I push down the rising panic as my eyes dart nervously back and forth to the group two booths down.
My boyfriend sits next to me, clapping and cheering as our friend belts out a rousing off-key version of “Rocket Man.” Unaware of the circus act in my abdomen, he lets out a hoot as the crowd joins in for the chorus. I’m relieved that he’s occupied. I need a moment to make a plan.
Having had seven months to navigate wildly uncomfortable situations, I have achieved pro status. From battling daily with the mortgage company to smiling politely during well-meaning conversations that make me want to rip my hair out, it takes a lot to outwardly unnerve me these days.
But this situation feels different. There’s no professional boundary here. A knot forms in my stomach as I risk another glance at the familiar face two booths away. I catch his eye and disgust contorts his face. Fear has me pinned to my seat; I’m too afraid to bolt, scared he will grab my arm as I run by, but too frantic to pretend everything is OK.
Because it’s not. Far from it. I’m on a date, staring at my dead husband’s best friend.
The menacing looks are coming from Tim, my dead husband’s old roommate and scuba diving buddy. He looks sloppy drunk and none too happy with my current whereabouts, a mix of perplexed and pissed. I can’t say I blame him; from the outside, I’m a newly widowed woman having fun with a strange man. But Facebook’s “It’s complicated” status doesn’t even begin to explain what I have going on.
I’m not your traditional widow. For one, I’m young, just 29. And my grief isn’t bound in sadness and loss; it’s complicated by anger and betrayal. When Max died seven months earlier, our marriage was in trouble. In fact, I should never have said yes to his proposal, but that ship had sailed two years ago when he got down on one knee. We had one therapy session under our belts and another on deck, but I knew we weren’t going to weather this storm.
“I’m not your traditional widow. For one, I’m young, just 29. And my grief isn’t bound in sadness and loss; it’s complicated by anger and betrayal.”
Whenever I think of my marriage and what happened, my brain devolves into ocean metaphors. No surprise really, since Max died in a scuba diving accident on Thanksgiving last year. Ironically, he was one of the most esteemed professionals in the scuba diving industry. He was also just 30 years old.
All widows share certain experiences. A beat-by-beat memory of the day when our marital status changed is tattooed on our brains without our consent. Time feels heavy, like it has dragged you underwater. Slow movements come with concentrated effort. Days become snippets of people floating in and then retreating quietly. Our fingers repeatedly dial the phone, delivering the news, and in my case, making another call without pausing to think. Because that’s where the danger was ― in the pause.
These moments bind all widows together whether we like it or not. Nora McInerny says it best in her book “The Hot Young Widows Club”: “We’re sorry you’re here, but glad you found us.” But the second blow I received shortly after Max’s death admitted me to an even more exclusive and even less desirable club, although more of us belong than you might expect.
At the end of a marriage, whether by death or divorce, secrets bubble to the surface no matter how badly we wish them to remain hidden. People always want to know how I found out, their voices laced with either obvious disbelief or unabashed curiosity.
In my case, it took six weeks. Six weeks of feeling ashamed, sad and responsible for Max’s death. A sadness I saddled myself with for bringing to light the doubt in our marriage. For having one foot out of something I knew in my bones wasn’t right from the beginning. Six weeks of wondering whether our marriage troubles had distracted him underwater. Six weeks of feeling guilty for the relief that I had been spared a hellish divorce while Max paid the ultimate price.
“At the end of a marriage, whether by death or divorce, secrets bubble to the surface no matter how badly we wish them to remain hidden.”
So here it is, the ugly secret: Max was cheating on me from the moment we first said hello. We dated; he dated. We became engaged; he dated. We got married; he kept up his prolific dating life. All without my knowing. It wasn’t until one of my friends called me six weeks into my grief and asked, “What if I found out something bad about Max. Like, really bad. Would you want to know?” I replied yes without hesitation. And then promptly threw up.
I started a deep dive into his phone records. I spent days hunched over my desk with a fat stack of papers and a yellow highlighter. When pages become more yellow than white, I began scrolling through thousands of pictures and emails, piecing together the timing and orchestration of a social life I wasn’t privy to. An email dashed off before he left work for the day. Text messages received in the middle of the night and then deleted from his phone.
