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Widowed* - Transcript

This is a transcript of a “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” episode entitled, “Widowed*.” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.

Listen to the episode here.

Nora McInerny: So you give him all of those ultimatums, you lay it all out. And the response is basically ... 

Erin Reavey: “Don't let the door hit you on the ass.”

I’m Nora McInerny, and this is “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.”

If you’ve done any online dating in the past, I don’t know, 15 years or so, you know that it can be rough. It can be unpleasant. It can just be difficult. I’ve dabbled a little bit in this arena, but really all dating is like walking around the world like the little bird from the children’s book “Are You My Mother?” but instead asking people, “Are you my person?” 

In 2009, Erin finds herself dipping her toes into the murky water that is the online dating pool. At this point, Erin was a few years out from leaving an abusive marriage and was feeling hopeful about the future. Online dating was new to her, but she’d heard good things! But the reality of online dating, it looked a little different.

Erin Reavey: Oh boy. I got a lot of weird matches. A guy who had- he was a teacher and he had, I think, 23 cats. And then I got a lot of cops.

Nora McInerny:  I'm sorry. We're going to pause right there. He had how many cats?

Erin Reavey: I think he said he had 23 cats. And there was a picture of him sitting in a tree and all the cats were at the bottom of the tree. So he got, you know, a pass over. I should have asked for my money back at that point, but I didn't.

Erin didn’t ask for her money back. Erin persevered! And eventually, she matched with a man named Ed.

Erin Reavey: We were like, I think like a 99 percent match, which is considered, you know, very high. And he sounded normal. So that was a big plus. And I just liked his smile. And he had a picture on his profile, just the one picture, and he does have a kind smile. Back then, the bios had to be very short. So you were just supposed to list like five things that you liked and, like, a couple of short quotes. And he liked dogs, which I had two dogs at the time, and coffee, outdoor activity, and that he was widowed, which I thought, and this is going to sound so bad, but I thought, “That's nice. I won't have, you know, if we hit it off, I won't have any ex-wife to deal with. So not a bad thing.”

I too am a widow, so I can honestly say that Erin has a very good point! She does! Ed’s dead wife will NOT show up and interfere. She will not have ANY opinions on Ed and Erin's relationship! Another thing that Erin and Ed have in common is children. Ed has two kids, an 18-year-old son and 16-year-daughter. Erin’s daughter is 5 years old at this time.

Erin Reavey: We didn't do anything with the kids until we were dating for about six months. He was very careful about, you know, who he would introduce his kids to. And I was as well. When we finally did bring them together, the five of us had dinner, and I liked his kids right away. They just had this kind of like, just these vibes coming off these kids of like, “I need a mother.” They’d lost their mom when they were really young. I want to say, like, maybe 10 and 8. I mean, they were pretty young. And I always wanted more kids, but kind of felt like I was a little bit over the hill at that point. So that was very much a plus for me. We got married on Cocoa Beach in Florida, a sunrise ceremony. We were both early risers. I thought that would be, you know, just really pretty. And it was. It was just beautiful. My daughter did refuse to kind of give me away. The pastor said, “Caroline, will you give your mom away?” And she said, “I'm not giving her away.” [laughs]

The newly blended family of five spend Erin and Ed’s honeymoon together at Disney World. Ed’s kids have never been, and Erin’s daughter is at the perfect age to enjoy all of it. During that trip, Erin clocks that Ed is … drinking a lot? It’s not something she’s used to seeing, but it’s their honeymoon, and they’re on vacation, so it’s not a big red flag, just something she notices and tucks away.

A honeymoon is one thing, but blending a family is another. And about six months into the marriage, Erin’s concerns turn into a real fear that this marriage is not going to work out. 

