12 Things I learned When I Became a Widow (Part 1)

Mar 14, 2022

In 2017, I became a widow and my whole life changed overnight. In that time since, I have learned a few things that I never would have imagined until it happened to me.

Here is a list of the topics. You can click on each one to be taken to the details below:

  1. Never Enough Time
  2. Never prepared enough
  3. Forgetting the Funeral
  4. Delayed sadness
  5. Death brings out the worst
  6. Left behind
  7. People say dumb stuff
  8. Weird triggers
  9. A new identity
  10. Before/after death
  11. No right way to grieve
  12. No fear of death

12 Things Explained

Comment below and share if you can relate to any of these!

1) There's Never Enough Time

There is a country song from way back, called One More Day and it pretty much explains it all. It talks about all the things he’d do if he had one more day with his lost love, and at the end of the day, he would still be wishing for One More Day.

No matter if you were widowed as a newlywed, or if you were together for 50+ years, you’ll always feel robbed of time and wish you had a little more. I was married 17 years, and my current husband was married for 33…and we both feel cheated out of time with our lost spouses. It does make us appreciate the time we have together now.

2) Never Prepared Enough

Some people have time to prepare a bit before their spouse dies, as in times that there is a terminal illness. Other times, we lose our loved one in an instant with no warning. The grieving process looks different with these different types of death, and the amount of time to prepare is also different.

Just like the amount of time with our loved one is never enough, we also never feel as prepared as we would like when we are left alone to handle the responsibilities of life on our own. We might be left with financial burdens, and if our children are still living at home, we are suddenly thrust into single parenting when we had our partner to help us. Sometimes we even have to out and find work after being a stay-at-home parent for years.

After seeing the immense changes that took place in my life after Dewey died, I see the importance of being as prepared as possible to try to help my family if I die. My husband was smart enough to have life insurance (ok, I basically forced him to have it so I wouldn’t be left destitute, and thank God he did!) But we thought the amount he left us would be plenty, and that has not proven to be the case. I am still working full-time, and I also had the extra responsibility of raising 4 grieving children by myself. The time off for therapy appoints alone nearly cost me my job. The life insurance could have easily been double and MAYBE enough to financially get us through.

In my case, we knew we would be losing Dewey before he passed, so we were able to say the things we wanted to say, take one last family vacation, and he got baptized with 2 of the kids just 2 weeks before he died. He wrote them a few letters to be given to them later in life, and he recorded some sweet messages to each of us on a DVD that I get to keep. I am thankful that I was able to at least get a few “last” experiences when I did. But no matter what, it would never be enough.

3) Forgetting the Funeral

A funeral for loved one is a traumatic experience, and when it is for a spouse, it is probably one of the most traumatic day of our lives (probably second only to the day of their death). I believe that our bodies have a defense mechanism to protect us from the amount of emotional pain that could be more than we can handle.

Since the emotions are so intense, your mind surrounds the memories and can block some or all of the funeral details from our memory. I have vague memories of the 3-day event for my husband (viewing, then service, then burial). I remember bits and pieces, but it’s like a silent movie that is very blurry. I don’t recall how I got there, who I spoke to, or even where my children were through the entire ordeal.

I have small tidbits of unimportant details, like I remember speaking to my dad and saying something that must have been funny because my mom laughed about it. I returned to work after summer break and saw one of my co-workers and said “I guess you heard that Dewey died this Summer.” She looked confused and then her face got sad as she said “yes, my husband was one of his pall bearers, remember?” I had completely forgotten! I remember the church fed us, no idea what it was. I remember worrying that I would fall out of the metal chair at the burial when they handed me his flag for military service, because the ground under us was so lumpy. I don’t remember receiving the flag. I remember guarding his casket because I was so scared his family would take pictures of his body (as they had a tradition to do, and I felt it was disrespectful and he asked me to make sure it didn’t happen).

I don’t even like to revisit those days, but whenever I do, I can only come up with those few minute details, and nothing else. I doubt that I ever will remember anything else, and I honestly don’t want to.

4) Sadness May Be Delayed

When your spouse dies, you are probably in shock and instantly entering the first stage of grief: denial. Denial is your brain’s way of protecting you from a truth that is so painful that you probably cannot handle it right then. It needs to seep in a little bit at a time. So we pretend for a while that they aren’t gone forever, and that at any moment, they will come walking through the door and say the doctors were wrong, I wasn’t really dead…of I jumped out of the car at the last second before it went over the cliff and grabbed a root and crawled back up after everyone else went home. Or for Dewey, he was just on another deployment lie so many others, and would eventually come back home, BDU’s all dusty and his drill Sergeant hat tucked under his arm.

