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.
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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