Erin Reavey: Straight away, I kind of noticed that he sort of seemed to want to be married, but also be single, in that he did not want to like, sort of come together as a family. Like, I took his name, which was a big thing for me. I did not do that in my prior marriage, and it was something I could never see myself doing. But I thought, you know, I want to kind of reach across the aisle, so to speak, and, you know, show him that like, I really want this to be like, you know, just a really blended up, blended family. But he, you know, kept everything separate. We did not have a joint bank account. We did not go on date night. He did not introduce me to his friends. You know, there just wasn't that sense of a partnership that you expect in a marriage. And then the second thing was that there was kind of no co-parenting going on. Like, he was in charge of his kids; I was in charge of mine. He was not super welcoming in terms of like, my suggestions or things that I kind of wanted around the house as far as behavior. I mean, his kids were very, very good. But like, my daughter was so much younger that like, you know, certain teenage behaviors, I was kind of hoping we could shield her from a little longer. [laughs] But he was not super welcoming in that arena. And then the third thing was the drinking. So what I had noticed on our honeymoon, where he had said, like, “I only do this when I'm on vacation,” really was not super true. Like he didn't drink on work nights, but the whole weekend, he would drink.

Erin is also growing increasingly concerned that Ed hasn’t really done anything to process the loss of his dead wife. His grief is still so, so raw, and it’s evident everywhere that Erin turns.

Erin Reavey: His first wife was sick with breast cancer for many years — I think about seven or eight years before she passed. And, you know, there was a lot of caretaking involved. She was mostly at home unless she was having a surgery. So he kind of, like, put himself in that whole mode of, like, he had to do everything. When she died, he just kept right on doing everything. You know, it was like there was no kind of transition to grieve. It was just like, “Oh, now I must, you know, soldier on.” He was raised in Southie. And Southie guys are really not cool with like, therapy or anything like that. So there was none of that stuff happening, it was just, “I must move forward.” I don't think there was a proper grieving at all. So there was, I think it was a 100-gallon aquarium in the corner of the living room, which you couldn't really see. It was kind of behind a drape. And it was stuffed with her mail that had come, you know, since she had passed away, I think it was about six or seven years earlier. And it just got tossed into the aquarium. And it never, you know, was dealt with. So that was all right there. All her things were still in the house. And I don't mind like, if it was like pictures and, you know, family mementos and stuff, but it was like, her clothes were still there. Things like that you would do as part of the grieving process. You would kind of, you know, sort things out, give things to the kids, you know, things like that. 

Nora McInerny: Yeah, there's something about when, you know, when a house or a person becomes a museum. [Erin: Mm-Hmm.] Yeah, that's you know, it's, it's unsettling. And it also just seems to, I don't know. It just seems like an indication that like, “Oh, this is not … this is not healing, this is like an open wound.”

Erin Reavey: Yeah, and by the same token, there were no pictures of her around. You know, I would ask the kids, you know, like, “Well, what did your mom like to cook for dinner?” You know, trying to kind of like, figure out what they'd want to eat. You know, they would say, like, “Well, I don't remember.” And then I'd ask him, and he'd say, “Well, I don't remember either.” It was almost like they were just trying to like, you know, put the Band-Aid over the bullet wound and keep on going.

Erin is not bothered one bit by the presence of Ed’s late wife in the house — she WANTS her to still be part of the family. It’s Erin who actually eventually brings out photos of the kids’ mom, who starts going through her things to make sure that the kids have some of it.

Nora McInerny: I would have a hard time living in a house that feels so in-between. 

Erin Reavey: It really did, and I did have a hard time with it. And I actually waited about three years before I said, “OK, we have to clean out this closet, because I have nowhere to put my things.” I cleaned it out. He didn't really, you know, play any part in it. And I just, you know, saved some things for the kids that I thought they might want and, you know, carted off anything that might be useful for Goodwill and stuff like that. But I had to do it.

Nora McInerny: How did your conversations about, like, the relationship, the house, the kids and even the future go?

Erin Reavey: They were almost all the same, and it was usually, “I have to work a double shift, so I need to take a nap. Could we talk about this on the weekend?” And I would say, OK. And then the weekend would come around, and he would say, “I'm tired from work,” and I'm laughing, but like, this was it. “I'm tired from work. Can we talk about this another day?” We did couples therapy, and he would even say the same thing to the therapist.

Erin is living a life that exists in the in-between. The house that she’s living in doesn’t feel like she belongs in it. She has a husband, and she cares about him, but what they have isn’t really a partnership (or even really that much of a relationship). Erin’s conversations with Ed never seem to go below the surface, not even during couples therapy. 

