As a little girl growing up in the 1960s, my role in life was pretty much set for me. Sure, there was room for some variation, but the cultural norms dictated that I would graduate high school, go to college, get married, have kids, and live happily ever after.
I followed the script and it suited me well; I loved being Wife. Wife was how I interfaced with my world and everyone in it. It was how I knew who I was; it defined my responsibilities in the home, my place in the world, and my purpose in life.
Over time, my role had become my identity. They merged into a single thing that became Rod’s Wife.
I liked Rod’s Wife, and I liked being her. She was who Rod loved, and who he built his life and future with. Rod’s Wife was protected and provided for. She felt safe, and knew she would be loved forever.
And then Rod died.
Wait … What?!?
In that moment, Rod’s Wife died, too. I knew this cognitively, but I couldn’t experience it yet.
A few months after Rod died, a long time friend of ours told me that I’d have to figure out who Gail Bayron was apart from being Mrs. Rodney Bayron. At the time, I just wanted to slap her face right off her head. How dare she imply that I am not Rod’s Wife any more! If I’m not Rod’s Wife, then I don’t know who I am.
Rod and I were high school sweethearts and married not long after graduation; I literally moved from my parent’s house to my husband’s house. I never had the need (or opportunity) to discover who I was between being Bob’s Daughter and Rod’s Wife. Because of this, I had no point of reference to go back to, no previous identity or former life to give me context for who I was by myself. My whole life I have been someone else’s someone, so I would just continue to be Rod’s Wife. I had to. It was the only way I knew to exist.
I figured I could hold on to Rod’s Wife a little longer if I could follow through on some of the plans we made together, to keep to the plans we had already set in motion.
To that end, I went on the mission trip to Israel just as we had planned, leaving just ten days after Rod died. He had been so looking forward to this trip - there was so much he wanted to see. I couldn’t not go. I had to go for him.
In our retirement years, Rod was going to have a voice-over business, and I was going to interpret for the Deaf. We would accept contracts and assignments at our leisure, choosing jobs because we wanted to, or turning them down if for no other reason than we didn’t want to.
There were other plans we had made together that I dutifully carried out as Rod’s Wife, but eventually they were all completed. Did this mean it was time to say good-bye to Rod’s Wife, and finally see who I would become - indeed was already becoming? It took me three years to even ask this question, and the possibility that it was time to let her go felt like I was losing Rod all over again.
That’s the thing about secondary losses. Each time you realize a loss or an end to something that you had shared together, there’s one less thing in the world that he had a part in, that reflects the life you once knew. It’s like another piece of him falls away, taking with it another little piece of your heart.
During all this time, I was avoiding my new role: Widow.
I knew this was my new designation right from the beginning, but I had put it off as long as I could. This new role didn’t make me anybody’s anything, and I didn’t know what that was like. But it was time for me to step outside of Rod’s Wife and find out.
What does Widow do, where is her place in the world, and what is her purpose? These answers aren’t as clear cut as Wife was in our American society. The cultural norms associated with it are sparse and vague, and, like Widow, no one wants to talk about it.
Widow, as I understood it, was a white haired elderly woman living in the same house that Wife lived in, with all the furniture and decor remaining exactly as Wife had them. She spends her days alone, going through the motions of her former life, pining for Husband, biding her time until she joins him in bliss.
Wait … WHAT?!?
Is this to be the rest of my life? Is this who I am expected to be?!
Oh, hell, no!
If I must play the role of Widow, I will not follow these expectations. I will not be the ‘grieving widow’ casting a shadow over everyone and everything with my sad cloud. I reject the pitious greetings and delicate questions, and I refuse to melt away into obscurity.
As I pondered these things, I allowed myself - not culture - to decide what Widow might look like for me. If I wasn’t going to sit in a rocker and watch life go by, what was I going to do? How would I identify with Widow?
So far, here is what Widow looks like for me:
It looks like curiosity. I went back to community college to fulfill that plan we had for me to interpret for the Deaf.
It looks like decision-making. I sold our house of 23 years and bought my own house; I traded in our car and got my own car; I traveled to another country - twice.
It looks like creativity. I got out my 30+ year old Singer Touch-N-Sew to make gifts from Rod’s jeans for the kids and grands; I kept sewing and opened an Etsy shop.
It looks like productivity. After reading stories of fellow widows, I realized I had something to share in a book of my own.
It looks like compassion. I found that I “was uniquely qualified to minister to a whole new set of people.” Rod said this of himself not long after he was diagnosed. I am happy to have something from him that I could hang on to, that still encourages and empowers me.
Perhaps this is just what I look like now, and Widow is really just one of those bullet points.
The more things I did on my own, the more confidence I gained in myself. The tearful reality that I no longer had anyone to check in with taught me to check in with myself. In this, I was proving to myself that I actually could survive - even thrive - without Rod. Even if I didn’t like the reason that I had to.
It’s quite a process, becoming someone else. It’s hard work that involves lots of self-reflection and asking myself questions. There’s a lot of self-discovery along the way, many of these discoveries coming with their own losses to process.
Human beings are multi-faceted, dynamic beings, with change being one of the constants in this life. I believe it is when we resist or ignore these changes that we get stuck, we remain in the role of Wife, or simply exist somewhere in between.
I still haven’t figured out who I am and what I’m all about. But, little by little, I’m finding that the new me - the me after Rod - is not so bad. There are even times when I can honestly say that I like who I’m becoming. And I’m getting to be ok with that.
I may not know where I’m going, but I’m learning who I am as I go, and to enjoying the journey.