As humans, we like to put labels on things because by categorising and organising we create an understanding in the shortest amount of words possible. And yet, death and grief seems to be one area where labels are sparse. For those left behind, only three labels spring to mind: widow, orphan and bereaved.
If you lose a spouse, you are a widow, or widower. If you lose both your parents, you are an orphan. Bereaved collectively refers to anyone mourning the loss of a close family member or friend.
No word exists to describe a parent who has lost their child. Nor a child who has lost only one parent. Nor a sibling who has lost their brother or sister.
Instead, to convey this loss, we must provide a personal sentence to strangers and friends alike, laying a vulnerable aspect of ourselves bare for all to see.
When asked, I can say: “I am a widow”. In that simple phrase, understanding is complete. I don’t have to provide further explanation.
Alternatively, if I choose to, I can answer questions with: “My husband died.” With this answer I provide a much more personal connection to the statement. The words create ownership of the circumstance. It is no longer a marital status, but a description of a significant event in my life.
That ability to choose my response is something I’m grateful for, and yet it makes me wonder why such labels don’t exist for wider use by other categories of grief.
Is it we do not consider some loss worthy of a label because, by societal standards, the griever did not hold a significant enough place in the deceased’s life? Such as when the griever is a sibling or friend?
Or perhaps the loss is so abhorrent that we must always establish a personal connection between the griever and the deceased. Such as a parent who has lost their child?
Perhaps it is that the label describes a legal status and that the only relationships in which a legal status is relevant is that of marriage or guardianship. Thus, as an adult, you are single, married, divorced or widowed, and as a child we deem you orphaned if you have no legal parent.
In fact, you lose this legal status if your circumstances change. In the eyes of the law, a widow is no longer a widow if she remarries. A child is no longer an orphan if someone adopts them.
And yet, changing the label does not erase the grief.
Perhaps that is why labels are useless. Regardless of any label, the loss remains.
I say I am grateful for my label, and it’s true, I am. When people ask questions, as invariably they do, being able to use the word “widow” allows me to convey information in a succinct, detached way. It does not invite anyone to question me further than is polite, or ask personal questions. It is easier to divert the conversation.
And yet, I still remember the first time society applied the word to me. In that moment it felt very, very personal.
It was less than two weeks after the death of my husband, only a day or so after the funeral. I had taken my laptop to the dining room table and was logging on to Centrelink, intending to update my details so that my family benefits would be accurate. It’s something you required to do by law if your circumstances change: to avoid overpayment of any government benefits, you must update your details within two weeks.
I had a list of things I had to do: update Centrelink, update the Bank, change the car into my name, and so on. This list was a lifeline. It gave me a purpose; they were things I had to do, something to focus on. And in ticking off an item from the list it was an achievement, I’d been able to accomplish something important, something necessary for the wellbeing of myself and my children.
But this first task, updating Centrelink, was the hardest. I logged on to the website and filled in my password, as I had many, many times before. I clicked over to my profile, something I rarely had to do unless I changed address. And there it was, in plain black and white on the screen:
They had already changed my marital status.
It hit me hard.
“Oh!” I said, the word coming out in a deep guttural moan and my body slumped as I instinctively curled inward.
At the other end of the table my brother-in-law sat, his eyes wide at my sudden outburst.
“It says I’m a widow,” I explained, “Centrelink already knows.”
Pain and understanding moulded his features, and he opened his mouth to say something. Then he shut it again. There were no words. But he was there.
While I finished my tasks on the computer he remained at the table. A reassuring presence. A silent strength that I could rely on while tears carved a path down my cheeks and I began the process of legally removing my husband from my financial affairs.
Afterwards I recalled that I had signed a bunch of papers at the funeral home. And I vaguely remember the funeral director explaining that some of them were legal papers notifying various government departments of the death. Those days are a blur though, and I’m sure there are many things I signed and said that I don’t recall.
Despite that first introduction to my new marital status, I quickly came to appreciate the word. I became very good at delivering it in a matter-of-fact way that invited no questions or sympathies. It simply was. Until the day it changed, and they applied further labels to my circumstance.
But that story will have to wait until the next post.