Back in the days before emojis came along, we used to type a heart like this “<3”. And I guess when you tilt your head sideways it really does look like a heart but being a literal thinker, to me it always looked more like it meant “less than three”. After my husband died in 2010, I got a lot of these sideways hearts in emails from my friends, and I couldn’t help but think of my family of three: me, my husband Jack, and my 2 ½-year-old son Will and how we abruptly went from a family of three to a family of less than three and I found it ironic that the symbol for less than three was a heart. In the early days of my widowhood I would read e-mails full of kind words and thoughts that closed with a heart, but instead of seeing the heart, I would see a reminder that my family was now less than three.
It was a lonely feeling to be a family of two. It was terrifying to realize that I was suddenly a single parent – I was all he had now, and he was all I had. It would practically paralyze me with panic to wonder how I could go on. But I realized I had no choice and I had to go on.
Over the years, there have been many times during school projects that Will has had to draw or write about his family. He’s brought home many pictures of stick figure families with more people than could fit on the paper. He’s filled in the blanks to the “how many people are in your family?” questions with numbers as high as 10 or even 20. When I’d ask who those stick figures or counts represented, his list was endless: me, him, grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, pets, and yes, Dad. And while dabbing my watery eyes, I was gradually starting to understand that our less than three was so much more.
In 2016 a friend told me about Family Lives On, an organization that supports children who have lost a parent. I enrolled Will in the Tradition Program, which means that once a year he receives a package full of items that remind him of his Dad. We treasure these packages and love to talk about things Will and Jack used to do together. I also started volunteering for Family Lives On and am thankful to be able to send Tradition packages to other children in the program. Will and I have attended numerous Family Lives On fundraisers and functions and gradually the feelings of “less than” started to dwindle.
In 2017 I started dating again and have met someone who I want to spend the rest of my life with. This is a very scary and vulnerable feeling for a widow because my “forever” with Jack only lasted 9 years and I am all too aware that forever is finite. But for me and Will, having Mike in our lives now is yet another example of how our less than three is becoming more again.
And so, the lonely, terrifying, and paralyzing thoughts that occupied my newly widowed mind eight years ago have been replaced with feelings of love and gratitude. Gratitude for Will and his drawings of his large family. Gratitude for how Family Lives On promotes healthy grieving for Will and allows me to help others who might be at a “less than” point in their life. And gratitude for Mike who literally makes us no longer less than three. And so, I go on, always remembering that in life, I can choose to see less than three or I could change my perspective and see the heart full of love. <3