Thursday, May 13, 2010

Widowhood as Rebirth

William May, professor of ethics at Southern Methodist University, says the following: "Traditional socieites did not view life as a straight line, bounded on one side by birth and on the far side by death. Rather death (and birth) intersected the line throughout. Periodically, men and women in traditional societies experienced the coming to an end of life as it was. They had to doff the identity which was theirs, suffer a perilous period of transition, until they entered a new estate, defined by a new identity, a new pattern of life, and accession to a new power. Birth, naming, initiation, marriage, sickness and recovery, the start and end of a long journey, the outbreak of war and conclusion of peace, death and burial are all points of contact between Power and life. One interprets them inadequately as mere events. They entail rites of detachment from the past, rites of transition across a period of acute vulnerability, and rites of incorporation into a new estate."

In all May's long list of transitions, I wonder why he doesn't mention widowhood. Those of us who have crossed the abyss that lies between wife and widow know only too well the pain of that transition.

My husband's death was expected, but even then, when it happened, it seemed unreal. We have rituals for death, and they help to mark what May calls an intersection, but what rituals do we have as we creep through the middle period, feeling as if we're crawling through a field of nettles? We can mark one month, the first Christmas without him, the anniversary of his death, but they seem to hurt rather than help. I remember bursting into tears at the bank as I tried to deal with changing accounts, yelling at the post office lady after I surrendered the key to the post office box and she refused to give me access to the mail until I produced the death certficate. She was following the rules but I had no patience for rules right then.
The only ritual I was able to contruct was listening to my husband's voice on the answering machine at midnight on New Years Eve.

May reminds us that with courage and determination, we can pass through that period of vulnerability and come out on the other side with a new identity. Would we choose this trnsition? Of course not. Is the pain worth it? No. But we can take comfort from knowing that we can achieve new life, even if it's not the one we wished for. I think I'm accomplishing that. Nowadays I think of myself as a "person," still growing, still searching, but whole within myself.

As we achieve our new identiies, we can still keep the memories of our former life in our hearts and cherish them.



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