I am WAY too young for this.
This is a sentence I’ve said in my head (and occasionally out loud) over and over again the past few years. When my husband, Jon, was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour in 2018, we were both just 28. We’re not old enough for this shit, I thought (in the voice of Ray Murtagh from Lethal Weapon, naturally). When Jon passed away last year, at just 30, I thought, This can’t be happening — we’re too young. Now, I’m 31, and whenever I have to check a box to identify myself as a widow — something that happens more often than you’d think — it still takes everything in me not to annotate it with: “This is crazy, right?!!”
When I hear the word “widow,” my mind immediately envisions a 90-year-old woman dressed in black Victorian garb staring sadly out the window of her 1800s English cottage. Sure, that mental picture is kind of archaic, but pop culture has told us that widows look like the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey or one of the women on The Golden Girls. And, while I love ‘80s décor and an early bedtime, that’s as close as I get to fulfilling that particular stereotype of widowhood. I just can’t relate.
When you turn your attention to widowers, however, it’s a totally different story. Remember Danny Tanner from Full House? How about Michael Bluth from Arrested Development or Maxwell Sheffield from The Nanny? These men are all adorable and young and relatable; they’re portrayed as strong and sensitive, attractive and deep. And they’re just a few men in a long list of widower heartthrobs from TV and movies, like The Holiday, Love Actually, and Sleepless in Seattle.
Widowed women, on the other hand, are consistently portrayed as elderly, downtrodden cat ladies — not to mention, giant dating red flags. But that’s not how I feel. So I’m left to create my own template of what it looks like to be a cute, quick-witted, young widow (if that sounds conceited, it’s been a tough year — let me have it). And honestly, it can be exhausting and confusing. Even the simplest aspects of my life today feel like a minefield of foreign social norms that I don’t really know how to deal with.
How is a young widow supposed to act? Do I seem too happy? Too sad? Did I mention Jon too much in that conversation? Did I not mention Jon enough? Does this outfit actually look like crap on me, but people feel bad for me so they won’t be honest about that? All these questions lead to the big one: Am I doing this right?
I know that there’s no right answer, and I know (I hope) that I’m judging myself more harshly than others are judging me. But I still feel pressure to be the “cool widow,” one who isn’t a bummer but is still, you know, appropriately depressed. I want people to think I’ve managed to keep my life together — but I also want them to magically know when I’m having a hard day. And always, I want people to talk to me about Jon. In fact, I’m thinking about making a T-shirt that says ASK ME ABOUT MY DEAD HUSBAND, because I know people feel weird bringing him up to me, but it’s much weirder pretending he’s not still the biggest part of my life.
My relationships with everyone in my life have changed, but my relationship with myself has changed, too. I’m still shell-shocked to find myself here, and when I look to the future, I’m not quite sure where I fit in or what I want anymore. Calling myself “single” feels especially absurd right now; I never thought I’d have to use that word to describe myself again, and it seems inadequate to capture the full reality of my situation. I’m not saying “single” in the fun, empowering, Beyoncé-put-a-ring-on-it kind of way, after all.
At a friend’s wedding recently, I was hit with another reminder of the complex reality of my situation, in the form of a placecard. The pretty script said Mrs. Erica Finamore. It instantly made me feel nauseous. In my friend’s defence, it’s apparently proper etiquette to keep calling widows “Mrs.” forever. But there it all was on that card: I was married, but I was also alone. When the slow dances came on and I remained seated, it started to sink in: Despite the two gold wedding bands I still wear, now on my right ring finger, I really am a single lady. (Oh, oh, oh…)
I don’t want to be one name on a placecard forever, but I’m not sure when I’ll be ready to take the steps required not to be. For now, I feel more okay with being alone than I ever have before. That’s partially because knowing that I was worthy of being loved by someone as wonderful as Jon has made me more confident in who I am as a person, independent of anyone else. I know now I’m capable of walking through incredibly difficult things when I have to — even when I have to do it alone.
Welcome to The Single Files. Each instalment of Refinery29's bi-monthly column features a personal essay that explores the unique joys and challenges of being single right now. Have your own idea you'd like to submit? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.