Widow. Widower. Widowhood.
Words I never used to think about. Ever. When I was single or married I never really thought about my marital status. Now that I am a widow, I think about it often. One might say a lot. I literally wrote a book about the subject.
Now it creeps into everyday life. Every day. When I fill out a form, when friends discuss doing "couples stuff," when someone asks me if I'm married, when I buy shoes and the salesperson asks me if I'm doing something special and I say that I'm going on a blind date after being married for 22 years.
"Are you divorced?"
"No, I'm a widow."
"Oh. I'm so sorry."
Then there's not much else to say. We stare at each other in awkward silence. I've been a widow for more than three years now. During that time, I've tried to come up with a lovely sentence to make the other person feel better. "He was a great guy." "I'm glad I got to be married for the years we had together." "It's okay." "Me, too." Then they say "I'm really sorry" again. Followed by more awkward silence.
I've spoken to many widows who don't even like to say the "W" word-much less be identified as such. One widowed friend recently asked me the title of my book.
"It's called Widow's Might."
"Oh. I hate that word! I never say that word. I don't even like to think about it."
I hear you.
Perhaps it's because of what it means for our existence. Perhaps it's because the other person really does not want it to be theirs.
I belong to two fantastic Bible studies attended by women I love, admire, and cherish; and they feel the same about me. But whenever something comes up in conversation about the death of someone's husband, about planning a couples' trip, or seeking advice regarding something troubling going on within their marriage, I can feel them thinking Oh, I wonder if this hurts Kim's feelings? I wonder if we should talk about this later? It's because they love me, but it's uncomfortable for everyone.
For the record, it does not hurt my feelings. But it does make me long for the days when I did not understand what it means to be a widow.
I looked up widow in the dictionary and found a surprisingly bland definition: "a person whose spouse has died and who has not remarried." We all know that definition; but until I took on the role, I didn't comprehend-at all-how life changing it is. And not just because of the conversation above. It's kind of equivalent to becoming a parent for the first time. Until it happens to you, you just can't explain or imagine the crazy love you feel for a tiny person that you just met.
I'm a happy, healthy, well-educated, fun Christian woman with an incredible family, lots of friends, and a fantastic support base. I'm financially sound and emotionally stable. One would think if anyone could handle being a widow, it would be me. People do think I can handle it. And-most days-I can. But I have changed in ways I would have never imagined. In my mind. In my heart. Inside.
I'm far more introspective, far more serious, and-on the whole-far sadder. I hesitate to say "I'm lonely," but I'm lonely. I'm very active and I see people a lot. I make a conscious effort to make new friends, to try new things, and to embrace life at every opportunity. I'm out there doing it! But inside, that place that was previously occupied by my husband thinking I was the greatest thing that ever happened to him is vacant. And it's funny how just knowing that changes who you are. Not only do other people think differently about me. I think differently about me.
The really weird thing is while I would happily trade being a widow for being able to grow old with my husband (and pay a high price for the privilege), somehow I'm a better version of me. I don't waste many moments. I no longer take time for granted. When I spend time with people, I'm completely engaged. I tell people I love them. I hug people hello and kiss them goodbye. I appreciate and enjoy people, places, things, and life in ways I never thought possible. I'm more grateful, more thoughtful, more "in the moment," and a better mom, daughter, sister, friend, and human being. I no longer sweat the small stuff. Neither should you.
And there's a secondary definition of widow that shines a white-hot light on life as a widow: "to deprive of anything cherished or needed." Indeed.
Truthfully, I'm not sure that when we have full-time, anytime-we-want access to any person or thing that we can fully appreciate what it means to be without that person or thing. You can kind of imagine it if you've sent a child to a college far away or a husband into the military. You can look to prohibition as a great example of how people react when having access denied to something they desire. An entire industry materialized to provide that which people could no longer obtain. Sadly, it's impossible to grasp when you're talking-not about alcohol or college-but about a person who has died.
I worked for my husband for twenty years. We had a great marriage and a very productive work life. But, truthfully, there were days when I would rather have walked on the surface of the sun than have one more conversation with him. He called me twenty times a day to discuss any thought he had while driving from appointment to appointment-made much easier with the advent of cell phones! I planned my day around his schedule, devoted my career to his, and was more than occasionally annoyed by something he said or did. Some days I resented that life revolved around him-even though he didn't think that. When he was traveling to another state for business, I enjoyed my time to get my stuff done at my pace. I loved spending time on my own, and I knew he would come home on Friday.
