Widowhood is strange. Young widowhood is even stranger. What was is no longer and what couldn’t possibly ever be is now simply routine. Everything about the life you once knew changes—from the food you choose to eat to the way the sun looks at dawn. Even your friendships change.
Some disappear—and that is an unfortunate, but almost inevitable, secondary loss that occurs in the days and weeks after that first horrible loss. Some strengthen—some friends help you carry the things that are too heavy to carry and those friends become family, bonded by something that feels more powerful than blood and bone. And some, maybe most, become just a little too polite; certain topics become taboo.
One phrase I hear almost too often two years into my young widowhood is “I shouldn’t complain to you,” from friends who start to vent about their marriages, about something their husbands did or didn’t do, about something their husbands should or shouldn’t have done. The vent is always cut short, with an apology, a furtive glance in my direction.
I understand the careful apology, appreciate it even. I know it’s coming from a place of kindness. Presumably because maybe it seems like complaining about something that I lost in a tragic way is at best insensitive and at worst, obnoxious. Or, maybe the subconscious thinking behind the abrupt stop comes from the fear that complaining about your marriage will remind me that mine ended with loss.
But, the truth is—I want you to complain to me. For selfish reasons and unselfish reasons, alike.
First, talking about your marriage will not remind me that marriage is over. My loss is not something I forget. It’s there in every breath and every moment, and that’s not something that I’m sad about. I miss my husband and my marriage and my pre-widow life, but my loss has made me who I am today—and I’m at peace with this version of myself. (For what it’s worth, I think my husband would have liked this version of me, too.)
Second, listening to a friend vent about her husband makes me feel normal. In a life that often feels and is different from the lives of my friends, anything that lets me for a moment just be a friend—not a widowed friend—feels like a gift. Once upon a time before I became a widow, I’d commiserate with friends about our husbands who threw their socks near the hamper instead of inside it, or pondered with a friend how best to get out of a funny marriage rut. I don’t want that to end just because I can’t add new material. I don’t suddenly think anyone else’s marriage is perfect simply because mine is a memory, and I don’t begrudge anyone an imperfect marriage because my husband died. As hard as it is to accept on some days, I know life goes on, and it makes me feel normal to be included in the conversations I used to be included in without a second thought.
And third, maybe most importantly, friendships are two-way relationships, even post-loss, even in young widowhood. Since my husband’s diagnosis four years ago, since his death two years ago, I’ve been showered in support and kindness, more than I’ll ever be able to pay back. But I want to try.
Obviously I’m not wishing marriage problems or husbands who won’t help around the house on any of my friends just so I can pay off a “good friend” debt. But I remember a thing or two about marriage. I know even great marriages are imperfect and husbands who are something more than soul mates can get on your last nerve. And I want to be there for those friends who need a place to vent their frustration, who need a sounding board for their concerns. That’s what friendship is—a give and take. I want to give as much as I’ve taken these last years. Listening is the least I can do for all these friends who have given so much.
With all that being said, it’s also important to be honest. Because the truth is that, sometimes, yes, there will be a moment during that vent session when my mind will go to that place, when I’ll think of all that I would give up just to be able to complain about dirty socks left by the hamper and how grateful I’d be to just see those dirty socks again. I wouldn’t be human if that thought didn’t cross my mind. But I wouldn’t be a good friend if I always made it about me, if I didn’t push that thought away in order to let my friends have their lives, their hardships, their space. I wouldn’t be the person I want to be post-loss if I didn’t realize it’s not always about me—sometimes my role is only to listen and help carry the things, even the minor frustrations, that are too heavy for a friend to carry alone.
Young widowhood didn’t give me a monopoly on sadness or grief or hard days. Life goes on, marriages go on, as imperfectly as my marriage had. And in this life post loss, few things are as important to me as being the kind of person who sees heartache and chooses to help, who sees loss and chooses to stay, who sees a friend and wants to listen.
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