How Widowhood Prepared Me For A Pandemic

by Elaine Roth
Originally Published: 
Portrait of serious short-haired woman wearing glasses looking away
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At first glance, the two things would seem completely unrelated. Living life as a young widow and living through a pandemic seem like two separate and distinct horrors. One is a deeply painful, personal loss, the other a global threat that’s capable of crushing our healthcare, financial, and social systems.

And yet, in the earliest days of the pandemic, I couldn’t help but feel a bizarre sense of déjà vu, a certain calm in the storm of finding the groceries and supplies I’d need to lock myself away with my two kids for two weeks. Because, although I’d never lived through a global pandemic before, I’ve lived through my world being upended. I’d lived through a nightmare. And as everyone scrambled—as I scrambled—I realized, I was a bit more prepared than some of my non-widowed friends. I could breathe a little easier, because so many elements were so strangely familiar. And I’d learned just a few lessons that helped make hard days just a heartbeat softer.

Living With Uncertainty About The Future

In the days after my husband died, I’d go to bed with no sense of how my next day would look, how my future would look. I’d fall asleep with that uncomfortable edge of uncertainty tucked into my thoughts. When the gravity of COVID-19 reality struck, when the pandemic launched everyone into a constant state of uncertainty and the headlines were flashing across phones every few seconds, announcing another closure, another economic low reached, another scary fact, we were all launched into uncertainty. We were all going to bed with no idea of what tomorrow would look like, trying to sleep with that sharp edge digging into our thoughts. As a young widow, I didn’t struggle to sleep. I’d learned that even though tomorrow is uncertain, tomorrow comes. The moon will set and the sun will rise, and tomorrow will arrive bringing whatever it brings, which you’ll face with the same strength and grit that you found to face the day that’s just passed.

Holding Two Completely Conflicting Thoughts

In the weeks after my husband died, I found myself wanting to take timid steps forward, desperate almost to take those timid steps forward, and at the same time, found myself gripping the tether to the past with all the strength in my body. I at once was ready to embrace the future and at the same time happy to remain mired in the past. As states begin to open, there’s a sense of relief that things are opening, that something like normal is returning, but with that comes the unmistakable terror of what if—as in, what if that haircut is the reason I catch COVID-19, or worse, what if that not-exactly socially distanced playdate is the reason my child develops the rare inflammatory syndrome affecting children. The act of holding two conflicting thoughts is mentally exhausting in a way I’d never experienced until widowhood. It seems as if it should be impossible to be at once both happy and sad. But it’s not. It’s possible to breathe into the tension of two feelings that shouldn’t be able to co-exist at once. I’ve learned trying to ignore one of the feelings, to focus exclusively on the other, is a plan destined for failure. Feelings generally don’t like to be ignored. Young widowhood has taught me to find space for both thoughts, to recognize there’s a strength of awareness in holding two contradictory thoughts at once.

Loss Of Normal

Among the very many things I lost when I lost my husband—my best friend, my sense of security, my belief in happily ever afters, to name a few—I also lost my normal. Every single aspect of my life—from the food I ate and the shows I watched and the way I washed my face at night—had changed. There was no such thing as normal anymore. There was just this. This stark new world that stripped away everything I thought I knew and left me raw and vulnerable to change. The pandemic stole all of our normals. Almost overnight, schools closed and offices shut down and the simple act of going to the grocery store became what felt like a life-or-death mission. Suddenly, our best friends were pulled away from us, our sense of security was scraped away, and the belief that happily ever after is possible became impossibly hard to believe. We all lost normal, and losing normal is simply hard. It feels too big, too intangible to quite wrap our minds around. Widowhood gave me the ability to give a name to the loss—the grief of losing normal—and the power to say simply: this is hard. Because what I learned is if we can reduce the intangible into language, then sometimes the hard thing doesn’t feel so overwhelming. Sometimes that’s enough.

Finding A Path Forward In The Face of Uncertainty

Life as a young widow is fraught with challenges— feeling helpless in the face of your child’s grief, watching the calendar days slip away as you slide further away from the life you once knew—but the biggest challenge is found in the moment you realize you need to begin finding your footing in a new normal because it’s no longer enough to miss normal. There’s no guidebook for figuring out how to take those first tentative steps in a new normal. The sun looks different, and the way you see the world is forever changed. Similarly, as states re-open and lockdowns lift, we’re emerging from hiding in ways we can only decide for ourselves, and for most of us, we’re probably cobbling together a game plan that looks different based on the day—maybe even based on the minute.

What I learned is that it’s okay to stumble as you’re finding your new footing. It’s okay to even retreat back to safety for a while. It’s okay to feel lost and overwhelmed and completely unprepared for the path stretching out in front of you. Because the path will be there, however and whenever you’re ready to walk it.

I don’t wish young widowhood on anyone. And I hope with all the hopes in my heart that none of us ever have to live through a pandemic again. But I hope I never forget to remember that sometimes what feels like the thing that will break you, is actually the thing that might save you next time.

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