It’s not contagious

I met a man the other day who lost his wife not long ago. He is now faced with raising his young children alone and is feeling very lost in the world without his partner. And I hate that I understand oh-so-well what that means. While it’s not nice to learn that someone else is walking this lonely path of widow(er)hood, I found it oddly comforting to hear his words of confusion as to why the world seems so afraid of us. I suppose that his similar experiences help me feel a little less self-conscious about my own place in the world.

Note: This post was originally shared on my “widowhood” blog, “Frances 3.0: Still in Beta”.

One of the things I’ve noticed in the past five months is that people seem to be afraid of me; afraid of talking to me. Or, more accurately I suppose, people seem to be afraid of my grief; afraid of seeing me cry. It seems that the majority of the people I interact with regularly don’t know how to act around me now. I can see them shift uncomfortably if I mention Paul’s name. They change the topic or try to cheer me up the moment I get teary eyes. They deliver a few simple platitudes (time heals all wounds, etc.) and tell me everything will be OK. There are very few people who will just let me cry when I want to cry and laugh when I want to laugh. (My laughter also seems to make people uncomfortable, so I just can’t seem to win!)

It seems that I’m not alone in feeling so isolated. It seems that there are others out there who are having the same experiences with trying to find a balance between their grief and socially acceptable behaviour. I know that there are people who want to be supportive of me, but so many just don’t know how to do it. And their inability to “deal with” my emotions means that they avoid me or keep contact at a bare minimum. And, I suppose, I have been keeping myself away from some of those people, too, because I hate seeing how uncomfortable I make them and I hate feeling worse after seeing them than I did before they attempted “fixing” me.

I put to this man a couple of questions:

Is it our age? If we’d lost our spouses after decades of marriage and after raising our children and seeing our grandchildren enter the world, would it be easier for others to deal with our grief? I wonder if because we’re relatively young, people just can’t comprehend the idea that we’re widow(er)s.

Do people think we’re contagious? I wonder if people worry that our sadness will rub off on them. Or that being around us will increase the odds of their own partners dying young.

Is it their fear and insecurity? This is possibly the more likely answer. But I wonder if seeing a young widow or widower makes people sit back and realise “Wow that could be me.”

What we came up with was that we, as a society, just can’t deal with grief. It’s almost as if grief is meant to be kept behind closed doors and never spoken of in polite company. It’s almost as if we are meant to put on this false bravado 24/7 to give the impression that grief is an easy process. As I write this, I am very conscious that I’ve been careful about sharing my grief too publicly because of the reaction that seems to be around me. Part of that is my own fear of sharing these personal moments of grief and part of that is being very aware of how uncomfortable people seems to get around me.

I am still grieving Paul. I will probably always grieve for him on some level or another. But I am slowly learning how to deal with it in public, and slowly learning who I can and can’t grieve around. I hate having to hide my grief, but I accept that in some circles I need to. I wish there was a way for me to grieve that wouldn’t upset others, but I need to try and remember that it’s “their” issue, not mine.

While all of this goes through my mind and I wonder why so many people can’t bear my grief, I am lucky to have a small group of people who can. I am lucky to have people who are comfortable with my tears and my laughter – even when they come simultaneously. I wish I could tell everyone else that being around me and my tears wouldn’t make them a widow, too…

2 Replies to “It’s not contagious”

  1. i found it worse when my husband died. when my mom died people got wierd for a couple of weeks and stayed away for only a few weeks but my husband died almost a year ago and people still stay away. they are afraid of me as a widow more that when i just lost my mom. i lost most of my friends when i lost my husband but i did find new ones in time. i mostly feel bad for my kids because even they lost friends from it all. imho its more than just not wanting to face theyre own mortality but that is part of it. i use to laugh that people thought i was a leaper. i thank god for my new friends who let me just be me.

  2. Broken, I’ve read a lot in recent months about people who’ve lost friends after the death of their spouse. I’ve also read many people talking about repairing those relationships after time, and I hope that you’re able to do that if you desire.
    Like you, I’ve made a few new friends since the death of my husband, but I am holding out hope that the old friends return one day because I still love them and need them very much. I’m reminded of the old Girl Scout song: “Make new friends, but keep the old; one is silver and the other is gold.”
    It is an interesting difference in how others handle our grief. I know that when I’ve been grieving a friend or grandparent in the past people were “there for me” more than they seem to be now. That said, I’ve never grieved so heavily in my life.
    When one of my dearest friends died two years ago, I noticed that family, friends, and co-workers gave me a bit of space to grieve for a couple of weeks before returning to life-as-normal; it’s been more than five months since my husband died and people are giving me too much space—even as I beg them not to.
    Part of me knows that it’s because those people are afraid—of their own mortality, of making me cry, or even of my perceived “widows’ leprosy”—but part of me thinks that a real friend would just be there for me regardless of their fears. I am trying to accept that sometimes a real friend is just too afraid and that it’s nothing personal. But when you’re grieving so heavily, everything seems personal!

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