It’s hard for me to believe that I have been a widow for three years. In some instances, it seems like yesterday, and in others a lifetime ago.
For quite a while I would write to my friends about the 10 things that I had learned each month following his death. Some were funny, some were sad, all were truthful. So now I find myself again, pondering on the “lessons learned” about widowhood, life after death, and the general conditions of the world.
Please Let Me Be Enough–I HAVE to be Enough
As my husband lay unconscious and in his last hours, I leaned down and whispered into his ear. “It’s ok. I’ve got this. Rest now.” For me, at that moment, I was asking him to let go. To trust his most precious possessions into my care. It was a leap–he had been hanging on for them as evidenced by his comment to a cardiologist. The doctor commented, upon examination, that although Michael’s organs were beginning to shut down, his heart was surprisingly strong. He took off the oxygen mask and said “It beats for them,” pointing at me. The doctor said, “What?” and Michael put his oxygen back on and fell to sleep. But I heard. So when it was time to give him his freedom from the incessant and deadly pain, I said “I’ve got this,” and he knew I meant, “I’ve got them,” our children. I’m not sure if I am enough. In those moments when unhappiness and disappointment in life assails them, I’m not sure if they would agree that I am enough. We will never know, but I know that I do my best. I know that I sacrifice, sometimes treasure and sometimes personal happiness, to make sure that the promise that I made a little over three years ago is kept.
A friend of mine, who had two children, once asked me what it was like to have four kids.
At first, I’m sure I gave a flippant “It’s bedlam.” But after consideration, I told her the following; “You come from the grocery store and you have four paper bags, filled equally and of equal weight. You put two in each arm and hold them close to your chest. One bag shifts and a small tear breaks in the corner. Quickly you shuffle the bags around so that one arm is holding the three bags and the other arm is clutching the broken bag tighter. All four bags make it.
Each kid will have a tear at some point or another and in that moment, you put everyone else in maintenance mode while you put your efforts into the wounded one. With two parents it is easier, the spouse can help. Alone it is me, for better or worse, I’m it.
At the beginning, I worried that I would not be up to the task. Now I know that whatever the task, I have to be up to it–worrying is a wasted effort.
Laugh Like Your Life Depends On It
Laughter is the best medicine, we all know that, but it is even the best elixir for happiness. To laugh is to embrace all the goodness that this life has to offer, in that small timeframe. The more you laugh, the more happiness you feel. I think it is that simple.
Last year, I was in Paris. It was during a transit strike and it was terribly frustrating to try to get from point A to point B. I was traveling with someone who did not have the natural ability to “roll with the punches” as I do. While we waited on an incredibly long line to board one of the only planes leaving Paris, I looked at my companion and started to laugh out loud. His countenance was such that he looked like the top of his head would pop off from the frustration of our situation. He glared at me in disapproval and it only made me laugh harder. As the tears rolled down my face, I noticed that everyone in our line and many at the next gate had turned to watch us.
My friend was unamused which only fueled my hilarity. Once seated on the plane, I looked out the window and caught the eye of the man sitting at that seat. He smiled and said to me in heavily accented English, “Thank you, your laughter sounded so joyful it made me smile.”
I earnestly thanked him and pointed to my friend and said, “Clearly my friend doesn’t share your view.” My companion had the good grace to crack a smile at that point, and we went on to have a pleasant trip.
Since then, I have noticed that I do laugh out loud quite often. For me, unrestrained laughter feels like the best exercise. Most notably, I also notice that I am drawn to people who make me laugh. My husband could defuse any serious situation with a funny quip.
He famously used to tell our friends and family, “I know the minute I stop making her laugh, she will put a pillow over my head and put me out of my misery.”
As a result, I am drawn to people who have a good sense of humor. In our family, both immediate and extended, laughter is one of the ties that bind. It can be innocent, it can be cutting, but it is always funny.
My boyfriend has a very funny sense of humor. It is one of the most attractive traits.
Always Take Your Own Car
A few weeks following Michael’s death, my dear friend’s mother called me from Florida. She had been widowed a few years before and wanted to express her condolences–she and Michael had always gotten along. As we discussed the current state of widowed affairs, she had a thought, “Oh, by the way, Always take your own car.”
