I carry your heart with me (I carry it in my heart)E. E. Cummings
When I meet someone new, there inevitably comes a point where I have to explain that I am a widow. And it never gets easier. But, I have now had this conversation so many times that I feel completely detached from it. Like I’m relating an event from another person’s life. Something I saw on the news. A friend of a friend. How can it possibly be my story? This is not what the blurb on the cover of my life promised, dear reader. And so I am distanced from the tale, as the words fall out of my mouth.
It must seem like I am made of stone, but I have to tell it like this, so that I can bear the horror. I never know how to process the unbearable double wash of pity that comes over the listener – the first for me, the second as the penny drops that Ava is fatherless. It makes me distinctly uncomfortable, and I resort to comforting them as they come to terms with my history – to reassure them that we are ok, that we are going to be OK. But every time I see the concern on their face, I am reminded of how truly awful losing Omid is.
One of the first things they ask me, astonishingly, is “how did he die?”. It’s a natural response I suppose. We are curious creatures, and it is unusual for a man in his early forties to pass away. I suppose they also assume that he was the same age as me – early thirties – which would make it even more unusual.
But the question makes me mad. It feels the most backwards way to introduce someone. So wrong that the only thing a stranger might know about my soul mate’s life is how it ended. The first time it happened, I was at the Residents’ Summer Party of the estate I had recently moved into. I introduced myself and Ava to a small group of my neighbours, whom I had never met before. They asked me how old she was and cooed over her. Then someone asked me if her dad would be joining the party? I muttered something about it being just us living in our flat, which prompted another neighbour to ask if Dad was nearby to help. “I’m actually a widow” I replied. Cue a collective gasp from the group, as my face burned with their unwanted attention. A sea of people, all shaking their heads in unified pity, not knowing how to respond or what to say. Eventually one of them asked “How did he die?”.
I was shocked. He may as well have just slapped me in the face. I had no idea what to say. My mouth moved, and not a sound came out.
I wholeheartedly agree that we need to talk more openly about suicide, to break down the taboo. And the very fact that I could not utter those words to that group of strangers makes that even more apparent. But, in that moment, they were not entitled to that information. To know about the final, excruciating, most despairing seconds of my husband’s life. It was as if they had asked to read his private journal.
And yet, my silence and obvious discomfort made it wholly apparent what had happened. For what other cause of death is unspeakable? If he had succumbed to cancer, or been killed in a car crash, the words would have come so much more freely. There is a public vocabulary to discuss disease and accident, as horrifying as they are in their own right. All of the people stood before me would have had that conversation before. But a self-inflicted death is so alien, so unimaginable, that there are no words. I feel I have to prepare people for the knowledge, before they hear it, lest I shock them. And it seems utterly unfair that I should bear the burden of comforting someone else through my tragedy.
So when you meet me and you learn of our story, do not ask me how he died. Ask me instead what made him laugh? What was his proudest achievement? His favourite band? His signature dish? How did he take his tea? Where was his favourite place on earth? I can tell you these things, and I WANT to. Let me celebrate his life with you, and explain why I was, and still am, so proud to call myself his wife, rather than encourage me to wallow in his loss and remind me of our darkest day.
Do not ask me how he died. Ask me how he lived.