Who would ever think that something as boring and mundane as reading your tax return would send you into fits of sobbing, post-loss? A tax return? Really? It’s not like I was even the one doing my taxes. Luckily, “I know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy” (as Sal would say on “Breaking Bad”), who does my tax return for me. Actually, I am making it sound way more mysterious and shady than it is. He is a good family friend who also happens to be a tax accountant. He does the tax returns for our whole family – my parents, my brother and his wife, and me and Don. And now, just me. I have always been terrible with numbers and math, and because I have so many part-time and temp jobs and my life is complicated as far as “work” goes, it is a huge weight off my chest not to have to worry about how to make sense of my piles of receipts and paperwork, come tax time. Instead, a few rounds of back and forth mailings occur, a few signing on the dotted lines, and we’re done. About 3 days ago, I received my tax return from my tax accountant friend in the mail. While reading it, I suddenly and abruptly burst into tears, and it had nothing to do with the obscenely small amount of money I make, or the fact that Im now being charged because I can’t afford health insurance. Nope. It had nothing to do with that.
Let me backtrack a bit. The first time you file your taxes after the death of your spouse, the IRS considers you widowed. The space on your return where it says “spouse” – underneath that word is the word “deceased.” When I saw that word underneath my husband’s name that first year, I stared at it for what felt like an hour. Just stared and stared at it, hoping that it might somehow go away if I stared it down enough. The silent tears formed as I stared down the word deceased – and I wanted so badly to defeat it. I wanted so badly for it not to be true. However, it was true, and even though it hurt like hell to read it there on that page, I was at least satisfied that the government was telling the truth about my situation, and treating me as such. Being filed as a widow, coupled with the fact that my husband happened to die in July, smack in the middle of the year, gave me a bigger refund than I had ever had before. It was nothing amazing, mind you, but for me and my measly little paycheck and income, it made a dent that first year and got me out of more financial ruin.
With the second filing, it was much the same. The IRS still listed me as widowed, and still had the word deceased next to my husband’s name. The refund got a lot smaller, because I was no longer dealing with his income as well as my own, but I still appreciated being recognized as a widowed person.
Then came the next tax season. Turns out, the IRS only considers you to be of widowed status, for 2 tax seasons after the death of a spouse. After that point, you suddenly become “single.” When I saw this in last year’s return, it infuriated me. Single? Single??? I am not single. Single implies that I had a choice in the matter, which I did not. Single also implies that I was never really married to begin with. What happened to recognizing the death of my husband? Is he just suddenly not dead anymore, according to the government? Does my widowhood expire after a 2-year trial run? Hey, it was nice having you as a widow, but your time has now run it’s course. I didn’t get it. It angered me.
And so, back to about 3 days ago. I opened my tax return, hoping like hell there was some kind of refund coming my way, because Im forever broke and struggling. Well, the refund turned out okay, but as I was looking at the return itself, I noticed something that I somehow hadn’t noticed last year. In the space where it used to list my husband’s name, then “spouse”, then “deceased” – it now just had the word “spouse”, with nothing at all underneath it or next to it. It said “spouse”, and then just blank. Spouse: Blank. An empty box appeared where his name used to be. As if I had imagined my beautiful short marriage – as if it had never happened at all. It was as if Don Shepherd never even existed, according to the IRS. Where his name used to be – there was now just empty space. I got really angry for about 17 seconds, and then I burst into sudden and abrupt sobbing.
But, it’s just a tax return, you might say. It’s just the IRS and their silly laws – don’t take it so personally – you might be thinking. But here’s the thing – that tax return , in my eyes, and in that moment, was a direct mirror and reflection and symbol for how the whole world treats my loss. It was a direct statement on how society views the loss of a spouse or partner, in general. There it was, right in my face and line of fire. In writing, even:
Year One – people are knocking down your door to support you and shower you with love. If you’re lucky enough, your job and your family and your friends and life, are all pretty understanding for that pocket of time, and they seem to get that you will need awhile longer to process all of this, thank you very much. Some of these people don’t even make it past a few months or a few WEEKS even, with their compassion, but there are those who will put up with your shenanigans for up to about a year.
