Welcome to Widowhood

There is this club that no one wants to talk about and no one asks to be in, a group of young women who have been bonded by an experience unimaginable to most, feared by all. We have been robbed of our person.

The losses are never the same, stemming from heart failure, cancer, rare diseases, addiction, suicide, terrorism, and unexpected events. As our peers settle into the word “wife,” we are searching for an identity in the new role of widow.

On September 29, 2016, my husband suddenly collapsed and died in our bedroom. He was 28 years young and we were two weeks shy of our first wedding anniversary. On that Thursday morning, I woke up in his arms, feeling secure in our Boston apartment. I went to bed a 27-year old widow in my parent’s basement.

I met Sergiusz (pronounced in the States as Sergio) in 2009. We were sitting on a playground outside of the student dorms at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem; both of us had arrived just days before for our year abroad. I remember him in an all yellow outfit — a bright t-shirt that had a clown vomiting a rainbow on it and these long yellow shorts that he referred to as ‘three-fourths’. His blond hair and dimples were welcoming and his lisp, that took years of learning English to escape, only made him more endearing. I had never met anyone from Poland before. We quickly bonded, sharing music and stories from home while stealing the free wi-fi until we could navigate buying internet in a foreign country.

Sergiusz & I on the roof of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the school where we first met in 2009. Photo by Steven Bernstein / June 2010.

Sergiusz was my best friend from that day on. During that first year we would travel to Jordan together, make an outing of getting his haircut in Ramallah, eat unhealthy amounts of hummus and sometimes hold hands when no one was watching.

The year ended and we went our separate ways: me back to school in Philadelphia and he returned to finish his bachelor and then his masters degree in London. We kept in touch regularly and crossed paths in Israel again in 2012.

On April 15, 2014, I arrived in Prague to do preliminary work for a project that was leading me to relocate to Europe. Living in Poland again, the Czech Republic’s neighbor, Sergiusz came to see me. After a broken beer bottle in his backpack, a spilled espresso on the bed and some moments of staring somewhat awkwardly at each other, he blurted out “Fuck it, I think I am in love with you.”

That day we knew we would spend the rest of our lives together.

For the next year I lived in Europe, spending months at a time traveling solo, but always returning to him in Poland in between. We began the immigration process in the winter of 2015 and he moved to Boston on September 1st of that year.

We were married on October 15, 2015 in a private ceremony, officiated by my father, in the woods of midcoast Maine. His green card came the following Spring and in August of 2016, we hosted our wedding celebration on a friend’s farm in Denmark.

Sergiusz and I were married in a private ceremony in midcoast Maine on October 15, 2015. It was attended by our parents and my brother; my father officiated. Photo by Tracie Van Aukin / October 15, 2015.

We still had wedding gifts unopened when he died. A stack of condolence cards soon outnumbered those wishing us a happy and healthy life together.

Sergiusz on our wedding day. October 15, 2015. Photo by Tracie Van Aukin.

I am now in this club. This club is full of young women who are watching their peers celebrate life milestones with selfies, Facebook posts and Instagram stories. We are trying to navigate a new normal that will forever be accompanied by grief. Yes, perhaps we have a full life ahead of us (as too many people feel obliged to say), but we will never be entirely whole again. So how do we move forward? How do we find our new identity? What does it mean to be strong? And, how do we balance still feeling like a wife while reasoning with reality — we are widowed?

I have no anger over Sergiusz’s death. He died of hypertensive cardiovascular disease (simply put, a heart attack). But, I do have anger that I had to feel so alone in those early months. I kept looking for a mirror, someone to show me that I wasn’t the only one.

This past February, I put out a call in two grief groups on Facebook. I asked if any of my fellow widows would be interested in sharing their story for a portrait series about resilience in young widowhood. In less than 48 hours, over 100 women responded. For me, this fact remains as horrifying as it is comforting.

Since then, I have had the privilege to meet with nearly two dozen other young widows from across the United States. Their lives are vastly different than mine; their situations even feel foreign to me in many ways. But, we are in this club together. We have lost our person and we have been confronted by grief and a world that keeps turning even if our lives feel like they have stopped.

Sergiusz and I didn’t take any of the traditional approaches to getting married; we did it on our own terms. Luckily, I have friends who are professional photographers, who told us we needed an engagement photo shoot. For the occasion, he put on the shirt he was wearing when we first met. Photo by Evey Wilson (one month before marriage).

Over the next months I will be sharing these stories with the ivoh community. The majority of the women you will meet are under the age of 40. Some have kids, others don’t. Some had a chance to walk down the aisle and others didn’t. Some of these women were left with a house, a will and financial comfort, others were left with nothing. Some have found love again and others are not thinking about who or what comes next. Some cry at night and others don’t often shed tears. There is no right or wrong when it comes to dealing with death, but there is a need for stories and proof of their power to help heal.


Learn more about the project on Cerrotti’s Website: Welcome To Widowhood and by following @rachaelcerrotti (#welcometowidowhood / #nowawidowstillawife) on Instagram.

This is an ongoing project. If you or someone you know would like to participate or are looking for resources for those grievers, please reach out to rachaelcerrotti@gmail.com.

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