Until he didn't.
I recently spoke with a colleague whose job includes reading my book so she can provide marketing support. Her husband is approaching my age, and she told me that my book scared her.
"I worry that this could happen to me."
The simple truth is that it can and does happen-often when we least expect it. My perfectly healthy husband was at the bank when he suffered an aneurysm in his aorta. He died the next day. He was 56 years old.
Sometimes friends are so frightened this could happen to them that they no longer want to see me. I serve as a reminder that it could happen to them. And you know what? I'd be honored to serve as a reminder. A reminder to love, honor, and-yes-obey your spouse until death do you part. Really love. Truly honor. Obey-as best you can. For as many days as you get. Don't look back and wish you had said...wish you had gone...be sorry that you didn't...
We all take time for granted. All the time. We just assume that we'll get up tomorrow, that he'll come home from work, that we have unlimited time to take that trip, to kiss and make up, to say "I love you." My husband and I did say those things. We talked all the time. Including those "the face of the sun is looking pretty good" days.
But I've spent hundreds of hours thinking about what I wished I said...about what I wished we made time for...about the things that are truly important. We all get sidetracked by the mundane-the ordinary things of this world. He said this. She did that. I cooked last night. When is it your turn to do the dishes? Honestly, I can't even remember the stuff my husband did that drove me crazy. Seriously.
What I wouldn't give for another phone call asking about his next appointment, his flight arrangements, what I need from the grocery store. Seriously.
The trick is finding a way to love, honor, and cherish that person while you still have time. Take a walk together. Sit down. Turn off the TV. Put down your phone. Have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. Say those thoughts. Plan that vacation. Get over the stupid fight you had. Resolve to do better. Show your kids what it means to cherish a spouse, a friend, a parent. Kiss and make up. Just kiss.
Then consider if you actually need your spouse. Need is a funny concept. The American Heritage Dictionary defines need as "a lack of something required or desirable, a necessity or obligation, something required or wanted." We need food, water, air, shelter, and clothing to survive. But do we need love? Do we need a mate
I've literally had conversations with girlfriends who've said "I don't really need a man." I'm sure I've said those words myself. Interestingly, I'm not sure I've ever heard a man say he didn't need a woman. Maybe they have something figured out that women don't yet know. I admit there were more than a few days when my husband felt more like an "obligation" than anything remotely close to "required" or "wanted." But today, when I consider whether or not I needed my husband, without a moment's hesitation my response would be a resounding yes! Yes! A thousand times yes!
Does that make me less a person? Weak? Emotionally fragile? Incompetent? No. The fact of the matter is I've lived without my husband for more than three years now, and I'm still surviving. I've sold a home, bought a new one 400 miles away, moved to a new state, written a book, and started a new life in a new town. I've adopted a dog, spent time with great friends, learned to paint, play golf, and bridge (well, kinda), dated a few men, traveled to Europe, and visited Disneyland more than ten times. I love my friends, my home, and my new church. I love life. I love my life.
But it's all somehow a little empty without someone to share the adventure. To listen to the story. To have and to hold.
I don't know if there will be another mate in my story. I hope so. But I'd like to encourage you to decide that you do-indeed-need your spouse. Decide to cherish the time you share. Never take for granted a single moment that you are half of a couple. Provide 100 percent of the loving, honoring, and obeying on the days when he can't. Be grateful that you have the opportunity. Make the most of it.
You will not regret the time you invest in your marriage. Your friends will seek you out for the secret of your great relationship. My bet is that your spouse will make a better effort in response. And if you are fortunate enough to have children, they will know what an amazing marriage looks like and will be greatly blessed by your effort.
So will you.
KIM KNIGHT holds a Master of Education in Office Administration/Business Education and has taught business skills at the college level for many years. She provides resume writing and interviewing skills guidance as an ongoing ministry, leads Bible studies, and has served as a speaker for Christian seminars and retreats. Kim is the author of Widow's Might (BroadStreet Publishing Group, Racine, WI).