I thought it a simple enough piece of advice. In the early days, when I would stretch out to small social gatherings, having my own car meant the freedom to go back into my shell if the scene was too much. Having my own wheels meant that I didn’t have to ruin anyone else’s time, or worst yet, allow anyone to see that the small social experiment of going to a grad party or dinner out, was a bit too much for me.
As the years have gone by, I have realized that I don’t necessarily have to take my own car, yet the idea behind that still stands, Have the freedom to do what you want, when you want. If you are out on a date, even if it is with someone you have seen a few times, have your car so that you can gracefully exit.
“Take your own car” has morphed into a metaphor for “Go your own way.” It is an anthem of sorts for the unexpected personal freedom that arises from being alone.
Once A Widow, Always A Widow (Except according to the IRS)
The term widow is a little funny to me. It can have such a deep, personal meaning. By sheer definition alone, you are a widow because your spouse died. That’s a pretty dark moniker. And yet, the widow before my name still makes me laugh. “The Widow Lucey.” reminds me of some turn-of-the-century matriarch in some western.
No matter what our eventual status, whether we become someone else’s spouse, or companion, we are still always a widow because of the fundamental and unnatural accident of death that will always define, in some part, who we are.
When I was buying a car a few months ago, the dropdown for status was “single, married, divorced, widowed.” Of course, I hit a widow. When I was talking to a guy I was dating, later that day, he said “Why did you say that you are a widow?”
“Uh, because I am!”
“I don’t think of you as a widow!”
“Well, it really doesn’t matter whether you think of me like that or not, I am.”
Even now in a committed relationship, I know I am still a widow.
Oh, by the way, except in the eyes of the IRS. According to the IRS, you are only a qualifying widow, entitled to your $24,800 deduction for only two years following. So despite what I may feel inside, according to the US IRS, I am no longer a widow, so there.
You Can Be Alone and Not Be Lonely
I was the oldest of five children. As such, I shared a bedroom with my sister for most of my childhood. Later when we were older, we had our own rooms, yet we shared a bathroom. In college I had roommates, I had roommates in my NYC apartment and then I got married and had a “roommate” and later four kids. Let’s just say “alone time” is not something I had in abundance. In the three years, I have come to appreciate the natural alone time that has arisen as a result of my husband’s death, as well as my kids being out and about.
My new found alone time has allowed me to binge on every “chick-flick” on every streaming service available. It has, more constructively, allowed me to get more of my own personal writing done, to explore my new-found freedom through my writing.
My new alone time allows me to go to the gym regularly with the knowledge that no one is going to go hungry if I’m not home at dinner, no one will be waiting for me to come home. The very thoughts that were frightening at the beginning of this journey, are now liberating.
Nothing Is Guaranteed
One of the mantras that arose from this year, especially around the holidays, was “We sacrifice this year, so that next year we can all be together.”
First let me say, I believe in this, in theory. I am not condoning throwing caution to the wind and having a multi-generational gathering with covid-19 running rampant again. But I want more realism infused into the thought.
I hate to say this, because I sound so jaded, but NOTHING IS GUARANTEED. So just know that in not spending holidays with your family, you are avoiding getting anyone sick. The thought that this ensures that you can all be together next year, is naive and inaccurate.
I never knew that my husband’s last Christmas was truly his last Christmas. I didn’t know that my father would die of accelerated cancer before we would spend another holiday.
I’m not trying to be Debbie Downer, I’m just saying that we gave up having large gatherings because we didn’t want our family members to get sick–hard stop. Being together next year, well that’s just not a guarantee. So treat it like it is an elusive goal–call your grandmother, text your friends, call your siblings, connect on every level you can because, as we have seen this year, nothing is guaranteed.
I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends
In the last three years, I have been graced with the knowledge that I have awesome friends. Whether it is friends from my childhood, my teammates from college, my local friends, or the new friends that I have found in grief, it is a wonderful network of support, community and love.
I know that I am fortunate to have such wonderful friends of every stripe. I know that I have friends that prayed for us, brought food when they knew I was too tired to cook, who took care of my kids when they needed caring, and who now share and delight in the adventures of my new life.
