There is a very specific, undeniable feeling that belongs to those of us unlucky enough to be living the widowed-life. It is a feeling I have had trouble describing to others in the past, because it’s something that is nearly impossible to imagine, unless you’ve walked in this path of hell yourself. It is a feeling much different than loneliness, although being lonely is a part of it. It is not quite the same as feeling alone, but feeling alone is one of it’s components. It is in the same league as feeling isolated, but isolation doesn’t really begin to cover it. So what is it?
Snuffleupagus. Remember him? He was a big, furry, sort of elephant – sort of rhinoserus-looking thing. Technically, his name was Mr. Snuffleupagus, and technically, he didn’t exist. He was a character on Sesame Street – but unlike the other muppets walking around, he wasn’t real. He was Big Bird’s imaginary friend. Nobody else in the neighborhood could see him, so nobody acknowledged his existence. When they did talk of him, they spoke only to Big Bird about him in condescending tones, as if they were looking right through him. All the people on Sesame Street were uncomfortable and awkward around “Snuffy”, (Big Bird’s nickname for him) so they pretended that it wasn’t happening, and they ignored him.
This is what it feels like to be widowed and living in the world. You feel like Snuffy, and you feel like your dead spouse is also Snuffy. But there is one main difference: our dead loved ones are not imaginary. They are very real, and very missed, and very much alive in our hearts every single day. The problem is this: the world wants to pretend that they are imaginary. The world wants you to forget about them. Move on. Get over it. Stop talking about them. Leave the past in the past. Yes, people who have not experienced true pain can be extremely cruel and heartless.
Widowed people are forced to live in a world where they no longer fit in anywhere. We have to rebuild our lives, brick by heavy brick, and very few people comprehend or even acknowledge our loss. The more time that goes by, the more we miss the life we had, the more distant we feel from our loved one, and the more invisible we become.
This feeling of being invisible is nobody’s fault. It’s everybody’s fault. Society. Family. A culture that’s obsessed with marriage and kids. A world where very few people deal with death and grief in a healthy way. An environment that pushes people like us away from you, and more toward each other. Pushes us toward the other widowed – the only people that are just like us, and that understand. We cling to one another. We isolate with one another. We vent and we cry and we laugh with our dark, dead-spouse humor. We acknowledge. We give and feel the compassion that we don’t always see coming from the outside world.
It’s not your fault, and it’s certainly not mine. But it’s happening, and it’s about time we talked about it. For me, sometimes the best way to do that and to get across what Im trying to say, is to go directly to the source. So once again, I asked my online widowed friends to try and describe this feeling of being invisible. How much it hurts. What it does to you. When it happens. Here is some of what they said:
(Some names have been altered or changed for those who wished to remain completely anonymous. Only first names were used.)
Brittany felt invisible after her fiance’s death, when she was told she could not receive any sort of bereavement pay or benefits, because “you weren’t married, and that kind of thing only goes to close family members.”
Karen expressed how she rarely gets invited to attend social get-togethers since her husband’s death. One BBQ she did go to, left her feeling alone and forgotten. “There were lots of hellos and goodbyes, but absolutely nothing in between.” Jenni had a similar experience going out to a bar one night with friends. “As everyone danced and laughed and conversed, I sat alone and unnoticed. I felt so lonely in a room filled with people.”
Carol puts it like this: “As a widow, I no longer fit in. Everyone is busy in their own lives, and there is nothing in common anymore. My in-laws have dropped out of sight, and I find myself withdrawing from my own family stuff. It just hurts too much, hearing about all their vacations or weekend getaways, or hearing married friends and family whine about petty shit involving their husbands.”
Erin says that she feels empty inside. “I feel like Ive been forgotten. Ive reached out so many times for support and love, only to be ignored. Now that the drama of his illness and health crisis is gone, so are the people.”
Sheryl turned into Snuffy around the year 2 mark. “I was with my family over the holidays, and nobody said his name. I feel like I live in a bubble, all alone, surrounded by everyone. It’s like they all assume or want me to just be ‘over it’ by now.” Vanessa gets a similar feeling when around his family. “Its nothing they do to make me feel bad, but they never speak of him, so I feel invisible for him. It’s like me and him are stuck in a time warp and we don’t really exist.”
