It’s been a long time since I wore three-inch heels. They sit in my closet, beautifully shiny and begging me to go out. The thing is, I’m perpetually sad, and going out won’t change that. But I’m tired of being at home all the time. In any case, the heels finally won out a few days ago and I got myself downtown.
I was going to a political event—something my husband Shawn and I would have done frequently if he were still alive. Most of the people there didn’t know me, and I found it interesting that I was able to carry myself so that it appeared I had it all together. I moved through the space as though I had a happy life and a happy marriage. I mean, I still wear my wedding ring and I had put on those heels, so I was playing a certain role. I got a drink and talked to many of the people in the room about the midterm elections and our work lives.
After a while, one of the women started telling a few of us about someone she knew who had recently died in an accident along with his son. The man had left behind a wife and two children. The story was a tragic one, and everyone was saying as much. Then, another woman piped up, “I can’t imagine,” she said.
“I know,” the first woman replied, “The poor mom. I’m not sure how you survive that.”
I could feel the tension in the air—but they couldn’t. Because to them, I’m just a random woman interested in politics who otherwise has her life together.
The two women continued to lament this other family’s fate, nothing how difficult it must be to go on living after such an event and how it would be nearly impossible to move on after such a tragedy.
Unfortunately, there’s only so much of this kind of talk I can take. “I think you survive it,” I started, “because you have to. You just do what you have to.”
Just before I said this, a friend of mine had walked over, and heard me say this. In a move to further protect me from sitting through this painful conversation, she said, “Marjorie just lost her husband.”
The other women were horrified that they had been so insensitive. But it wasn’t their fault, and I told them so. How could they have known?
I thought a lot about their reactions afterward. They weren’t wondering how you can physically survive such a loss. They weren’t asking how you deal with becoming an instant single parent to grieving children. They weren’t thinking about how you deal with the finances and the legal paperwork.
They were talking about the heartbreak.
And yet, my answer is the same whether I’m responding to a question about daily logistics or emotional pain so deep that you can physically feel it. You survive it because you must, because there is no other option.
I’ve learned to live every day with a weight in my chest—one that can get lighter when I’m having a great time with my kids or when something goes especially right (which is rare). But the pain is always there. I’ve never really had this happen to me before. Even when my mom died when I was 19, I had moments where I could set the pain aside, at least for a bit.
Now, it is always with me. I feel like I have low-grade anxiety all of the time. It’s anxiety that becomes full-blown sadness if I let myself actually recognize it. Because it’s with me all the time, my grief colors every single situation that surrounds me.
As I write this, I’m sitting in a local taco shop. It was one Shawn and I both liked, so of course I feel his memory here. That’s true of most places in our neighborhood. But do you know what triggered me as I walked in here? An old man walking a dog. That’s it. Just an old man—probably 80 or so—walking a big dog slowly down the street. Of course my immediate thought was, “What special thing did he do to deserve old age?”
That’s unfair, of course. Shawn didn’t “deserve” to die just like that guy didn’t “deserve” to get really old. It just happened. As my dad would say, “Life is unfair.”
I must live with the grief of losing Shawn and I must carry the pain in my heart every day. It is unfair that I am in a small minority of women who are widows before age 40. It seems impossible that instead of just coming to the taco shop and surfing the internet for new throw pillows, I am writing these words.
But it is my reality and I am surviving it. Because I have to—not just for me, but also for my children. And for Shawn.
I am surviving because that’s what humans were built to do. We were made to live through pain, even terrible pain, and emerge from the other side.
I am surviving because I have to, but also because I can.