Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Holding Our Own in the Court of Public Opinion

On my commute to work this morning (by which I mean my walk down to my basement office), I started wondering about something that seems to be a common theme with all of us widows: The ability to overcome what other people think of us.

When our spouses die, the surrounding public seems to think it’s their right…no…their duty to tell us how things should be done. They watch as we bumble our way into a somewhat normal existence after our lives have been completely turned upside down. The people we know patiently wait until we “get our acts together” and get back to business as usual.

Little do they know…we have decided to close that business in order to go forth like a hippie in the 60s on a journey of self-discovery.

We get a lot of advice from the people we know about what we should do, how we should live, and the decisions we should be making. Now, realistically speaking…these people usually don’t have a leg to stand on. Most of our friends and family have never raised children completely alone. They’ve never dated in later in life. And most have never faced the hole that we now find in our lives.

In the face of all of these helpful tips, I’m reminded of some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten from my therapist: Eliminate the word “should” from your vocabulary. There is no reason why you “should” stop grieving at a certain point, even though some people expect you to. There is no reason why you “should” spend your life alone, even if it’s hard for others to watch you date. And there’s no reason why you “should” expect your life to go back to normal when deep down you know it won’t.

Our sense of normal has completely changed. The way we make decisions has completely changed. Most of us now make choices with the little voice of our spouse ringing in our ears. And it’s hard enough to think, “Well, what would he (or she) have wanted me to do if he was here?”
We certainly don’t need the added complication of wondering what everyone else thinks.

I think most of the people we know expect that there will be a time of transition from being married to being widowed. What most people don’t understand is the change that occurs within us. It would be impossible to go through this kind of loss and come out as the same person. I personally think that the changes are good. We become more sympathetic to others and have a better understanding of what they might be going through. We are (hopefully) less likely to say stupid and thoughtless things just to fill dead air. And, thanks to the way we have been scrutinized, we are less likely to truly pass judgment on others.

I know that I’m a completely different person than I used to be. I may walk and talk the same, but my thought processes are completely different. That girl who would have been completely happy being a homemaker while she watched her husband’s career take off has left the building. The girl who so deeply cared about what everyone else thinks has taken a permanent vacation. The girl who couldn’t make a decision before she asked 10 other people their opinions is on a freighter to China and we’re not really sure when she’ll be back.

That’s right everybody. That person that you went to high school with and college with or have spent every holiday with since she was born has changed. It’s not a bad thing. I think it’s pretty natural. Very few people have the opportunity, early in life, to really look at things…where we’re going, what we’re doing, and what the hell the point all of this is anyway…and decide what’s truly important. Loss cracks open a door and gives us a glimpse of what is important in life. Some people choose to kick the door open and see what’s really possible and some people just quietly close it so as not to disturb anybody.

Most people won’t benefit from this kind of self discovery until they’re much older. Think of it this way…what we have been through, everyone will go through at some point in their lives. It is impossible to get through life without a taste of tragedy. We just happen to be overachievers and have gone through it first.

The good news for all of the people we know is that they’ll have a friend who will not say a damn word about what they’re doing when that happens.

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© Catherine Tidd 2010


  1. I always liked what Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi said about creativity - (and I a slaughtering it here) that the most creative people do not care what others think... because if they did care, nothing new would ever manifest.

    Anyway, we have so little to lose and everything to gain and cannot garner anyone's approval anyway, so we widows might as well go for it! Good on you, Widow Chick!

  2. I've been fighting the "shoulds" in my life lately. I feel like it has been 5 months, so I should not have meltdowns like what I had yesterday at work. I should start putting his things away & throwing out the stuff from his bathroom, etc.
    There are people who tell me that I am doing much better so then I feel like I "shouldn't" feel the way I do behind closed doors.
    Thanks for the reminder and gentle humor that says it's okay!

  3. Brava! So well said. Even 9 years later I am still trying to overcome the "shoulds" and what others think of me. I am still trying to find a way to be both a woman and a widow without compromising who I am and what I have become as a result of my loss.

    A fine balance...