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.