The chasm between the grief experience I was having and the one most people thought I was having was vast. My therapist termed my grief “complicated.” I was enraged, and I fed my anger by uncovering every gritty detail.
The discovery of each new woman had me reaching for the phone, crying and cursing his name to my friends. My life felt like a soap opera: Husband cheats on wife; husband dies; wife is forced to confront the reality of his many lovers.
But even as I raged, these terrible truths rarely met the light of day. Society still holds tight to the worn adage of “never speak ill of the dead,” making it nearly impossible for people to voice their own stories and experiences that might illuminate the imperfections of the deceased. And I fell right in line.
Out of respect for his family, combined with my own shame of having been duped, I decided early on to tell only those close to me. This allowed the larger community of mourners to keep Max atop his throne. While it worked for them, it came at a price for me.
“Society still holds tight to the worn adage of 'never speak ill of the dead,' making it nearly impossible for people to voice their own stories that might illuminate the imperfections of the deceased.”
I developed an intense gag reflex and wasn’t able to make it through even a short tooth-brushing session without throwing up. The truth sat at the back of my throat, punishing me for not letting it out.
Now, seven months after my husband’s death, here I am, sitting with my boyfriend at a bar trying to have a normal life, and there is my dead husband’s best friend drunk with his friends and staring at his friend’s widow betraying him with another man. But I know so much that Tim doesn’t know. Or, worse, maybe he knows and doesn’t care.
“Rocket Man” comes to a thunderous close just as I’ve decided a change of scenery is in order. While I’ve been open and transparent with my boyfriend, there’s a huge difference between hearing about a dead husband and having his existence smack you in the face on a Saturday night. Plus, Tim doesn’t look like he’s thinking clearly. The very last thing I need is a scene.
I lean over and whisper that we have to leave and the reason why, all the while working to keep my embarrassment in check. I’m mortified. Dating with a dead husband is not exactly sexy. Plus, I want to protect our burgeoning relationship from those who don’t know the whole story. Thank God my understanding boyfriend is a stand-up guy.
“It’s as if [a widow’s] right to happiness has died with our spouses, and if we try to resurrect it too soon, we’re stigmatized.”
He takes my hand and we manage to slide out of the booth and down the back stairs without having to pass Tim. I don’t need to look his way to know his bloodshot eyes haven’t left me long enough even to blink. I couldn’t tell if it was the weight of his stare or my shame that stayed with me the longest.
We spill onto the street and end up finishing out the night at a place down the block. While I feel grateful nothing happened, it also takes me weeks to feel comfortable going out again. Max’s presence loomed large around every corner for months. For years.
Generally speaking, widows aren’t looked upon favorably for finding happiness. The surrounding community calls the shots and determines what is “appropriate” behavior on an unwritten timeline we’re expected to follow. If we stray from this strict schedule of mourning, we’re confronted with barely veiled judgment and, in some cases, outright contempt. It’s as if our right to happiness has died with our spouses, and if we try to resurrect it too soon, we’re stigmatized.
Eventually, I finally reached the point where I didn’t feel like I was going to run into someone who knew me, and when I did, the uncomfortable situations became manageable. Rather than shrinking away from them with dripping palms and a painful pounding in my chest, I would take a few calming breaths followed by a squaring of my shoulders. Progress.
I look back on all of this now as a 42-year old with the comfort of time on my side. With these events years in the rearview mirror, I resist the urge to critique my decisions. I would like to think that given a second chance I would have pushed back with the truth rather than swallowing and choking on it. But maybe not. Maybe that would have been too much for 29-year-old me, a lost young woman who was desperately working to stay afloat amid the wreckage. I wasn’t doing anything wrong; I was doing my level best.
And I’ve come to understand and appreciate what I was up against, the internal and external pressures of being a young widow in uncharted and treacherous waters. I have a lot of love and forgiveness for my younger self, and a lot of gratitude; without her, I wouldn’t be where I am today, happily remarried and (mostly) free from the ocean metaphors.
Have a compelling first-person story or experience you want to share? Send your story description to firstname.lastname@example.org.