When I asked around, I started to notice that a lot of the people I spoke with felt the most uncomfortable or alone when around their own families. Or their late partner’s families. It made me sad, because I have felt this way too. Many, many times. I know that most of my extended family is not trying to make me feel bad, but sometimes, it is just how it feels.
It hurts like hell when nobody talks about your love, your marriage, your loss. It hurts like hell when nobody says that they sometimes miss him too, or what a great person he was, or how incredibly hard it must be for me to show up on this emotional holiday. It hurts when you are sitting at a table with relatives, and everybody is talking around you. Or you try to relate to a story they tell about their husband, by telling one about yours, and they roll their eyes or look away. Or they treat you like a child, like you were never married, like it didnt happen. It hurts like hell when you have to sit and listen to happy stories of romantic birthdays, anniversaries, new jobs, new homes, families and lives; yet nobody asks you about your life anymore. It hurts like hell when you are writing a book, and have a blog that is gaining in popularity, and you are doing things in the widowed community to help people; and you can count on one hand the number of family members who have even bothered to read it or ask about it, or who even know about it. It hurts like hell when your world is gone, and people seem to be running out of patience or time for your pain. It hurts like hell to feel forgotten about.
After awhile, you start to think maybe they are right. Maybe he never existed at all. Maybe I was never someone’s wife. Maybe I never had that incredible love. Maybe I made the whole thing up.
Christine expands on this thought: “It was the first Thanksgiving after he died, and I went to his families house like we always did. I felt truly alone. I sat with my kids at the kids table, and was never asked to join the others. I remember sitting in the corner listening to them go on and on about their families and lives, and not once did they include me in anything. It was like The Twilight Zone.” Jo tells about a similar experience with her sister. “She had already planned my nephew’s 2 yr old birthday party for two days after my husband’s funeral, and she wouldn’t reschedule it. Not only did I have to go, but they all avoided me like I was the plague.”
James feels like he is invisible whenever people respond to his pain by reminding him that he has a little boy to love. As if he had forgotten. “Im tired of everybody saying ‘you have your son.’ Yes, I do, and I love him more than anything. But I cant hold him the way I held my wife, or kiss his neck in the morning. He cant remind me to take my medication, or ask me about my day. Yes, I have a son, but I feel alone all the time.”
Lauren tells this heartbreaking story about this past Christmas, her first one without her husband. “The kids and I were at my parents place, and the weather was awful, so I couldnt get to the cemetary like I wanted. I was really upset about the snow being on him, so another widow friend of mine offered to go to the cemetary and take pictures of his grave. As she sent them to me, I sat there looking at them on my phone, and sobbing. My older sister walked by me three times and didnt say a word. Never even acknowledged me.”
Bianca didnt think she could get through speaking at her husband’s services, so she sat and watched as others did. “His mom gets up and says how cute he was as a child, which is probably the last time she even saw him. His dad says he doesnt know how he will go on without his “little Eric.” Even the priest talked about him as a boy. Not one mention of his grieving wife in the front row. Nothing said about him being married, just on and on about what his parents were going through. I felt like I didnt exist.”
Sylinda felt shut out by her own friends one night at a bar. “Everyone was coupled up. Everyone was talking and I was slowly shoved away from the table and nobody said anything. I felt like I was invited to be the token 3rd wheel, so I left, and nobody noticed. My friend called me the next day and asked when I had left and why. Ive never felt so invisible in my life.”
Tom feels the most invisible during the holidays. “I am alone, not wanting to impose on the joy of others while they happily get on with their lives as if they have no reason to pause and ask how I am. Because they feel uncomfortable, they simply act as if I dont exist.” And after 19 months of this new life, Lisa is starting to see what it’s like to be Big Bird’s imaginary friend too. “The phone calls from friends and family have simply stopped. Just stopped. Nobody checks in anymore to see if Im okay. I know they have lives, but it feels like nobody cares after a few months. And by the way, Im not okay.”
