Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Great Divide

I got a nice comment from Leslie about a recent post, in which she honestly related that she wasn't able to comprehend the magnitude of "only parenting" until experiencing it as a widow, herself. She labeled the difference between being able to understand and not, "The Great Divide." I love that description. I see in my mind two great mountains in view of each other but being separated by the deep canyon between them.

It has been an ongoing frustration for me to live with the Great Divide coming between myself and those I interact with, especially those closest to me. I have tried without much success to try and explain what middle-aged widowhood has been like for me, especially the aspect of only parenting. Usually my attempts to describe my life are met with the response of diminishing my reality - "Oh it can't be that bad." "You're making more out of things than you should." "Why are you always complaining, other single moms don't."

Thanks to Leslie's comment, I can appreciate that my efforts at explaining my world are probably pretty fruitless and I need to give up the fight of trying to bridge the Great Divide. But there are times when I do need to explain myself and I wish there was some easier way of trying to get my point across without me always feeling misunderstood and diminished.

About the only times that I have truly felt understood on an honest level have been with my therapist who specializes in grief and when I was communicating with a single dad of four kids - now he got the meaning of tired! Also, with the interactions I've had through blogging.

I don't live in an urban, diverse community. In fact, the suburban area I do reside in was sighted by the U.S. Census as being one of the three highest in the United States in regard to the number of married couples living in it - 69%! Add to that statistic the fact that just 3.7% of the population in my age group (45-54) is widowed. So there you have it - the Great Divide evident in black and white. The vast majority of people in my life and my community don't get it and there aren't a whole lot around who do that I can seek solace with.

They left all this out of those grief guidelines and books I read at the start of my widowhood - how to really deal with the fact that most people won't get it, or they'll try to talk me out of my own reality. And that it will be a challenge to find support, sympathy and understanding.

I thank Leslie for her honesty because reflecting on all this, I've come to the realization that part of my anguish is the result of the huge frustration I experience in trying to unsuccessfully explain my world. If I give that up, I'll lose all of that. Because it seems as though the answer here is in the acknowledgment that I can't really explain or describe my world to those living on the other side of the canyon. I'm setting myself up for failure because it is impossible.


  1. I don't really care if others get it about my widowhood nor do I feel obligated to explain why, for example, I still keep my husband's voice on the answering machine or anything else. Obviously I'm older and my kids are grown so I don't have the same issues you do. I have different ones but I don't think anyone really cares if I'm panicky when something goes wrong around the house or if I feel uncomfortable in places where there are a lot of couples. I was divorced when I had two young children, one in preschool and one in elementary, and I didn't necessarily feel concern about whether others understood how tired I was. In fact, that was a time when divorce wasn't as common as now, so people really didn't get it. So how would it be better for you if people did get it? Because I don't think it would change anything for me if they did. This is not to say I don't sympathize with you. Widows do get it, no matter what the situation. You have so many of us devoted followers that do, too, and support you in every way. Thinking of you, TZ

  2. First of all, I want to acknowledge your courage for sharing something so personal with the world. I think that by publishing your blog post, you are doing what you can to be understood by those "on the other side of the canyon."

    I also think you may be a bit hard on yourself (pardon my projection.) I have been reminded many times to be a better friend to myself and it may be my time to "pay the message forward..."

    I look forward to more communication with you and I hope that you can find someone who will listen. (And I really mean listen.) Sometimes, you may try to explain yourself to your support circle and the reality is that they are hearing you, but are not listening.

  3. Thelma - You raise a good point that I haven't yet thought about - what does it end up mattering what other people really think? Will it really change anything? I guess I want to believe that it will somehow matter in the future for others, if it is too late for me. I know that people's lack of understanding resulted in my family not being cut any slack - especially by the schools and teachers, coaches, employers. In my experience, we were held to the same standards and expectations as intact families. And that isn't right or fair because there is no way an only parent can keep up or accomplish all that they could when a co-parent was present. Maybe bridging the gap will result in some kindness or a break toward another overly tired parent in need.

    Reid - I totally agree with being too hard on oneself - I think we're all guilty of it, myself included. I've recently been thinking about this and ways to let up on myself. Another good point you made was about people listening but not really hearing. More food for thought, thanks!

  4. Just wanted to pop in and tell you that I thought of you tonight ..... as I sat alone at my son's football game .... the first of the season.
    It's a very long road, isn't it?
    But we will survive.
    Without a doubt.

  5. Although I think it admirable that you would like to change people's attitude toward and treatment of one parent families, and specifically those of widowed parents, I think it's probably one of those "losing battles" which aren't worth fighting. In the past, when I've been involved with environmental issues, if someone isn't directly impacted by a situation, it's incredibly difficult to get them to care enough to see your point of view, change their behaviour, write letters of protest, and so on. It's definitely a case of NIMBY and I think that pretty much extends into many other areas of our lives. The only way that I can ever see people even beginning to twig onto single-widowed-parent-life is if some very prominent celebrity with children suddenly became widowed and the talk shows were all over the story. Even then, would it really reflect the reality of widowed parents - those without the financial resources of a wealthy celebrity?

