A Tribute to Blogger Sue Larrison
The year my husband died I started following a blog called “Widows Speak Up” by Sue Larrison. Sue launched the blog four years after her husband, Lane, died suddenly of a heart attack.
Sue’s pithy two- or three-paragraph reflections about what life was like after losing the great love of her life attracted thousands of followers over the next several years. Her posts always ended with a question or prompt that engaged the reader and elicited responses numbering in the hundreds. It was one of the best blogs I’ve ever read.
Though she had worked in marketing communications for 40 years, Sue didn’t seem to care about how successful and potentially lucrative her blog had become. She cared about communicating her experiences as a widow truthfully, and about her sisterhood of widows. As her readership grew from a handful to thousands, Sue remained Sue: welcoming, straightforward, and disarmingly honest. Her lack of pretense and disinterest in monetizing the blog made it that much more beloved in an age of AdWords, Patreon, and Search Engine Optimization.
From Sue’s widow community, I learned that all widows are not created equal. We were a self-selected group who had, like her, enjoyed enviable marriages to our best friends. Equally yoked for decades to peers with whom we shouldered life’s burdens and celebrated life’s joys, we were devastated when our husbands died.
Nobody suffers more than the survivor of a happy marriage. We had forged companionable, caring, successful partnerships with our spouses and remained romantically, sexually, and intellectually attracted to them. With the salves of insight and patience, we had dressed and healed disabling childhood wounds and, in effect, re-parented one another. We raised children. We stuck together day after day, crisis after crisis, love after love. Then suddenly—in spite of our best-laid plans for golden years when we could finally relax, have more fun, and travel together—suddenly, our companion died.
The two-income family became a single-income household. The family business failed. The house had to be sold, children enrolled in new schools. Women who worked alongside their husbands or who worked at home, were suddenly faced with the necessity of establishing new careers mid-life or in their 50s, 60s, and even 70s. Some received no life insurance or insufficient insurance for covering financial deficits, and had to accept whatever jobs they could find.
We widows handled all this during the year following the death of the one person we loved most and knew best in the world, the selfsame person who loved and knew us best.
Here’s what Sue had to say about the realities of widowhood:
Monday, April 11, 2011
I don’t know about you …
But I think that:
Time will not heal this wound.
If crying makes you feel better, do it.
Dating is awkward.
Life goes on but will never be as much fun.
Getting old without him stinks.
Finding a new direction in life is very difficult.
Feeling sorry for myself comes with the territory.
Laughing every day about something is mandatory.
Until you lose a husband you can’t begin to understand the pain.
Learning to live for yourself takes practice.
Widows are strong women who keep going even when they don’t want to.
Liars & Actors
In Sue’s community, I learned that nobody is a better liar or actor than a widow. Indeed, the bereaved as a group are great liars by necessity, for an unspoken expectation of recovery within one year is imposed on us.
Although people stopped asking how we were after a year or so, most of us continued to suffer terribly. We found the second year worse than the first, for the blessed, numbing fog of the first year lifts and one can see clearly just how desolate the landscape is, how great our loneliness is and is likely to remain.
During the second year, when we realized that the loss was permanent and we were feeling even worse than we had before, everyone but our closest friends and family members stopped calling. Our spouse’s friends disappeared. People we thought were friends turned out not to be. Relationship fissures deepened and widened, and some relationships were lost forever. Nobody helped with anything anymore. Social isolation increased as couple friends stopped inviting us to couples-dominated social gatherings where single women were, at best, awkward fifth wheels, and, at worst, perceived threats to extant marriages.
Even when intrepid couples did invite us to events, it took a certain amount of courage to attend. Seeing our contentedly committed peers enjoying all we once enjoyed with our spouses illuminated our sorrows. Each new reminder of loss made us feel we were regressing, compounding our despair.
From one another, we widows learned that we cannot return to normal, or build a new normal, within a few years of losing spouses we loved for decades. We hoped for a new normal in the third year, but many of us were dismayed to realize that years three through five were only marginally better than the first few.
