“I attended a great training today for my profession in law enforcement, and one of the questions the instructor asked in the beginning of the class was who was married to a police officer. It’s a reasonable question since often we gravitate towards people who do the same thing we do, or who, of course, have the same interests. Hands went up in the room, and I instinctively went to raise mine. And, then I caught myself with my hand midair and questioned it. Am I? Married to a cop? I put my hand down. The next question she asked was if anybody was divorced from an officer. Again, my hand made it up half way. I’m not married. And I’m not divorced.
I’m pretty sure she must have thought I was having some kind of seizure trying to decide what my marital status was, but luckily, she paid no mind and went on with the class. One of the next points she made in the training was how important it was to honor the fallen. To talk about them. To remember them, and all the things they did right. So, at the break, I walked right up to her and told her.
I’m a widow. A cop’s widow.
I didn’t fall into the category of being married, and I didn’t fall in the category of being divorced, but by God, I was going to talk about him anyway. I was going to honor him. And, I was going to remember him.
After I sat down, I was thinking about it. Trying to silently figure out who I am now, and where I fit in. And, it prompted a memory from the first time I went to the doctor’s after my husband died. I remember it clearly, checking in with the receptionist, her asking me if anything had changed. Was my address the same? My phone number? Any change in employment? How about insurance; any change?
Yes, yes, nope, nope. Everything was the same. I was ready to pay my co-pay and go nestle into a seat to wait for my doctor, and then she asked it. Without even a stumble, the words fell out of her mouth.
‘Is your emergency contact still Chad?’
I was totally caught off guard. I didn’t cry. I didn’t flinch. I just stood there with this blank look on my face. She must have known something was wrong though, because she rephrased it, as if the second time she asked would make it better.
‘I’m sorry, we just have to update our records. Is your emergency contact the same?’
For a minute I was angry. Not at her, but at the question. At the situation. At the idea that I had to answer it. I didn’t want to change it. Just like I didn’t want to close our mutual checking account. I don’t want to lose all the connections with him. I don’t want to change anything. I want my normal life back. That life where Chad is my emergency contact.
I frantically searched my phone for a new name to give her, and a new phone number. I just picked a friend out of my contact list. I didn’t even tell her, in fact, to this day I haven’t. I don’t want to tell the story again. I just figure that if something happened to me, she would show up, or at least know who to call. But it won’t be Chad. Because he’s not here anymore.
When you’re in the process of becoming a widow, you subconsciously do things to prepare yourself, even if you’re in the throes of denial. You can’t help it. You painfully imagine life without them, and you start quietly preparing yourself for what seems like the inevitable. For me, I assigned people jobs. When his cancer came back, I told certain people what I needed them to do if he died. I was still hopeful, but I was trying to be prepared, and I knew I wouldn’t be in any position to try to explain it to them if the worst happened. I assume that if your loved one had a sudden death, this is different, with some similarities. Often times, it’s just going through the motions, tackling one thing after the next.
When it happened, I was actually more prepared than I thought I was, but, for some reason, I wasn’t prepared to figure out who my new emergency contact would be, and I certainly wasn’t prepared today to answer the question if I was married or not.
While I knew this already, it really dawned on me at that moment that people don’t know if you’re a widow. They don’t do background checks on you before they meet you. They don’t read the obituaries and know it’s your person. They don’t follow you around and track your every move. They don’t stalk your social media and figure it out. They just don’t know. And sometimes, they’re put in the awful position of having to ask you who your emergency contact is.
I don’t know what more I could have done in that instant, but I sure do know what I wish I would have done before. And that, dear friends, is what I want to impart to you now. I hope this little piece of advice cushions the blow if you’re every faced with it.
- Be prepared. As hard as it is, be prepared for as much of this kind of thing as you can. Know that when you’re going to the doctors for the first time after they’ve passed that you’re going to be asked a question that will make you uncomfortable. Know that it’s ok to be uncomfortable. Know that it’s ok to feel weird. Know that it’s ok to have it hit a nerve.
But if you want to minimize the discomfort:
- Visualize it before you go. When you’re in your most calm state, visualize the experiences. Don’t do this when you’re already upset or dealing with major things. No, do it when you have a moment where you feel like you’re ok. Get comfortable, close your eyes, take deep, calming breaths, and visualize the experience. Think about what it will sound like when you’re asked a question about your loved one. Think about what it will feel like. Think about what you’re going to say. Let the emotion overcome you if need be but keep breathing. In through the nose. Hold it. Out through the mouth. Repeat.
- Rehearse. Rehearse with a friend. With a family member. In the mirror. Whatever works for you. Rehearse what you will say, over and over until you do it without fail. This isn’t just reserved for paperwork updates, but also for the old friend or former co-worker you see at the grocery store months later who you haven’t heard from. Consider different scenarios as much as you can. Practice.
- Be gracious. It’s not their fault, and so often people just don’t know what to say.
- Know that they’re going to say something. I am currently working on an article about the dumb things people say to you (and the great things!) when you’re in crisis, or living in grief, or after somebody passes, but just know they will say something and referring back to #4, many of them won’t know what the right thing is to say, and even if it is, it could not be right for you at that moment. Have a standard ‘go-to’ line. ‘Thank you,’ works. ‘I appreciate your thoughts,’ works. Have something in your back pocket so you’re not fumbling for words, especially if this comes from somebody you’re not close to, or not excited about having a major meltdown in front of.
- Go through it until you’re successful. Like anything new, or anything hard, you just have to keep doing it until you get it. You will get it. It might take time, but you will get it. And if you have moments where it’s just too hard, that’s ok too. Learn how to let yourself off the hook and give yourself a break. Nobody expects you to have it all together.
I think what you’ll find is that people are generally understanding. They will offer you a tissue or a hug or a pat on the shoulder, if you let them. If you have a breakdown in public, nobody is going to judge you. If they do, then that’s on them and their character. If you stammer on your words, they’ll get over it. But, the more prepared you are for the interaction, the more comfortable you will be, and in the end, that’s all that matters. You won’t always know what to say. You won’t always know what to do. It’s an unfortunate reality, but we learn as we go.
But don’t you be afraid to own it. Gone are the days of black veils and the whispers of ‘there goes the widow’ as you walk into a room. Be proud of who you are and how strong you are, and how you have endured a loss that is thankfully unimaginable to most people. Be proud of how much you’ve overcome. You deserve that. You’re a bona fide rockstar. You are the kind of woman people respect, admire and hope to be if ever faced with this kind of loss. You are an inspiration, whether you know it or not.
Make sure you take care of you. Sleep in. See your friends. Read. Watch a movie. Binge on Netflix. Get a massage. Do your nails. Eat the cake if you want to. Redecorate. Take on a hobby. Talk on the phone. Sit in the sun. Go swimming. Mess up your hair. Play board games. Surf the internet. Buy that dress. Do nothing. Whatever you choose to do, just take care of you. Give yourself permission to take care of yourself.
My lovely ladies, from one proud widow to another – hold your head up high, walk with conviction, be prepared, have your words in order, and go take on the world. You can do it, and so can I. Go get ‘em.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Diana Register, 45, of Meridian, Idaho. She is the founder of iam149.org, and is writing of a book about her journey with grief after her husband’s pancreatic cancer diagnosis. She has been chronicling her journey with grief in a series of stories for Love What Matters:
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