by Brandi Reyna
March 9, 2010 was the day that my life changed forever, the day that our life together changed. It started out like every other day. Greg and I were putting the final touches on our wedding which was set for May 29, 2010. We were planning to spend the rest of our lives together as we felt that was what the Lord wanted for us. That morning on his way to work, Greg was involved in a car accident when he was exiting the freeway and was blinded by the sun and rear ended a flatbed 18 wheeler. Greg never made it. He never had a chance. I have lived with the “what ifs” and all the “wishes” that one could have when they hear their loved one is involved in an accident. I wish that I was there, because I didn’t want Greg to die alone when he woke up in the arms of Jesus. I also find hope in believing that Greg did not suffer and feel pain.
Just a few hours after Greg was involved in a car accident, my in-laws started showing how little our relationship mattered. They may have “included” me in some of the funeral planning for appearances, but my opinion did not really matter. I could voice an opinion or what Greg would have wanted, but none of that mattered. Whatever my mother-in-law wanted is usually how decisions are made in their family. One part of my journey since losing Greg is how my in-laws have always compared their grief to mine; how they have always belittled my grief and put aside my loss.
I have been told by them that their grief will always be there, their loss will always affect them, Greg will always be missing from their lives; but that won’t be the case for me. That I will just “get over this” and that Greg won’t matter to me anymore, but that he will always matter to them. I really wanted to have a relationship with my in-laws and I really wanted to be a part of their family even though we lost Greg, but after months of being pushed aside, having my loss minimized and the relationship and love that Greg and I shared devalued, I had to remove myself from that environment because it was not healthy nor was it supportive. If things change I would want to have relationships with his family but at this time, things are not any different now than they were when I ended relationships with each of them.
I am an Unwedded Widow, or a Not Legally Married Widow. This article will focus more on my experiences as an Unwedded Widow and less on the grief aspects of my journey.
Who is an Unwedded Widow?
For some of you, this may be your first time seeing the term “Unwedded Widow” or “Widowed and Not Legally Married”. Honestly, I never saw the term nor did I even think of it until it happened to me. Unwedded Widows are people who lost their boyfriend, girlfriend, fiancé or life partner prior to marriage. These are people who were in committed relationships with their beloveds at the time of their death. Some were already planning to get married. Others were co-habiting and starting families. Others didn’t like the idea of marriage and were life partners. Some, for lifestyle reasons, could not marry and others were just simply waiting for the ring.
How I view myself and my loss
From the moment that I found out about Greg’s death, I always felt like I was a widow. Maybe because we were so close to being married that I embraced the term, whereas others who are Unwedded Widows may not feel the same way. In my heart, I felt that Greg was my husband even though we didn’t live together and we didn’t have that signed piece of paper; a paper which has made all the difference in how society views my loss. Because I did not have that paper, people have undermined, belittled and pushed aside my loss. Not just Greg’s family and friends but also society at large. I have had people tell me, “Well at least you were not married yet”, “Oh you are just his fiancé, you will find someone else”. All this was said to me at Greg’s funeral and has been said to me often since then.
What people fail to realize is that not having a piece of paper does not make my pain, the loss of Greg, the grief that I have experienced as the result of losing Greg any less than that of a married widow. Nor does having a piece of paper mean that I would love Greg any more than I did at the time that I lost him. One thing that I have learned is that death does not take away the love someone has for another person. If anything, my love for Greg continues to grow even as time passes.
Issues I have faced as an Unwedded Widow
In addition to the losses that married widows experience, as an Unwedded Widow I have faced many issues that married widows do not deal with. Two months after Greg’s accident, I had to spend my wedding day without the man I planned to spend the rest of my life with. I never got to walk down the aisle in that beautiful white dress and Greg never got to see his dream of seeing me in that dress. We didn’t get to say “I Do” in front of our loved ones. I grieve over the loss of not having Greg’s last name. I didn’t get to make decisions for his funeral and I do not have a burial plot next to Greg. I cannot legally check off “widowed” under marital status nor have I been able to check off married either. My loss is blown off by most of society unless they are friends or family or other widowed people. Initially, it was very difficult to find an in-person grief support group as I was often told that I wasn’t widowed and that I should just “get over” my loss; as if someone just “gets over” loss to begin with. Frequently, my loss was minimized and the relationship Greg and I had was devalued. What is even worse, in my opinion, is that people actually think that it is ok to do this when in fact it is never ok to minimize someone’s loss.