In all the chaos and denial, sadness might not even come into play right away. You may be in shock, in denial, and numb. The first week or planning/having/financing a funeral, receiving family and friends, talking to people that you hardly know…the sadness is probably just laying in wait, for things to calm down and your brain has the chance to sit and process what has just happened…and the big question: WHAT NOW? Suddenly, all the scenarios of everything that won’t be happening since your loved one is gone, will flood your mind. Sadness will wash over you like a heavy blanket and you might feel like it may suffocate you and that you’ll never be able to get out from under it.

One more component to my delayed sadness was anticipatory grief, since we had a few months to process what was happening and start realizing what was to come. And Dewey was in so much pain, when he died my initial feeling was relief…not for myself, but relief that he was FINALLY out of pain. He suffered so much, and all I could do was sit there and watch/listen while he died a little more every day.

5) Death Brings Out the Worst In People

This statement is very cliche and we hear it so much, but we don’t truly appreciate how true it really is until we become widowed. Friends and family members became enemies and rivals from the time Dewey got sick until many months after he passed away.

Between pictures, mementos, sentimental gifts, and of course the monetary assets, everything seemed to be disputed. I even got scolded for throwing out his socks and underwear without checking with someone who decided they wanted them after I got rid of them!

Without getting into too many details, I can say that the more prepared we can be ourselves before we die, the better. Get a will, and make sure it spells out every single thing that you want done in order to try to avoid some of this friction (ok, you probably won’t be bequeathing your undergarments in your will, but still). My husband died without a will, even though he had months before he died to get one done, but he was in denial and it was very hard for him to face that milestone, so he put it off. When he finally decided to make one, he was on so much medication, they could not get anyone to notarize it that he was o sound mind, so he died without it.

To make a long tory short, it took months before the assets were finalized, and many cross words were said and nasty texts were sent. And no one was any better off because of any of it. And if you have family members who don’t respect your right as the spouse to make final decisions of assets in question, then it is ok to cut ties with those people, either temporarily or permanently. And remember that their behavior is what caused the break, not yours.

6) The World May Leave You Behind

When Dewey died, there seemed to be people everywhere. Food was showing up at my door every day, so I didn’t have to worry about cooking. Strangers were taking my children to church activities (I was in no shape to check their credentials, and if they had been taken, I would have been no good to give any info to the cops- thank God honest people were looking out for them!)

It was overwhelming, as I am an introvert by nature, and although I was grateful for the food and kid-sharing, I also found myself trying to “entertain” or at least make small talk with people I didn’t even know, or barely did. And I was embarrassed to be a crying mess in front of so many people, so I wandered around like a robot, just saying Thank You to anyone who made eye contact. It was all a blur, to be honest.

Then real life sets in…after a couple of weeks, everyone goes back to their regular lives, and they forget that we can’t go back to ours. We are figuring out how to live life without Daddy, and its hard- really hard. And the guy who would have taken care of things in this crisis is the one who isn’t there. And work doesn’t stop, kids still want to eat everyday, and the life insurance hasn’t come in yet and our family salary just got cut in half, but the bills did not.

This is the time when we need help, but since that window of grieving opportunity is gone, people figure that we are doing ok by now, and no one remembers to check back in on us. It’s now that I need meals- even 1-2 per week, or babysitting a couple of time a month, or a GoFundMe to keep the car from being repossessed. By it almost seems pathetic to ask from help 6 months out, or a year after. Shouldn’t we have things figured out by now?

7) People Say Dumb Things

I could (and will) write an entire post about the dumb things people say when we’ve lost our spouse, and some of mine would make your jaw drop to the floor! If you are widowed, you probably have heard some doozies yourself.

People will inevitably say dumb things, but most of the time it is because they want to say SOMETHING, and they want to try to make you feel better, but they simply can’t think of anything that will do that. So, they try to think of anything that comes to mind, and it usually comes out sounding rude, thoughtless, or flat out disrespectful. Before popping back at them, try to think about the intent of the person saying it, and whether they are truly trying to hurt you, or if they just said the most awkward thing ever, just because they has no idea what to say. Most of the comments have good intentions, but we know that doesn’t lessen the sting of hearing them.

Since we have lost our person, there is nothing in the world that anyone can say to make us feel better or bring them back…so the nest thing to do is just say I’m sorry, or bring us food, or just give us a hug in silence. It’s ok to be there for us and literally say nothing. It sure beats saying something dumb!

8) Weird Triggers

Obviously we are triggered by memories like our wedding song coming on the radio, or old pictures that bring back a memory. But now some of the strangest things will give me pause.

Seeing our daughter play basketball, it often hits me that he will never get to watch another one of her games. Veteran’s and Memorial Day both make me sad all day, worse than his birthday or even the anniversary of his death. Sometimes I’ll catch a glimpse of a man with his body shape and haircut from the back, and it takes me back in time, thinking he’s going to turn around and be standing there.

