The podcast Great Grief takes shape around Nnenna Freelon's own great grief, which she experienced after the death of her husband, Philip Freelon, in 2019. A wife for nearly 40 years, Nnenna wonders in this episode what to make of the term widow.
Perhaps loss does not make her into a widow after all—perhaps it's turning her into something else altogether. This is Black Widow, the last installment in our four-episode series Wailing Women, season 1 of Great Grief with Nnenna Freelon.
Subscribe and listen to all four episodes of the first season of Great Grief: "Wailing Women," available now wherever you listen to podcasts:
♪ Oh, hush, hush. ♪
♪ Somebody calling my name. ♪
♪ Hush, hush. ♪
♪ Somebody calling, calling, calling my name. ♪
Oh, wild and widow.
Wild widow woman.
A thousand beaded tears adorning your heavy veil.
A wanderer in the bramble and the briars.
Give me some cover for sorrow has stripped it all from me.
Even my name—oh, hush, somebody calling my name.
How has grief changed your name?
♪ Oh, mama of lover's limitation. ♪
♪ Let my love, let my loss be heard. ♪
[Phill Freelon, via voicemail]
Well, honey, I just wanted to leave a few thoughts. I just want to say that while I can speak and while I'm intelligible and upright, to just leave you a few thoughts um starting with the fact that I love you so very much. And hopefully the sound of my voice will give you a fine memory of a part time together. And I hope this gives you a sense of comfort and connection with me for a time when I'm not able to speak or I'm not here to speak. So this is the first recording and um hopefully there will be many more.
I love you so much. Bye.
Phil and I, we talked a lot about AD—after death.
Now, sometimes, it was practical stuff like the spreadsheet he created with all the passwords and usernames to our entire virtual lives. Or what his wishes were regarding a funeral. He didn't want one. He preferred a memorial service which he planned in exquisite detail.
Or maybe where he wanted his ashes spread. Now he said he didn't care.
Until the suggestion that we divide his ashes so that me and the kids could share his energy. Idea. After a few beats of silence, he said with a twinkle in his eye that he didn't want his arm over here and his leg over there. We roared with laughter. It was a classic Freelon family moment.
But mostly he was concerned about me and how his death would be for his wife.
His wife. His wife. I wonder if he was thinking of me as his future widow.
Phil passed away at 7.02 a.m. on July 9th, 2019. I was dozing on the cot next to the bed. And Pierce, our youngest son, was holding his hand. He roused me and said, "Mom, mom, I think he's gone."
We glanced at his watch which reported 7:02. There was no heartbeat, no pulse, no breath, and his hands were cool to the touch.
I kissed him. I told him how much I loved him. And I thanked him for being my beloved husband. I could tell just by looking at him that he'd already run for the border.
♪ His soul had gone home. ♪
♪ Soul gone home. ♪
♪ Soul gone home. ♪
I can't recall much detail about the days and weeks that followed, except that it seemed as if all my senses went on holiday. I couldn't hear or see well. My balance was off, my brain in a fog, no sense of taste, no appetite. I felt like a crazy ghost.
I wanted to throw away everything connected to illness. If our house could have been made into a box of cracker jacks, I would shake, shake, shake, and out would fall: breathing machine, wheelchair, pill bottles, assistive devices, Hoyer lift hospital bed, emergency numbers, healthcare providers. Every single thing out, out.
What a crazy, crazy thought. I felt like a mad woman, cleaning and scrubbing, trying to get to that place that hurt so bad. All the color drained from my world, and nothing present for me but pain.
You know, my heart was hurting so badly I thought I was having a heart attack.
Am I having a stroke? My heart hurts heavy. What's happening?
Skipping beats, something's wrong with me. Am I, am I dying? Am I dying?
In many, many ways I was. My sense of self and way of being in the world had fallen from a very high shell and shattered into a million pieces on the ground.