But she stays in the marriage. Because she loves Ed’s kids.

Erin Reavey: I found an old journal maybe about a year ago, and it was about four to six months into the marriage. And I was writing in the journal that like, “I realized this marriage is not going to work. He is the way he is and he isn't going to change.” And in the journal I had written, “But I love these kids. They've, you know, been abandoned by, you know, their mother's death. I want to be in their life.” By that point, even four to six months in, I already love these kids. And you know, I moved my own daughter out of her school, sold my house, and I am definitely not going to be what some people refer to as a two-time loser, which is twice divorced. So I'm here, I'm here, and I'm staying.

Nora McInerny: It's also got to be hard, too, because like, the thing about blending a family is that there already were families, right? Like, everybody in that household had something else, knows what it's like to lose it. And the stakes, they feel so high.

Erin Reavey: They really do. And there was just no way. I mean, it wasn't like I was miserable to the level of like, we're having screaming fights. We hardly ever fought. You know, when he drank, he would just basically, like, get a little silly and pass out on the couch. So it wasn't like this screaming, you know, crazy environment. It was just unfulfilling and lonely. 

Nora McInerny: Being lonely when you're next to someone or with someone is just a whole different kind of loneliness, in my experience, worse than being alone.

Erin Reavey: It is. It's really lonely because you've got someone who is like a presumed partner, but you're not really like a cohesive partnership. And you're not also free to, like, find that fulfillment in someone else, because you're married.

For a while, Erin tries to find her own kind of happiness elsewhere. 

Erin Reavey: I figured out that the fulfillment wasn't going to come from the marriage. And I really did kind of figure out a couple of years in, like, he just isn't going to change. I've got to find my own things to do. So I joined a hiking club. I started stand up paddleboarding, camping, just different meetup groups and different other groups and meeting a lot of people. A lot of good friends. Joined a new gym that was super friendly, where the people got together outside of a gym. So all of this stuff was able to like, meet my need for like, you know, bonded friendships and things like that. Nagging took a backseat. I stopped nagging and just lived my life. I went to Al-Anon. I did that for a long time. And that was helpful in terms of me just kind of pulling out my part of it, like, you know, “What can I do to just make sure we don't fight? That we can, you know, live peaceably?” And also helpful in letting me know that like, it's OK to stay in a relationship with, you know, someone who's a drinker. It's OK. You don't have to just immediately pick up your things and go. Because, like, my whole feminist attitude was like ... I would kind of come down on myself for, like, why are you staying here? You're not happy. And so there was that constant inner attention. So Al-Anon was helpful for that. And I actually did go to some AA meetings. I'm not a drinker, but it was nice to see the other side of it. I don't know if nice is the word, but it was helpful to see the other side, like, where the alcoholic is coming from.

Nora McInerny: How did therapy or couples counseling work for you guys? 

Erin Reavey:  Not at all. [laughs] If it felt like every session. I don't know if you ever watched “Vikings,” but where you know, Lagertha comes out with like the pickax thingy and like, starts just going on, you know, hitting people. It felt like that. [laughs] It's the best description I can give. You know, we'd go in, and I would, you know, come up with my grievance or whatever. You know, “He won't start a joint bank account with me.” And you know, the therapist would say, “Ed, do you hear what she's saying? Like, do you want to address that?” And his response would be something along the lines of a long pause. And then, “I'm really tired,” you know, “maybe we could put that one on the back burner for next session.” So it didn't work. 

What sticks out to me during my conversation with Erin is how much compassion she has for Ed. He’s not a great husband, or partner. But he’s also not a bad person. Erin knows that Ed has been through a lot. She knows that the way Ed was raised and the community he grew up in hasn’t left him with many resources when it comes to dealing with grief and trauma. 

Erin Reavey: He's not a bad guy. He actually really was a good guy. You know, like I said, he was raised in Southie and in Southie, you can go a couple of different ways. You can be a priest, you can be a cop or you can be a criminal. And he chose, you know, to be a cop. He helped people. He, you know, was well-loved. He did a great job raising those kids, basically single-handedly, because his daughter was 2 years old when she got sick. So he was a good guy. He just really wasn't like … what I needed was not what he could give. We weren't well-matched that way.

