Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Four Questions of Widowhood

It’s become a sort of Ma Nishtana of widowhood, says L, whose husband, P, died in February. The Four Questions, that is, usually asked by the youngest child at the Seder and here asked by adults who might, sometimes, know better.

L, always kind, adds quickly that no one’s out of line, no one’s mean. It’s just the impact of the queries in the raw immediate aftermath. These days, she says, she can bat them back, without feeling punched or overwhelmed.

1.How are you? 
Said in earnest tones with pleading eyes, as in please be all right. And L would sometimes think . . . relative to what?

But, paradoxically . . . 

2.What are you going to do now? What's next? Nothing mean was intended, L says again, but it sounded as if I had closed a chapter and was now ready to move on . . . not true at all, and surely going through a terminal illness with a beloved spouse is not a chapter, to be opened and closed at will.
3. Are you going back to Hyde Park?
(Back story: L was a longtime archival volunteer at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, NY. She had an extra security clearance. She was their top volunteer; they gave her a plaque, they took her picture, they would have sent her to Washington for more awards, more pictures, but she’s too self-effacing for such events and didn’t go.)

That’s the one that got me in those first weeks, she says. I haven’t been to HP in almost two years . . . leaving there was propelled by a crisis in P’s health . . . again, the unintended harshness, as if I could just go back to where I was before . . . as if I have not been altered . . .

4. Are you selling the house? Are you going to move?
 L offers no comment on this, and it leaves me speechless too. One, it’s none of your business. Two, unless you’re standing there with cash in hand, it’s none of your business. Three, P died on February 23; not 100 days have passed! Yes, the house is large, but it’s paid for. The widow sits in familiar surroundings, closes her eyes, takes a breath.

In fact, L doesn’t sit around much and she is starting to reach out, to think about what to do next. She decided against taking the training to be an ombudsman for nursing home residents; too close. But a book club sounds interesting, and she’s having lunch with a friend from the Roosevelt library . . .

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It’s been a hard year so far, for men in particular. I write condolence notes in batches. Five new widows (to quote myself, we are legion). And R’s father, a widower. And M, widowed in ’07. I have no guidelines for talking to the survivors; silence often works.


  1. Wow! Right to the solar plexis! But clear and honest and wonderful!

    1. Thank you, Carol. And this, from L:

      I just got an email from someone who was happy/relieved to read the blog. Her father, widowed several months ago, wrote to his three daughters . . . "Please stop asking how I am . . ." So the blog/my words were good support for all in that family.

  2. We just don't seem to have ways in this culture for genuine, heartfelt responses that aren't rote, like "I'm so sorry" and "how are you doing?". it's hard to find authentic words, but it's important to try.