Do you remember your engagement?
Do you remember the joy and excitement of planning your wedding?
Do you remember looking forward to being joined with the man you loved?
Do you remember...
Knowing and feeling that this was the man that had been “sent” for you to be with for the rest of your life?
How you felt whenever you thought about him?
How you looked forward to seeing him, spending time with him, just hearing his voice; you knew that he had chosen you to be his wife, and you couldn’t wait to say “I do”?
Picking the dress?
Making the guest list?
Picking a photographer?
Writing your vows?
Picking out wedding bands?
Looking forward to the next chapter of your life with your soulmate?
Now imagine that, in the middle of all that joy, he’s gone, and you’ll never see him again. In a moment, you go from being his fiancé to being his…widow. Only without having had the honor of being his wife. It feels like a cruel joke.
Memories of my engagement include all of the above, but there’s more to my story. Kenny and I had a seven-year engagement that began at midnight on January 1, 2011. I think he’d planned to propose on my birthday later that month, but he couldn’t wait to do it, so he got down on one knee at the jazz club we’d gone to for New Year’s Eve. I later found out he’d had the ring for a while, had it resized, had it appraised, and had even basically asked my parents for their blessing beforehand (even though we were 37 and 44, respectively).
Like most couples, we started planning our wedding shortly after we got engaged. However, we took our time; we weren’t in any hurry because we just knew we’d be together forever. At the time we lived in Atlanta, so there were plenty of venues to consider. At one point, we even considered getting married as part of an annual charity event where 24 weddings were performed in a 24-hour period, but we never followed through. We missed some of the early signs of what would later become Kenny’s deteriorating health. We simply thought we had time, and that we could just get married once his health and our finances had “settled”.
A year later we relocated to Raleigh to be closer to our families, but after coming to Raleigh in May of 2012, Kenny had to have a triple bypass that September at the age of 45! He recovered, and we continued to plan for our wedding here and there. “Here and there” continued through his being put on insulin, starting dialysis when his kidneys failed, losing his job and having to go on disability, his narrowly missing having to have a below-the-knee amputation, being diagnosed with sleep apnea, going through a plethora of medications, physical therapy when he began to have unexplained issues with vertigo, his having to start walking with a cane, and a partial finger amputation due to gangrene. We’d planned the wedding in bits and pieces, but things stalled when Kenny began to worry about being able to stand at the altar by my side. I didn’t care if we sat, but he did care. In early January of 2018, we decided to just move forward, get our marriage license, and get married around our 16th anniversary on Valentine’s Day, even if it meant simply going to the Justice of the Peace and having a reception at a later date….But he died on January 31, 2018.
The concept of being “widowed”, but not technically—or legally—a widow, is a little surreal to me. Unfortunately, not being married didn’t exempt me from all the same emotions of a woman who lost her spouse; I felt all the heartache, grief, pain, loss, desolation, anger, sadness, bereavement. Almost three years later, I’m still subject to the ebbs, flows, and waves of loss and grief that “actual” widows feel. But in addition to all of that, I feel the loss of what could or might have been. I feel I was robbed of the opportunity to stand up before God and our loved ones and pledge our lives to one another, to stand next to the man I loved and say, “I do.”
I had no first dance.
No cutting the cake.
No jumping the broom.
No throwing the bouquet.
I went from planning a wedding to planning a funeral. It was an insane “detour” in a life that I thought I was destined to have with the man I was destined to be with. Yes, we’d struggled through his health issues, but if anything, it strengthened us as a couple and solidified our belief that we were meant to live out our days together. We often joked about how we’d be as an old couple. We had so many plans.
When your fiancé dies, you become a widow in the truest sense, but you also face some additional hardships. I can only speak of what I know in the state of North Carolina which is NOT a common-law state. For starters, without a will, you have no legal rights in terms of your fiancé’s estate, unless it’s possibly indirectly through a child the two of you had together. You are usually not considered the next of kin, so you might not have as much say as you should, would, or could have had even in making the final arrangements for your fiancé, no matter what the two of you had discussed before his death. If he was on disability, you are not entitled to survivor benefits. In the eyes of the law, you have no more standing than a casual friend or his mechanic! If there are widows who face losing their homes, their vehicles, or any of their possessions they shared with their husbands, imagine what a fiancé could lose! And on top of this, aside from the emotional, mental, legal, and financial impacts, there is a tendency of many in society to treat your widowhood as “less than” because “you weren’t actually married”. Some even expect that you should “get over it” quicker because you were not legally bound, as if there is some time limit on your anguish because you were not “technically” his wife. However, I think that, when you lose a fiancé, you are forced to “skip” a step in widowhood: the part where you get to be a wife in the sense that others commonly recognize. That leads, in turn, to some questioning your widowhood. But despite the paper and the ceremony, you lose a part of yourself. Just because your man was not legally your husband, it made him no less of a partner, a lover, a protector, a confidante, a provider, or a soulmate; you lost all of the things that a “real” wife loses, and it doesn’t matter whether you were “Mrs.” or still “Miss” when he took his last breath. It is an added sense of loneliness when sometimes your grief is not even recognized or considered due to the lack of a legal or familial tie.
Again, I was with Kenny for almost 16 years. We were together from February 14, 2002, until the day he died, two weeks before our 16th anniversary. We were together through all the ups and downs. We never went on a break, so I spent a SOLID 16 years with that man. We went through job and career changes together. We moved from Virginia to Georgia to North Carolina together. We raised my daughters together. We grew together individually and as partners. We built a home and a good life together. When he got sick, some said I could easily have walked away, but I never gave it a second thought; I never flinched. I took care of him as his health deteriorated; I was his anchor, his crutch, and his caregiver while he went through open-heart surgery, dialysis, and various procedures, as he battled diabetes, coronary artery disease, end-stage renal disease, sleep apnea, and depression. He sometimes said he felt I was the only good thing in his life. I encouraged him every day in every way I could. I kept him smiling and laughing, even at his own situation. I loved him unconditionally and without question through it all, and I was proud to be with such a strong man who fought through so much. If all that isn’t a wife, I don’t know what is. I lost the love of my life, my partner, my best friend, my other half, and part of what made me…me. My loss is not at a lower “level” because I didn’t make it to the altar. The lack of a wedding band does not mean a lack of pain or sorrow. If only it worked that way!
