When I pictured what my life was going to look like, being a military spouse was never something I thought about when contemplating the various scenarios that could be my life. Why would I? I never wanted to leave the town that was home, I was in a long-term relationship with a wonderful guy I met when I was still a teenager…I just always figured that my life was going to be some variation of the things I was so certain of. Life, however, had other plans. Instead of the predictable flow I thought my life would follow, I became a widow at 23, and any plans I previously had went out the window.
So here I am today, 28 years old, a widow, and a military spouse. These aren’t the circumstances I ever pictured for myself, but I’m not unhappy with how the pieces fell. The military life does have its challenges, some stemming from moving every year or two and constantly starting over with a new group of people. Will and I have moved three times so far. Each time, I’ve found myself a little lost and isolated. Back home, everyone that knew me, knew about Brandon, our history, and what happened. It was rare for me to run into someone for who his death was news. There is a small comfort in that. He is such a huge part of my life, I feel like it’s unacceptable for me to ever not talk about him. I feel like his life and death helped shape the person I am today, so anyone that knows me, needs to know about him. I rarely had to wonder when to bring up the widowed thing in conversation with people at home.
Now, however, when we move to a new place, not a soul knows about Brandon. To any new person I meet, I’m Will’s wife, and that’s all they know about me. The initial conversations with new people follow a similar pattern: you talk about how long you’ve been married, if you have kids or not, what pets you have, if you work or not and what you do, and you tend to talk about the places you’ve been stationed. These are the common topics that are covered during the initial getting to know the new people at your squadron stage. The conundrum I always run into is when on earth do I bring up the widowed thing? Do I bide my time, get to know new people for a couple of weeks or months, and then tell them? Do I just come right out with it during the first five minutes of meeting them? It’s not an easy bomb to drop on people, and you’d think after all these years I’d be better at navigating things like this. But I’m not. Each time we move to a new place, I feel just as awkward and unsure as the first time.
Like I previously said, I haven’t had to worry about this very frequently in the past. When I signed up for online dating, I thought about this very issue, and made the decision very quickly to put on my profile that I was widowed. This way, I figured, the people who wanted nothing to do with that wouldn’t waste their time messaging me, and those who did message me, already knew the bomb. That was my easy way out of that situation, since I didn’t want to struggle with when on a date does one bring up the dead husband (do you do it immediately or do you wait until desert??). So when Will messaged me, I knew he did so already knowing about the baggage that I came with. So far I haven’t come up with a similarly easy solution when it comes to meeting people at the new bases we’re stationed at. I can’t just make a widespread announcement, unless I want to wear a banner that reads, “Hey, my name is Valerie! By the way, in addition to being Will’s wife, I’m also a widow. Nice to meet you!”
The military community aren’t strangers to widowhood. But I’ve learned people react very differently to it. So far I’ve explored a variety of ways of bringing up the widowhood detail. I’ve done it immediately after meeting someone, in that initial five minute conversation (usually fitting it in somewhere during the how long have you been married question as a side note). I’ve waited a while to say anything. I’ve had Will tell people and have it grapevine from there. Some people were very kind and understanding. Some people immediately shut down, acted awkward, quickly became distant, and eventually wrote both Will and I off, as if we were lepers.
Having seen such a range of responses, to this day, I still have no idea what the best way to go about it is. I wonder if this is just something that I will always struggle with. The other night I had dinner with a girl from the spouses club at our new squadron. It was my first time meeting her, and I brought up Brandon pretty quickly as we were asking each other questions. She was kind and didn’t treat me any differently afterwards, it was nice. In a couple of weeks I’m going to a Christmas party where I’ll meet the other 25 or so spouses in this club. She said there is usually an introductory section where the newbie to the club introduces themselves to everyone and says a few things about them. So is that when I bring up the widowed thing, as a general public announcement to a sea of new faces? Somehow that doesn’t seem like the right call. The last thing I want to do is horrify 25 unsuspecting people and throw a sadness wrench into the party atmosphere. But then again, what is the right call? I don’t think there’s ever a good time to slap “Hi, I’m a widow” on the table.
Maybe one of these years I’ll figure out the formula to when the best time to bring up widowhood is to someone you’re just meeting. Or maybe it’s just something that will always be hard and awkward. Until then I think I’ll continue to struggle with my anxieties on this.
Maybe one day it’ll get easier.