Welcome to Widowhood: Finding community inside of grief (in the digital world)
Sergiusz, Rachael Cerrotti’s late-husband, enjoys the fourth of July nearby his in-laws home outside of Boston. It was his first Independence Day as a husband and an immigrant to the United States. July 2016. All images by and courtesy of Rachael Cerrotti.
By: Rachael Cerrotti
It feels like grief is having a moment. Conversations about death, trauma and resilience seem to surround me, spurred by the loss of celebrity spouses. Most notably I have been following the media’s coverage of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg embracing Option B as well as the far-too many opinions about Patton Oswalt’s courageous decision to love again.
In the early hours of September 30, 2016, I watched the sun rise from the basement of my parent’s new home. It wasn’t the room I grew up in nor was it a place that held any memories that existed before my recent marriage. My hand permanently placed on my neck clutched onto my husband’s wedding ring which hung on a delicate chain. Touching the circular piece of white gold, which symbolized everything we were supposed to have and everything we lost, was my only way of understanding what was real.
In the days that followed, I barely existed. I changed my clothes maybe once or twice, obediently ate spoonfuls of soup when told, and stared into the unknown. My life was flipped upside down and I felt as if I was the only one in the world to ever experience such a thing at the age of 27.
I desperately sought someone who could help normalize my trauma, someone who could say ‘I went through this too. You are going to be ok.’
When you are as young as I am, the communities are far and few between. Friends would send me links for support groups for ‘young widows,’ but those were mostly attended by women and men in their 40s and 50s – still a young age to lose their partner, but a far leap from the world in which I lived. I needed a place where I could see my reflection in the stories of others.
My first step into an online grief community was Refuge in Grief, a resource and writing group created by psychotherapist Megan Devine who tragically lost her partner. Her work came into my life in the very early weeks after Sergiusz’s death and gave me purpose in the month following the funeral (and then again around the six-month mark). Every morning I received a writing prompt in my inbox and through the written word, I tackled the emotional ebb and flow of facing death. I wrote about losing my partner and best friend and I digested and spit out what it was like to watch someone die, to hold the hand of a body that no longer held a soul.
The habit and the practice of writing saved my life in those first weeks.
The private Facebook group set up for the people in my writing session provided me with a context and community that I desperately needed. We were taught how to give feedback to one another in a way that was supportive. I felt validated in my words, no matter how dark, and I felt comforted reading the prose and poems written by other grievers. Every day I was reminded that I was not the only one blinded by tragedy.
Then I found the Hot Young Widows Club, a group started by Nora McInerny Purmort & Marisa Richardson who both lost their partners at too-young of an age. When I found this group, I remember staring at the screen with a big smile on my face (which was very unusual at the time); it was the first day of my new identity. “Damn right,” I said out loud to myself, “I am a hot, young widow.”
This group has provided a measuring stick of my own journey through grief and brought me incredible new friends. Most of the woman I have photographed in my ongoing portrait series about young widowhood have come from this group. It is a place where we can be young and free to talk about every aspect of moving forward. This is a place where in the early days you can question how you will even live for another sunrise. There are threads about sex-after-death and what it means to have another partner (which we refer to as ‘chapter 2’). There are discussions about relationships with in-laws and the challenges of being a single parent. We discuss topics such as what it is like to attend that first wedding without your partner or when to remove your wedding ring. There is no question of whether you were legally married, if you are a man or a woman, or how you define your sexuality – if you are young and have lost your person, this is a place for you.
In more recent months, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant published, Option B : Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy. The book, inspired by the sudden death of Sandberg’s husband, discusses life after loss and what it means to move forward. Being a public figure, it has opened up a conversation about coping with trauma to those who have not faced such tragedy themselves. I had family members and friends who had barely spoken to me since my husband’s death write and ask what I thought about this book.
To be frank, I resented these interactions in the beginning. For so many months, I had been sitting in this club that not only did no one want to be in, but also that no one wanted to talk about. In general, people don’t want to discuss death, especially that of a young person. It forces us to question our own mortality and in the most dramatic way, puts our own existence into perspective. But, now it seemed that because a famous person wrote about it, the topic was approachable.
I moved past this feeling of anger (one of the five stages of grief) and began to understand that it is my responsibility to be a voice for my new identity. Grief shouldn’t be something that is having a ‘moment’ in the media. In the words of the brilliant Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints.” And, neither does losing your person.
The more we speak about loss, the more we can normalize this human experience. No one should have to face a close death and also feel alienated from society at the same time.
My fellow young widows have been a guiding light out of the depths of grief. They have provided context to my experience and remind me on a daily basis that I am not alone in navigating my new normal. They laugh with me, embracing the dark humor and recognizing that it can help heal. They have made me feel empowered in my new identity as a widow. They have allowed me to discover who I am now and encourage me to feel everything, no matter how intense or alarming the emotion. They have taught me that it is expected that I am a different person now than I was before. We have open discussions about the anxieties and PTSD, the very real fear that someone, anyone or everyone will die in front of you. There is no judgement. There are no platitudes. They get that there are no words that will change what has happened. There is no right. And there is no wrong. We don’t have our partners anymore, but we have each other.
There is a growing list of resources out there for grievers. This is my personal list that can be accessed from the digital world. In chronological order, these are the books and support groups which have helped me move forward in this first year after my husband’s death. In another post, I will write about the face-to-face support. If you are grieving or are aware of other support systems and publications, please share them in the comments!
Online Grief Community : Refuge in Grief
Book : “The Light of the World“ / By : Elizabeth Alexander
Online Grief Community : Hot Young Widows Club
Book : “It‘s Okay to Laugh (Crying is Cool Too)“ / By : Nora McInerny Purmort
Podcast : “Terrible, Thanks for Asking“
Book : “Option B : Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy“ / By : Sheryl Sandberg & Adam Grant
Online Grief Community : Option B
Learn more about the project on Cerrotti’s Website: Welcome To Widowhood and by following @rachaelcerrotti (#welcometowidowhood / #nowawidowstillawife) on Instagram.
Read Cerrotti’s first Welcome to Widowhood essay here.
This is an ongoing project. If you or someone you know would like to participate, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Related: Welcome to Widowhood | ivoh fellow Ally Karsyn shares her story on divorce, dating & being childfree by choice | How a domestic violence survivor and a Mexican immigrant found strength in Taekwondo | After losing her veteran son to suicide, mother engages families through resources & dialogue