want to tell George’s cousin the car nut about the Fiat X19 he rebuilt or share his pecan pie recipe with the cousin who cooks. I want to tell my girlfriends that my marriage too was long and successful, due in part to making pecan pie and finally getting rid of the X19. I want to tell them how he was able to diffuse my drama whenever we argued. We both worked hard to have a great marriage. I demand my right to dole out marriage advice even though he happened to die.
People ask widows if we’re dating again, eager to hear that we’ve moved on. They’re happy to listen to my dating stories but become uncomfortable when I talk about my years with George. But I was married for most of my life. I’ve been single for less than five years. I can move on and still want to talk about my past, just like anyone who’s undergone a major life change. Talking about the past doesn’t mean I can’t live in the present.
I can’t tell you the number of people who’ve been comfortable asking me what George died of—-metastatic male breast cancer—-and inquired into the medical details of his disease, but asked nothing about him or us as a couple. It’s as if they have a check list: (1) how did your spouse die? and (2) you’re over it, right? But we don’t get over it. We integrate the loss. And part of that is talking about those we’ve lost (should we choose), sharing those parts of our lives, and yes, even giving relationship advice.
So, if you want to help me this holiday season, be receptive when I talk about my marriage and my George. And I promise not to be too smug when I look back on a long and happy marriage.
For more musings and rantings on widowhood and middle-aged singledom, please visit me on my blog, The Hungover Widow. It was just named one of the top 50 Widow Blogs, making me feel better about hawking it.