I was only 33 in 2007 when my beloved husband, Roy, died from adrenal cancer. Although I have a master’s degree in clinical social work and I work full time in this capacity, little prepared me for coping with his death.
We had no children together, so I was home alone. I had taken advantage of the Family Medical Leave Act to be Roy’s primary caregiver, and after his funeral, I knew that I needed to go back to work. I wasn’t sure when I would return, but I was getting strong nudges from my family to resume work soon. I had little direction for managing my life post-loss, so I relied heavily on their guidance.
I wrote about the experience of going back to work in my book, A Widow’s Guide to Healing:
After about two weeks away from my job, I returned to work. I felt like a different version of myself. It didn’t occur to me until I was walking into the building that this would be the first time I wouldn’t be calling Roy (my late husband) during the day. My husband was my go-to person, and if I was in a sticky situation he would always help me process it. He was always in my corner, and this loss I didn’t think about until I was walking into my office. I also wasn’t sure what my fellow officemates would say to me or how they would act toward me.
What I didn’t write in that above passage was that as soon as I walked into my office, I knew I had made a mistake. I thought I was ready, but as soon as I sat at my desk I felt a lump in my throat and my eyes began to fill with tears. I continued with the day because I simply didn’t know what else to do. I felt that I was on a course, so to speak, and hopping off wasn’t an easy option. I didn’t want others to know how much I was struggling to simply keep it together. I thought if my colleagues knew that it would draw more attention to my situation.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t the first and won’t be the last widow in the workplace. For my forthcoming book, I spent three and a half years interviewing widows from a wide range of socioeconomic and educational backgrounds as well as a variety of ages. Some widows had children at home and others did not.
Widows often feel financial pressure to work, and for myself, I knew that I needed the health insurance. This was a factor in my decision to work full time. The other widows I talked with worked for a plethora of reasons.
One widow, Sofie (not her real name) said, “I didn’t work much during our marriage because we chose for me to continue school and to be there for him, and it made it easier for his schedule. I am now learning to run all aspects of the house and make enough money to do so. I cannot bring myself to work more than part time. I get overwhelmed and fear I will not be able to handle it.”
Fear is one of the primary feelings the widows consistently reported. Working widows are afraid of not being able to maintain their sanity in the face of loss, keep up with job assignments, parent solo, and sort through all of the situations that the death of a spouse produces. These can be anything from appealing an insurance claim to figuring out where to live and what people they can depend upon.
In many situations, widows feel like they are talking underwater and no one can hear them. Deep down they are struggling. Being patient and showing compassion are two things that deeply matter to widows.
In this five-part series, I will touch on many of the issues new widows encounter, and what to say and avoid saying to the newly widowed. I’ll share advice for anyone returning to work after a significant loss (whether it be from the death of sibling, parent, child, or other loved one). I’ll write one piece for the woman who has experienced loss and wants to seek a new career. Finally, I’ll tie things together and address any reader questions and comments that came up with the other posts in the series.
I look forward to hearing from you and encourage you to email me at email@example.com with any thoughts.
Excerpts quoted from A Widow’s Guide to Healing: Gentle Support and Advice for the First 5 Years, to be published on November 3rd, 2015 from Sourcebooks.