In Modern Widowhood, Being A Young Widow Is Its Own Type Of Grief

Alexis Shea lost her husband, Tanner, when she was 28 years old. To her, widowhood isn’t a far-off possibility – it’s a reality she was hit with younger than most.

“It definitely always seems like people are a little shocked,” she tells us. “I went to get a tattoo of Tanner’s handwriting about a month after he died — “Dear Hummingbird, I love you so much” — and the guy who did my tattoo asked me whose handwriting it was as he was putting the stencil on my skin. I think he expected me to say a grandparent or something because [he seemed surprised] when I paused and said, ‘My husband.’” 

young widow and late husband

Modern Widowhood

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average age of widows is 59 years old, but many are much younger. In fact, almost 2,800 women become widowed every day.

The Modern Widows Club is one organization helping women “Survive and thrive after losing a spouse.” Carolyn Moor, humanitarian and mom, is the President, Founder, and Development Director of Modern Widows Club. 

“Widowed on Valentine’s Day 2000 and with two young daughters to raise solo, Carolyn struggled to find the mentors she needed to model the healing and growth she desperately sought. This ultimately led to the founding of Modern Widows Club in Carolyn’s very own living room in 2011,” says the Modern Widows Club site. 

Since then, the organization has grown to 22 chapters in 17 states. Their message is simple: you are not alone. They’re who we call modern widows. Here’s how they navigate life after loss. 

When Alexis told her tattoo artist that her husband had died, he definitely seemed surprised. Afterwards, she felt like there was this heavy, awkward weight.

“He said he was so sorry, and I didn’t have to add him to the list of people who gave me inappropriate responses, like my primary care doctor,” Alexis laughs. “I had to get a doctor’s note to excuse me from work and my company didn’t think my therapist’s signature was good enough, so I called my primary care physician, who I actually really don’t even know, and I asked if she could co-sign my paperwork.”

She explained her situation and the first thing her PCP said was, “Oh…what happened to your husband? How did he die?” which stunned Alexis. 

“My therapist tells me that some doctors don’t have a good bedside manner.”

Which brings us to what not to say to someone who has lost a loved one

Asking how her husband died is something that irritates Alexis to no end, and rightly so. 

“It’s someone just wanting to satisfy their idle curiosity by asking me about the most traumatic and devastating experience of my life. I wish people would ask me how Tanner lived and not how he died.”

Alexis drives home a very good point — if people don’t bring up how their person died, it’s likely because they don’t want to talk about it.

“Other than that awful question, I feel like most instant reactions are shocked/surprised and then shit gets weird most of the time. Weird in two ways: they either get uncomfortable and instantly want to change the subject or they get diarrhea of the mouth and say the strangest fucking things,” she tells us.   

“I had the worst brain fog for the first eight months or so — it’s not nearly as bad now — so I don’t remember who exactly said what, but someone had said ‘At least you didn’t have kids,’ which I’m assuming was meant to be reassuring since my life would be even harder being widowed with kids.  

“But it actually just reminded me of the way that I will never have the option to have kids with Tanner. Like, thanks for reminding me that’s off the table — if I can’t have kids with Tanner, I don’t want to have kids at all.”

It didn’t actually hurt her feelings because she never wanted kids, but it’s not something you say to someone who just lost their partner of nearly 10 years.  

“Another thing I find really annoying is when people say ‘You have a long life ahead of you’ as if that’s supposed to make me feel hopeful. Like… thanks for reminding me that I have to live 50 more years with this pain.”

Alexis says that when people learn she’s a widow, their instant reaction is to say something to “fix” the “problem”  — and that’s the actual problem.  

“This is not something that can be fixed. I have a lifetime of grief ahead of me and I have to learn how to live with my grief and make it manageable.  

“This is something that you can’t be cheered out of, something that nothing in the world can fix. People should just stop looking for solutions for someone who is grieving. It’s that simple. Sit here in discomfort with me…and don’t ask how he died.”

Coping Mechanisms And Therapy

Alexis sought therapy four months after losing her husband. 

“I started seeing a therapist in April of 2021 and we started with talk therapy, but she quickly suggested EMDR therapy which is used to treat PTSD.

“Talk therapy alone has helped a lot. I go to therapy weekly and my sessions are an hour and a half long, which is amazing because I think an hour is too short most of the time.”

They began EMDR therapy in June of 2021 and Alexis was actually amazed at how much EMDR helped.  

“In the first 6-8 months, I was pretty much having panic attacks weekly. At the very beginning, I literally had them every Wednesday (Tanner’s last full day alive was on a Wednesday). He died at 1 am in the morning on a Thursday and if I was awake at that time, on Thursdays, it would send me into full blown panic mode thinking about how one more week had gone by.”

She would try to sleep at night but just lay awake reliving the worst parts, and would have constant nightmares. EMDR therapy attempts to make traumatic events neutral in your memory.  

“My very first EMDR session, we worked through the night that Tanner died. Sometimes, it takes more than one session to make a memory neutral, but for me, it took one session. We did EMDR, consistently, for a period of time, and every time I came out of those sessions, I instantly felt the difference. I didn’t think it would have this much of an impact on me, but it really has.”

Fifteen months later, her panic attacks have been reduced tremendously —maybe once or twice a month now. 

“I’d say I’ve been pretty much open to anything, when it comes to healing. I even got reiki certified (for myself) in January, and I think that helped me for a while, too. I was practicing reiki everyday and felt a little more zen, but you know how some things die out quickly — I only practice every once in a while now.”

