If you had asked me to define the word “family” just over 4 years ago, I probably would have said that my family is my husband. He is my family. And then my parents and my brother, and then my cousins and aunts and uncles and other relatives that we saw on holidays, or some of them several times a year at gatherings and parties. Maybe I would have mentioned one or two very close friends that always felt like family to me. That is how I would have defined family.
But what happens when your family dies? What happens when you wake up one morning, after only 4 and a half years of marriage and a whole lot of dreams still yet unfulfilled, and the husband that is your family, is suddenly no longer alive? And what if you didnt get to the part in your marriage yet, where you get to buy a home together or see your dreams come true together, or have children together, because one day he goes to work and never comes home? What then? When you have no kids together, your husband IS your family. Your spouse IS your family. So when my husband died, my family was dead. They were dead. He was it. He was everything. My other half. My best friend. My present and future. My proof and evidence that there was one special person in the world who chose me to make his priority. My husband was not close with his own family. He became close with mine, and on our wedding night, he said to me with tears in his eyes: “Thank you for giving me a family.”
When you lose your partner or spouse to death, it changes every single part of your life. Let me type that again. Losing your partner to death changes EVERY other aspect of your life. Everything. From what you eat to where you work, if you work, financial situations, friendships, emotional and physical health, habits, and your very identity as a person. There is no part of your life that is unchanged from this type of loss, which is one of the many reasons it is so very different than other types of loss. One of the biggest things that changes after the death of a partner/spouse is the family dynamic. The ways in which the family dynamics change are completely different for each widowed person who is tossed into this tsunami, but every widowed person will experience tremendous changes in the dynamic of their family. Some people in the family will try to fix you or make you better. Some will not understand that you are not and CANNOT ever be the person you were before your person died. Some will try to rush you through your grief, or judge you in how you are coping. Some will disappear entirely, either all at once or very gradually, just slowly fading out of your world. The death of your spouse will bring you closer to some members of your family, and it will drive other members further away than ever before. If you have children, your children will each grieve differently than you do, and each in their own specific and individual ways. They may grow closer to you through this loss, or they may distance themselves from you or from their siblings for a time being. Some family members will choose unhealthy ways of grieving, or they wont grieve at all, and instead shove it all down using methods that are not good for their well-being. Cousins or sisters or brothers or uncles or grandparents that you used to be close with, may now be people you have nothing in common with, and people you now feel awkward around and unable to express your real emotions. They may feel awkward around you now, and choose to no longer invite you places or call you.
Something else happens too. Something that nobody really talks about, and something that nobody can help. When you lose your spouse to death, often times, it is your own family, who loves you and who are just trying to help, that can cause you the most amount of pain. It is not their fault. It is not your fault. It just is. There was a long period of time after the death of my husband, that just being in the same room with my own family caused me incredible pain. Seeing my brother and his wife with their two children, was too much for me to take. He had everything that I was supposed to have. He had the house and the kids and the family, and my kids should have been there too, playing with his kids and growing up together. Thats the way it was supposed to be. Listening to my own parents have simple arguments about things that only people who have been married for 45 years have the honor to argue about, would send me into fits of sobbing for hours. It just hurt with a pain so deep, and yet I felt awful for feeling these things toward these wonderful people who were only trying to be there for me. The only thing that made it better was a whole lot of time and an eventual change in my own perspective, but yes – the dynamics in your family will change.
Tonight, I write this blog about family, from the lobby of the Marriott Hotel in Toronto, Canada. I am here to give my comedic presentation, for the 8th time, and to attend the other workshops and presentations and everything else that Camp Widow has to offer. Tonight, if you asked me to define the word family, my answer would be quite different than it was just over four years ago. Tonight, I would tell you that my family still includes my blood relatives, but only the ones that have stayed by my side through thsi worst thing that has ever happened. It would include old friends and childhood friends and new friends too – those who have listened to my heart when it was broken and fragile, those who sat with me in silence, or understood when I couldnt express what I was going through or feeling. It would also include the group of varied widowed people I just had a late-night dinner with down the street from our hotel. It would include a slew of other widowed people that I have been typing with and talking to online in private widowed groups – most of whom Ive never met in person, but they are part of my family. I would tell you that family includes anyone who I feel a connection or bond with, especially when that bond is created from our mutual life-changing losses. People I have laughed with and cried with and danced with and drank with and ate too much food with – people who felt like they were all alone, except when they were together with each other. People who know what it means to not actively be willing to die, but who dont much feel like living. People who have found in each other, the strength or the courage to try just one more time, or who have looked at another widowed person and thought: “They are still here. Maybe I can do this.” It makes me so emotional to think about the huge family of friends and brothers and sisters I have come to know through loss. People I know only because my husband is dead, and their person is dead. People that, at times, help me to honor my husband or celebrate or remember him, much better and with much more poignancy than people who knew him very well. And again, I am not saying any of this is anyones fault. It is just facts. This is the reality when someone dies. After awhile, other people get tired of talking about that person, and they get tired of hearing you talk about that person. And yet, that is all that most of us want. To remember our person and honor them and carry them into our futures. And other widowed people let us do that, and they help us to do that. They dont fear it. They welcome it.
This is why, on a daily basis since losing my husband Don, I have the instant urge to hug my friend Michele Hernandez, the founder of Soaring Spirits International and Camp Widow. I want to hug her and hug her and never let go. Because when my husband died, and my family was gone, she gave me a place to go where I could take my broken pieces and their broken pieces, and with them, make a family. Widowed people became the family I gained, when my family was suddenly gone. And now I know exactly how my husband felt on our wedding night, when he said those beautiful words to me, because now I can pay them forward to Michele, and mean every single syllable.
“Thank you for giving me a family.”