We’ll be right back.

Erin is lonely. She’s been lonely … for years. Her marriage to Ed isn’t abusive, isn’t destructive. It’s just not what she needs.

Erin Reavey: I said to myself, “You have to do something, because you are not happy at all.” So I went to my best friend. She's been my bestie for 35 years, and she always is a straight shooter. And she just looked at me, and she said, “Get out of there. You have been lonely for years. Just do it.” She jumped online, started looking at apartments, started emailing them, and within like 10 minutes, she had an apartment viewing appointment for me. And then she informed me she was going to hold my feet to the fire this time. That night, I went to a concert. It was like, pre-planned, something I already had tickets for, and I didn't want to not go. And as I was driving home, I just thought, like, “Here I am, alone again,” because he doesn't want to do anything with me. It was not the first concert that I had gone to alone that I wished he had gone with me. And the closer I got to the house, just the worse- I just felt like I don't even want to go in. I'm just, I'm done, basically. So I went and saw the apartment. And if you know anything about Boston, the housing situation here is horrendous. It's like 50 people show up for, you know, a 200-square foot studio apartment, and you have to distinguish yourself. This one was no different. Basically, you just have to have some kind of cosmic connection with the real estate lady, or you're doomed. But we seemed to have that, my daughter and I, she came with me. And the real estate lady was like, whispering to me, “I have to show this place to other people, but I've already decided on you two, so can you meet me at the Dunkin Donuts afterwards?” We did. 

Nora McInerny: It's very Boston. You're going to meet at Dunkin. I love this, OK? When you had told your daughter and like, you know, you brought her to look at apartments like, how did she take that? 

Erin Reavey: So she's like, this incredible little old soul. I don't know how I managed to get her. She had said to me, this would’ve been about maybe five years earlier, she'd said to me, “Mom, I don't think you're happy here. And I just want to let you know that, when I'm moving into middle school, if we're going to move, that's a good time to do it.” I was like, “Oh, OK.” You know, and I told her, I said, “You know, I'm not super happy, but I love all you guys and, you know, being here and being able to be a mom to them and to you and to have like just a cohesive kind of family unit as much as we can is important to me. So I'm not looking to go anywhere right now.” And then she said the same thing to me at the end of middle school. The same exact thing. “It's a good time to move,” like, “I'm going into high school and, you know, people change friend groups when they go into high school. So if we're going to do it, can we do it now?” She was OK with it. She really was. She said, you know, “It’s no matter to me.” She said, “I know that I'll always have a relationship with them. So, you know, if you need to do this to be happy, it's okay.” 

Despite all odds in a bananas real estate market, Erin gets the apartment. She starts packing slowly, little by little. Not enough for Ed to notice. And the day before she’s set to move out, she tells her 20-something stepdaughter the news. 

Erin Reavey: So I sat her down and I said, “You know, will you please keep this in confidence?” And I just told her, I said, “You know, I'm not going to get into the issues. It's just, it's lonely and your dad's a good guy, but like, we're not compatible.” And I was crying. She was crying. And she said she said something like, “I always knew this was going to happen. I just didn't know when.” So I mean, she realized. I don't think our kind of mismatch was any big secret. 

The day of the move, Erin plans to move out her things while Ed is at work. She’s not afraid of him, or of his reaction, but her friends want her to operate out of an abundance of caution, given his history with heavy drinking.

Erin Reavey: I didn't take hardly anything. I took no furniture, just my clothes, my daughter's clothes and personal items and such. And we were almost done getting everything out, a couple of trips, when he came home. He'd forgotten his work badge. So, you know, if you want to, you know, that's saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans”? Here we are. And my plan always was to, like, get everything out and then come home and wait for him to get home from work and talk to him. It wasn't like I was just going to leave a note. I said, “I need to talk to you.” And he said, “Right now? I need to go get my badge and go back to work.” And I said, “Yeah, right now.” And I told him, “This is no secret that I'm lonely. I've said it before.” He didn't seem super shocked. He just kind of glared at me, and then he accused me of having an affair, which I was not. And I said to him, “Let me know. Think about it and let me know if you'd be willing to work on this from afar. You know, I'll stay in my place, and we'll work on things, but we would need to do counseling and AA.” And he just glared at me, but he let me get the rest of my stuff out, and that was the last time I was in the house for a long time.

