Parenting as a Widow - This Is Us, episode 14
I think that was the most agonizing opening to a show I have ever seen. I wasn’t sure I could make it through the rest of the episode! I’m not sure I breathed. Oh wait, I did because I needed to say “Oh my God” over and over while I watched the family try to escape the fire. My heart stopped when Jack went back inside the burning house for Kate’s dog. I suppose this could be a whole different blog post, but Kate never asked him to go back – Jack made a choice. He couldn’t bare her panicked screams and pushed his veteran courage to its limits. I wonder if Kate reminds him of his little brother that he lost. When are we going to learn more about Nicky? Why did Jack die alone? Why couldn’t Rebecca hear all the commotion going on behind her? Why did Kevin have to miss everything? Why didn’t the hospital do an EKG or something to see how Jack’s heart was doing if they knew a heart attack was a major risk? Why is Deja back? Did she run away? Why did I clutch my heart when I found out Tess became a social worker? Why have I never been to a Super Bowl party where the snacks are on level 10 like at Randall’s? I just have too many questions. But my biggest question tonight was how did Rebecca do it? How?? How did she survive the loss of the love of her life and the literal home they built together and still face her children that evening? It hit me hard tonight that in all our concern over how The Big Three were doing after they lost their father – we forgot about Rebecca.
A Widow Too Soon
Widows and widowers make up about 12% of the population, and over 15 million are women between the ages of 35-49. Women are widowed more often than men – about 3x as often. Rebecca was young, I think she may have been in her early 40s. It probably never crossed her or Jack ‘s mind to think about losing the other. They were still enjoying youth, making plans for a new business that would grant them financial stability in order for them to grow old together. She had just begun to think the worst was over and that Jack would need some time to recover from his smoke inhalation. But as we saw, he didn’t. The doctor’s told her Jack had a “widow maker’s heart attack,” because it was massive and sudden. (Even if they called it that, why did they need to tell Rebecca this????)
And so, again, Rebecca is devastated. She now had to wrap her mind around the death of her husband in the midst of having no home to return to and three kids to take care of. This is a Herculean task by any measure. How would anyone survive? Rebecca may appear to be the poster child for the quote “You never realize how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have,” but let’s take a look at some of what she would have had to face.
Risk of Suicide & Health Concerns
Widows are 2.5 times more likely to commit suicide in the first year after losing their spouse. This is a massive heartbreak that may feel insurmountable. They may struggle finding a reason to continue in the world without their spouse. In addition, the stress created by grief and trying to move on can increase the risk of, not surprisingly, heart attacks. In fact, there are so many negative impacts on the health of a widow it is known as the Widowed Effect – and their rates of death are much higher after losing a loved one. The stress experienced can impact sleep, cognition, memory and an overall decline in the immune system. I wonder if we will get to see what Rebecca does in the coming days and weeks after Jack’s death. How did she sleep that night (and where)? How many times did she break down crying? Did she consider suicide at all?
Managing the Daily Routine Alone
Rebecca says before telling the children they lost their father, “I have to ruin the rest of their lives.” But the truth is, before they can get to “the rest of their lives” they have to get through tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. Rebecca would have to do all of that on her own. For many couples raising children together, they have worked out a sharing of tasks and a groove to running the household from day to day. They may be able to choose tasks that play to their strengths and have their partner pick up the others. When a wrench is thrown in the weekly schedule, one partner can pass a task off to the other to make sure it gets done. We were able to see that the Pearson family seemed to have a good sharing of tasks going on. Rebecca had time to sew clothing, cook, maintain the household and Jack was able to take Kevin to practice, maintain the safety of the home and provide income to sustain it all. Rebecca seemed to excel at setting limits and routines while Jack excelled at brainstorming fun bonding activities for the family and doing emotional check ins with each child. They made a good team. What a daunting thought to consider that one person now has to manage all of that! Can Rebecca still cook, clean, sew and follow routines while making sure the kids had their emotional needs met? How would she factor all of this in considering the loss of income? Who would she pass a task off to when she was overcome with exhaustion, a sickness or overwhelming grief? If nothing else, This Is Us is forcing us to find compassion for single parenting in all of its forms, because no one can do it all.
Managing the Loneliness & Grief Alone
One of the first things I thought of while Rebecca was preparing to break the news to the children, was who will comfort her? Miguel was overwhelmed with the news and the kids are distraught. Sure enough, we get our answer when we see Rebecca in her car crying. She was alone. Yes, she wanted to protect her children from her grief, but she had no shoulder to cry on. She had already lost a baby in that same hospital and now she lost Jack as well. With the baby, at least Jack could comfort her.
The grief experienced by losing a spouse so young is excruciating. This is where a strong support system should step in to help them through it. Extended family can help cook and take care of the home, a close friend or loved one can stay overnight so the widow does not have to sleep alone. A faith community may be able to provide resources and support as well. What’s surprising is that this often doesn’t continue. A widow loses 75% of her support base after the loss of a spouse. Friends no longer know what to say or how to involve the widow in activities. The extended family have to return to their homes and lives. This means that the weight of the grief and loneliness falls right back on to the bereaved when they still are not able to carry its load.
Did Rebecca call on her extended family? She doesn’t have a good relationship with her mom and we don’t know of her own siblings or father. She was estranged from Jack’s father who then passed away and it doesn’t seem like Jack’s mother had any contact with the family either. The only friends we saw were Miguel and his wife, and it is highly likely she may have lost them too if they did not know how to support her. On top of that, Rebecca had no job! She had no house to live in!
Rebecca seems to lose the Big Three to college soon after Jack’s death since she mentions this during family therapy with Kevin. This means she may not have had much time to process the grief with her children. She had too much to manage, too many pieces to juggle. How could she also help the children process their loss? How could she connect to Kevin who was already turning inward and feeling rejected? Did Rebecca seek therapy for herself? It seems like we are getting hints that she did, but what about family therapy? This would have been the perfect time to seek the support of a mental health professional who specializes in traumatic bereavement.
While I still found it fascinating that each child developed very different coping choices that curiously did not seeking out each other, (Randall stated “Kate wallows, Kevin avoids and Randall celebrates!”) I must say I want to know more about how Rebecca survived it all. I want to see what coping tools she pulled out of her toolbox and who helped her find them. It could be an empowering message to other viewers who are also parenting as a widow.