Every engaged couple thinks they have invented love. Every newly married couple thinks they have invented marriage. Every pregnant woman thinks she has invented pregnancy.
When my husband passed away, I thought I’d invented widowhood. I was having an illicit affair with grief. Pregnant with pain and possibility at the same time, I knew I had to give birth to something wonderful soon because the most horrible had already been born into my life.
One of the first things I discovered: I am not alone in this experience. In fact, according to “The Global Widows Report 2015” by The Loomba Foundation, there are at least 258 million widows in our world today. If you are a widow, I’m sure you are becoming more and more aware of this, too.
But one surprise for me has been that widows don’t often openly reveal themselves. Sometimes it’s a secret sisterhood into which a new widow stumbles. Sometimes it’s a sorority of grief that some widows don’t want to join.
Another surprise for me as a new widow was the variety of stereotypes, misconceptions, and prejudgments associated with widows. All Biblical mandates and messages aside, our U.S. culture often puts widows in a land where no one wants to live.
Here are some that I’ve experienced and identified. If you are a widow, you may have others you want to add. If you aren’t a widow, you may be surprised or alerted.
Third Wheel: This one usually happens right away. Many gather around the widow at the visitation and funeral or memorial service. But at the funeral dinner, she is often sitting alone ─ and maybe even wishing that her husband could be there to enjoy the company and conversation. As the weeks and months roll by, she is the odd number to all the even numbers living around her. One seat on the plane, in the restaurant, at the concert. The “should invite” instead of “want to invite” for parties and dinners. One parent/grandparent trying to be two.
Pitiable Person: While others are busy feeling sorry for the widow, they often forget that she is traveling through a tunnel alone. Instead of walking with her, they may keep their distance when she needs them most. They are happy to give her a flashlight or a map, but don’t ask them to come along for the journey. Pity is the only way they allow themselves to relate with her.
Incomplete Couple: She has lost her husband, but she won’t stop until she finds another man to provide for her. After all, no woman is really complete unless she has a man in her life. Our U.S. culture of love, romance, and coupling certainly feeds this misconception.
Vulture: This idea takes root fairly quickly, too. Couples who were once friends with the widow and her late husband now keep their distance. This newly single woman just doesn’t fit anymore. What’s more, she might be after the other husbands ─ for household repairs, car repairs, or maybe even as a new mate!
Overly Needy: This widowed woman has so many needs, she doesn’t know what to do! And those who enter her reality will be trapped in her web forever. Don’t go near.
Old Crazy Woman: Dressed in black, the widow walks through the grocery store or down the street, talking to herself about nothing. Wearing styles that are decades outdated, she must be avoided at all costs. Might be catching!
Crazy Cat Lady: A prisoner in her own home, the widow has given the keys to at least nine cats. Her daily duties revolve around putting out food and cleaning the litter boxes.
Rich and Rambunctious: The widow is living the good life on the thousands her husband left to her. No longer tied down or tied up, she jets around the world, stays in only the best spa hotels, and dances until dawn with every Prince Charming she meets.
Desperate in Denver (or wherever): A widow’s desperation fuels everything she says, does, thinks, and feels. She needs money, a man, sex, and probably a new car, too. Watch out for her ─ especially on the online dating websites! After all, according to Statistic Brain (statisticbrain.com), by age 48, men have twice as many online pursuers as women do.
In reaching out to widows, I’ve done my best to debunk these stereotypes. I’ve connected with widows who have endured and are enduring many real and different scenarios of widowhood. And many, like me, are dealing with more than one of these.
Long marriage: Spending more than 40 years married to the same person is a significant achievement in today’s society. Those years contain a plethora of shared experiences and memories. When the man who shared those with her is no longer there to continue that sharing, she experiences a depth of loss no one else will ever understand.
Reluctantly retired: She thought she was going to share many happy, nonworking years with her husband. Then suddenly, he’s gone and will never return. Stretched out before her are the non-preferred prospects for the future. Does she really have to experience those alone?
Still working: She isn't the wealthy widow or the merry widow. She's the widow who needs to work ─ and sometimes for many more years ─ in order to support herself. There are no large life insurance policies, pensions, or trust funds to help.
Still parenting: Her children now have one parent instead of two. She must do the work of two, however. Transportation, homework, parent-teacher meetings, chaperoning, refereeing squabbles, to name just a few of the many responsibilities. She wants to keep life stable for her children, but all the changes in their lives are keeping her off balance.
Widowed by tragedy: One minute, she is married. The next minute, she is a widow. No preparation, no warning. Help usually comes quickly and stays briefly. Then she faces a long, unexplainable reality alone.
Separated when widowed: She thought her marriage was over except for the divorce decree. But then her husband passed away. Could they have reconciled? How did he feel about her when he died? She will never know. And the carnage of their marriage circles around her, trying to devour her.
Second wife: No matter how many years she was married to him, she will never be The First Wife. Even though she was the one who cared for him during his illness or the one who found him not breathing, she somehow always takes second place.
Young widow, under 40: This is not supposed to happen. A couple who marries in their 20s is supposed to be together in their 80s. The death of her husband short-circuited the plans they had made together and robbed their children of the help of a father.
Wealthy widow: She inherited a large sum of money and property from her husband’s estate. Others line up to reap the benefits. But many times, she isn't prepared to be the manager. She often has too little information and too much time to worry.
Taking up the cause: Some widows believe so strongly in the work their husbands were doing, they take up his cause and carry it forward. Like Coretta Scott King. She worked closely with her husband, the 1960s civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Widowed in 1968, she continued her career in activism until her death in 2006.
Hasty or vague generalities, stereotypes, and assumptions are dangerous in any relationship. In any healthy relationship, seeing the other person as an individual is the most important perspective. Taking time to get to know the person and his/her unique circumstances is key.
Widows need and deserve to be seen and known as human beings, apart from their husbands and children, apart from their marital status. Acceptance and understanding pave the way for healthier relationships and happier lives.
Whether you are a widow or know a widow, cross those imaginary barriers and reach out. Seek to understand and to be understood. Your life may change in the process. You may change a life in the process.