Nora McInerny: How do you sleep that first night?

Erin Reavey: Like a baby. Best night's sleep I had had in, you know, probably 10 years.

We’ll be right back.

Erin and Ed’s divorce is really as amicable as it could possibly be. Erin is an attorney, so she handles most of the paperwork so they can avoid expensive, drawn-out proceedings. 

Erin Reavey: I told him I didn't want anything. In fact, I even left the engagement ring he bought me. I left on the bureau. You know, I just felt like it's, you know, we're not together anymore. So, you know, he bought it. He takes it back. I didn't want any of the house or anything, like, that was his house, not mine, to take anything up. So I didn't want anything. And so he was, you know, he was open to just filing an uncontested divorce. So I just drew it up for us and then dropped off the paperwork, and he went and filed it. Pretty easy. And we had a court date about three months later. You know, where the judge kind of just goes over with you like, you know, you're doing this of your free will and, you know, ask you a few questions, quickly reviews the settlement agreement and, you know, says, “OK, I'll enter a decree of divorce.” So that was, it was pretty easy. 

September 17th, 2019 is the final court date. And at the hearing, Ed seems out of sorts. 

Erin Reavey: He was never late, and he was late that day, which worried me. He was kind of disheveled. He did not have his phone with him, which was … I couldn't believe. He and I both have professions where you're allowed to take your phone into the courthouse. So it was really weird that he didn't have his phone with him. And in the elevator, he said to me, “Hey, there's a piece of this separation agreement that I am not sure about.” It was something about, like, if something happened to one of us, the other one would not be responsible for their uninsured medical expenses. And I'm thinking to myself, “You bastard.” Like, he knew that I had had a surgery a couple of months earlier, and I'm like, he just doesn't want to be stuck with my medical expense. Not that there were any. I had already paid them, but he didn't know that. And I said, “No, I think it's OK, but we'll have the judge look at it.” And it was OK. But that just kind of stuck in my mind as odd.

This interaction comes off as strange to Erin. She hadn’t asked for anything in the divorce, so of course she’s not going to saddle him with a medical bill for a surgery that she had months ago. But divorce itself is just … strange. And in Massachusetts, it’s a process that extends beyond just that court date. 

Erin Reavey: You go into court like we did, and the judge will, you know, look everything over and ask you the little questions. And when he or she is satisfied, they will enter what's called a NISI. And what that is is a preliminary decree of divorce, depending on your situation, before it will be entered as a final decree of divorce. So in the meantime, you are not divorced. And we had that. And when I got home that day, I counted on my calendar all the days, and I came up with January 14, 2020 would be my day that the decree would be entered, and then they'd send me a copy, and I’d pull it out of the mailbox and I would read it over, and and then I would kind of start grieving the divorce. Because you do grieve a divorce. Like, your dreams are kind of dashed and what you thought was going to happen isn't, and it is kind of a grief process. 

Nora McInerny: It is. You know what? I'm going to stop you there. It's a grief process. It's a grief process. People who are divorced are always asking if it counts. Yeah, it counts. It counts. It is the loss of a huge relationship. Of course it does. 

Erin Reavey: And I had that in my head that I get my decree after 120 days and then, you know, I would start to process it and move forward.

Nora McInerny: It feels like you're waiting for these 120 days to like, you know, take you out of this gray area and everything just feels, like, so in between. You just want some clarity.

Erin Reavey: Yeah. And I know we all hate this word, “closure.” But like in a way, getting that in the mail would be sort of closure on the marriage and then kind of mental permission to kind of, like, process the divorce and the loss of the marriage and move forward.

But in the meantime, Erin … waits. She picks up a lunchtime job walking some of the dogs in her neighborhood. And on top of her regular job, she’s working about 70 hours a week. Keeping busy. Socializing with her friends, enjoying time with her daughter.

It’s January 7, 2020 – 113 days after that court date, and 7 days until the divorce is finalized.