My embracing my journey as an Unwedded Widow has also brought discrimination in my professional career, which led me at 33 months into my journey to leave the master’s program in which I was currently enrolled. In fact, I was told that “I was hurting others, that I was stuck in grief and causing others to be as well, that I should not work with grieving people and that I should stop writing on my blog and identifying as a widow because I am not a widow.” My embracing of my situation was seen as harmful as was both my helping others to see that people who are unwedded widows experienced a significant loss and helping other people in my situation know that they are not alone.
Initially, I was only comfortable sharing and explaining my loss with others who have experienced loss as well. I was just starting to venture out and feel comfortable sharing Greg with those who were new to my life, when this incident in my professional life occurred and it made me feel like I took 500 steps backwards in all aspects of life. While I have moved past that, what was said still hurts me to this day, and while other widowed people and supportive people in my life assure me that what was said is not true, I still hesitate sharing my loss with new people and/or those who have not experienced loss. I do not want to be discriminated against again. I find it hard to put myself out there and share how I am healing now and the ways that I am moving forward in creating my new normal, out of fear of this being used against me again.
Initially, because I was not married to Greg, I felt very alone and abandoned. Most widowed people will tell you that their support system starts dwindling away after the initial amount of time after loss. Since my loss is unique and as a result of my experiencing deep grief, I lost friends very quickly. Few people in my life knew how to love me, support me or encourage me after the loss of Greg. Sadly, outside of my parents and sisters, I can count on one hand the number of people I am still friends with that I was friends with when Greg was still here. Most of my close friends now include widowed people and people that I have met that I would not have met had I not lost Greg. I was very blessed to eventually find a wonderful and supportive therapist, a kind and supportive pastor and an amazing and encouraging support group leader.
The widowed community was where I found the greatest amount of support aside from my family, inner circle, pastor and therapist. Feeling alone and abandoned, I reached out to the widowed community for acceptance, validation, support and encouragement. And I found HOPE! In 2010 there were four Unwedded Widows at Camp Widow, who embraced the term and were known as a person who lost their fiancé, boyfriend or life partner. It was so validating for me to be around other people who embraced their loss and who were not afraid to acknowledge that they lost their future spouse or life partner.
I have been so blessed to make connections with other influential people in the widowed community. One of the first widows that I “met” online was someone who has come to be one of my biggest supporters as I travel this journey and grow and heal. I wouldn’t be where I am as a writer had I not been given the support and encouragement that I have been given by Catherine Tidd. More known in the widowed community as Widow Chick, Cath supported me in my writing very early on in my journey. What I love about Cath is that she is so accepting of others and she loves people from a very special and deep place in her heart. She’s not afraid to give me the nudges that I need when I feel insecure in sharing my journey and experiences as a widow. Cath has always encouraged me to share my experiences as an Unwedded widow and has never ever seen me as “less” because I was not legally married to Greg. She has told me from early on that my story is one that needs to be shared and saw numerous similarities of my experiences with grief that are universal. Cath gave me my first writing gig outside of my blog, on her site TheWiddahood.com.
When I was really starting to struggle with lack of support and acceptance shortly before the one year mark of Greg’s death, I reached out to Michele Neff Hernandez and we discussed Camp Widow. I do not have enough space in this article to discuss not only how wonderful Michele is but also how impacting and amazing Camp Widow has been in my life and in my own journey of grief. One of the greatest helps in my own journey as a widow and in healing has been the opportunity to attend Camp Widow.
I attended my first Camp Widow in 2011. I’ll say that it was very emotional and overwhelming for me, mostly because of where I was in my own grief journey; in addition to traveling. It was so hard to talk myself into getting onto that plane and to be with 500 other widowed people when at that time it was so difficult just to be in a room of people. How would other widowed people respond to an unwedded widow being there? I was not alone, there were several of us; four that I know of at that camp that were unwedded widows. One has become like a sister to me. Since then I have attended two more camps in 2012 and I have taken away so many special, inspirational, empowering and hopeful things from each one. It is so empowering to be with other widowed people, with people who “get it” and who accept me and my love for Greg. The growth opportunities that I have experienced at Camp Widow have coincided with my own growth in my journey as I continue to heal.
I have had my fair share of widowed people who do not “get” my loss and who do not see me as a widow, honestly those experiences are few and far between now and I have just come to accept that not everyone agrees with me, nor will some people who I meet in the future. What does matter are those who do acknowledge the love Greg and I had for each other and who do acknowledge my loss and who accept me for who I am.
