What you should never say to a widow

Shortly after my husband passed away I was sitting at the office grading papers and weeping. Suddenly I saw my boss standing next to my chair and she asked: “Why are you crying, the worst is over isn’t it?”

There are certain things that you should never say to a widow, like making assumptions about how she feels, comparing her plight with that of other bereaved people, or commenting about her future prospects. But that’s beside  the point, I would like to focus on her supposition. Most times we can do very little about the end of life, and being around a loved one, who suffers, without being able to help is unbearable. It is only natural to wish for control over the situation and to imagine how it ends. Moreover, the feeling of relief, once it is actually over, is equally natural. But does it mean that the next stage will be better or easier? I am not sure.

Perhaps this wish for difficult things to end could be compared to something unrelated to death and quite controllable. Many times people who hold high-pressure jobs imagine that they quit. We could see dramatic resignations in the movies since it is quite a popular wish. But in real life those who actually act upon this impulse often report that once the initial relief is over next comes void.

The novelist M.T. (Jean) Dohaney, who lost her husband when she was in her early fifties, captures this feeling of loss in her memoir When Things Get Back To Normal: “I have been daughter, sister, wife, mother. These labels covered only part of me, yet increased all of me. ‘Widow’ covers all of me and decreases all of me, I learned yesterday that the word widow is derived from the Latin ‘viduus’ meaning empty.”

Indeed, according to the  etymological dictionary, this is the meaning of the word in several ancient languages. The word “vidhuh” in Sanskrit, for example, means lonely, solitary, and in Latin viduus means bereft and void (from the root to separate).

This feeling of forced separation could explain why so many women who lost their husbands are reluctant to let go of their marital status as wives, and to replace it with widows, on the identity card.

The sociologist Deborah Kestin Van Den Hoonaard argues that although women who lost their spouses try to hang on to their identities as wives, they no longer have the social resources to do so. She calls that condition: “Identity foreclosure.”  It is as though, as a result of a foreclosure, they find themselves with all their belongings out on the street. They don’t know who they are to themselves, who they are to their close friends, and how to fit into society.

I remember well the feeling of  shock and  confusion that Van Den Hoonaard describes. However, after careful consideration I am inclined to agree with the conclusion that upon losing my husband the worst was over. Everything that came later was somewhat easier because, at that point, it was up to me.


About the Author
I have a PhD in English literature from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and I usually write about issues concerning women, literature, culture and society. I lived in the US for 15 years (between 1979-1994). I am widow and in March 2016 started a support/growth Facebook group for widows: "Widows Move On." In October 2017 I started a Facebook group for Older and Experienced Feminists. I am also an active member of Women Wage Peace and believe that women can succeed where men have failed.
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