Erin Reavey: I don't get all my phone when I'm walking a dog. The dog gets all my attention. And after I brought the dog back in the house and went to my car, I looked at my phone and there was a text from my stepdaughter. And I thought it said something like, “Hey, just wanted to let you know that Dad passed away this morning. But we have it handled. So don't feel like you need to come by if you can't.” And I thought, “No, no, no, I can't be reading that right.” I need reading glasses, and I did not have them on, so I fished them out and put them on. And that was actually what it said. And I was thinking, “No, this has got to be a joke.” I called her, and no, no, it wasn't a joke. She had found him in the morning on the floor and, you know, clearly not going to be able to resuscitate him and … yeah. I was just shocked. So my mind's just racing. You know, my mind is like, this is terrible, but my instant thought was, wait a minute … we've got seven days left on that NISI period. So am I divorced, or am my widowed? And then, you know, my next thoughts were like, oh my god, do I go to the wake and funeral? Like, if I go, where do I stand? Where do I sit? Do I need to be in the receiving line? Or can I just be like, you know, a guest, like anyone else? You know, all these questions are popping into my head. I head home, and my daughter is going to be home from school soon, and I need to tell her. So she came home and I told her she was absolutely shocked. So we immediately got into, like, cooking mode and we made like a couple of meals and headed over there. So that was actually the first time I was in the house since I had left. And it was, it was, like, sort of unkempt looking because the clean freak was no longer living there. There were a lot of alcohol bottles around in various states of, you know, emptiness. It was just sad. 

They’ll eventually learn that Ed had gotten up in the middle of the night and collapsed on his way from the bathroom to his bedroom. The medical examiner suspected it was a massive heart attack. Ed was dead before he hit the floor. 

And this makes Erin think about the conversation they had the day they met before the judge, when Ed was being weird about medical debt.

Erin Reavey: When we were talking in the elevator, it dawned on me that he didn't want me to get stuck with a co-pay. He wasn't worried about my stuff. He didn't want me to get stuck with a co-pay. And then that just kind of destroyed me a little bit inside. Yeah. Here I was thinking the worst and, you know? [Sigh] 

Nora McInerny: And he just wanted to make sure you wouldn't be totally wrecked. 

Erin Reavey: Yeah, yeah. 

There are categories of loss that make sense to us, that we have cards for and traditions for. 

When your husband dies, you sit in the front row at that funeral. You’re a widow.

But when your *almost* ex-husband dies — a person you have love for, but who you are only very technically still legally married to — then what?

What do you do? Where do you sit? What is your title?

Because Ed died within that 120-day waiting period, which means that divorce decree Erin’s been waiting on?

Erin Reavey: Now that was not going to come in the mail. You know, like waiting on that paper, and now it's not going to come. And I know how I know this. I know this because I called the courthouse and just gave him a brief rundown and they said, “Nope, you're widowed, so you're not divorced, widowed.” 

Legally, it’s very clear: Erin and Ed were still technically married, so she’s a widow. But emotionally, it doesn’t feel that clean. Our human feelings refuse to fit neatly into tax and legal statuses.

Emotionally, Erin was done with this marriage. But even when you’re not in love with a person anymore, even when you don’t want to be married to them or share a bank account anymore … you can still have love for them.

You can still grieve that a person you shared a significant part of your life with is no longer here, no longer exists, that they won’t meet their grandbabies or walk their kids down the aisle or see their favorite sports team win whatever thing is important in that sport. 

Erin feels that. The enormity of what it means for Ed to die.


She feels the awkwardness of not knowing what to do with that sadness, that grief. Grief is messy, and Erin doesn’t know where her mess fits into this bigger mess. 

Erin Reavey: I felt like, really, this is not my place to have any kind of say in anything. I just really felt like this was something that the kids needed to do. Like, “I'm here, if you need to lean on me or you have questions or you want me to go with you.” But I did not feel like I should take an active role. And, you know, like, “Oh, OK, we'll have a collage, and we'll pick this headstone.” I really just didn't feel like that was my place at this point. So I just said to them, “I'm happy to do whatever you want. If you want me at the funeral and wake, I am happy to go. If you do not want me, I will understand. If you would like some combination of the two options, that's fine. You know, whatever you need, whatever you want. You do what is going to hurt less for you.” And so they did. They said they would like me there. So I did go. 