Year Two – Some people still get it, sort of, but they are growing very impatient with you and with all the talking you do about your dead husband. many others have left entirely, or start treating you like a child, or like someone they feel sorry for. ‘Okay, we get it, he’s dead”, they think or actually say. “Can you talk about something else now? Can we please move on?” Hmmm … well, sure. YOU are more than welcome to move on, since he wasn’t your husband and you are not actually dealing with anything here. I, however, cannot do the same. Work is not nearly as understanding as before, lots of friends have disappeared, and family starts getting back to their own lives again.
Year Three (and beyond) – People are done talking about this loss, and they really wish you would be done with it too. Some people even accuse you of trying to get attention or “wallowing in your grief” , as they sit in their living rooms, next to their own life-partners, judging that which they do not know. The world now wants you to put that life you had with your husband, that love that you shared – on a shelf somewhere, or in a drawer somewhere, and lock it up with a key. Forget about it. Pretend it never happened. Move on. Stop living in the past. You are single now. It’s time we got you “out there” again. He isn’t coming back.
He is now nothing. He has disappeared into thin air. He isn’t even deceased anymore. Just blank space.
It was quite the metaphor, reading and looking at that space where my husband’s name used to be. So I cried and cried for a few minutes longer, I got angry, and then I made a vow. I made a vow to keep writing and keep talking about my husband. I made a vow to keep speaking about him and our love in the present tense. It’s not we loved each other – it’s we love each other. I made a vow to keep creating “this” version of myself, and to live and create for myself a joyful and meaningful life – one that includes him in it, always. I made a vow to continue carrying us and our story with me in my pocket, never leaving home without it. I made a vow to be that voice, to be that person who keeps letting the world know that it’s not okay to make widowed people feel bad about loving their partners forever. It’s not okay to tell them to move on or leave them behind like some horrible baggage. It’s not okay to never talk about them anymore or to never bring up their name anymore, or to have a tone of superiority and pity whenever I bring up their name. It’s not okay to erase my husband from existence, or to pretend that his life didn’t matter, or that he was never here. None of that is okay with me.
As a society, we seem to celebrate love stories whenever they are fantasy-like or lengthy. I am so tired of reading articles about these married couples who had 60 years together as husband and wife, and who died holding hands , just hours or minutes apart at age 93, because neither could stand to be without the other for more than a few hours. That’s called LUCK. If you get the honor – the privilege – of being married to the same person your whole life, and you both get to LIVE long lives together, and die hours apart – you are one lucky bastard. But your love is no better than or greater than my love. Your story is no more beautiful than mine. Why do we celebrate and go “awwwwww, how sweet!” when a couple gets to exist together for decades and decades, but if a widowed person who was forced to live on earth without the love of their life for those same decades and decades , tries to talk about the love they have and will ALWAYS have for their partner – we act like they are somehow delusional or worthy of pity, or they call it “sad” that that person hasn’t “moved on” yet. Loving someone your whole life, and their whole life, is not sad. It is goddamn beautiful. I am tired of being silently and loudly judged by people in the world, because I love my husband. If I lost a sibling or my dad died, you certainly wouldn’t hear anyone asking that I not post pictures of them, or that I move on from that, or stop talking about them. People are allowed to grieve and love parents and friends and brothers and sisters for a long time – as they should be. But as soon as it’s someone’s partner – everybody suddenly has a say in how you need to let it go already. Everyone wants to make you feel like your love is something to be ashamed of, or that it’s somehow unhealthy or wrong.
My love for my husband will last forever. Even if I meet someone else one day. Even if I get re-married. Even through time and space and ten-thousand moons and suns, and decades of judgmental people. I will carry my husband and our love with me.
He is not a blank space.
He will live inside the rhythms of everything that I am, forever.
No matter what the IRS, or society, or the world has to say about it.
(p.s. Ive been terrible about writing in here lately. Im sorry. Its not intentional. Im still writing my book, teaching, directing a theater show at the college I teach at, have several writing gigs, and much more. So, Im just really busy and sometimes I forget to write in here. I will try to stop forgetting, and I hope to hear from you as well. I love reading your comments. Thanks everyone.)