Being a prison wife is a world apart. It cannot be understood by anyone outside of that world. It is sometimes like being a widow, but not. It can even feel like it would be easier to be a widow in the long run. However, I have learned from talking to friends who have been widowed suddenly that is not really easier either way, just different. It sometimes is like being divorced, but not. Most of the time it is just plain confusing, and full of pain and the unknown.
Being a widow, you are expected to grieve, to take time and be sad and go through a grieving process, same with divorce to a different degree. And people generally understand, or at least can be compassionate for how you are feeling. These things are a part of life, and most people know at least something about how to help you or even what kinds of feelings you are going through.
Being a prison wife, now that is one that no-one other than another prison wife gets at all. There isn’t a phone tree to organize bringing you casseroles, no calls of “how are you doing today”. No girls night out to let all the emotions flow. It seems people are scared to talk to you, probably because they really have no idea what to say. No-one gets just how important those phone calls are, and having the money for them. They don’t see sending them money for commissary as a necessity, they think its extra, and making it too easy on them. (I have actually been told “its prison, he’s not supposed to be comfortable” They don’t understand just how little they are fed or what they go through in there.) I was thouroghly blessed to have a few wise women who were able to see me for me and grieve with me, even if they didn’t fully realize that was what they were doing. If you find those kind of friends, hang on to them! They will be your lifeline.
There is also the shame that comes along with it, even divorce doesn’t carry that weight as much any more. People seem to have a hard time separating your husband as a person from his crime – or alleged crime, and then, they inevitably link you to him and his crime as if you committed it yourself, or at least allowed it. They seem to think you should have known, could have stopped him, or are responsible somehow for his choices. Most people can’t understand why you would stay with him and think you must be weak to do so. Staying is one of the hardest things I have ever done, and I have been able to see just how strong I am and how much Faith I really have through this process.
Prison wives need to be allowed to grieve as well. We have lost the life and marriage we thought we had, both past and future. We feel suddenly as if our whole marriage was a lie – especially if the crime had a sexual element to it, or involved an affair at the same time. Our whole world has just imploded, and there is rarely a time when it is something you would or could have prepared for. We need support like any other woman going through a loss or trauma. This is every bit as traumatic as a car accident or the sudden death of a family member!
You are familiar, I assume with the 7 Stages of Grief: Here is what they look like to a prison wife.
SHOCK & DENIAL– You will probably react to learning of your husband’s arrest with numbed disbelief. You may not believe he committed the crime, or it may be you knew he did, but thought he had gotten away with it. There is a period where you feel like you are outside your body, watching this all happen, but you can’t feel a thing, you certainly have no idea what to do or say. Don’t know who to call, the only thing that might get through to your consciousness right now is “don’t tell anyone about this!” I hope you can very soon though, find someone you can trust to walk along side you in this.
PAIN & GUILT– Once you can start to feel something, it is going to be painful, it is gut wrenching. At the same time you will likely feel guilty, even if you had nothing to do with his crime or his arrest. You might think things like “ If only I had paid more attention” or “ I wish I had that conversation with him sooner.” This is also where that shame I spoke of earlier tends to rear its ugly head. It’s worse with this situation, because society itself places shame on you for being with him, for loving him, for choosing him, for choosing to stay with him through this. There is a lot of “ If my husband ever… I would…” but let me tell you, they don’t know what they would do until it happens to them. And even so, they are not you. It doesn’t matter what they would do, this is your life, your marriage, and your story to write!
ANGER & BARGAINING– All that guilt and shame will eventually well up into anger, it will be directed at your spouse, and at yourself, at anyone else involved and his friends. You will bounce back and forth between that and being angry at the officers who arrested him, along with the law enforcement establishment itself – it may extend to government in general and probably to anyone around you. This leads to bargaining – in our case, that usually looks like justification or blame shifting, especially to those outside the situation. It can be easy to get stuck at this stage, but staying angry at either him, yourself or the world will not help either of you through this.
“DEPRESSION”, LONELINESS, REFLECTION– When depression hits, it can hit hard. It will throw you for a loop again and make daily living hard. However, this is the stage where you are most likely to be willing to find help. Where you start looking for someone to talk to. The best option is a licensed counselor. Hopefully you can find one that knows about prison life, because its a whole other world, like I said. The normal ways of working through things together aren’t a possibility here, and don’t work anyway, because your spouse is in one world, you are in another, and the rest of the world is spinning out of control, as far as you can see. You really start to feel the effects of suddenly being “single but not”. That empty pillow next to you seems to loom and prevent sleep. You wonder if you can really do this, if this loneliness will be the end of you or the end of your marriage. Reflection on yourself is the most beneficial part of this stage, you figure out what you can and can’t control. You begin to see what can be done to make your life and his better from here on out. You begin to figure out how to move forward.
THE UPWARD TURN– Now that you have begun to figure out the how of moving forward, things start to look a little better, a bit more manageable. The days get just a bit easier to face and you begin to have some motivation to do life return. Use this time wisely, soak it in as you see things get better and build momentum.
RECONSTRUCTION & WORKING THROUGH– Once you have that momentum going it will be time to really dig deep and put into practice the things you learned in the reflection stage. Rebuild your life and dreams. It will never be what it once was again, but it could be even better! It will be different, but it will be yours, and you get to decide how it goes from here.
ACCEPTANCE & HOPE – Working through your own stuff will become acceptance of who you were, who he was, and what he did ( or what happened to you both, I realize there are some actually wrongly convicted). It will solidify for you what you need to do to move forward and you will find that you have more Faith and Hope than you thought. You will have the courage to move forward and become who you need and want to be. You will be more able to accept the truth that there really is a purpose for everything. Becoming your best self is the best way to find your way through this season, and to help your spouse through it too.
In my experience, you will likely go through most of, if not this entire process several times. There will be times that your acceptance and hope suddenly disappear and you find yourself in the midst of denial and shock once again. Don’t worry, this is normal. Things will trigger your emotions, but remember that you already made it through this cycle once, you know there is Hope at the end, so go ahead and feel what you feel, move through the process again and continue working on the new life you were building. Each time you go through it it will be a little easier, and a little shorter process. You might even start to skip steps and jump back to Hope much faster. You will get through this, and you are not alone, no matter how it appears to you now.
Make sure you find other women who are going through and have been through this life. They will be a saving grace to you! There are now Facebook closed groups full of us prison wives. Find your tribe! I wish I had had these kinds of things when I was going through our incarceration. Just having people who understand makes a huge difference!
Share this with someone you know who is going through this too, or with those trying to support you in your situation. Maybe it will give them a little insight into how to be there for you, even when you don’t even know what you need yet.