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MARCH 9, 2012 4:15AM

Weddingless Widows

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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.  


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mourning, marriage, greif, widow

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i have read every post you have made so far. first, you have a clarity and wonderful writing voice.
second, this could be my story ..so many similarities that even 10 years later - reading your description of your partner;s personality was like reading something i had written about mine. spooky weirdly similar... as well as the horribly similar final choices they made.

From my pain came some of the best writing of my career.. i hope you get what you're hoping for from your words as well.
I agree with lorianne that putting pain on paper is cathartic and often produces good writing. That has been my experience. Loss and grief are part of life. Keep your courage up and tell your story. I believe we can be helpful to others when we share our individual narratives. You express your thoughts well, without drama--very matter of fact... Others may have similar experiences, but no one has the same experience. It is, after all, your experience.
This was hard to read, but I know it must have been infinitely harder to write. Thank you for posting this. I am so sorry for your loss.
I'm glad you've found a support group that understands your grief and that you're entitled to it in whatever form it takes.
This series is very well written and sad, and this essay in particular has stayed with me since I read it earlier this week. I am sorry for your loss. I can see this is a very complex story, and that there are many false perceptions by all parties. Clearly, his family doesn't want to acknowledge that he killed himself and that is why they blame you or deny it. I think people cover up suicide because to normalize suicide is to make it acceptable. I have not taught my children anything about suicide, because when I was ten, an older cousin attempted suicide. She died a year later in a car accident which wasn't suicide but happened to her partly because of her self-destructive bent (she didn't cause the accident but she was in the wrong place with the wrong people at the wrong time). She was 14 when she died, and to my 11 year mind it made perfect sense because I already knew she wanted to die. I contemplated suicide frequently from age 10 to age 11, I was a depressed kid because of medication I was on, but because she attempted suicide, I learned it was a possibility. So, I keep it from my children because I don't want them to know it is a possibility. At least not until they are more mature and can handle the information. And maybe some can never handle the information.

I also have this thought-- without any judgment -- from what you have written thus far, you called a friend to ask about his overdose, you didn't call police until you tried unsuccessfully to wrest a gun from him several hours later. Did it cross your mind to call 911 when you came home and realized his overdose? If it did, I wonder why you did not call. Was it part of your denying his suicidal tendencies were real? Were you afraid of losing him to the mental health system once his symptoms were diagnosed (because that would that end your engagement or possibly shatter your image of blissful wedding plans).

As for your sister-- I think she has your best interests and maybe it is just hard for her to see you in pain. I think, if you were my sister, I would say, he didn't marry you, he jilted you. In the most devastating manner. It doesn't matter that he was always honest about his desire to die young, kill himself, whatever. He couldn't commit to adulthood, and jilted you in the worst way, denying you the wedding day, the contractual rights, the right to make decisions about his funeral. He should never have led you on since he never intended to make good on the promise to marry you. That is the conclusion I reached based on what you wrote in this essay. I think that is NO consolation for your mourning. But if you were angrier at him, it would perhaps change the way you mourn him. I think that might be the point your sister is trying to make. But it is no consolation.

I say none of this in judgement-- unless you want to answer my questions I fully expect you would not answer them. These questions were simply a product of how I experienced your essay as a reader.

I wish you the very best and again give you my condolences for the nightmare you endured and have survived.
Considering that many folks are unable to marry the partners of their choice in this country (those who wish to marry someone of the same gender), I suspect there are many, many folks going through something similar.

You've written some very courageous essays. Thanks for sharing your experience. If it's ok, I will keep you in my prayers.
I am sobbing as I finish this! First of all, I am so sorry for your loss. Love is love, regardless of how it's classified or formalized by the government/society, and the way you wrote about your life with your fiance just rang out with love.

I understand so well what you mean about a bond that goes beyond marriage. Marriage is just a formality, but unfortunately it's what so many people in our society seem to understand, and that's it. I live in France, and my significant other and I are PACS'ed, which is a special contract that gives rights and legal recognition to couples here. But it's not recognized in other countries, and even from a non-legal perspective, many of my friends, family, and acquaintances constantly ask my partner when he's going to marry me, as if that's the only thing that will make our 5+ years of living together valid.

I guess it's just human nature to want to classify things into a neat category, but it's so sad that anyone could think that telling you "At least you weren't married to him" would in any way minimize the loss you feel. Bravo to you for getting back on your feet and healing, and for speaking out about this very important issue.
My son's finance needs to read this they were together for 2 1/2 years planning on marrying when my son died unexpectantly. While I have embraced her as family and have her name on his gravestone I had never seen it as she being a widow before. I do now and I thank you for telling your story I know how hard it must be.
This was a beautiful post. My partner and I just celebrated 17 years together and he finally, after some effort, agreed that we should get married. Ours is a slightly different situation in that we're only allowed to get married in and be legally recognized as such in 8 or 9 states now, but we're hoping that will change.