Now that I’m remarried, I’ve had several dreams that he came back alive and visited, and I will stress the whole time about how to break the news that I found someone new since he left. Or how about this one: does anyone else have a stick of their late spouse’s deodorant on the bathroom counter so they can give it a sniff every once in a while and take yourself back in time? (Me raising my hand…maybe)

9) A New Identity

When you are married, you are part of a couple, and part of your identity is to be “so-and-so’s” wife or husband. When your spouse dies, you may struggle with your identity. Are you still a wife? A husband? Technically, not by law, but you sure may still feel like one! Suddenly, you are trying to make sense of who you are as a single person, no longer a part of a whole. It can feel like an identity crisis, and it takes a while to reconcile this in your mind and in your heart.

Little things make us pause, like wondering if I should still put “Mrs.” in front of my last name? Filling out forms, my eyes look for the circle that says Married, but then I remember I need to put Widowed, or Single. When I talked about Dewey, I wasn’t sure whether to say husband, late husband, or to speak of him in present or past tense. There’s no right answer, but we all have to wrestle with these thoughts as they come up. It can be unsettling, to say the least.

10) Before/After Death

June 17, 2017- Date of separation. Everything that happens at this point is after his death. But, anytime I have a memory, I always attach it to whether it happened before that date, or after that date. It’s as if your life becomes split into the one before he died, and one one since he died. And No matter how long it has been, I always seem to attach all of my memories to one of those parts of my life, as if it’s the primary reference point for that memory.

What’s weird is that the more time that goes by, the more memories are being made that happened after his death…and I’m not sure if that makes me sad, regretful, or if it’s just an interesting phenomenon that happens to us. Widowhood is such a strange state to be!

11) There's No "Right" Way to Grieve

The general consensus on grief is that there are 5 Stages of grief: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I do think we all travel through some version of those stages when we lose a spouse. But just like a song that can be sung in many different ways, we all grieve in our own way, and in our own time.

Some of the grieving process can change depending on the manner of your spouse’s death. If the death was after a prolonged illness, the grief may begin before the death even happens (as in my case- anticipatory grief) and it could also be prolonged, depending on how long the illness lasts.

In some cases, the death was not a huge surprise that it might come, but the exact day could not be predicted (such as a spouse with advanced heart disease or diabetes, or with a spouse who has an addiction), so there is some slight anticipatory grief, but the real grieving starts at the time of death.

Another case might be sudden or unexpected death, such as a car accident, suicide, or (lately) COVID that acts quickly with no warning. This type of grieving might b mixed with other issues, such as PTSD. In this type, the stages of anger and bargaining may be more pronounced- more about that in another post.

Any manner of death may bring about complicated grief, where the surviving spouse gets “stuck” in one or more stages of grief and has difficulty transitioning into the final stage of acceptance, and cannot seem to move forward to find joy or happiness in life. If you suspect that you have complicated grief, I would consult a doctor or counselor for help.

The bottom line is this: we all grieve in our own way, and there is no “right” way to grieve. It is simply a state that we are in when we suffer a loss, so whatever we need to do to get through it, or learn to live with it, is ok (as long as it doesn’t involve thoughts of self-harm or suicide, in which case you should call someone for help). We need grace, understanding, and maybe some patience as we navigate this world without our other half. Usually fellow “wids” can understand this, which is why we connect (I married a fellow wid myself- and we just “get” each other when it comes to grief).

12) I No Longer Fear Death

One thing that happened to me as I watched my husband battle cancer, and ultimately lose that battle, is seeing how brave he was. He fought cancer. He looked death in the face, and he left this world with dignity, grace, and peace within his soul. He was a Christian, and he was confident that he would be in Heaven when his time on Earth was finished. He shed some tears (not as many as I did), and he had his moments where he was scared, but for the most part, he accepted his diagnosis (he was terminal from the first diagnosis, so there was never any hope of surviving it), and he clapped his hands together and said “Ok, let’s do this!”

I can’t say I would have handled a terminal illness as bravely as he did. But once he took his last breath, and I held his hand (that was still warm, even after 3 hours) as they wheeled him into the hearse, I had more respect for his bravery than any other time that I knew him. He paved the way to Heaven for me. After seeing him face death, and then DIE, I knew that if he could do it, I could do it. And I knew he’d be waiting for me in Heaven, saving my seat up there.

I see death in a different light now. I surely don’t want to die anytime soon! But I know that I won’t be so scared of it when I am facing it myself. Of course, I might change my mind if I ever get diagnosed with a terminal illness, but if that happens, I will look to his example and try to face it with as much strength, faith, and dignity that he did.

RIP Drill Sgt. Dewey Ray Bennett II

11/22/1974-06/17/2017

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