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What It’s Really Like To Be A Widow

The myths about grief that just need to stop.

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Yifan Wu
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When Melissa Gould married her husband, Joel, she thought that they would grow old together. She never anticipated becoming a widow in her mid 40s. Her new book, Widowish, details her experience of falling in love with Joel and his mysterious, untimely death. She describes how it feels to be a widow and talks about her relationship with other supportive widows — or “wisisters,” as she refers to them.

She started using the term during meetings with the supportive widowed-person group that she cofounded of young widows and widowers. “The group has men and women in it. I said wisisters for widow sisters and widower misters, but the more common use of wisisters is for widow sisters,” Gould says.

In her book she says that widows have their own language based on grief and resilience. She explains, “When you are traveling abroad and you suddenly hear someone speaking English, there is a familiar feeling of home and immediate relatability and recognition. That is what I meant by a widow language,” she says.

When Gould met other widows, she felt an immediate connection and a shared experience. Michele Neff Hernandez, founder of Soaring Spirits International and creator of the Camp Widow program, also refers to widow language. “It’s really a kinship,” she says.

Neff Hernandez’s husband died 15 years ago when she was 35 and didn’t know anyone who had lost their spouse. She founded Soaring Spirits International as a way for people to connect and to speak the same widowed person’s language.

“At the time of my husband’s death it was a foreign language to me. Right after my husband died the hospital asked what funeral home I wanted to use, and I remember thinking, Is there a funeral home here? These are things you never think about,” says Neff Hernandez.

When she first lost her husband, she used the analogy of seeing a new landscape to describe her experience. “Suddenly the landscape is so different, and you find yourself looking for landmarks. When you find someone else who is widowed, they speak the language and then you feel less lost.”

She explains that she wanted to connect with other people who would be able to answer her questions and relate to her situation. “What do you do with the ashes? Do you put them on your mantel? You hear widowed people talk about the remains of their loved ones, and who else would you talk about that with?”

Neff Hernandez explains that when she tried to talk about topics like ashes with someone who didn’t lose a partner, they often would feel uncomfortable. “If I had the same conversation with a widowed person we could actively discuss it. Anyone that has spread ashes knows that you have to be very careful with the wind. And no matter what you do, someone is covered in ash.”

Claire Bidwell Smith, a grief counselor and author of Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief, says that widowhood is a revamping of someone’s life. “There is a language that comes with it and an understanding and a kinship that is remarkable.”

“How are you?” is a common question widows are asked. Neff Hernandez says, “People will ask you 100 times a day, ‘How are you?’ But the truth is likely that they don’t want to know, because it’s not pretty in there.”

People are asking the question out of concern for the widowed person, but often it is an impossible question for them to answer since there are no words to describe their emotional state. Neff Hernandez became so overwhelmed that she requested her family stop asking — and instead say, “Is today a medium day or a horrible day?”

There are many misconceptions about widows. One is that they feel sad all the time, but often the reality is that they experience a range of emotions — including happiness, laughter and dark humor.

“Dark humor is acknowledging the ridiculousness of the impossible situations we find ourselves in. Like ashes flown into your face,” says Neff Hernandez.

Bidwell Smith says that humor is common when people are grieving. “I worked in hospice for a number of years, and people would be appalled by some of the jokes, but it is necessary. When you are sitting with that much heaviness, you must have lightness. But you have to have the right audience.”

Gould also says that it is important to have a sense of humor. “We could talk in our group about our husbands or wives who passed away in a real way, and that isn’t always sad.”

Another misconception is that a widow is supposed to stop loving her spouse a year after their death or the widow will not be able to move forward. “If you were grieving a parent that died and loved them for the rest of your life no one would question you, but when you love a spouse or partner for the rest of your life people think there is something wrong,” says Neff Hernandez.

Gould had a similar reaction. Even though her husband died seven years ago, she says, “I still miss my husband. There is not a day that goes by where I’m not thinking about Joel.”

People wrongly think that if a widow starts dating someone new that they are OK or no longer grieving. Gould says, “People assumed that ‘Melissa is fine now that she has a boyfriend and that she’s good,’ and that could not have been further from the truth. I had so many conflicting feelings.”

Bidwell Smith explains that there are some aspects of widowhood that afford a transformation and a renaissance. “You can reinvent yourself while you may be incredibly sad and grieving; you can also at the same time be embracing life in ways you had not expected.”