As for my journey, it’s fundamentally the same as any other widow’s. I was left to make sense of something that I did not expect, did not want, did not deserve, and over which I had absolutely no control. I was left to find a way to accept something that tore me in two and upended my life, my environment, and my world. I was left to find a way to be “okay” enough to continue functioning and living. As I said before, not having been married doesn’t make the path any easier to navigate.
However, my journey has also been unique to me, and part of that has been because Kenny and I were not married. I can clearly see the grace and support that has been granted me because it did not have to be. In reading about the strained or non-existent relationships of some widows with their in-laws, I often think of how blessed I am to have the relationships that I have with Kenny’s family and friends. And I am constantly aware of the fact that it does not have to be that way; we weren’t married, nor did we have children together. That has made it all the more important to me in dealing with my grief because these people have extended the familial ties to me that I did not get on paper.
His mother lost her partner of 40 years just five months before Kenny died, so we have dealt with widowhood together, sometimes talking on a daily basis. Like me, she was not married to her partner, but also like me, she encompassed everything that a wife is to her partner. She has thanked me many times over for loving and taking care of her son. Because her relationship with Kenny was sometimes strained, when I show her pictures from our life together, she is getting a glimpse of his home and his world that she did not have while he was alive, and she is so thankful that he was loved and that he was happy. I am her closest tie to her only child who is no longer here. We support and encourage each other through our respective journeys, and we recognize the bond we have in grieving for our lost partners and in grieving for Kenny in particular, she as his mother and me as his widow.
Right after his funeral, one of his favorite aunts told me that she wanted to continue to have a relationship with me and that she had always felt a connection with me. She was such a crutch for me at the beginning of my journey, having been a widow for about 20 years, and moreover, a widow who had also not been married to her partner either. I loved her for being so open and supportive of me. And it hurt me when she
died 10 months after Kenny. But I also know she is with him now. Another of his favorite aunts is always happy to hear from me. She always tells “everyone” (her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who live with her) that it’s Claudia on the phone, and I can hear their excitement in the background. I talk to his cousins at least once every few months. And his best friend and I check in with each other monthly. I have been invited to a memorial celebration honoring his “step-father”, his cousin’s 75th birthday party, and his aunt’s 80th birthday celebration. These are all examples of my extended “family” from Kenny and how they regard me as nothing less than his widow. None of these people had to stay in touch with me after he died, but they have. My own family, friends, co-workers, and even some strangers who knew Kenny and me from just seeing us around, have treated me no differently than if I had lost my husband. All of this has been a great source of comfort to me throughout my journey, and I don’t take any of it for granted because, again, the love and support I feel from these people are amplified because it is a gift and not a given when you were not married to your partner.
Like most widows, I also accept and carry the responsibility of honoring my partner’s life and honoring him in death by making sure he is never forgotten. I still “represent” him to others in so many ways. As I mentioned earlier, I am his mother’s “window” into his life during his last years on this earth. I sometimes serve the same purpose for his best friend who lives in Las Vegas because he was never able to visit us while Kenny was alive. I have made donations in memory of Kenny to charities that mattered to him, like the American Kidney Fund and St. Jude, as well as donating his clothes to churches, youth groups, veterans groups, and rehabilitation facilities. I even included a write-up about him when I donated some of his neckties to one youth group, and they read it and held a moment of silence in his honor at their gala. The organizer sent me the video, and I was touched by the impact Kenny could have on strangers who never knew him when he was alive. I have had a portrait of him painted for his mother, which she absolutely loves. And of course, there are pictures and reminders of him throughout my home, like the shadowbox I created to sit in my bedroom and the collage of pictures I created to sit next to his urn on the living room mantle. I have even had a memorial brick placed in his memory at one of the facilities where I donated his clothes. It is important to me to create some positivity out of losing such a wonderful person, and it is important for me to show how much his life mattered,...how much he mattered. I can’t just say, “We weren’t married, so technically, that’s not my responsibility,” because, married or not, I am the keeper and guardian of the images and memories of the last 16 years of his life. And taking on this role and responsibility has helped me through my own journey,...like any widow.
In closing, none of this is to belittle the importance of Holy matrimony or the sanctity of the union, the vows, or marriage itself; through no choice of our own, some of us simply didn’t make it that far. But we didn’t lose anything less than a husband in every sense of the word. We face the same struggles as any widow and, sadly in some cases, more, like having to “legitimize” our grief or possibly having to fight to hold on to possessions. As I have said more than once, I have been extremely lucky and blessed in that I have not been “dismissed” in any way. In fact, it has been the opposite. On more than one occasion, I have spoken to family members and friends—and sometimes strangers who just saw us in passing—and when they would refer to Kenny as my husband, I’d try to correct them. But more than one of them has told me that Kenny was my husband and I was his wife in every sense of the word, and nothing changes that. It has helped me immensely to know that, even if I didn’t get the wedding I planned and dreamed of, even if I feel cheated, I had the type of love that everyone could clearly see, a love that transcends this world and this life.
And YES, I’M A WIDOW.
Claudia Picot is the mother of two adult children. She believes in the power of faith, grace, love, positivity, compassion, nature, and laughter. Claudia currently lives in Richmond, VA.