Perpetuating Loss Redux

My last post generated quite a lively discussion and so I thought I would try and hone in on some of the issues it raised. In particular, Shafeen’s comment:

Perception is an interesting and complex thing – it is generally created with a few “sticky” labels – and once set, the perceiver’s viewpoint is colored by them; more than that, the perceiver’s mode for engaging that thing is defined by these labels and *their* definition of what these labels connote.

All I’m saying is if a disproportionate number of your labels are of any one ilk, it becomes more difficult for your peceivers to view you as other than that…

At the core is the idea that after a loss, one is in danger of being defined by the loss, perhaps even labeled with the loss, based on the amount of emphasis it is given in everyday comings and goings. The outside world begins to label us with this dominant trait and this colours their perception of us. We all try to lead balanced lives – parenting, work, relationships, hobbies etc. Given that I am essentially in the “loss” business, all things widowy dominate a larger portion of my pie chart than they might otherwise. In true Demetri Martin fashion, I have come up with a pie chart of what I think about on a daily basis:

I guess it might be important to define “Widowy thoughts.” I think it includes the following:

Feeling sorry for myself

But, as you can see, “widowy thoughts” take up a very small proportion of my brain activity on any given day. Since I write about widowy things and volunteer in widowy pursuits, I suppose if you combine that with “Writing” and perhaps “Volunteering,” then you could make the argument that I spend a large proportion of my time thinking widowy things. But I must say that writing and volunteer thoughts rarely includes those thoughts encompassed in “Widowy thoughts.” So, OK, let’s say that I concede to the fact that maybe I spend a larger proportion of my time thinking widowy things than most people.

Does that define me? Maybe. Does it affect my ability to find a meaningful relationship? Maybe. Is it the predominate way that people see me? I don’t think so, but maybe.

My experience of widows and widowers are that they are often fun-loving (having learned the hard way that life is short), lusty (the healing power of touch), spiritual (have a deep reliance of some kind of faith) and empathetic (they “get it”). Occasionally they are sad (aren’t we all?), depressed, (again, don’t we all go through depression from time to time?), and sometimes drink too much (are you seeing a pattern here?), and really have a thing for chocolate (right, Supa?).

So I don’t know, maybe I am OK with donning the widow label, having it take up a larger proportion of my daily thought, writing about it, having it colour the rest of my thinking. Does it limit me? Perhaps. But I believe it expands me more than it limits me. Expands in ways I can still barely grasp. Most widowed people will tell you that they have never felt more alive since being widowed and often feel guilty that their loved one had to die for them to discover that they could live such wonderful, fulfilling lives.

This issue seems to center around the viewpoint of the perceiver. Widows force others to face their own mortality. We make people uncomfortable. Perhaps its the reason that widows in India are expected to throw themselves onto their husband’s burning funeral pyre. Society doesn’t want to be reminded that death happens. Perhaps that is why being perceived as a widow is seen as being “unhealthy” in some way. We are seen as “stuck” in our loss, not “moving on,” dwelling in the past, still in love with our lost loved ones. It’s funny to realize that maybe it’s the rest of society that is “stuck” and “not moving on.” We’ve had the amazing privilege of being jolted awake by our losses. Most of us are not so lucky.

So label me widow, because as Michele at Soaring Spirits says, Widows Rock!

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  1. Michele Neff Hernandez January 14, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    Well, how funny that I would check in today and be the first to comment! Because Widows definitely do rock for every one of the reasons you list here. I especially love this:

    “It’s funny to realize that maybe it’s the rest of society that is “stuck” and “not moving on.” We’ve had the amazing privelege of being jolted awake by our losses. Most of us are not so lucky.”

    The thing I find most inspiring about widowed people is the large number of them who consider themselves lucky, blessed, and who have transformed pain into inpsiration and action. I have never met a more generous, compassionate group of people. Grief levels the playing field, and allows us to see each other as equals. Regardless of personal circumstance, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, or political opinions we have all loved, lost and woke up the next day saying now what? What connects us is so much more powerful than what divides us. This concept seems to find a natural home within the community of widows/ers.

    Lastly, there is something so powerful about not being afraid to accept the reality of death. Widowed people have looked death in the face in a way that is not possible unless you have lived it. This is true of anyone who has lived through a significant loss. Nearness to death changes you. Often, so often, for the better.

    My widowhood made me a better person in so many ways. The transformation that was born from great loss has deepened my love of life and increased my willingness to embrace opportunities, sing karaoke, play in the mud, and smell the proverbial roses. I’ll take the label, and the gifts that come with it.