Widows who reached the five-year mark were considered veteran widows. By this time, most of our children had stopped talking about their deceased parent. They didn’t ask how we were doing, most likely because they didn’t want to be reminded that the dark side of a good partnership is that it ends, leaving sometimes unbearable loneliness for the survivor who does not want or seek remarriage or cannot find an appropriate partner. No one wants to be reminded that as many as one of every three or four Americans age 65 or older has lost their spouse.
“Fine, I’m fine,” becomes a mantra. Though in remembrance we may update a social media status on an anniversary now and then, we bereaved will never share with the commonwealth what we would have shared with our spouses, or what we will admit to our fellow widows. Widows don’t lie to each other.
To other widows, we acknowledge doubts that we will ever feel loved, or safe, or happy again. We admit how great is the ache to simply be hugged and held, for no one touches us anymore. We do not talk about how much we miss making love, how just thinking of being in his arms makes tears well up. We confess our surprise if ever we feel even a little real joy. Behind our laughter, jokes, and smiles is a despair that sometimes makes us ask why we bother to stay in this world. We look forward to death, and sometimes think of suicide. We stay in the world because of faith or because we don’t want to leave our children parentless, yet our satisfaction as parents pales in comparison to the satisfaction we experienced in a blessed marriage.
Thousands of widows feel this way, widows on the other side of good marriages that lasted decades. We don’t tell anyone except another widow about how dark it is or how broken we feel.
Even among other widows, we can feel isolated, for there are many who find new companions and experience contentment and happiness again, and call our grief pathological. Unlike everyone else, we just can’t seem to bounce back. All this makes us wonderful actors.
Here is what Sue wrote about widows as actors:
Monday, March 5, 2012
A Good Actress
I enrolled in an acting class in college. After a couple of classes my instructor advised me to drop out. Mr. Oberstein said, and I quote, “You enjoy being yourself too much. A good actress is unrecognizable. The audience should never know who she really is or how she feels.” Needless to say it was a long semester.
If Mr. Oberstein could see me now he would think I was a pretty good actress after all. A big part of being a widow is pretending to be something you are not.
- We act like we are happy when we feel nothing but pain and sadness.
- We pretend that being ignored by family and friends is acceptable.
- We appear to be confident and self-assured even when afraid and vulnerable.
- We come across as “over it” because others want us to feel that way.
- We acknowledge that life goes on but silently wonder where we now belong.
- We smile when our hearts are breaking and no one has a clue.
Mr. Oberstein, I finally learned everything you wanted me to. I just learned it the hard way.
How good of an actress are you?
Several years ago, Sue Larrison was diagnosed with breast cancer. She wrote about how terrifying it was to go alone to doctor appointments and arrange surgery and treatment without Lane’s loving support and concern. She shared how sitting alone in waiting rooms magnified her fear and isolation.
Her grown children, scattered across the country and with careers and children of their own, accepted Sue’s fictions about how well she was managing. Sue fell into an abyss of terror and loneliness she shared with her widow clan, but not with her children. She knew better than to do that.
For the most part, Sue seemed to stoically shoulder the tasks, challenges, and sorrows of cancer alone: surgery, chemotherapy, recovery. She left the blog for months, but would check in every now and then to read the well wishes of her sister widows. Eventually, Sue recovered and started blogging again. By this time Lane had been dead for six years, and Sue was a veteran widow.
Here is something Sue wrote in her seventh year of widowhood:
Monday, June 3, 2013
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Being a widow puts us between a rock and a hard place.
- We are lonely but feel uncomfortable with others.
- We miss male companionship but can’t imagine being with anyone other than our husbands.
- We feel sad and empty inside but in public we put on a happy face.
- We are overwhelmed with having to make decisions on every aspect of our lives but resent it when others offer advice.
- We want to be happy but don’t think real happiness will ever be part of our lives again.