Advocating & Raising Awareness for Unwedded Widows
Inspired by the love Greg and I shared, my faith and the influence and impact Greg had on my life, I advocate for Unwedded Widows and our right to be called WIDOW. As an Unwedded Widow, my vision is to advocate for and bring awareness to Unwedded Widow/ers everywhere so that I might shed light on our unique journey in the widow/er community and to let other Unwedded Widow/ers know that they are not alone.
Early on in my journey, I started my first blog “And I Thought I Loved You Then”, taken from the lyrics in our song, the song that we would have danced to at our wedding reception. At the time, I thought that it was a perfect title as the blog chronicled my life and experiences as an Unwedded Widow. This blog covered various aspects of the grief journey, some of which are universal and had a wide reader base. I came to realize through comments of readers that this blog reached people who were experiencing various losses, as often there are commonalities amongst those who are grieving regardless of who they have lost. I have been told by various readers that the content that I wrote about on this blog helped them in various ways. My main intention of writing was to let others know that they are not alone in what they are experiencing.
Whether you lost your mother, brother, grandfather, husband, daughter we all have those moments where we are experiencing a symptom of grief where we feel like we are losing our minds and surely no one else goes through or experiences this in their grief. I wrote to tell others that they are not the only ones experiencing what they are going through. Sadly for the last half of 2012 I had to discontinue writing on this blog, due to the discrimination that I experienced, even though I knew that by doing so would upset readers.
Sharing my experiences on this blog, opened up other avenues to share my story and experiences as an Unwedded Widow. The Open to Hope Foundation has been very supportive of my writing and sharing my experiences as an Unwedded Widow. They acknowledge my loss and see the need for bringing light to this type of loss and for creating community for this unique population of widowed people.
In 2012, I started the Unwedded Widow Support website & accompanying Facebook page. Unwedded Widow Support is dedicated to offering online support, resources, sharing stories, ideas and raising awareness for Unwedded Widows (UWWS). Several UWWS have contributed articles covering a wide variety of topics pertaining to UWWS, others have listed their blogs on our blogs page, several participate in various activities supporting UWWS. The Facebook page is a positive support community for UWWS.
In 2012, I started the first Unwedded Widow/ Gregory Butler Memorial 5K Walk, to honor Greg and to raise awareness for Unwedded Widows, Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation (SSLF), and Camp Widow.
In 2012, with the encouragement and support of the SSLF board directors, I started facilitating the first ever workshop for “Widowed & Not Legally Married” people. This is the first in-person support group for unwedded widows and is especially necessary for our unique population. Often, we are not entirely welcomed or supported in other support groups as numerous unwedded widows have shared with me negative experiences with grief support groups in which their loss was minimized and their relationship was devalued.
“Making the Turn” and Creating My New Normal
As a dear friend of mine once told me, “normal is yours to create”. I remember what it was like to not care about life anymore. I remember what it was like to no longer have the hope that I have now. I remember what it was like to walk that journey of deep and intense grief and not care what life looked like. I remember what it was like to not be able to plan for the future, to be so overwhelmed by the thought of living one more day, month, or year since losing Greg. I remember what it was like to be so paranoid that something else would happen that I didn’t want to plan. I remember what it felt like to not be able to see past a particular point in time. I remember what it was like to hang onto life with a simple thread of hope that was buried deep down inside; underneath all the messiness of grief that no one wants to acknowledge let alone think about. I remember how it felt when I finally worked through all the messiness and finally unearthed the hope of my soul. I remember the feeling of relief when grief no longer had a hold of me, when I realized I was free from the deep grief that had consumed me. I remember how it felt to come alive again.
After 25 months, I finally made the turn in my own grief journey and I started to reinvest in life again. 2012 was a year of healing and growth for me. It wasn’t without its own set of struggles, but overall I grew and healed in ways that I never thought nor imagined that I could have been able to. It took a lot to get from my deep grief to where I am now; a lot of big steps, several setbacks and moving forward.
Loosing Greg has made my faith stronger, taught me to trust the Lord more and especially taught me the lesson that I am not in control of anything only God is and everything happens in His own perfect time. Losing Greg has only intensified my acceptance for life. I have always been a compassionate person and felt pain for others who are hurting. Now I love others more than I did before and I truly aspire and aim to live out the “Fruits of the Spirit” on a daily basis. I am no longer naive and I know that my time here is fleeting and that in a breath God could call not only me home but also anyone else that I care about. I know that my life here is for a purpose. I chose to help others because I feel that is part of the plan that the Lord has for me. I chose to give back and to reinvest in life because that is what the Lord calls us to do and I am at a place in my own healing where I can do that.
