widow’s weeds

This morning, Maggie of Mighty Girl transcribed a harmless-seeming (or harmless, depending on your mindset) chat between friends, spurred by a typo: widow for window.

In the comments there, I responded to her joke, a response that was half thoughtful and half visceral. Since a handful of people have clicked over to Macbebekin by way of that comment, I felt it was worth addressing here as well.

As a sort-of-widow myself*, with a sister recently widowed, and many friends and loved ones who have seen their partners die, I felt gutted by that joke, by the ease with which it consigns widows to a pile of anachronistic things.

That is not to say that Maggie shouldn’t have made the joke, or shared it.

Jokes often tread on sensitive ground. It can be the source of their humor, and it’s often part of their value. They can soften the harsh edges of the world, they can bring us laughter when we need it most, they can help us whistle past the graveyard.

For most of my life, I’ve greeted my own worst moments with relentless dark humor, and my family does the same. “Thank God your father’s dead!” became a family slogan a few years ago.

But those are my sorrows and my jokes, and I know all too well the grief from which they spring. When I joke about the sorrows of others’ lives, I try to do so with some thought for the effect on those who have suffered… and too often I have failed, so I try to be mindful of their reactions.

Nonetheless, I would not try to silence someone who jokes about sensitive subjects, nor should I have the right to silence them. I do have the right, and sometimes the responsibility, to point out that what seems harmless from a position of privilege or good fortune may not seem nearly so harmless to others.

Mine is only one voice in a chorus. Maggie’s voice sings there too.

Maggie has every right to make her joke about widows, especially in her own space. I felt moved to share my perspective: that harmless joke is not harmless to me, and it’s not clear that she knew it would have that effect on some readers. It’s going to be a while before I feel like lightheartedly visiting her space again, and even longer before I unthinkingly send a Mighty Girl link to a widowed friend.

Am I over-reacting? Maybe by your yardstick. But it’s my reaction, and I claim my right to it, just as I support Maggie’s right to make the joke that triggered it.

* I say “sort-of-widow,” which is an odd notion, I know. But my first partner’s death left me a sort-of widow, not a proper widow: not only because we never married, but because at the time of his death, we were somewhere in that murky area between friends and partners and soulmates and burdens. I was never his wife. I was never his widow.

The last time E. asked me to marry him, and the last time I had to turn him down (gently, I hope, though I doubt my younger self), we knew he was dying, someday in the future, but some day too soon. He jokingly teased me that I ought to marry him not only for all the traditional reasons and a few private non-traditional ones, but because “you’d make a very stylish widow.” E., you always made me laugh, even as you were making me cry.

5 thoughts on “widow’s weeds

  1. First of all, thank you for the link. I am sure my traffic will now jump exponentially. Hope they are not disappointed to see that there are only 2 posts, and serious downers at that.
    2.Thank you for the link to the post in question. I was surprised and a little gratified that so many people called, maybe not foul, exactly, by “hey! heads up! grieving over here”, anyway. I’m sure 5 years ago I would’ve thought it was funny, too. It’s just that now I don’t.
    B. Haha, I got nothin, I just thought that (B) was funny.
    3. “Almost widow.” Those complicated situations seem to make it harder for the people I know who are in them, and by it, I mean grieving. “Widow” is such a nice tidy word; sums up a collection of emotions and social connotations, that “partner” “lover” “caretaker” and “burden-bearer” perhaps do not. Our ways of loving and caring for each other in all its permutations has outpaced our language to describe them, our ability to pigeonhole and therefore understand each other.
    I’ll stick to my latest status: Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some sort of battle.

  2. Regarding your point #2: when last I looked, there were only two of us saying “Ouch!” and several more using wordplay to poke (gentle) fun at the very idea of being hurt by the joke.

    I can understand their amusement, but I won’t let a silly fear of mockery keep me from making reasonable remarks.

  3. I don’t think “sort of widow’ is a bad idea. My sister had a similar loss — ex boyfriend, back sort-of together over the phone though he lived long-distance and he never broke up with his girlfriend in the original city he moved out of. Knowing where I’ve been, I’d say she was as truly widowed as any of “us.”

    Not that anyone’s exactly fighting for the right to be in our club….

    Glad to meet you, sister.



  4. Elsa, You DO know our TGYFD story, don’t you? (TGYFD Take Two). It’s in a similar vein as your “semaphore that she’ll be ok story”. Mere days after Jeff died, I had to move his truck from one spot in the yard to another. In doing so, I backed over several of his grapevines, planted in large buckets at the edge of the driveway. At least one of them got caught under the tailgate of the truck and completely mangled. I got out of the truck to see what that horrible sound had been, and when I saw what I had done, I said to Anna “Thank God your father’s dead. He would have hated to see that.” And then we both laughed and laughed. Probably a little too much.

  5. Hmm, I didn’t get what was so funny about the typo or the exchange that followed. I always thought I had a pretty dark sense of humor, but this is just odd.

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