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Preparing for Widowhood

Thursday, April 15, 2021

By Kristan Higgins

Illustration by Rebecca de Araujo

We’re the happiest couple I know, despite the fact that I’ve written his eulogy four times.

My father died three years before my wedding, killed by a drunk driver while stopped at a red light. It was a random, preventable, horrible death. Until then, my life had been just fine. But suddenly Dad was gone, and everything changed.

My mom fell apart. I became the de facto head of the family — the older daughter, the one who lived nearby. My sister was still in college, utterly heartbroken, and my brother distanced himself from the rest of us, cloaking himself in his life out of state and his then-fiancée’s family.

I handled everything from my father’s business to the court case against the drunk driver to taking care of my mom. I became a true adult while my mom became a ghost, so wrecked by grief she was lost in it. It felt like I lost both parents the day my father died.

And then I got married. I met a guy who rode his bike to work in New York City; who lived in a crappy section of Brooklyn where there was a lot of crime; who was a firefighter. Someone, in other words, who had a higher than normal chance of dying young. But love is love is love, so we got married.

We were young and happy and healthy, and I immediately started preparing for young widowhood.

Weird? Sure. But a person’s parents are often the paradigm for adult life, so we took out a big life insurance policy for him that we could barely afford. I handled the household accounts and daily life. When the kids were born, I was loving, firm, efficient, and wise, trying to be the kind of person who would not fall apart if the worst happened.

We were young and happy and healthy, and I immediately started preparing for young widowhood.

In Pack Up the Moon, my latest novel, Josh and Lauren Park have to deal with the fact that Lauren has a terminal illness. They don’t know when she’ll die, but they know it’s coming. They have time to prepare, though I don’t think you can ever be ready for something like this. Lauren is determined to live out the rest of her life wholeheartedly, and also to guide her husband when he’s faced with her loss.

This book is the ultimate confession of my soul — my belief that my husband will die, and I’ll have to create a life without him. A good life. A happy life of gratitude and joy, even without him, the person who adores and delights in me every single day. Maybe we have a great marriage because my dad left the house one day and never came back. Thirty years together, and we’re the happiest couple I know, despite the fact that I’ve written his eulogy four times.

The first was when he was late coming home from the firehouse. Sometimes he stopped to pick something up from the grocery store. His station is only ten minutes from our house. After half an hour, I called his cell phone. He didn’t answer. I called again ten minutes later. No answer. I turned on the news to see if there was a story about a local fire with casualties. No. Not yet, anyway.

The kids were little, playing upstairs, and it was dinnertime. He was now an hour late. This never happened. My heart was pounding, my hands were shaking. Soon, I thought, the fire chief would drive up to our house. Phil and James, my husband’s best friends at the firehouse, would be with him. I’d know immediately. I’d be brave and strong and wouldn’t collapse in the doorway. I’d make Terence proud. I’d be a tower of strength for the kids, and I’d make damn sure they led great lives, and I would not fall apart, thank you, I would persevere, and thrive, even. Sort of. Without my beloved.

I called again. Straight to voicemail for the fifth time in an hour.

Then, because I’m a writer, I opened up my laptop and started writing his eulogy. No tears, just the feeling that my heart was made of lead and that soon, I would have to tell my kids Daddy had died.

Then I heard the familiar rumble of his truck crunching on the gravel. I closed my eyes and thanked God and my father for protecting him. “Hey,” he said, seeing me on the laptop. “What are you writing?”

“Your eulogy!” I said, bursting into sobs. So much for the tower of strength. He apologized, hugging me, shocked at my distress. His phone battery was dead, he’d gotten to talking, didn’t realize he was so late. I was limp from an hour and nineteen minutes of thinking I was widowed.

Let’s just say he’s never made that mistake again.

This book is the ultimate confession of my soul — my belief that my husband will die, and I’ll have to create a life without him.

Decades later, the assumption that he’ll die first hasn’t gone away. I’m old enough now that if he does, I won’t be a young widow, I’ll be middle-aged. Our kids are grown. He’s three years younger than I am. In better shape. A better driver.

Even so, I feel like I’m ready, as morbid as that sounds. We talk about it from time to time. “I’d be heartbroken,” I tell him with a lump in my throat, “but I’d be okay. You wouldn’t have to worry about me.”

“I know,” he says with confidence. “Of course you would, honey.” Both his parents are still alive, his father in his nineties, his mom in her eighties. He hasn’t had to see one of them alone. In that way, he’s sweetly naïve.

Our life together has been filled with happiness and partnership. We’ve had our heartbreaks and worries, of course, but we’ve gotten through it together. Love makes you stronger, I believe. So if he did die before me, I’d want the rest of my life to reflect the joy, the fun, the luck we had together. I’d want him to look down on me and see me doing all the things we were supposed to do together, and still having fun, still loving life. I’d want him to smile and say, “That’s my girl.”

He deserves that.


Kristan Higgins is the New York Times, USA TODAY, Wall Street Journal andPublishers Weekly bestselling author of 19 novels, which have been translated into more than two dozen languages and sold millions of copies worldwide. Her books have received dozens of awards and accolades, including starred reviews from Kirkus, The New York Journal of Books, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal , People and Booklist. Her books regularly appear on the lists for best novels of the year. Kristan is also a cohost of the Crappy Friends podcast, which discusses the often complex dynamics of female friendships, with her friend and fellow writer, Joss Dey.

Rebecca de Araujo is currently a student at the Savannah College of Art and Design, majoring in illustration with a concentration in surface design.

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