  2. Boo Mayhew January 14, 2011 at 4:00 pm

    Hear, hear. What a great post. Since Cliff died, I have always felt astonished that people don’t talk more about death and loss. That they aren’t more informed, prepared (in a practical way, not emotionally as that is impossible), and that they aren’t almost obsessed with it … because every couple in the world (unless they are fortunate enough to die together in a plane crash or something – which incidentally was the agreement we had – are going to have to face what we have faced, sooner or later. It’s kind of like the world buries its head in the sand, hoping death will go away … which is ludicrous. But then again, I used to be one of those people, didn’t I?

    I totally agree. It is the untouched who are stuck, not us … for we have learned that there is nothing guaranteed in this life, we now know the ultimate truth.

  3. annie January 14, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    I agree that this is a perceiver issue. We are people, not things, and we change from day to day and back again regardless. If someone is stuck on one perception of me, that’s his/her problem – not mine. As my mother is fond of saying, “What other people think of me is none of my business.” I wouldn’t say that I make people uncomfortable but my pov does take people up short even when mortality doesn’t find its way into the conversation, so I don’t get if much thought anymore. If people want to label me “widow” that’s more a reflection of their limited pov or of the fact that they don’t really know me very well. If you only read what I write in the comments on widow blogs than you only have a tiny slice of insight into who I am. I am a political, human/civil rights, education and food blogger on a major website too. I’m a yoga teacher. I’m a history and news junkie. I bake and I am developing a serious interest in Auyervedic medicine. And that’s just some of me. Like I said earlier, I don’t see you as “just a widow”. There is more too you than that and I haven’t even met you in person yet, so my view is limited by the virtualness of our friendship. Sometimes when people point out things to us, they are really having some sort of issue within themselves and using us as a way to avoid working on it. jmo

  4. Kristine January 15, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    LOVE THIS! I couldn’t agree more. I noticed this myself– in my early widow stage, when I entered a room I could stop a conversation cold. I felt like a leper. It took a long time for me to realize it was about THEM, not about me. A walking reminder that bad things can happen to people.
    I didn’t walk around thinking “widowy” thoughts all of the time– at work, I would mostly be thinking “work” thoughts. Until I stopped a conversation cold.

  5. Shafeen Charania January 15, 2011 at 8:57 pm

    Indian widows are shunned (or killed) because neither family wishes to take on the burden of feeding another mouth. It’s not about being reminded of a dead son or son in law. I don’t think widows remind non-widows of their mortality, or make them uncomfortable any more than anyone else who has faced the death of a child, parent, sibling or friend does.

    Everyone has the right to wear the badges they choose; everyone has the right to choose the badges they wish to connect with. My gut tells me that your readers (widows and non-widows alike) prefer multi-faceted people vs. those who are only one thing.

  6. Debbie January 15, 2011 at 10:07 pm

    I love this post! I don’t believe that widows choose to wear the label widow. The people around us impose that label upon us and yes, we are multifaceted. I am more complex than I was before my husband died, when I was living in happily married la la land. The issue is with the perceiver. I wear many badges, but the one that stops people in their tracks and causes them to stammer or not be able to continue speaking, is the widow label. Thanks for writing such a great post Abby!

  7. Cathy January 16, 2011 at 12:32 am

    I would like to have a glass of wine with you someday….so much to talk about…

    What would happen if you changed the title of “widowy topics” to “womanly” ? It just so happens that you are in the widow part of a womanly life. Had you not been, you would be thinking…what…instead? Mommy thoughts, wife thoughts, etc. And so we/you would be defined in THAT way. But all of these are womanly thoughts and we just “happen” to then fall into a sub category. I prefer to think of these as womanly thoughts, or better yet, wise thoughts, we are WISE women now due to widowhood, right?
    There is no reason for us to apology or rationalize the fact that a good part of our time is spent on widowy topics, it’s who we are. But I do think alot of people just don’t know how to deal with it.

    Keep thinking, keep asking, keep talking …


  8. diane January 16, 2011 at 11:02 am

    It’s a perception, true…but I also think there is a big disconnect between your everyday life Abby, and how you choose to present your public face online and in your writing. What you do and write about is all grief and loss…not other people’s experiences even or the work you’re involved in…just you. You’re more then that. I know it and you know it. To those that don’t know you very well however, it does tend to paint a one sided, lopsided picture and I don’t think (the guy that made the original comment) was off base in his observation. In addition though, I’ll admit my opinion is colored a bit. My mother has been a widow for the last 36 years. During those years I have watched her widowhood process evolve, devolve, expand, regress and turn into many things for her…but mostly, unfortunately, into a continual a tool for her to attract attention, sympathy, and opportunity. I hate to say that about her, but it’s really true. And there are many people like her unfortunately. Also remember, not all widows and widowers join groups and make a social activity/lifestyle out of their circumstance. Remember that. That’s a relatively new thing (within the last 20 years). It’s a wonderful, very healing…but then again, not everyone does that. I guess what some people are tying to tell you is just don’t let yourself become that person who sings a one note tune. It’s a real trap for some people. I think that’s all that your friends are trying to point out to you. I joked that you should write about your dog for a year. Well…could you go even 6 months and write about other things? Why not? I “know” you’d be fabulous!!! 🙂

