Peer Mentoring Widows

In the early days after my husband’s death, I was hungry to talk to other widows close to my age. I had just turned 52 when Tom died and off the top of my head, I could only think of one other person I knew who was widowed around the same age.

That person was a Facebook friend, a professional acquaintance I didn’t know well at all but I was aware from his Facebook posts that he’d been widowed around the beginning of the pandemic. I messaged him through Facebook and he responded immediately. We met for a cup of coffee and he told me about his experience of being a youngish widower. It made me feel less alone and freakish to sit with someone else who had been through the experience of losing their partner at a youngish age. It reassured me that people our age could assemble a meaningful life after losing the love of their life.

A few days later, my dog walker put me in touch with a friend of hers about my age who had been widowed for a few years. That other widow became a lifeline for me. We met for coffee, went for walks together, and texted regularly. She was able to commiserate with me in a way that only another youngish widow could. Being further along in the experience of being a widow, she was also able to offer guidance about how I might deal with upcoming milestones. She helped me feel normal when I found myself completely unexcited about upcoming holidays or angry about going through the many post-partner death bureaucratic requirements.

I also had two neighbors, one who was widowed very young and another who was widowed when she was a little older than me, come by to express condolences and remind me that they understood. Although I didn’t talk extensively with either of them, knowing they were nearby and open to talking to me was a constant reassurance. Every time I saw them in the neighborhood, it was proof that people survive the turmoil and upheaval of being widowed.

The widow friend my dog walker connected me to told me about widow support groups on Facebook. There seem to be hundreds of them, some focused on widows in specific geographic areas, some devoted to widows of particular religious affiliations, and others organized around interests or simply living with loss. I immediately joined widow groups oriented toward being in Colorado, travel, and gallows humor, as well as a few more open-ended widow groups. While I am not an active poster in any of these groups, reading the posts of others gives me perspective and reminds me that there are an infinite number of ways to experience and respond to grief—and at the same time, there are some constants: it absolutely sucks, some people in your life won’t be supportive, some people will be surprisingly supportive, pets usually help, and grief isn’t linera.

I also devoured memoirs by widows, starting with Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Abigail Thomas’s What Comes Next and How to Like It. Didion’s memoir helped me understand some of the weird memory gaps I had in the early days as normal. What I appreciated most about Thomas’s memoir was the grim humor. (I’ve always gravitated toward dark humor, and it feels to me like being widowed offers some fantastic opportunities for it. While death isn’t funny, it is kind of hilarious that we act like death isn’t natural. What’s more natural than death?)

The experience of being widowed is disorienting and knowing others who have gone through the experience has helped orient me to this strange new world, as has being able to read about or hear about the experiences of others.

I’m now 9 ½ months out and have been widowed long enough that people are starting to reach out to me to orient newer widows. In a weird way, it feels like getting a promotion, like recognition for a job well done. To be sure, I still flounder as much as I did at the beginning, but I do it with the confidence that there is no other way to do this widowing thing. That is one lesson I’ve learned through my conversations with other widowed people, the memoirs I’ve read, and the Facebook groups I’ve lurked on.

I’ve spoken to two newer widows recently, who looked to me for some sense of orientation. It’s like being an ambassador to a place no one wants to be. Nobody gets here on purpose and we arrive with a metric fuckton of baggage, none of which prepares us for the experience. Knowing how much it helped me to have some relatable guides, I feel quite honored to take on the responsibility for others. I am not sure if my ethos as an ambassador is more optimistically grim or grimly optimistic, but in any case, I do feel oddly well-equipped to take on the responsibility of metaphorically holding another widow’s hand through the disorientation.

All the widowed people who made themselves available to me were incredibly generous to me and I sometimes wondered why. Now I get it. When an acquaintance reached out last week and apologetically asked if they could connect me to a newly widowed person they knew, I brushed aside the apology. I was honored to help. I have become a master of saying no to all sorts of requests since Tom’s stroke, but supporting another widow is something I am deeply honored to do. The loss widows feel is not more or less than the loss others feel when someone dies but it can be more disorienting. When you are used to the constant contact a partner offers; consulting them about meals, child or petcare, and all manner of household matters; and assuming their presence in every vision of the future, the loss touches every aspect of your life. Going to the grocery store, opening the mail, being in your home . . . it all triggers big feelings that other widows instinctively understand.

It feels good to be able to put those big feelings to use.