Erin Reavey: I still didn't know the day of … I thought to myself like, “Oh, do I need to be in the receiving line, or what do I need to do?” And I didn't really want to ask them, because on one level, I thought, like, “Well, maybe I should just know what to do.” And I, and I didn't, and I didn't want to bother them. So I said I'll take my cues when I get there. He had a lot of extended family that I had never met. They were scattered all over the country. And I was not even honestly sure if some or all of them even knew that we were just about done with a divorce. Because his social media pictures were still of us. He had never changed them. So I was like, “The less I say, the better.” You know? Like I just, you know, I just didn't want to, I didn’t want to make the kids uncomfortable or feel like they had to explain anything. So when I walked in, they had put up a collage of pictures right at the entrance point, and it was all pictures of them, their dad and their mom, and none of me and my daughter. So I thought, “OK, great, I don't need to be in the receiving line.” And that's OK. You know, I just, it's fine. Whatever way you want to do it is good with me. I mean, I love their dad and I love them. And, you know, if I'm not in the pictures, that's OK with me too. So I ended up just being sort of a guest like anyone else, or a mourner, or whatever the word is. And I was perfectly braced for people to say, like, “You did this to him or, you know, this divorce did this to him, it killed him,” and no one said anything. So I was very relieved about that. But on the flip side, you know, no one said to me like, “I'm sorry for your loss,” because I'm not sure that anyone viewed it as a loss for me, if that makes any sense.

There’s that contrast again, between the neatness of legal language and the chaos of our human emotions.

Erin Reavey: My mom was widowed at the same age as me, 47. And, you know, I saw what she got — like, letters from my dad's boss, you know, commendation letters. And people brought casseroles, and there were sympathy cards flowing out of the mailbox. And friends would call and check in on her. And you know, I saw how well she was supported in that process, and how much she needed it. My process was something like: a couple of texts from a few close friends who were like, “I'm so sorry, you know, let me know if you need anything,” one card from my mom, and that's about it. My best friend, she would listen to me. She kind of understood the grief and, you know, kind of gave some legitimacy to it and was like, “Of course you're sad. I mean, you were married to him, and you guys were together for eight years. And, you know, it didn't turn out to be what you thought it was, but you know, I mean you did love him.” And so she did understand. But I feel like, you know, maybe the rest of society didn't get it. Couple people who had been through divorces themselves or in one were like, “Oh my God, like, you know, if this happened to me, it would be like any other Tuesday, and I would be, you know, sort of like, having to quell the temptation to have a party.”

It’s a joke, of course, but it makes Erin shrink back, question the validity of what she’s feeling and rein in how she expresses those feelings.

Erin Reavey: You know, I mean, I'm grieving, and I'm deeply sad. I mean, deeply sad. And I also feel like my grief would be viewed as maybe — and I don’t know if this is even the right word — but like sort of illegitimate or melodramatic or phony, even. So I keep myself in check at the funeral and the wake. You know, there's a little, little tear, but not much. And I felt very self-conscious about it all. Like, maybe not free to just cry like I would have if no one was around. And then the months kind of just went on. I said to myself, “OK, you're going to a vacation in Florida, and when you get back from vacation, you'll only be working 40 or 50 hours a week, and you can let yourself grieve then.” So I just kind of put everything in this little box, and I put it in my compartmentalization closet, which is ... at this point getting pretty full, because that was always my way of dealing with things: just kind of put it in a box, we’ll deal with it later. And when vacation ended not too long afterwards, a week or two, the pandemic hit, so all the things that I love to do kind of went away: my socializing, my gym. Everything was closed. People were hiding in the house. So I think that shelf on the compartmentalization closet just broke. And yeah, I turned a little into a lunatic for a while. The guilt that I felt, I think, was probably one of my biggest things. I was just plagued by guilt. Guilt that I'd made a vow and I broke it. Like to me, if you make a promise or vow, it's like … you keep it. Now, I wasn't feeling so guilty before he passed, but afterwards I was feeling pretty damn guilty. Guilt that his drinking had escalated after I left, and that maybe the drinking caused him to die sooner. He had even at one point kind of suggested to me that my leaving brought on his A-fib, which my mom and I researched — no, it didn't. It was the drinking. Guilt about the way that I'd left, you know, like I, I loved him and he was a good person, and maybe I should have just told him before I moved my stuff out. 

