Weirdness: People Are Genuinely Awful to Widows
There are tons of things I’d like to say under the header of “widow weirdness,” and this has been just one of the most unexpected things I’ve observed.
Also, it’s not just me. I see it every single day in Facebook widow groups and in stories my friends tell me about their day-to-day lives. (Incidentally, I still really dislike using the w-word, but it makes articulating all this easier.)
So here’s a fun fact I can reveal with certainty: people across the board are wretched to widows. There are possible reasons I’m going to get into shortly, but that underlying reality is very, very evident in groups of people who’ve lost their life partners.
We all know any grieving people are frequently ignored, which is a function presumed largely to be one of discomfort. Or as it’s most often stated, people “don’t know what to say.” Everyone knows, anticipates, and understands this to some degree.
Isolation is a well-known side effect of loss (explored here), and some of it is certainly self-imposed.
That said, there’s a whole dimension of interaction and weirdness you get to see firsthand when this sort of thing happens to you. And you make friends along the way, who themselves are stuck in this bizarre shadow-world of loss. In short, the world very much feels like a newly hostile and unfamiliar place, and almost everyone you know starts acting really, really weird.
In groups for people who’ve lost their partners, I’d estimate at least half are somehow estranged from their families. You might say that they’re perhaps behaving differently, or some other intrinsic factor is in play.
In actuality, what I’ve observed is story after story of people who have had the weirdest, most outrageous things happen to them. When relaying the stories, the widow or widower is nearly as incredulous as the commenters. These recounted interactions almost never make sense, but they typically involve a subsequent estrangement. Consequently, I’ve arrived at the conclusion this is a common but ill-understood facet of bereavement.
No one in my family has really spoken to me. Not my extended family, nor my nuclear family. I think of it as widow quarantine.
Typically and repeatedly, I hear and see that widows and widowers largely talk to each other. If their circle of friends is largely other couples, they are very frequently excised. Additionally, widow/er groups are not immune to treating one another badly, and some are hives of cruelty and poor treatment.
In situations like work, this strange dynamic plays out again and again. Widows and widowers lucky enough to retain their jobs (a lot get fired for thin cause shortly after their loss) are sometimes drawn into situations where the other person is unexpectedly hostile. It’s as if they’ve held off discussing anything with the widow or widower for as long as possible, and when they do, it’s unfriendly.
This often plays out in a manner where it’s implied that the widow or widower has long been “ignoring” the other person or their input. In actuality, the tense interaction is one that comes as a genuine shock because … no prior interaction has occurred.
I’ve seen literally hundreds of conversations that go like this:
Widow or widower: “I went to do or say a thing I normally do or say and this family member/long-time friend/colleague completely blew up at me. Now we’re not on speaking terms.”
Group: “What the everloving f***?”
Examples I’ve witnessed or experienced include: severing communication suddenly, spreading rumors, going over the widow/er’s head to obtain personal items or information, recruiting others to shun the widow/er, physical altercations, and public criticism of any activity in which the widow/er chooses to engage.
In one situation I recall, a widow shared her purchase of a car, and commenters said she must not really be grieving. In another, a widow’s shirt led to comments where a friend said it made them uncomfortable. And that friend said “it’s not just me, we’ve all talked about this.” So added to the list of things we ought not to do are drive, and wear items of clothing.
In these conversations, I’ve posited my own theory based on the frequency with which this happens. And I think there’s one unifying, underlying theme: a perceived power imbalance. Let me explain.
Perception vs. Reality
A major loss is something everyone knows about, and it’s life-defining. It literally shapes your life and infiltrates every little aspect. And to “everyone else,” it looks also like a form of power.
They feel confused and scared about your loss. They feel put upon and obliged to provide comfort, but don’t know how. Sometimes they need things from you, and they feel confused about how to approach you or “when” it might be a good time. They hold off and hold off until they can’t, at which time they may project their discomfort onto you … it feels like your fault to them, even if you haven’t been communicating with them at all.
It seems that to the outside world, being close to the loss appears like a battering ram you might wield at them. Whether or not the bereaved feel that way is immaterial, because the magnitude of this life change is so severe that it creates a vacuum of confusion and resentment around you. How you are treated is very frequently out of your hands.
Resentment is a big part of it, too. Whether or not people articulate this, they very often seem to resent that the circumstance of your loss has placed them into a position where they feel forced to tread lightly. And often they’re angry. At you.
How It Happens
So time and again, I’ve seen widows and widowers describe a seemingly out-of-nowhere hostile interaction. Typically, it’s over and done with before the person even has time to start to process it. It happens with family, friends, and colleagues.
An extremely common form of this, I’ve observed, is basic picking a fight. Very frequently, a widow or widower will describe a nearly comical (if it weren’t so sad) discussion they’ve had where the other party is quite clearly stirring up a dispute to build an artificial wall between themselves and the widow or widower.
Of course, people are unreliable narrators. But this is 2018, and people also come armed with screenshots from start to finish, ones that usually start with “what’s up?” or “are you around?” And then the whole normally implausible dynamic plays out like clockwork.
Why It Happens
Humans are imperfect and bad at expressing their emotions. In the past, this sort of discomfort simply played out as isolation most of the time. But today everyone is connected, and interaction has changed.
By inventing an imaginary grievance, people can tell themselves and others that they have a good reason for shunning their widowed family member/friend/colleague. And it’s a plausible assertion, because their grief is ambient and hard to miss.
If the person said they simply felt burdened by the widow/er’s loss, they’d sound like jerks. But if they invent a reason to distance themselves, they’re in the clear. It’s plausible, but it adds to the widow/er’s isolation.
If you’re not a widow/er yourself, ask one if this happened to them. I guarantee you they will say it has.
To be clear, this is not always the case. There are definitely friends, family members, and colleagues who are not only supportive, but who are genuinely and acutely involved. Every day, a colleague/friend asks me if I’m holding up and if I need anything. Recently on Facebook, I asked for advice about organizing and a long-time friend offered her help. (That same friend drove here from Manhattan on the night I got the news to stay with me as long as possible, and is the only person who has visited me at all since Christmas.)
But if you stumbled upon this because you’re a widow/er and it seems like everyone is angry with you, you’re not alone. And if you found this because you’re trying to support a friend who lost their partner, be aware. The world they live in not only has a gaping wound, but is also populated with hostility. They need you.
Image: The Oatmeal