We're strangers, but I know you. We walk the same path.
It was like I knew Helen, Denise and Siobhan before we met face-to-face. I'd spoken twice with Helen on the phone. We had heartfelt conversations - talks with substance - and we didn't know each other. We're widows in our 30's and 40's, raising kids. Say that in any language, in any country, and we'd understand each other. We're on the widow's walk.
We met thanks to a grief counselor I've seen a couple times here in New Zealand. The counselor told me about a group Helen and Denise started several years ago called GAP – Grieving and Parenting. Helen's husband died in 2003 when she was 10 weeks pregnant and had a 20-month-old baby. Denise was widowed with 3 small children. The women met by chance and decided to create a support group for people with young children whose partners have died.
Turns out, the group's not meeting regularly anymore, but my calls to Helen and Denise were enough to pull 3 of the women together for coffee at Grindz in Tauranga. Just being in their presence was reassuring. "Wow," I thought: "They all understand what I'm going through." In this age of Facebook and Twitter meet-ups, I'm reminded of the power of front-and-center friends. Right here. Right now.
Part of the reason the GAP group doesn't meet anymore is the women have moved on. They have busy lives and even (get ready for this): partners. Helen and Denise are both engaged. Talk about a leap of faith. "I found someone who loves not just me, but my kids, too. And they've really bonded with him," said Helen. "The other day, Shane was bouncing my 7-year-old on his knee and she was laughing and saying, Daddy, Daddy, do it again!" That last part made me cry (it's okay, I wasn't wearing mascara). The thought of a man who'd love not only me, but also Fiona and Finley is almost too much to hope for. Initially, I told myself no dating until Finley's 18. That's 13 years away.
Then I had my own (in the end, minor) health scare, and it got me thinking: "What if I die before getting the chance to love again? What if I die before having...chocolate cake?" Yes, chocolate cake (Hey, my parents read this stuff!).
I asked Helen how she felt when she jumped back into the dating pool. She said, "It was scary at first. You think, 'Who's going to want a widow with young kids?' But then, you realize we have a lot to offer. It's different than being divorced, when you have bitterness and the ex still there, creating stress. I figure we're a good investment. Our relationship with our spouse is truly over. The 'ex' is gone."
The widows said the pain of losing a spouse never completely vanishes, but fades with time. They practice rituals surrounding the departed. Helen said her youngest child, who never met her dad, asks for a handful of his ashes to rub on her stomach when she's sad. "Where's Rob now?" Denise asked Helen. "He's in the wardrobe [closet]," said Helen. We laughed, as maybe only widows can laugh about the location of a late husband's cremains.
We all worry about our fatherless kids. Everything is viewed through the lost-a-father filter. Helen said, "I still ask myself, 'Are they doing something because their dad's dead, or because that's what kids their age do?' It gets to the point where they lose a tooth and you wonder, 'Did they lose that tooth because their father died?" Sure, that last point was exaggerated, but only slightly. You do wonder about everything that niggles your precious, scarred children. Sometimes, I even run the other way, thinking, "Oh, Fiona's not sad because of Sean. She's sad because she ____, fell, is hungry, saw a leaf..." It's reassuring to know these other women share the same concerns.
Helen told me, "You comfort them as best you can. I tell them they can only see Daddy's spirit in their dreams. And even if they dream about fairies or princesses, it's because Daddy was there to give them that beautiful dream. I believe it for myself, too. You know sometimes how you wake up and feel so peaceful? I'm convinced Rob visits my dreams to give that to me."
Yes, I know. I've been there. I'm on the walk.