    1. annie January 16, 2011 at 12:50 pm

      I was going to reply to Dwbbie alone but your reply fits with what I was going to say as well b/c some widow do absolutely choose to wear the badge and they do it for the reasons you mention: attention and sympathy. My LH’s mother was widowed at 33 and was still milking the title when I met her not quite 20 years later. She’d even impressed upon him the idea that his dad’s death marked them as outcasts. And she was a financial burden to him. She set him to work to contribute to expenses when he was 16 and we were still helping her out financially up until he was diagnosed and lost his job, so Shafeen’s point about widows being viewed as economic burdens somewhat applies in North America too though. My LH had encouraged her to date and even remarry (she had at least one opportunity that I know of) mostly b/c as he grew up, he felt saddled with her a bit and grew weary of her preference for sympathy and her use grief as an excuse not to remake herself and be independent. But anyway, I think being online gives all people a way to compartmentalize themselves. It is difficult to know someone fully given the niche way the web organizes us.

  9. Abby Carter January 16, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    I like Annie’s comment about the web world cornering us into labels that do not paint a whole picture of who we are. I definitely think that is the case for me. I write on this blog about things that I think other widows will find helpful in their journey. I do not tend to write about the things I do in my every day life which include Salsa dancing, seeing burlesque shows with my friend DD, working out, etc. I also write less and less about my kids despite how useful a lot of those stories would be, in order to protect their privacy. I have wonderful friends and many, many deep engaging conversations about many varied topics. Do widowy thoughts colour my perceptions? Yes. Do they define me or do I use my widow status to attract attention? Not in the least. If people see me still stuck in my widowhood, then so be it. Their perceptions are coloured by THEIR own experiences, just as mine are.

  10. Supa Dupa Fresh January 16, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    What an intelligent conversation. And on the internet – imagine! 🙂

    I hope I’m not using this for attention either… I’ve found a lot of direction and good work to be done here, why should I not work in an area where I have experience and have learned things?

    My only comment to you, Abby: write about whatever moves you. Don’t let “us” keep you someplace you don’t want to be.


    Supa (and thanks for the shoutout!).

  11. Dampdynamite January 17, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    I don’t like that kind of attention. But I am at a loss as to what to say to people who ask me what my status is. I say “widow” and then quickly add I am “JUST FINE”. Then, they always think they have to be sensitive and ask how he died. Hmmm. They really don’t expect suicide, and then here I go again saying “…but I am JUST FINE…” They make a hasty retreat after a decent interval of concerned looks and comments. I sometimes wish I was a better liar.

  12. Cathy January 17, 2011 at 7:59 pm


    I am still following this thread…it’s an interesting one. I have been a widow for four years now. I do not remember labeling or introducing myself as “wife” when I was, in fact, a wife. I don’t usually lead with “widow”, now. I was at a party saturday night where I met some new people and honestly, the conversation or “opportunity” to present or label myself as a widow didn’t come up, oddly. I just enjoyed an interesting conversation and it was refreshing. I’m not trying to hide it at all, I have no qualms with identifying myself as such, but you are all right, other people put their own perceptions on it which is unfortunate. I just don’t really like to label or identify myself as anything specific, really, we are women, isn’t that enough? As for focusing on widowhood, you do a great service for other widows Abby, it is one of your callings, how can you ignore that? And clearly, you do have a “full” life with other interests. I wouldn’t worry too much about what others say…especially if they have not walked in your shoes….

  13. Rebecca Soukakos January 19, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    I’ll never forget dating a year after Michael died. I was 30. On three different first dates, each man said to me in his own way, “Wow! You are an amazing woman. What’s wrong with you? Why aren’t you married?” Do we need labels or do they?

    It’s too obvious to say our society thrives on labels. As any widow knows when confronted with an update to their employer’s emergency contact form.

    I’m a newly married former widow, a development director, a new step-mom, daughter, sister, 30-some year old woman, caucasian , redhead–and these are just half of the labels that define me (but the most obvious to the outside observer.)

    I don’t care about the labels but society certainly loves them. And we are definitely changing the old fashioned meaning of the word widow.

    Keep writing Abby–it’s the only way to help the others change their perception.

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