    Although this may seem a little off topic, I can think of an example of just how unwilling people are to see things from any viewpoint other than their own - until a new way of thinking becomes popularized by someone famous in the mainstream.

    For about 25 years, my husband and I kept a large herd of dairy goats and worked very hard to get on-farm cheese processing plants approved in our region, and also to change public perception toward goat milk and cheese. At that time, the perception was that goat's milk was only for allergic children, and that goats ate garbage, blah blah blah. If our dairy goat association set up a booth at a fair or other public venue and gave out sample of chèvre (goat cheese), most people would shy away and act as though you were offering them a cracker topped with spider eyes. For us, it was incredibly frustrating as we found it practically impossible to change public perception. However, toward the end of our time keeping goats, celebrity chefs such as Alice Waters (of Chez Panisse) began using goat cheese in many of their recipes. In almost no time, goat cheese became the darling of the fine eating world - and now is so mainstream that the cheese counters of most grocery stores contain at least several types of goat cheeses. What literally hundreds of goat associations across North America struggled and failed to achieve for 25 years, was accomplished in just a couple of years by a few celebrity chefs who decided to introduce something (not so) "new" to the North American public. That lesson has become quite burned into my brain and I no longer bash my head against the wall of public perception. People will see what they want to see and unless you happen to get the ear of someone very influential (an Oprah or Ellen) your impact is likely to be both small and fleeting. Also, people tend to "move on" very quickly and the thing that you taught them yesterday, will soon evaporate from their brains a lot sooner than we might imagine.

    As widows, I think that all of us have to deal with challenges that non-widowed people can't and never will truly understand. Nothing that we say or do can help them to understand. Over the past few months, a couple of recently widowed friends have said to me, "I never really understood what it must be like for you until now." Unfortunately, that's the awful truth of just about any other reality other than our own -- we cannot truly understand what it feels like to be in someone else's shoes until we are there too.

  6. I'm interested in knowing what you would have liked the school to do to help during the early stages of your widowhood. This is an experience I haven't had to deal with, nor have I had to deal with concsssions at work since I am my own boss. I do recall some hurtful comments made when I was newly divorced before divorce became so common. As far as educating people about divorce in those days...impossible.

  7. Bev and Thelma - I thought a bit about your comments and I so value the time you take to reply. I ended up composing a new post about my feelings in response - The Lonely Widowhood Road. It helped me to clarify my feelings.

  8. Hi
    I agree with Thelma, I'm not sure that you can make people understand you, and I'm not sure it would change your situation.
    It is horrible that the people at your son's school were so inflexible, but my experience is that firm structure actually helps you get through those first few months. My son had to conduct his school choir the day after my husband's death. It was agony, but it showed him that his life is important, and goes on regardless. Believe me, the last thing children want or need at school, is to bring attention to themselves as a 'special case'.
    As far as training in grief and survival in crisis - have you considered that this is what you are doing with your sons? Your attitude, your example, is showing your sons how to handle their lives.
    My daughter had to take 2 important tests last week, while my son was having surgery for secondary cancer. She was upset the day before and wanted me to write a note to excuse her (especially because of the content of one of the book reports). However, the next day, she decided to push on regardless, and got a fantastic grade.
    It is my job as a parent to help re-frame difficulties so that she sees herself as capable of overcoming them - some situations you just have to get through, but some are opportunities to excel. Seeing the good things and acknowledging when things are crap, but you will be ok in the long run are good things to discuss with children and will help them in their future lives.
    Just re-reading your post. Maybe you are looking for external validation when you need to practice more self-nuturing?

  9. Widow, Thank you for your nice words. I think one of the difficulties for widowed parents is that you used to be on the same side of the divide
    and the feeling of being in the group when you complain about the (now) small irritating things of raising children, living with a husband etc. All your friends relate. Now the things that are hard put you outside the group, you are now different, you've lost your "group" Our new group is very small, my only friend who lost her husband lives 3 hours away, we relate by email. The other thing for parents is I find I can't really start a new life because I need to work and then be home at night with the kids, I can't join that singing group that meets a couple of times a week. the kids are teens, but they still need that presence in the home at night. I do go out, but I don't see it on a regular basis until later.

  10. Leslie - You raise an excellent point that I never considered - that part of the difficulty is that you were once part of the same parenting group that now doesn't get it because you are an outsider and have become different. And I totally agree that even though I have teens, they do need my presence at home on a regular basis.

  11. Julie - Kids and adults both need structure but I do believe that there are times when structure needs to be put on the back burner because of tragedy. I would have gotten my child out of the book report if they had requested it. And I'm not sure my sons would have been able to conduct their school choir the day after their Dad's death. Families and parents have differing parenting styles and kids are different too. So some decisions we make are based on those factors instead of or in addition to our reaction to grief/loss.

    I guess we're all trying to do the best we can as parents and to pass on what we feel is important to our children. In my experience, my boys received very little recognition or compassion for their losses and a little of that would have been appropriate for them to experience. I think our society far too much pushes people to move on ahead too quickly, buck up and face life and that it is also beneficial for sympathy and understanding to be conveyed - not just the emphasis on self-survival.

    Good observation about self-nurturing vs. external validation. I'll contemplate that.