Another thing she finds helpful is to keep a journal, specifically for writing to Tanner.  

“And I just write to him like he’s somewhere reading my letters.”

When it comes to support groups like The Modern Widows Club, Alexis isn’t onboard — not because it wouldn’t be helpful, but because she’s past the point where she needs it. 

“Maybe it would have helped me more in the beginning,” she says, but she found support elsewhere. 

“I’m on the widows sub on Reddit and I think that has been helpful and my version of a support group. And something that’s been helpful is when I’m having a day where I feel like I can’t tolerate my grief any longer and I’m like…how do I make it to tomorrow, how CAN I make it to tomorrow? I go on the widowers sub and I read through posts and people talk about how they are 3 years out, 5 years out, 10 years out, and I’m like, ‘I can do this, I can keep going…this person is making it, they’re surviving.’”

Alexis also has a friend that lives nearby who grew up with Tanner and who also lost her husband in 2018.  

“She found out about Tanner and was able to find me through social media. She shared her story with me, and we’ve become very close since then and see each other regularly.”

Financial Challenges Of Widowhood

In addition to the devastating loss of a spouse, there are financial challenges that usually follow widowhood. Without large sums in life insurance or other valuable assets, the economics of widowhood usually include a drastic drop in income.

After the death of a spouse, household income generally declines by about 40% due to changes in Social Security benefits, spouse’s retirement income, and earnings. For younger widows with children under age 18, the Social Security system kicks in as an important safety net by providing a form of “social life insurance” for survivors. 

“When someone dies who has worked and paid into the Social Security system, part of the taxes go towards survivor’s insurance. Survivor’s benefits can be paid to certain family members that include widows, children, and dependent parents. Although most working people view the Social Security system as a retirement program, it, in fact, pays more benefits to children than any other federal program.”

After the earner’s death, family members are determined eligible if they meet certain factors – nobody will need more than 40 credits or 10 years of work. But the number of work credits you need depends on your age when you die. The younger a person is, the fewer work credits are needed to be eligible for a survivor benefit. The amount of the benefit is based on the earnings of the person who died. 

“For example, a monthly family survivor’s benefit for a spouse and two children would be paid until the children reach age 18. At that time, the widow’s benefits stop, but they will begin again when the survivor reaches age 60, the eligible age for a reduced survivor benefit. If she can afford to wait until full retirement age, now age 66, then she will receive a full benefit. If she is disabled, she is eligible at age 50,” according to Social Security

Alexis knows the financial struggle of widowhood all too well. 

“Having a mortgage and just regular bills, going from a two income household to a one income household, that was something I immediately panicked about when he first died. How am I going to pay for all of this by myself?”

They went into a mortgage based on what they could afford together. Obviously, Alexis wasn’t expecting to be responsible for the mortgage by herself.

“But I think that’s something else people don’t necessarily think about. It just goes along with another thing that I’ve lost. I have lost my financial security. I’m working through it and figuring it out, but in the first couple of months before I started to figure things out, I was already mentally making a list of things in my house I could sell — even my car.”

She considered moving back in with family, if it came to that point. 

“But I was devastated to think about having to sell my house, if worse came to worse, since it has so much sentimental value being the place Tanner and I basically started our life together in.”

Lessons Of Modern Widowhood 

We asked Alexis what she wants others to know about being a modern widow. 

“I guess it’s sort of hard to explain, but I feel like so many people just see that I’m functioning and doing things and assume that everything must be fine and dandy now. There’s this thing around grief…like society thinks, after a certain amount of time has passed (about a year), everything must be calmed down and fine now, but that’s not true at all,” she says. 

“Grief is a lifelong thing…I will never stop grieving Tanner because I will never stop loving Tanner. I don’t think people understand exactly how hard it is to get things (logistics) done. Almost 15 months out and I still have three more things to file for…I still have not been able to transfer the title of Tanner’s car into my name.” 

Which is basically impossible, at this point, from what the DMV has told her.  

“I also don’t think people realize that no matter how much time has passed, you still have new realizations all the time. I have kept all of Tanner’s shoes and stuff in our shoe closet by the front door…which I don’t open very often because I don’t have many things of mine in there.  And every time I open it and see his shoes, I’m just like ‘fuck.’” 

She remembers the first time ordering pizza after Tanner died. 

“The pizza got delivered and it was just one box of pizza and not two. And I had a full on meltdown and cried because I will never order two boxes of pizza for us again. There are just so many things like that that people don’t think about. The realizations never stop. Fifteen months out and I’m still learning how to manage and function.”

As a tribute to her late husband, Alexis crafted his skateboard into a hanging shelf where she placed Tanner’s picture, some of his favorite things, and his ashes. 

“Tanner loved skateboarding when he was younger but never had the time for it, so he bought himself a skateboard to put together in the beginning of quarantine and started skateboarding again,” she says. 

Tanner assembling a skateboard

“I feel like it’s a huge piece that I have of him. It was sitting by the door for a long time and when I got his ashes back, I wanted somewhere sentimental to put them.”

The red bracelet on the urn is a red thread of fate bracelet — Alexis wears the other on her wrist. 

It signifies “The two people connected by the red thread are destined lovers, regardless of place, time, or circumstances. This magical cord may stretch or tangle, but never break.”

Alexis Shea is @plutonianlife on TikTok and @crosheaco on Instagram. 


We are grateful to Alexis for sharing her story with us. Tell us what you think in the comments.

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