ON JULY 17, 2004, I walked my daughter Katie down the aisle of Bellarmine Chapel in Cincinnati. On April 9, 2011, I walked my daughter Annie down the aisle of St. Clare Chapel. A few months later, on July 23, I did the same for my daughter Liz at Holy Cross-Immaculata Church. Each time, I did it alone.
Like other widows, I have embraced both the bitterness and joys of my life without my late husband, Scott. The marriages of my three daughters, all after his death in 1999, have been among the joys I cherish, as other widowed friends treasure high points in their children’s lives: graduations, sports triumphs, pregnancies and births.
Each year, more and more women and men in my life join the ranks of the widowed. All have their own stories, mostly shared privately with intimate friends.
But the rank of “literary widows” is also on the rise. First on the scene: Joan Didion’s National Book Award-winning The Year of Magical Thinking. I’ve always admired Didion as a writer, and as I read the book, some sections did resonate, but more often I found myself, as a writer, envying her elegant and poignant style.
Recently, I received a book about widows from a friend: Antonia Fraser’s Must You Go?, a memoir of her years with Harold Pinter and, ultimately, of his illness and death. Again, I admired the craft of her writing. My judgment of the book was echoed in the words of a friend, a recent widower, when he finished reading it: “It’s sad.”
As fascinated as I’ve been by these memoirs of writer-widows, I wondered whether any writer had not only shared the pain of widowhood, but had also allowed readers a glimpse into how she had moved through her grief to new life.
The answer was on my bookshelf: the collected writings of St. Elizabeth Bayley Seton. In looking back over my years of widowhood, I realize my own emotional and spiritual journey has mirrored Elizabeth’s. Although the details of her plunge into grief and eventual resurrection differ from mine, key elements in her life offer a guide for returning to wholeness after the devastating loss of a spouse.