The beauty of reconnecting with people who knew you when you were younger is that they never knew you as part of a couple. They look at you now and what they see is the prom date, the team mate, the cast mate. They don’t see the mother or wife. That is a great way to help connect with who I was before, and that person is the foundation of who I am going forward.
Understanding early on in this process that I did not know, what I did not know, I joined a local grief support group. Those friends, forged out of misery, are some of my closest friends today. We share each other’s triumphs, we mourn eachother’s losses and we share hard-earned experiences on everything from dating, to finances and family. This is my tribe of men and women who have been marked in the same may–who bear the “W”, whether outwardly or not.
I am lucky and I know it.
Self-care is the Gift You Give Yourself
I never felt comfortable pampering myself until now. I would get fidgety when I had my hair done, and the nail lady would be annoyed with me because I would leave before my nails were dry.
I’ve realized early on this trip that the old “Put the oxygen mask on yourself, before you put it on your child,” is an absolute metaphor for this stage in my life. Now I take the time to get my nails done. I force myself not to watch the clock and I let myself be pampered a bit.
My gym, a local, non-chain space, is my sanctuary. I love coming in and chit-chatting with the front desk guy, I enjoy watching the news while I do my bike workout and I LOVE my weights.
When Covid caused mine, and every other gym in New Jersey to close, I was like a caged animal. Sure I took “hikes” in the county park near my house and beach walked until I felt like Tom Hanks in Castaway. I would do sit-ups off the back of my couch and my son, attempting to work in that room would call it “distracting” It was a clear signal to me that unwittingly, I had used exercise effectively as a way to de-stress. Without it, I was like a convict in an 8×6 cell.
The need to move and be active has been a huge part of my life in the past three years. The ability to go and work off the troubles in my day, let the endorphins flow and feel grounded has saved my life. Now facing another closure, I have gotten prepared, I have a bike in the garage and some free weights in the basement. If the time comes, I will be ready this time.
Family Is Everything
I am exceedingly lucky to have a close family. My siblings and I are close, as I am with my children and they are with each other. There is nothing I enjoy more than hanging with my brothers, sister, sisters-in-laws and our children. It is a party no matter when or where. I see the same thing happen with my children and their cousins. They enjoy each other as friends, even if they don’t see each other all the time.
I know we are lucky. I see the lack of this in some of my friends’ lives. I know that this closeness comes from my parents, probably specifically my mother. She delighted in her children and she loved to spend time with us and our children. A large, yet close-knit family was the gold standard for my parents. As a result, it is for us as well. I rely on my siblings for strength, for guidance, for love, for the unvarnished criticism of familial closeness, and for comic relief. I am lucky and I know it.
Allow Yourself To Be Happy
It sounds ridiculous–”allow” yourself to be happy, but in fact, you control your happiness. You can actually squelch your happiness and use any bad situation as a black cloud that you hide under, or you can use your pain to springboard you into another stage of your life.
I am happy. Now, that doesn’t mean I exude happiness all day, every day. It means, in general, I am happy with myself, and my life. I have learned, sometimes the hard way, that you have to let yourself enjoy your life. You are not “honoring” your loved one, if you allow their passing to provide the cave for you to crawl into.
The legacy of my husband’s love is a whole person–a person who is not afraid to love, or to be alone. I am happy because I can be. I am happy because every day I choose to see what good has come out of the pain. I would never have wished for this outcome, but it is what I have to work with. I have learned to be resilient in all things. And as a result, I have found happiness in whatever situation.
I don’t feel guilty that I am happy. My husband would have come back and haunted me if I chose a life of inaction and misery. That would be a horrible legacy for such a gregarious and hopeful man. I hope my happiness provides permission for my children to be happy, or at least content.
I have truly embraced “Life is what you make it.”
Claudia Lucey is a widowed mother of four, mostly adult children. Her “happy place” is the beach, where she spends every waking moment in the Summer. But spending time with her children is her greatest joy. Her philosophy is that laughter, even through tears, is the greatest emotional outlet. Nothing makes her happier than a good laugh, even at her own expense. She is a Director of Marketing for a construction company, yet she is a trained journalist who loves to write and photograph buildings of any size or shape.