“It takes a village to raise a child” is a well known African proverb that means child-rearing is a communal effort, that raising a child requires the experience and support of an entire community with whom the child can interact to help him or her learn and grow.
And since the death of my husband last year, I’ve discovered that it also takes a village to support and uplift a widow through the lowest point of her life, to assist her as she attempts to navigate her grief journey alone.
As the mother of a 30-something adult male, whenever I see a new mother trying to calm a screaming infant, a mother who looks tired and frazzled and worn out, I immediately empathize. Although it was long ago, I’ll never forget the sleepless nights, the worry, the awful feeling that the world will never be safe enough for my child. I was a single mother, and I was filled with fear that I wouldn’t be up to the task of raising and protecting this brand new miracle on my own. I can recall with perfect clarity the day I was released from the hospital and the fear I felt when they sent me on my way with my infant son. What have I done? How can I raise this child on my own? How will I know what to do? How can I be responsible for the life of this precious new being?
I eventually found my footing, and I raised my son to adulthood, but I couldn’t have done it without my support system, my village: parents, relatives, and friends who were there for me, encouraging me and helping me along the way. But even now, years and years later, I can still remember how that new mom feels. When I see a young, tired mom with a newborn, I remember and I understand exactly what she’s going through. And I wish there was some way I could tell that mom that it’ll all work out, that the scary early days will pass, that she’ll become a more confident mother. I’d assure her that someday her role of new mom won’t be so new, and that in a few short years, she’ll even get some sleep again.
In my own life, time passed and my child grew and matured, and one day, I met and married a wonderful, supportive man who took on a single mom with her 15-year-old son, and life became even better. And I’d like to think my loving and successful son turned out okay, and I’m thrilled to see him happily married and raising two children of his own. But I’ll never forget those early years of stress, and tiredness, and confusion and how I made it through with the support of my village of family and friends.
And now there’s widowhood.
Over the past few months, some of my blog posts have received feedback from new widows who tell me my words describe exactly how they feel. They say things like, “My husband‘s been gone one month… or two months… or three months and I can’t live without him, I don’t know how I can go on…he was my life…my nights are empty, weekends alone are awful…friends don’t understand.”
And although nearly a year has passed, I’m immediately transported back to that time in my mind – the night Rick died, the weeks and first few months immediately following his death – and the fog, the confusion, and the fear and the pain, and I think, Oh you poor thing. I can relate. I get it.
When I was the mother of a newborn and I saw a mom of a teen or a young adult, I thought, Will I ever be there? Will I ever make it through teething, or the terrible twos? And in the early days after Rick died, when it was difficult to envision making it through the next hour, let alone “one day at a time,” if I encountered an “experienced” widow who has survived six months of grief, or a year, or two years, or who is beginning to date, or is remarrying, or who just seems to have it all together and is successfully navigating a life alone, I would wonder, How did she do that? How did she ever get to that point? Because I will never see that. I will never ever be able to cope with this awful loss of my soulmate, the most difficult thing I have ever experienced. I have never felt pain like this, and I can’t handle it. I will never sleep through the night, or feel safe, or feel whole, or feel contentment, or feel anything other than this awful awful pain. And I certainly could never feel anything akin to joy again. My life is over. I can’t go on without him.
And just as I needed the help of a village when I was a new mom, and I found support in groups like La Leche League and playdates with other parents where we hashed over the trials of motherhood, I needed to find a group who gets it, a community of other women who understand this very precise pain of losing – in an instant – your most intimate partner, the entire world the two of you have created, and the future you had planned. Having family and friends who are there for you is a blessing, and I am forever grateful for my own loving support system, but unless they’ve gone through this, they will never understand.
They try to be supportive, they really try, but they can’t know how different this is from other deaths. It’s not the same to lose a parent or or a favorite aunt, a grandparent, or a friend, or a pet. I can only assume it’s the same situation faced by those who have lost a child; I have no ability to understand the depth of that pain, because I haven’t been there.
When I look back at how I handled “comforting” others who lost a spouse in the past, before Rick’s death, I’m saddened by how inept I really must have been. I remember back and I think, oh man, what did I say to that person? I didn’t get it. I had no idea. I hope I said the right things. I wish I had been more supportive. I wish I had understood how much that person needed me in the weeks and months after the funeral. How could I have been so blind to what my dad was going through when my mom died, or my aunt when she lost her husband, or even my grandmothers? How did they cope? How did they handle it on their own?
About a week after Rick died, when I was still in a fog and searching for anything at all to help me cope with the pain, someone suggested that I join a grief support group. As a web developer, I do everything online, and God knows I wasn’t up to showering and dressing and leaving my house to face seeing other people, so I searched the internet and discovered that the answer was as close as Facebook: the Hope for Widows private Facebook group. Since then, I have basked in the support of other widows – people like me. Women who understand and who have undergone these same feelings, the feeling that I’ve lost my whole life and everything worth meaning with the death of my spouse. Women who know you don’t just “get over it” and “move on” and “be grateful for the time you had” – and all those other pithy sayings that I probably imparted to the newly bereaved I’ve encountered in my past.
And since that fateful discovery, I have read their stories and wept with them and felt their pain. And a few times I have sought their help and advice – or just cried out to them in my suffering – and the support and the encouragement and the hugs have helped me through the heartbreak and loneliness of a long dark evening – or a lonely weekend without the man I love.
So as the first anniversary of my husband’s death looms before me, that milestone that I approach with trepidation, let me publicly say thank you to those of you in my village – to those ahead of me in their journey in the Hope for Widows group. Those who have gone before and are “handling it” and who took the time to reach out – through their own pain – to reach back to me to pull me forward, or to just send me a hug or a word of encouragement. I’ve read your struggles and I know there is no magic pill that will take this grief away at the one year mark, so I’m more prepared for what I may encounter on this journey. I see you moving on with your lives, but still having setbacks, and I’m rooting you on as I prepare for the same in my own future. I read your triumphs and I have a glimmer of hope. By becoming a part of this village and sharing your experiences, you have helped me cope with my own grief journey, so thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I’m in awe of your resilience, ever grateful for your advice. I will never forget your kindness when I needed it most.
And to those of you who are “behind me” (now that I have nearly a year of grieving under my belt), to those who have just started out on this awful journey, who are in that initial fog state of the first weeks or first months. To you who are still in shock, still trapped between the living world that inconceivably moves on around you and the desire to remain in bed under the covers just hanging onto the memories, clinging to the shreds of the past, where your husband now resides only in your mind. To those of you who can’t imagine continuing on for the next hours or weeks or months – or years – without your soulmate, or who are overwhelmed by being alone in the quiet house, or by handling all the responsibilities on your own. To those of you have have just joined this support group (the group where no one wants to be a member) – to you I say, It DOES get better.
I know it’s so very hard to believe, but it does get better. I’ve been there. WE’VE been there, so let us help you through this. Every time you fall, we’ll extend a hand and help pull you to your feet. Every time you cry out, we’ll embrace you with words of support and emojis and hugs. So just keep visiting the Facebook group and reading the blog posts on the website, and utilizing any and all support offered by the Hope for Widows Foundation, because you’ll find a wonderful group of women who have been there, and who get it, and who will do all they can to help you along as you travel this nightmare of a journey after the loss of your husband.
So just remember that you don’t have to – and shouldn’t – make this awful, overwhelming trek alone. You have the experience and support of an entire community to interact with and help you through this grief journey and, believe me, it takes a village.