There has been some rumbling over Patton Oswalt’s recent engagement announcement. Patton lost his wife a few weeks before my husband died. The non-widows are appalled at how somebody who recently wrote about barely being able to take off his wedding ring could so quickly move on. The widows and widowers are appalled that those who have no idea what “this” is like would have the audacity to judge.
I’m going to take the middle ground here and say that this is why we need to talk about these issues more so that we can promote more understanding and hopefully encourage empathy.
Those of us who have walked this walk have a responsibility to set our own parameters and terms of living, and it would be helpful to educate others so they can try to understand. For everyone else, you should listen and soak it in so you can avoid being judgemental and offensive, and more importantly, so you can be a better friend, family member, colleague, or in the worst case scenario, perhaps a little more prepared should you find yourself in this situation someday. We all think it will never happen to us. *raises hand* I thought that too. But it can happen to any one of us. It will happen to all of us, eventually, unless you die before your significant other. So buckle up.
When it comes to matters of relationships after losing your significant other, I think the first rule of thumb is that your feelings (if you are not the widow/widower) don’t matter. But you’re going to think they matter. You won’t acknowledge it. You would deny it if somebody accused you of it. You’ll try to detach yourself from the opinion you throw out into the universe and package it as a universal truth or a harmless comment. But this doesn’t negate the fact that your feelings about another person’s intimate life do not matter, unless, of course, the person in question is your 15 year old child. And even then, if you haven’t instilled in them a foundation for making healthy choices, you’ve probably already lost that battle. The only other people whose feelings would matter are the minor children of the widow/widower, and that is something the widow/widower has the responsibility to work out with their own children. Not your business. Every family will be unique and have their own challenges that only they can navigate, without your opinions.
Secondly, can we please stop telling widows and widowers that being alone is okay? I’ve heard it so many times from too many people. I know your intentions may be pure, but your words are damaging.
“At least you have time to yourself!” Yes. Lots and lots and lots of time to myself (nevermind having children, which nullifies any time to myself). But yes, I have time to myself. As I sit in my hotel room on vacation, early in the morning, waiting for the kids to wake up and trying to get some work done, suddenly loneliness drifts into the cavity of my body like fog invading the forecast. At least I have time to myself!
“You’re lucky you have friends and family.” As if friends and family keep you company day in, and day out. As if they go to bed with you.
“You’re so lucky you don’t have to deal with _____.” I know men leave their clothes on the floor, and they have annoying habits, and women probably drive you crazy, and everyone’s significant other does something that is annoying and maybe at times suffocating. But, perhaps you can let me weigh the pros and cons for myself, based on my own experiences and insight, and let me choose whether or not being free of the burdens of companionship is worth the exile I live in.
Or there are references to being able to work on yourself, to live the way you want, to enjoying your own life, etc.
Blah, blah, blah.
Funny how every time I hear these unintentionally hurtful comments, they always come from somebody who has a significant other, the very person who would quickly get off a phone call because their spouse just got home. They are the ones telling me, either directly or in coded references, that somehow this is a gift. Again, it’s happened multiple times, from several people. I have to believe that it isn’t just me. It isn’t just them. There is some sort of societal misunderstanding over the issue.
You aren’t making somebody feel better trying to assuage their loneliness by inadvertently shaming them for moving on, wanting to move on, thinking about moving on, or even just planting seeds of doubt in their minds.
It is okay to be alone if that is what the person chooses independent of your judgement. But we should give them the respect of making that decision on their own. We should support how they survived their loss and are reconstructing their lives, hopefully exactly the way they want to live.
Next order of business: what comes next.
I’ll just give you my opinion about the matter, but everyone is different. Everyone makes their own decisions, based on their own circumstances, preferences, and desires. Furthermore, there really is no right or wrong.
You see, becoming a widow or widower does something to your world view. It cracks it open and exposes the truths you once clung to as etched in stone, and shows you an alternate reality where anything can happen, anything goes, and that ridiculousness can be beautiful, sad, lonely, happy, funny, or whatever you want to interpret it to be. Point being, there are no rules. You make the rules. I feel like somebody at some point tried to tell me this, but I didn’t believe it until I lived through the meltdown of my own life. People who have experienced loss tend to be fierce advocates of living life on their own terms. And we don’t like it when you try to tell us that there are prescribed ways of living, because we’ve already experienced what can happen to even the best laid plans. A life where following the rules didn’t necessarily change the outcome of our fate.
My idea of what comes next: anything is possible. For me, it’s likely I won’t pick somebody just like my husband. That isn’t a statement about anything. It says nothing about him. It’s just that I, personally, want to re-do everything. Kind of like going to a buffet, and choosing other food instead of the same thing every time. Like that. Think back to a moment where the thought entered your mind: if I wasn’t married to ___, I would do ____. Or if I didn’t have kids. Or if this or that. Yeah. That’s me. If I have to be in this situation, I want to try new things, even down to the places I travel to, the colors I paint my house, to the personality traits I might favor in a significant other. It’s not good, it’s not bad. If another widow/widower chooses not to date, that’s okay. It’s all okay. There are no rules except that you should live an authentic, fulfilling life. Also, moving on doesn’t replace your significant other. And can we just clarify something: you can’t compete with a dead person, even if you wanted to. There is no competition. People get divorced all of the time. Although this is different, we should still respect that we can love more than one person in our lifetimes. I don’t understand why this is newsworthy, or merits reiteration, in the year 2017.
Final piece of advice: when a widow or widower does something new, like Patton Oswalt announcing his engagement, here is what you can say to them: I’m so happy for you.