6 Lessons From a Young Widow
My father died at 41, my husband at 37. What I learned from my mother, and what I discovered on my own.
When I was six years old, my 41-year-old father died. My mother was only 36, plunged into the world of single parenting, forced against her will to raise four children alone in the 1970s. I was the youngest, and there always seemed to be an adult telling me how hard it must be on my mom to be a single parent. Little did I know that I would find out exactly how hard it was when my husband died almost 30 years later.
It was April 1999 when Jeff Brinkley, my husband of almost ten years and father to our three young children, was diagnosed with stage-four Hodgkin's disease. This came as a shock to everyone. Jeff was an active bodybuilder, martial artist and healthy eater who only missed work for vacation, his children's births, or if I was sick. His battle was short and fierce, and in the end, the cancer took his life two weeks after his 37th birthday. I became a young widow at 34 — two years younger than my mother was.
She sat with me and my brothers around the kitchen table, made us hold hands, and told us that all we had was each other.
I remember that day Mom told me my father had died. I can still see my brother on the bed beside me, falling back and crying. She sat with me and my brothers around the kitchen table, made us hold hands, and told us that all we had was each other.
It was my turn to have those same tough conversations with my children. One difference was that I was fortunate to have Mom in my life to help me when needed; Mom wasn't as lucky. She didn't have help from her parents. She moved in for a few years and stayed close to the children. I still told the kids what Mom told me — that all we had was each other — because getting through this would take work and dedication. I was in the same situation that my children were in. I knew how confused, hurt and scared they were. I wanted us to be close. I also didn't want my children to become statistics.
To do this, I applied the lessons I learned from being the child of a young widow and single parent to my own journey. Along the way, I learned my own lessons about myself and life through the lens of being a widow. It's been 24 years since I became a member of a club I never wanted to join. My kids are now successful, incredible adults, and we all remain very close.
Lesson 1: This Too Shall Pass
This was my Mom's favorite saying no matter what I was going through – a bad day at school, a fight with a friend, labor, a period of grief, money issues, being a single mom – whatever. Don't tell her I told you, but she was right (just kidding, I told her). Everything I went through had an expiration date or time. The next day at school was better, the friend and I either parted ways or made up, I gave birth, the grief subsided a bit and my kids grew up.
I haven't stopped using Mom's favorite mantra in every aspect of my life. Toothache? Just get through to the dentist appointment and it will be fixed. Child home sick from school? They will go back. Working too many hours to finish my client's book? I'll get it done. Granted, this wasn't easy, but the lesson was clear.
Lesson 2: My Journey is Mine, Yours is Yours
Losing a spouse at any age is difficult, but young widows and widowers face different challenges than older ones do. Soon after Jeff died, I remember chatting with a friend at a store. A stranger, eavesdropping on the conversation, rudely blurted out, "You need to start dating again. Your kids need a father." I was flabbergasted (and very proud at my restraint). I wasn't looking for candidates for some job I was trying to fill.
I was told the standard cliches from those who thought they were helping: "You'll get over it." "Time will heal all wounds." "You'll find someone new." While all of these things are a little bit true, people do not realize that everyone's timelines are different and, most importantly, need to be respected. Mom grieved differently than I did. I'm not grieving on her or anyone's timeline, and neither are my children.
I learned the hard way that Jeff didn't get in front of the camera as much as he should have.
Lesson 3: Get in Front of the Camera
What could this lesson have to do with being a young widow? I learned the hard way that Jeff didn't get in front of the camera as much as he should have. Even in a generation of selfies, some people still do not like to have their photos taken. Encourage them to stand in front of the camera. The kids and I treasure every photo we have of Jeff and ache to have had more.
Lesson 4: Single Parents Still Need Help
Looking back, Mom raised us at a time when the Internet didn't exist, women didn't have as many high-paying positions as men and resources like GoFundMe weren't available. She scrimped, saved and sacrified. We played sports, had new clothes every school year and a full Christmas, her favorite holiday. Others aren't so lucky, I completely understand that, but life was still hard for Mom, who always put her children first.
No matter what I did, someone had an opinion about it. I quickly had to learn how to have a thick skin.
After Jeff died, I made the decision to continue working from home, no matter how hard it would become – and boy, was it hard at times. But I wanted to be there for my children. Be there when they got home from school and put them on the bus in the morning. I was fortunate that I worked so hard at my writing career that I got to join them on field trips and take occasional vacations with them.
However, once when I was discussing with a family member a Broadway show I wanted to take the children to, he said, "Just do it." That family member made a six-figure salary and had one bonus child. To take all three of my children and me to a Broadway show would cost upwards of $600, not including train fare, food and souvenirs. I couldn't "just do it." Looking back, the assumptions about young widows and single mothers are unfathomable.
What's the lesson? No matter what I did, someone had an opinion about it. I quickly had to learn how to have a thick skin.
Lesson 5: Get on the Floor
My mother drove us around to events and games, but she never got on the floor and played with me and my Barbies. We played board games occasionally but never went to the movies. Mom's house was immaculate; mine was messy. Fast forward to one day when Mom popped upstairs.
"Sorry, my house is messy," I said, and I started to cry. I felt like I wasn't as good as Mom was at handling everything.
Death changes everyone. There was the Lisa before Jeff died and the Lisa after Jeff died.
"Lisa, stop," Mom said, surprising me. "You might not have the neatest house, but you get on the floor with the kids and play. If I could go back in time, I would've gotten on the floor and played more with you, but I didn't, which is one of my regrets." Of course, I straightened up, but from that day on, I never felt guilty about it.
Lesson 6: BD/AD
This lesson isn't about the newest rock band but stands for Before Death/After Death. Looking back, being a young widow changed me. Death changes everyone. There was the Lisa before Jeff died and the Lisa after Jeff died. I became a single parent overnight, and while my kids were always my priority, I woke up the next day having to do it all, while managing my own grief.
For 20 years, every thought I had was of my kids and every decision I made was about them, putting food on the table and just plain survival. Through the journey, I was diagnosed with cancer twice. It scared me that my kids would lose two parents and put death at the forefront of my mind.
It's been 24 years since Jeff died. Mom passed away last April at 86 years old and I'm dealing with a new grief. Losing a parent as an adult brings its own unique grief, but thanks to Mom, I approach every rollercoaster ride of grief with one mantra, "This too shall pass." I never wanted to be a young widow, but thanks, Mom, for showing me how to do it right.