I thought I'd prepared myself for this moment, the moment when my beloved Phil died, but I was wrong. It was just one of the many stories I told myself that turned out not to be true. I think Phil knew that preparing oneself isn't something you actually do alone.
Maybe that's why he gathered so many little bits of sweetness, sweetness. For me to savour, at a time when he knew I would really, really need it. Ah, discovering his loving voice, and voice memos on my phone, organizing the data of our lives, spreadsheeted in perfect order. That was my Phil.
He was preparing and caring for me. Still, the husband of my heart.
The husband of my heart.
You know, I never gave much thought to the word widow. It rarely, if ever, entered conversations. Well, except for the infamous female spider with the hourglass shape who killed her unfortunate mate after sex and whose bite could kill. But more importantly, I never thought I'd be a widow.
Oh, the word itself conjures up images that I don't see as me. And even though I knew my husband was dying, for some reason, I never considered that that meant becoming a widow.
My maternal grandmother was a widow for most of her life. And I have a cousin who buried two husbands in tragic, sudden circumstances. But there was no discussion, no voice, given to what it feels like to walk that path of widowhood.
Now, I do remember getting advice from older women about marriage.
They say things like, "Never let the sun set on your anger."
Or, "Keep you a little cookie-jar money for yourself, baby."
Or, "Don't tell all you know."
Words of wisdom about marriage, keeping your vows, family life, and how to stay married happily.
Some of this advice served me well in our 40-year marriage. But not a single word about what happens to you when death do you part. Nothing at all, nothing at all about how to take care of yourself, in case you end up being by yourself.
For three years, I focused on caring for Phil in the deepest and most personal ways. And I told myself that this was a precious plenty to do. Any thoughts of my future self without him, I pushed away for another place. Another time. Another place in time.
I had no intention of taking a good look in that mirror. Looking back now, I realized I was terrified.
As Phil took his last breath, I became an unwilling time traveler. Transported to a strange place where we and us became I and me. Speaking of Phil in the past tense confused my tongue.
♪ I am, I was, I am, I was, I am, I was. ♪
♪ The used to be. ♪
♪ The now the used to be. ♪
♪ Is was, is was, is was. ♪
Yes, those tenses confuse my tongue. We'd gotten married when I was in my early 20s. All my adult life, my womanhood, my artist self, it was all shaped by our marriage and family. And now, in my mid-60s, I'm handed a brand new script.
No. Everything within me shouted.
No. No to widow being. No to my life described in the past tense.
No to being alone. No. No.
I was never more keenly aware of the power of words to define.
I am his wife. Not was his wife. Right?
There is a legal definition for widow, I discovered when handling our estate matters. Every instinct in me said check the box marked married on one of those official forms. But I was told that my marriage officially ended in the eyes of both the law and the social security office on July 9th, 2019, the day Phil passed.
Basically, I was being told to put my feelings aside and accept that I was no longer married. I was being forced to check that box.
Now I could feel my inner self climbing up on her high, high horse. You see, I keep my high horse handy. I keep her in my purse just for cases like this. When a sister needs to ride. No one's gonna tell me who I am. If I still want to call myself married, that's my business. Now what are the other choices anyway? I'm not checking that box that says widow. No. No, thank you. No indeed.
♪ No no ♪
♪ No no no no, no no no no no. ♪
♪ No no no no no, no no. ♪
In my imagination, the conversation went something like this:
Ma'am, you've stated that your husband is deceased, yet you've checked the box that says "Married." Ma'am, is your husband deceased?
Why yes he is.
Okay ma'am, what is the date of death?
July 9th 2019.
Ma'am, let me say I'm sorry for your loss. Okay ma'am, so we'll need to check the box that says "Widow." You are the surviving spouse, correct?
The spouse? Why yes, I'm his wife.
Oh okay ma'am, your husband, Philip is deceased. You are the widow, surviving spouse.
I cut her off. I prefer to check the box that says "Married." We were married 40 years. That's all my adult life.