My last story comes from my friend Stephen, a dad whose kids were only 2 years old, and 2 weeks old, when his wife passed. “In my case, I actually felt most invisible with my own kids. I needed help, especially with my newborn son, and friends and neighbors and family came to help. They helped out a lot, but after awhile, it felt like I was watching my son being taken care of from the outside. It came to a head at my son’s 1st birthday party. I walked into the kitchen to see a crowd of mom’s around my daughter. She had busted her lip pretty bad. Nobody thought to come and get me, her dad. That was when the switch flipped and I bulldozed myself back into being in charge. I want to stress that none of this was done to purposely hurt me or make me feel bad. They wanted to help and Im very grateful. It was just a case of good intentions running out of control.”
And maybe that is the point here. None of us quite know how to communicate with each other, so instead of dealing with that very real issue, everyone runs away or pretends as if nothing is wrong. But something is wrong. When you lose your life partner, your love – you lose your world. Your balance. Your joy. Your sense of purpose and footing. You lose your rhythms and your patterns, and often-times, you lose a lot of your friends and family too. Why? Because people forget how to communicate with you, or they dont want to see or feel or hear about your pain, so they shy away. Or they have good intentions by not mentioning your loss, or your loved one. I truly hope that those people who are not widowed and are reading this will understand how much it means to us to simply be acknowledged. To feel like we still belong somewhere. Anywhere. In our own families.
A few weeks ago, my parent’s good friend of over 30 years died. His name was Al, and we didn’t always get along, especially politically. He was a hard-core Republican and Obama-hater. He also was one of the many people who said something hurtful to me when I lost my husband. In response to one of my blogposts, much like this one, he wrote me an email, that said, among other things: “It is clear to me that you need to move on from this now. You need to get over it and stop writing about the past.” He said this just a few weeks after my husband’s death. At the time, I sobbed my face off and wondered how anyone could say something so cruel. Now, almost 19 months later, it still hurts, but I realize that he just didnt know. He wasnt trying to upset me. He was just being Al, and that is something Al would say. It wasnt meant to be cruel, it was just his take on things. Al was more than just a conservative Republican who sometimes said harsh things though. He loved jazz music and comedy, and would often talk to me about comedians and acting and the world of entertainment. He was funny and he was a friend of our family for years, and of my dad’s especially. They had years of amazing memories.
So when he died, I felt like I needed to attend the funeral. I was visiting my parents in Massachusetts anyway that week, so I decided to go. I wanted to do it for my parents, and also for his wife Sue, another very good friend of our family. It would be only my second funeral since my own husband’s.
The morning of the funeral, as we were getting ready, the phone rang. It was my Aunt Debbie. My Aunt Debbie; who is married to my Uncle Richard; my dad’s brother. Years before, Debbie and Richard’s daughter Tricia, my cousin, became a suicide widow, when her husband hung himself in their garage. On this morning a few weeks ago, my Aunt Debbie told my mom that she was calling to speak to me. I got on the phone, and this is what she said:
“I just want you to know that I have been reading everything you write in your blog, and that I think you are so brave and so courageous to put your emotions out there like that, and to use your own pain to help so many other people that are like you. I so wish that Tricia had something like this to read when she was going through it, because it really would have helped her tremendously to not feel so alone and invisible. I also think it is really incredible of you to go to Al’s funeral today, and I know that cannot be easy for you. I just think everything you are doing is so right on and so wonderful, and I know it hurts everyday, but I just wanted to acknowledge you and let you know that somebody notices and cares, and that I love you.”
Maya Angelou says: “When you know better, you do better.” Al didn’t know the intense pain of losing your partner to death, so he told me to move on. And while most people have no idea what to say to me, my Aunt Debbie knew, because she went through and continues to go through it with her own daughter. She knew, and now Im sharing it with all of you, so that you can go home to your widowed sister or brother or friend or son, and reach out to them more. Open the lines of communication. Acknowledge their loss. Mention their loved ones name. Talk about them. Trust me. That is what they need. That is what they want.
When you know better, you do better. So now that you know, you can no longer pretend that you dont see Mr. Snuffleupagus, sitting alone in the corner. Now that you know he is real, go over and say hello. Ask him how he has been. You’ll be shocked at how little it takes to make a ginormous difference.
This is Snuffleupagus – signing off.