About two weeks after his funeral I got a letter in the mail that would turn out to be my welcome letter into a very strange and loving community. The letter was from a woman whose fiance died just the year before, and he was the college roommate of my dead fiance.
I remember when he died. All I could think about was this poor girl. Did she already have her wedding dress? (I found out later that her dress was delivered to her the day her fiance went into the hospital). In her letter she called me a widow, and told me not to let anyone take that away from me. At the time I was so overwhelmed with grief that I didn't understand what she meant.
It didn't take long before the first person said that at least he wasn't my husband. When he was alive we called each other husband and wife. It was sweet and romantic. It helped us get into the spirit of our upcoming wedding. At some point after his death, I think in an effort to help me "move on" people started objecting if I called him my husband. They did not want to hear such a young woman calling herself a widow. My sister, whom I love dearly, tried desperately to help me see how great it was that we had never gotten married. Never having married him is one of the great tragedies of my life.
What does it mean to be a wife? For four years I washed his clothes. I knew exactly how he liked his sandwiches, or the way he liked his beard to be scratched. I knew his favorite pillow cases, and which pillow he'd prefer if we were staying somewhere that wasn't our home.
We traveled together for a long time. During our great American road trip we camped out nearly every night. It took us 30 minutes from the time we parked the car until we had a tent set up with an air mattress, sheets and lantern. Food would be cooking away on our camping stove and hot drinks waited in our cups. We worked together like a well oiled machine, every night building our home and every morning taking it apart again. He used to say, “When you get to camp, you gotta make camp.” I used to object, hoping that we'd get to rest for a minute before setting up. I soon saw that he was right, one of the many lessons he taught me in this life.
But at the time we weren't married, and for many people that makes a huge difference in how they view my mourning. Because we weren't married I didn't have the right to make any decisions about his funeral, burial, or any other rituals. On his tombstone, which I did not pick out, it does not say loving husband.
However, their was one group of people that whole heartedly accepted my widowness - other widow/ers. From them I received the support, love and validation that I desperately craved. My bed was empty. My toothbrush sat all alone. I couldn't cook food anymore because he wasn't alive to eat it, and the other widows understood.
I went back to work very early on after his death. I didn't really have much of a choice, his death put me into debt and I'm still suffering from giant therapy bills. I am blessed to work in an office with kind and understanding people. For the first few months I mostly just sat at my desk and cried. Sometimes I didn't show up at work, and often I left early.
The thing that helped me survive was an internet forum for widows. I sat at work and wrote to these people for hours. I read their stories, and they read mine. I met other survivors of suicide. One man specifically taught me so many important things that helped me struggle through the complicated issues that suicide leaves behind. Many of these people were married for decades, but not one of them told me that I was not a widow.
It seems silly, to desire that kind of status. To stand up and fight for your right to widowhood, but that's what it was. If we had known each other for 6 months, but had a wedding certificate, would that mean more than the years we lived together?
I now go to a support group that meets twice a month for widows of suicide. Interestingly, it's all women. In the months after my fiance killed himself I read a lot about suicide. I am now a suicide expert, and it turns out that more men kill themselves than women. More women attempt suicide, but often they do not use methods that are lethal enough. Men are more likely to choose violent and "successful" ways of ending their own lives. My fiance used a shotgun, his grandmother used a handgun. Most of the husbands of the women in my group hung themselves.
In our group we have a wide range of circumstances, but there we are all equals. We have a woman that was divorced for 15 years and another that was recently separated. One woman that was married for almost 50 years, and me. From these women I also receive my certificate of widowness.
One thing that grief has taught me is that all grief is different, and that no one persons sorrows are worse or easier than any others. The most horrible thing that's ever happened to a person is the most horrible thing that's happened, and you can not compete for suffering. I am sad for these women because they lost their partners of so many years. One of the women told me once that she is the most sad for me, because they all had their chance at happiness and I did not have mine.
I left the internet support forum when it became more depressing than it was helpful. A small group of girls from the site have formed another group. We are all under the age of 30. Many of us were not married. We are all struggling to find our way in a world where we not belong. We have not met, and yet we are the closest of friends.
The people that refuse our widowhood are not doing it out of anger or spite. They want us to move on, to be happy, to stop crying and forget our pain. My sister, who fought my widowness from the beginning, did it because she thought it would set me free. People deny us this status because it hurts them to think that someone so young can hold this kind of dark label. It's our scarlet letter. Denying us this label does not take away our pain, but it does invalidate our experience.
I guess it comes from a time where people only lived together after marriage. In today's modern society, couples are often together for years before marriage. In my case, we shared a home for three years. It's not a very long time, but I was only 28 when he died, 22 when we met, 24 when we fell in love. At the end of this month I'll turn 30. I've never been married, but I am a widow.