- We seesaw between guilt and anger.
- We are scared but act brave and independent.
- We are confident in our own abilities but miss the positive reinforcement our husbands once provided.
- We dread holidays, family parties and social gatherings but don’t want to be ignored or taken off the guest list.
- We desperately want our old lives back but know we have to make a new life because the old one is gone forever.
Being a widow presents daily challenges, conflicts and emotional adjustments. I see it as living between a rock and a hard place. Not a comfortable place to be, but what other choice do I have?
How are you living between a rock and a hard place?
In her ninth year of blogging, Sue closed the blog. It had served its purpose, she wrote, and she had nothing left to say about her experience as a widow. “Widows Speak Up” would go silent, returning a 404 Error in perpetuity.
This was the first time, to my knowledge, that Sue Larrison lied to her sister widows. I believe she lied because last week as I worked on my memoir of widowhood, I decided to check on Sue and thank her for creating such a wonderful place for so many. In the information age, it’s easy to find anyone, so it wasn’t difficult to find her.
I discovered from her obituary that Sue died a little over a month ago, on September 27, 2017.
The happiest years of Sue’s life happened up to the moment before Lane collapsed and died. She was never as happy again after that. Sue didn’t want to remind us of this truth, so wished us well, sent us her love, and left us with the fabrication that everything was “fine, just fine.” Perhaps an intention of keeping our collective hopes for better years ahead prevented her from sharing that the cancer had returned, that she was dying.
I cried over Sue’s death, because her own hopes of better years ahead had died with her. We widows and other bereaved folks who cannot get past or get over our losses fear being unhappy the rest of our lives. Like amputees experiencing phantom limb sensations, we feel an abiding pain from being uncoupled from what was once part of us. We fear that trauma and grief have irreparably damaged and changed us for the worse.
Here’s what Sue wrote about how losing Lane changed her:
Monday, January 23, 2012
Like most of you, my life has been a series of ups and downs. In college I was diagnosed and treated for cancer. That was a down. Moving into my first apartment and being so excited about living in a big city was a definite up.
Over the years, work and friends both treated me to real emotional highs and lows. Looking back I realize how easy it was to get excited or feel let down by others. Family, of course, creates a lot of emotional upheaval. Some of it made me crazy happy, some of it made me crazy mad and some, crazy sad.
Meeting and marrying Lane was the greatest emotional experience of my life. I really did not understand my capacity to love someone until we got together. It was wonderful to be able to share happy times and be there to comfort one another when things weren’t so great.
Now emotionally, I have flat-lined. I never feel really happy, and truthfully I never feel really sad. Mostly I don’t feel. I am pretty good at faking it, which sounds so awful when I say it out loud.
Am I the only one who has flat-lined emotionally since losing her husband?
Fine, Just Fine
A part of me would like to think that everything is “fine, just fine” with Sue now. I imagine Lane striding toward her as she passed on, sweeping her off her feet and carrying her like a bride over the threshold into the next life. I imagine them laughing and romping through heaven together, unencumbered by the sorrows and miseries of this mortal world, in love forever.
Another part of me realizes that a future that matures from and improves upon past happiness is not guaranteed. Happiness, contentment and peace do not happen to us; rather, we cultivate them in the rich soil of our lives.
No one escapes the hardships of suffering, sorrow, and loss. If we submit to their tutelage rather than being broken by it, we will remedy despair through meaning, the absurdity of life with wisdom. Having done this, we may yet find contentment and peace in the aftermath, and everything will be fine, just fine.
War Garden, Victory Garden
During World War I and World War II, people throughout the western world planted and cultivated war gardens, or victory gardens, in their back yards. The idea behind the gardens was to aid the war effort by reducing pressure on the public food supply, and to raise civil morale.
Those of us who have survived trauma and loss grow war gardens, too. What have you been cultivating in your war garden? What ‘crops’ do you hope to grow in your victory garden in the future?