The last thing I wanted to do on a Saturday morning was discuss my husband’s death with 20 women. Not that he had died; neither had theirs. But, encouraged by him, I signed up for a workshop on what to do if suddenly widowed. Leading this sobering examination was a woman whose fate had been exactly that.
Faced with making responsible decisions and meeting challenges in the throes of unexpected grief, she determined to assemble vital material to ease the path of women who would follow her. The terrible truth is that so many do; the average age of widows in the United States is 56, one-third of women are widowed under the age of 50, and, on average, wives outlive husbands by ten to 15 years.
These are demoralizing data, not to mention the larger issue they suggest, for a demographic including myself: that time has come to put one’s affairs in order. The perception of one’s age seems curiously out of synch with the calendar. Mindful of this, I instructed my healthy, active spouse that he is not to depart the planet ahead of me. Statistics are persuasive, however, and promises can’t always be kept. So, dragging my heels, off I went to the seminar.
I knew the focus was financial, which generated considerable angst. I lost my way with numbers the day Sister Octavia introduced fractions in fourth grade. I would rather walk the Mojave at high noon than listen to five minutes of Bob Brinker’s Money Talk. I prepared for the worst.
Predictably, the workshop was full of nuts and bolts about taxes, budgets, and yes, funerals. We were given blue workbooks whose pages were a primer for widows. Categories concerned myths about money, developing self-reliance, mistakes widows make. Further on were questions and lengthy inventories demanding attention, requiring completion with one’s spouse. By itself, the workbook was worth the price of admission. With it, one could confidently forge ahead should a sad scenario ensue. But we got more than we paid for. Overshadowing the pragmatic agenda came an extraordinary bonus relating to matters of the heart.
Our leader opened the program by asking us to imagine disaster: We return home to find ourselves widows. What, she rhetorically probed, would we instantly regret not having said? Done? What missed opportunities, what shared experiences never taken? Twenty women, still as statues. She had touched that most awful nerve, the one felt in the presence of death. The “if only I’d” — the agonizing comprehension that time has run out. Followed by enormous relief, that Saturday, knowing it had not.
This subjective theme sounded again as the workshop closed. After hours of exploring practical necessities, our widow redirected us to examinations of conscience. Visibly moved, she noted that we were going home to waiting husbands, no longer her blessing. She invited us to mull over, on that drive, a few questions. These she delivered slowly, long pauses between each. “Why,” she began, “do you think your husband married you? What attracted him? Why did he fall in love with you, and not others? If asked today, do you think he would say those same reasons remain? Is his life better, is it happier, for having married you?”
Her carefully chosen words inspired reflection. It was like the aftermath of a penetrating sermon, the inescapable recognition of having been grabbed by the lapels, shaken loose from mundane and secular preoccupations. Minutes passed. No one budged. Finally we rose, gathered our purses, and said our good-byes.
My husband bent enthusiastically to the task of writing answers to workbook questions. He correctly suspected that his previous efforts to enlighten me had sailed over my head. I scanned the papers but quickly put them away, tucked into the bluebook. I hope the need to digest them never comes, or comes on a very distant day. There’s a kind of comfort knowing they are here, and I’m reluctantly grateful, just in case his promise is broken.
This column originally appeared in the June 1999 issue of Crisis Magazine.