The pandemic gives Erin the space to feel all of the things that she was too self-conscious to feel before, to forget about the compartments and the categories, to just exist in the messy middle of it all, where it’s painful and complicated.

Erin Reavey: I mean, I feel both divorced and widowed, like, they coexist in the same space. I feel like it's disingenuous, like, when I'm asked, you know, are you married -- one of those forms, married, widowed, this that. Like, I never know what to put, and I signed up for therapy and I had to fill out, you know, the intake form. And it was one of those divorced, widowed, single or whatever. And I did, I checked off widowed, and then in this, like, box, where it says, “Is there anything else you want to tell us?” You know, I explained it, that I'm sort of widowed, was widowed while I was in the middle of a divorce. And that was like the whole reason to go to therapy, because I just can't, you know, not just the label that you give it, but like also just all the feelings around it. Like, you know, are my feelings appropriate? Like, I don't know. I think I judged myself a lot for the grief and like, “Well, how can you be grieving if you left him?” You know, it was kind of like constant tension in my mind.

We can, though, create our own categories. We are allowed to hold our own experiences up to the light and decide what to call it, to define it for ourselves and explain that meaning to the people around us. We do not have to limit ourselves to the language we’ve been given, or the boxes we’ve been placed in, or the exceptional emotional organizing we’ve done in our own compartmentalization closets.

And Erin does that: She makes her very own category. Widowed with an asterisk. It doesn’t deny all of that judgment, all of that tension … it highlights it. It gives Erin the space and the power to decide what this loss means to her.

Erin Reavey: Again, it goes back to the like, “Well, you divorced him, so like, how can you be that broken up now that he's gone?” But yet I am. So the asterisk part of it is, “Almost divorced but technically widowed. And don't you dare ask any more friggin questions?” Is the definition at the footnote.

A lot of us end up trying to figure out where our grief fits, how it can rank against the other people affected by this loss, whether or not it counts, or matters. And it cannot be said enough times or in enough ways: It matters. It counts. To quote myself from a previous episode:

If it’s heavy for you, it’s heavy.

If it’s big for you, it’s big.

If it burns you, it’s hot.

Erin has a new boyfriend, and when she meets his brother’s girlfriend, she also meets another widow with an asterisk.

Erin Reavey: So she was also with somebody who was an alcoholic for several years and broke up with him. And he quickly got sick and died of complications due to alcohol. And she thought she was all alone in the world, too, with all these weird feelings of like, why am I so upset when I broke up with him? And so we've had a lot of talks while the guys are out fishing, and I think it's been pretty, pretty therapeutic for both of us.

You don’t owe anyone a footnote, or an explanation. You don’t need to catalog the reasons why your pain matters, or justify your grief to the world. But if you can, if it’s safe enough, if you have the mental and physical capacity to open up and talk about it … do that. Because somewhere out there is another person who thinks that they are all alone with their own complicated loss, wondering if it counts, or if they’re making it all up.

It does count.

You’re not making it up.

Nora McInerny: Do you think you'll always be a widow with an asterisk?

Erin Reavey: I do think I will. Actually, if I were ever so bold as to consider being remarried again, I might drop that. But it probably would still play a role in, you know, when you meet new people and you're telling each other your stories. It probably would still be widowed with an asterisk. Yeah, yep.

This has been “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” I’m Nora McInerny. Our team is Marcel Malekebu, Jordan Turgeon, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, and often also Megan Palmer. “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” is a production of APM Studios at American Public Media. Executive producer and editor Beth Pearlman. Executives in charge Lily Kim, Alex Shaffert, Joanne Griffith. Our theme music is by Geoffrey Lamar Wilson. I actually recorded it in a different closet, so things are changing around here. We are in a different closet. It’s colder and it’s actually worse. I’ve downgraded. I’ve downgraded my recording setup to be in a worse closet, somehow. New year, same me. New year, possibly worse me. Possibly worse situation. We don’t know. Too soon to tell. Okay, bye!