There is a shadow world that most people don’t know about. It’s a world of pain and confusion, of courage and change.
It’s the world of widow and widowers.
Jeff’s death, of course, thrust me into that world, but more than that, it’s been my writing about grief and loss and hope that have made me a citizen. From the beginning of this “journey,” as people so quaintly call the horror of loss and the resulting grief, I’ve written about my experiences, and others have responded.
I remember them all.
The woman halfway around the world who encouraged me in my grief even as those closer to me urged me to move on.
The woman who told me that even though her first husband died ten years ago and she’s happily remarried, she still has upsurges of grief, such as when their daughter graduated from high school and he wasn’t there to see it. I couldn’t fathom ten years down the road, and yet here I am, a mere seven weeks from my own tenth anniversary.
The woman who asked her widowed mum about grief and what I might be feeling, and passed on her words of wisdom, “Their absence comes to mean the same thing their presence once did.”
The woman whose husband died on the same day Jeff did. The woman whose husband died exactly one month before. The women whose husbands died one month, two months, three months later.
The women who have lost their husbands more recently.
The men who were (are) every bit as heartbroken and confused as the women, though seemed more reticent to tell their stories.
The men who have to hide their grief because society still does not always accept that their way of life could be a way of love.
The man who was instrumental in getting me to write a book from the perspective of years after the loss — Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One — hoping we could make the world (and the so-called experts who had never experienced such a profound loss) more accepting and understanding of grief, and only managed to make ourselves more accepting and understanding of our own grief.
Everyone has a story, and I remember them all because they are my story. I used to remember the dates, too, but hundreds of death dates are too much to carry. But I remember the grievers. I remember their stories.
People all over the world have read my grief posts or one of my grief books. No matter our language, no matter our heritage, we all shared the same pain. We all are all part of that shadow world of widows and widowers.
To us, of course, it isn’t a shadow world. It is our world. But the world at large doesn’t know it exists. Doesn’t know we exist as other than the pleasant person who stands in front of them in a grocery store line, the kind person who volunteers their time at church, the gracious person who listens without comment while they talk about their problems with their still-living husband.
The shadow world exists. We all have a story, of course, whether we suffered a heinous loss or not, but the statistics show the truth: the absolutely most stressful life event one can experience (the most stressful by a huge margin) is the loss of a child or a spouse. Divorce comes a distant second. What makes these losses so stressful is that we don’t survive them. Not only have we lost the one person who makes our life worth living, but we lose ourselves. Often, we lose our homes — sometimes voluntarily, sometimes involuntarily — and we end up miles from where we once lived our own version of the fairy tale that turned out to be not so happily ever after.
We become the person who can survive such a loss. We create new ways of living. We survive. Most of us even —eventually — thrive. But through it all echoes the pain, the loss, the death that brought us to this new place.
And no one but us knows this. Most people who haven’t glimpsed this shadow world don’t want to know it exists. They want to believe we are exactly as we seem — happy and kind, peaceful and hopeful — without the undercurrents of grief that sometimes rise up and overwhelm us. They want to believe — need to believe — it can’t happen to them, and if it does, it won’t be that terrible after all. And so the most important part of us becomes a shadow, hidden sometimes even from ourselves.
But I see your shadow, all of you I have connected with this past decade. I hear your pain. I remember your story. I remember you.
Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.