I cut her off again. I prefer to check married. That box. And it's my choice. My choice is it not?
Ma'am, I cannot process this form. If you do not check the box that says "Widow," I'm sorry. Those are the rules.
Well the rules need to be changed. Let me speak to a supervisor.
I was obviously struggling. I still am. What do I call myself when there is no name for the me I've known or wish to be? Neither widow nor wife.
♪ Must I wear this cloak of gray? ♪
♪ Must I give myself away? ♪
♪ To the tender breath of memories. ♪
♪ Must my heart ♪
♪ A widow be? ♪
♪ A widow be. ♪
Although grief has touched all areas of my life, my other identities remain. I am still mother and grandmother. I am sister, and cousin, and aunt. I am still the jazz singer Nnenna Freelon. But the central part of my life the way I walked in this world has shifted.
I always considered myself a woman not defined solely by her husband. I had my own life, my own career, but I also really identified as a couple. Phil and I delighted in our couple coolness. But like it or not, death done changed my name.
♪ I told Jesus I'd be alright if you changed my name. ♪
♪ I told Jesus I'd be alright if you changed my name. ♪
♪ I told Jesus, be alright. ♪
I hope and pray that I'm forgiven because I'm definitely not alright with the change from wife to widow. Isn't it peculiar that we may still call ourselves mother or father when we've lost a child or choose to name ourselves that even through death? Aunts, cousins, nephews-in-laws, they're all certainly changed by the departure of a loved one, those ripples extending beyond the nuclear family, but it doesn't necessarily change their names.
It's hard for me to imagine the pain of bearing a child and perhaps harder still is the thought of becoming an unmother or ex-father. And what about the loss of a dear dear friend? Are we then unfriended?
Language fails us, perhaps, because the work of growing a brand new heart is so damn difficult.
Who am I? Who am I now? When I look in the mirror I don't recognize the widow. I see me—different, changed, off balance maybe, cloaked in mystery—but me. Do I take off my engagement ring and wedding band? Do I change my name to something befitting a woman without a mate? Am I still married to Philip G. Freelon? Do I use Ms. Mrs. Ms. or none of the above? Which box do I check? Single? Unmarried. None of your business.
There's so much to learn, so many questions. I'm building a new me from the shattered pieces of the old and learning to make a new life. Much like a quilter, I'm using the rich and vibrant patterns of a beautiful life with Phil to craft a life of meaning and purpose without him.
This means, for me, continuing to do the things that have always brought me joy. Even when they feel hard. My family is everything. They've helped me to sustain a balance when it seemed like loss was all I could recognize. I'm exploring painting again. That's something that's always been a happy place where I didn't have to be excellent. I'm writing poems, stories, musings, and meeting myself again and again in a dance with words.
And drum roll, please. I am singing from the deepest place in my spirit. There was a time when I wondered if that would ever be possible again. I'm singing with my heart on fire. In kinship with loss and longing. I know its full name and address. So when I encounter it in shadows, on- or off-stage, I lean in, knowing that love won't let me fall. My first recording in 11 years has me transformed into a time traveler, wearing the past on my face in this present moment and singing my futures.
Perhaps I am a widow. I don't know. Still figuring that one out. But if this is my new true identity, then Mama's words still ring in my heart: It ain't what they call you. It's what you answer to.
more in grief & other loves
The changing seasons are an apt metaphor to talk about the shedding, withering, and falling away that accompanies the most painful parts of grief. Nnenna Freelon takes us on a walk through the woods to contemplate autumn and the possibility of renewal.
Hair holds our history, personality, identity—and our grief. In episode 3 of Great Grief, Nnenna Freelon visits her mother's beauty salon, where generations of Black women have gathered to discuss their hair—the grief over it, and the grief under it.
No woman makes it through life without a sister. Through faith, family, and struggle, we inhabit a deep solidarity that allows us to hold one another close, even at the very end. Nnenna Freelon walks us through her journey of losing her sister, Debbie.