How to move forward after becoming a widow

It took me years to figure out how to move forward after becoming a widow. That word felt like a black letter W tattooed on my forehead, a title conferred upon me without my consent. It seemed to me that being a widow was a lower social caste than being married. It was a pity card that came with its own set of patronizing facial expressions and a tone of voice that said your ticket has been downgraded. “I’m sorry. You no longer have a seat in first class.” It was bad enough that I had lost my husband, but then I felt as though social norms were suddenly different for me, as though I was defective. Expectations for my future were diminished. It was a wave of new feelings entwined with my grief. I was angry.

Billie Best writes about how to move forward after becoming a widow.

The history of widows is bleak. Since biblical times they have been mistreated, enslaved, stripped of their social status, forced to give up their possessions and sometimes even forced to give up their children. They have been married off to their husband’s brothers and forced to become breeders for his family. In Egyptian lore a widow could be buried alive in her husband’s tomb. In India a widow could be burned alive on her husband’s funeral pyre. In Nepal widows could be forbidden to wear red because red is the color of joy. Even in the U.S. a widow could lose her land and her house, her retirement funds, her credit cards and her cable service. A widow is expected to cancel her plans for the future.

Now time has given me some perspective on how to move forward after becoming a widow. It’s been eleven years and I’m not saddled with that awful word anymore. I live in a new place where no one knows my history. It’s a fresh start. I see the widow label as an example of structural sexism, a gender trap set by the patriarchy. What do we call men whose wives die? Widower. The grammatical form of the word says it all. A man is expected to shake off his loss and hook up again. I know, history is complicated, and social norms are no one’s fault. We can’t blame the other gender for our lives. But you do see the difference between being a widow and being a widower, right? Men don’t get burned alive or forbidden to wear the color of joy.

There is one other significant difference between widows and widowers — often women who have the means to survive on their own choose not to hook-up again. After a life of caregiving for family, many women find freedom in suddenly being single, even with their grief. This isn’t a commentary on love or the quality of marriage. I loved my husband and I wish he was here with me. But now that I’ve learned how to move forward after becoming a widow, I’m not turning back, not signing up to be a caregiver again, not yearning to be part of a twosome. My life is my own and I’m celebrating my independence, wearing the color of joy and making plans for the future.   

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How to Widow

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8 thoughts on “How to move forward after becoming a widow

  1. This is an amazing essay, reflecting so much of what I have thought over the past year and a half of widowhood! You are a gift, Billie.

  2. Though not the same really, I too have walked the Widow’s Watch. Sometimes I get over the loss in a snap. Scares me about myself as if I am protecting the heart for future use. The longest of course being Gay whom I have been ‘over’ the split second he told me he was no longer in love with me. I then gave myself permission to no longer feel that shit for him. As if he was the instigator. But that’s oh so different from losing the dear one in death. That I do not know. I hope I never do. I continue, even as an elder, to live in the sugarland of romantic love. Been lucky that way I guess. Love still confounds. So many lessons still unlearned. But like Gloria Steinman said about her life (the last words in the documentary about her): ‘I never want this to end’
    Love you, Bil

  3. Relic; dowager… you’re so right. These are the words we think of when ‘widow’ comes to mind. If you’re a skier, there’s always the black-diamond hill: “The Widow-maker”. If you’re left-handed, the French translation is ‘gauche’ – or Latin: sinister. Why do we do this to each other? What mo-fo is making life so hard for people who might be different? Great piece of writing, Ms. Best. Thank you.

    1. I agree that much of our language is archaic, with many prejudices and insults buried in the linguistics. But also we have cultural traditions that aren’t so subtle. Yes, dowager is another. Thanks for thinking about this with me.

  4. I have been widowed for a third time now. I am 60 years old and do not know how to cope with so much loss. I feel like I have no one to talk to, they could not begin to understand my pain and loneliness. Looking for hope

    1. Thanks for reaching out, Tammy. I know it’s difficult to be hopeful after such loss. Grief takes time and there is no way around it, you must pass through it. Give it the attention it deserves. But then find a way to return to yourself, love yourself, invest in your own interests and ideas, learn something new that will occupy your mind. It may take years, but you can do this.

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