But you are absolutely right. Knowing him as you did and sharing your lives together as you did does make you a widow and no one should tell you that you can't grieve as such.
When you get to this point in life-
You get to call it whatever you want.
Thank you for sharing your personal experience with this situation, I too have been and still am the widow without a wedding and the pain is great even though it will be 4 years next month and my life has moved forward.
This is the first essay of yours I've read, so I have missed some of your story, but I do appreciate you are writing. So many troubles in my life have been pinned down and put to rest by writing (although most have not been on a public forum like this), I wish the same for you.
In my opinion, if you have loved together for years and you know which pillow he would prefer, you knew each other's ups and downs, ins and outs, how much more bonded can you be? A certificate of marriage may or may not have changed one speck of your togetherness.
I think I would have liked your man as I too firmly believe when you get to camp, you make camp...I find nothing better than sharing a cozy camp with my loved one right in the wild. I hope you do keep on camping as Nature is such a good healer.
As you are such a young widow, I am particularly sorry you've had grief visit you so young...
Thanks again for sharing this with us.
@ Jennifer C: Are you serious??
How can you say "no judgment" then riddle your callous comment with nothing but...??
Your virtual kicking of this young woman filled with grief for having lost her loved one is heinous.
my god what a story. u know things most of us don't want to know. i'll bet more than a few are simply afraid because they live in fantasy worlds. "what you think of me is none of my business." those are words I live by.
I am so sorry that you did not get to choose the funeral, or the gravestone. It is my understanding that if at any time you refer to yourselves, or present yourselves as married...husband and wife...that you are legally married, whether or not there is a certificate. Common law marriage does not even have any minimum time. With or without it...you are a widow if you feel like a widow. Blessings and thanks to you.
Thank you for bringing this topic forward. I think I knew it but never articulated it. Take care.
I am so completely overwhelmed by the kindness you all are showing. I want to write back so many things, to answer so many of you, but it's all so much to take in right now. I simply didn't think that anyone would really listen.

Thank you.
Oh, and Jennifer C - I've written so many responses to you, but one thing I have learned on this journey is to simply ignore people like you.
I am sorry-- I would delete my comment if I knew how. I had misgivings and really waited for days thinking how to phrase things in a way that wasn't judgmental -- ultimately I should have just declined to comment at all. But your story did affect me and I am sorry for what you have experienced and your loss. I wish you the best as you process your grief in your own manner.
Your story really moved me and made me rethink my position on marriage. I live with my beloved partner and I expect to spend the rest of my life with him. What I often forget is that the rest of the world will not necessarily give the same credibility and weight to our relationship as we do. If I lost him tomorrow, I would have lost the greatest love of my life. The thought of seeing my loss diminished by society is too much to bear. Your lost partner was no less your husband because months separated you from a legal recognition that your commitment had already earned. I am so sorry for your loss.
Jennifer, I really appreciate that. I understand that it's nearly impossible to say the right thing sometimes. Now that I can see you are a kind person, I will tell you. I did call the police, twice, and received a busy signal. Then I called a suicide hotline and was given information to make sure that he was no longer in immediate danger. He begged me not to call the police because he led tour groups with schools. His job involved him being responsible for teenagers, and he carried a gun for security. When he was asking me not to call the police all I heard was him talking about his future. Why would he care about his job if he wanted to kill himself? I don't think he lied, I think he was just as confused as I was.

As for ruining my wedding, never once in all that time did I think about something as trivial and stupid as my wedding. When he tried to leave the home at one point, he did try to use it against me. He said that if I didn't let him go then he would never marry me. I told him that I didn't care if he died hating me as long as he died an old man.

I'm glad you commented. It gave me some ideas on what to write about.

You have my deep sympathy. What resonated with me most was when you said, "all grief is different. No one person's sorrows are worse or easier than any others." This is very true, and why we all grieve differently, and get over loss and separation differently. I hope that by being able to express this so eloquently and to share it with the OS community, that you get some comfort. Also, a group of people that are in the same situation as you, are all the gay couples who are in states where marriage is illegal. And even before gay marrige was a possibility, all the gay couples who lost a lover to AIDS. Christopher Isherwood's, A SINGLE MAN, or the Colin Firth film of the same title, may resonate with you. It's about a gay man whose lover has died, and how isolated he is with his grief.
Thank you Pam. I've been debating how much political discussion I want to bring into my blog, or even how much of my own personal beliefs. However I can't tell you how many times I cry my heart out over the first part of If These Walls Could Talk 2. It's so devastating.

I am very involved in the right for all people to marry the person that they love. I very much see how many loving and committed same sex partners are forced, sadly, into similar situations.

Thank you for commenting.
Thanks for writing this. I've been searching for a word that represented my status. Single is not quite right, widow implied a status that I had not attained and had been lost, but it described how I felt. I'll embrace my widow-hood now.
Your story is very sad and you need time, all sort of help is good especially forums thank for writing about your story