Moving forward is different for each person. How you create your new normal is unique to you as an individual. I do not know what moving forward looks like for you. I do know what it is like to be at that place in your journey of grief where you do not know if you can move forward. I also remember getting to that point in my own journey where I wanted and I desperately needed something to change and all I that I could do was pray and cling onto hope that I had for my future. I remember what it felt like when the moment came where I found myself wanting to grow, to live again, to reinvest in life. For me it started with a beautiful color of yellow. My parents cried when I started loving yellows and pinks again after 25 months of not really caring about anything. At that point I am sure they were just relieved and that more than likely gave them hope that they were going to get their daughter back after such a long time. I remember how refreshing it was the first time I wanted to take a picture with my trademark silly face. Silly pictures were the norm “before” and was something my younger sister and I loved doing, then I no longer cared to be in pictures, let alone be silly. I do not take the desire to want to be silly in pictures for granted anymore.
When I reflect back to the last three years of my life, I often find myself telling others that I feel like I went to sleep at 25 and woke up at 28. I literally lost years of my life, years that I can never get back. Parts of which, I never want to relive again and I wouldn’t wish any one to ever have to experience in their life.
I have made some monumental changes in my own life. I have healed from numerous situations in my life, which has allowed me to be more confident and to trust God more. This healing has helped me grow and find confidence in myself as a person, as an artist and as a writer. This healing has also helped me in my spiritual life. I was more able now to take this giant leap of faith and step out and follow God in ways that I do not think I would have been strong enough to do until this point in my life.
I would like to encourage you with words from a very inspirational friend of mine, “normal is yours to create.” Whatever a new normal looks like for you, I encourage you to find one thing to hold onto in the dark times, one thing to find hope in. Find hope and hold onto it because grief does get different. As we heal, we all learn to function with our loss, grief no longer consumes us, and our loss no longer defines us, but becomes a part of us, a part of our life story. How you chose to make your new normal is up to you!
I no longer take life for granted. I lost 3 years of living that I cannot have back. Now I chose to embrace each day and I live each day trying to serve the purpose that the Lord has for me. I try to love others like Christ loves and to help them. That is one of the things that I admire about Greg. I carry Greg and his legacy with me in my heart as I continue to grow, heal and move forward in life.
God is not finished with me. My story is not finished. I am work in progress and I look forward to the next chapter in my life with gratitude and hopefulness.
Copyright @ Brandi Reyna
About the Author: Brandi Reyna holds a Bachelor of Science in Sociology degree and a certificate in Gender Studies from Texas A&M University. She is currently working on a Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology. Ms. Reyna has completed internships at several churches within women’s ministry, as she feels her calling is in ministering to women so that she might walk beside, support, encourage, counsel, shepherd and offer hope to women in need. Since the loss of her fiancé Greg in a tragic car accident in March 2010, Ms. Reyna also has a passion and heart for helping others who are grieving the loss of someone they love. Ms. Reyna is actively involved in the grief and bereavement community and offers support and encouragement to those who are experiencing loss.
Ms. Reyna is the Founder of Unwedded Widow Support, an online grief support community for widows and widowers who lost their boyfriend, girlfriend, fiancé or life partner prior to marriage. As an Unwedded Widow, a widow who was not legally married to her beloved, Ms. Reyna’s vision is to advocate for and bring awareness to Unwedded Widow/ers everywhere so that she might shed light on their unique journey in the widow/er community and to let other Unwedded Widow/ers know that they are not alone.
She is the facilitator of Unwedded Widow Live Chat on thewiddahood.com and has previously facilitated a roundtable discussion for those who are “Widowed and Not Legally Married” at Camp Widow, an event founded by the Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation. She also helps other Unwedded Widow/ers on Widowed Village, an online support community for widowed people founded by the Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation.
If you would like to read more of Ms. Reyna’s work, she is a published and contributing author to The Open to Hope Foundation, an on-line support community for individuals looking for hope as they rebuild their life after experiencing loss; and is a contributing writer to thewiddahood.com, The Grief Project and Journeys Through Grief Newsletters.
Brandi’s other article: “And I Thought I Loved You Then”