There are plenty of terms used in everyday conversation that we are all familiar with and use as we talk, describe and label ourselves and others. Some complimentary and others not so nice. If you live in the outer suburbs of Australia where I grew up for instance, you’ll often hear the term ‘sheila’ which you should know if you ever plan to visit there is a friendly but demeaning term for any ‘Modern’ woman. I’ve been called a ‘Sheila’ many times and all sorts of nasty racist names growing up in the 70′s when Asian immigrants were flooding into Australia. So I’m pretty immune to labels. But then at 36, a new and completely foreign label was thrust onto me – Widow.
Now in my mind, this word conjures up images of elderly women, grey haired, slightly bent and wearing black garments, surrounded by grandchildren from a long and fruitful marriage; women at the tail end of their lives. So how could this be applied to me? Being Asian I looked considerably younger than 36, didn’t have kids, owned a successful business and was just finally maturing into the prime of my adult life.
When JP was diagnosed with a Brain tumour in 2006, after the initial shock wore off, I desperately searched for something positive to do to stave off the tidal waves of helplessness and confusion that were making me useless to myself and more importantly to JP. So, I gathered my strength and put all my energy into finding a cure, even though the brain tumour was pronounced as incurable and he was given only 6-9 months to live. When he hit 12 months however, after surgery, chemo and radiation therapy, I started convincing myself that he was going to be a medical miracle and would survive the brain tumour. And so I continued like a mad woman, possessed with unrealistic aspirations of finding a cure to save him.
Looking back, I can understand that I was in deep denial and that my frenzied attempts to find cures was a coping mechanism because I couldn’t face the awful truth that JP was probably going to die. I never for one moment contemplated life without him, what that would look like or who I would be without him.
About a week after JP passed, I was sitting alone in our bedroom when I heard the phrase, ‘I am a widow’ in my mind. Quietly out of nowhere it whispered at me like an alien voice pronouncing some horrible fate. I sat there for about an hour as the reality came crashing in, that this one word meant the end of my beautiful life, the end of the future that had seemed so rosy and worst of all, that I was alone and had no idea what I was going to do next.
What are widows like I wondered? I didn’t know any widows, I didn’t know how widows behaved, how they dressed or how they were supposed to be around people. As I visited with friends, I felt this label plaguing me silently, defining me and trapping me in a place I didn’t want to be. I felt like I was carrying a 50 pound poster around my neck like a condemned person. It marked me as an outsider in a world where everywhere I looked, I only saw couples in love, families, babies and everyone had a partner. It was a particularly awful time to be alone because JP passed away a week before Christmas which made me feel even more isolated; a sorrowful widow at a time when the whole world seemed to be giving thanks for family connections, reminiscing about the year about to end and making plans for the new year.
I yearned to be like them, I wanted to be able to look forward to my future. My heart ached for JP and for the person I used to be, spirited, determined, focused and filled with enthusiasm and plans.
Time of course helps you to get used to anything. Eventually I realised that being a widow meant that I was living ‘that’ future which I had dreaded for nearly 3 years while JP was sick. As the phrase goes, fear of something is worse than the thing itself. So, here I was, surviving from one day to the next, slowly getting used to a new life and making progress towards thinking about my future.
Now, 3 years on, this word has become rich with meaning for me. I don’t hate it anymore and that poster around my neck has transformed into something like a badge of honor in my mind. That day when I heard the voice in my head was a turning point in my life that forced me to deal with my fear of the unknown, of deep emotional and psychological stuff I hadn’t been aware of or had never made the time to really figure out. It began my journey of grieving and also of healing.
The sorrow, regrets, guilt, remorse and all of the overwhelming emotions that come up when someone you love dies, have transformed and become much less debilitating. I have learned to forgive myself, to not be afraid of feeling bad, angry, out of control and of not knowing what the future holds.
I am grateful now that ‘widow’ has been added to my bag of labels. It has deepened my understanding of life in so many ways so that I am a little less selfish, a little more compassionate and stronger the way bamboo is strong during a hurricane; bending and swaying with the hurtling wind but never breaking.
Becoming a Widow has been the making of me.