09/18/2013 02:30 pm ET | Updated Nov 18, 2013

Why I Didn't Wish You a Happy Birthday

Since society fears public displays of grief, these are a young widower's secret stories of living after the loss of love.

Being a widower has changed my life in many ways. You can probably imagine some of the more cataclysmic changes, but there are also smaller, everyday disruptions that may not be as obvious. As an example, I'd like to explain why I didn't wish you a happy birthday this year.

Facebook makes it so easy to reach out to friends on their birthdays. It gives users a reminder and a forum for sending messages -- no Hallmark cards required. It's so easy that I almost did wish you a happy birthday. My cursor was halfway to the "post" button when I stopped moving and began to think about what a message from me would really mean to you. I'm not your relative, I'm not your coworker, and we didn't go to high school or college together.

We only know each other because of her.

You're a great friend, you really are. I enjoyed your company back when life was good and I appreciated your support when everything suddenly fell apart. But I will always first and foremost see you as her friend. In return, I know what I represent to you: as her widower, I am the personification of her absence, a living reminder of what's missing. Given how you and I know each other, it is impossible for you to think of me without being reminded of your loss. When you see me, I am the exact shape of the hole in the world that she left behind.

I remember what it was like when I first became a widower a few years ago. People would look at me with a mix of sympathy, pity, concern... and fear. Still in my 30s at the time, I was an anomaly since -- thank goodness -- nobody in my peer group had ever suffered a spousal loss. When she died so suddenly, it forced everybody to think about the fragile mortality of their own family members. Simply looking at me made people's worst nightmares seem plausible.

Over time, I saw the fear fade from people's faces. Eventually the comforting sight of very-much-alive spouses replaced the disturbing visions of their imaginary deaths. As a result, minds were freed to focus more fully on the real loss of their friend and the difficult task of mourning and missing her. I'm glad that they will always remember her, but I want people to be able to welcome those memories on their own terms. I don't want to confront them with their loss.

And so I stay quiet -- at least on this one day -- because if I were to say "Happy Birthday," it could only be heard as "she is gone."

Despite my silence, I really do hope you had a happy birthday.

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