“I’m a widow.” Standing at Mike’s funeral, it was the first time since her husband had died that these words had actually crossed Carole Brody Fleet’s mind. Frantic mental scrambling ensued as she sought to make sense of what had just happened to her family and herself. She was just 40 years old. Irrational thoughts popped in and out of her head. She wasn’t old and grey. She didn’t wear sensible shoes. “I can’t be a widow” she thought, “I listen to heavy metal music! I wear four-inch heels! People like me are NOT widows!” Never in her wildest dreams would Carole have believed that this moment would prove pivotal in the journey to come.
Carole’s happy life came to a screeching halt in 1998. It was the year Mike was diagnosed with ALS, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. She and their daughter, Kendall, became caregivers as he battled bravely against the disease that would take his life. Mike passed away in December 2000; Carole and Kendall were left trying to figure out how to go on. “Our whole lives had been governed by an illness for two years. When that illness is gone, what do you do? You don’t know how to live a normal life—this was a new normal for us.”
For two weeks after the funeral, Carole stayed on the couch in her penguin footy pajamas. Yet, even in her early grief she understood that there was an important reason why she had to keep it together. “There was a child watching me, watching to see what I was going to do now. Dad’s gone, now what? I had to set the message, set the example of ‘Yes, we can be sad, and we’re going to be sad for a long while. But, we’re not going to quit living. Life will continue.’ It was baby steps, small victories for us.”
Kendall wanted to take her mom to the movies shortly after Mike’s death. Although Carole didn’t want to go, she could see that Kendall wanted to help her. So, she threw on her ratty sweats and put her hair in a messy ponytail. “When you are dealing with a terminal illness, you don’t care what you look like. I’d been doing pretty much all of my running around in sweatpants five sizes too big and a sloppy ponytail. I felt like, ‘My husband’s going to die, who cares what I look like?’ But when Kendall wanted to go to the movies and I came out in those clothes, she turned me right around and said, ‘you’re not going in THAT!’” Kendall took her mom into her closet and picked out an outfit—jeans, a leather jacket, nice boots. “It may sound vain, but it was a big step in my life. It was like, ‘My gosh, it’s time to get dressed again!’ That was the beginning of when we started to heal. It was the first steps back into a routine.”
“For two weeks after the funeral, Carole stayed on the couch in her penguin footy pajamas. until her daughter invited her to the movies to get OUT of the house, but not dressed in 'THAT'!"
Muddling through those early stages of widowhood, Carole hoped to make the right decisions for her family. But, having to figure everything out on her own was tough! She was left with a million unanswered questions about everyday things. What do the banks need from me to make all the changes that need to be made now that Mike’s gone? How do I get benefits from the government? Who is this person staring back at me from the mirror, because I don’t recognize her? Then, later on, there were the questions she was afraid to ask. What about dating? What about intimacy? How? When? She began to realize that there is a LOT more to widowhood than grief. “I had to learn how to honor my past without living in my past. I didn’t want to be in grief for the rest of my life.”
About five years down the road, Carole had been through it all—the good, the bad, and the ugly of being a young widow. Sure, she’d made some mistakes. But, she was doing ok. A light started flickering in her mind. She had so many wonderful books that talked about grieving and loss. Yet, nobody had any advice for those everyday situations she’d grappled with, particularly those aspects of life that came with being a younger widow. A passionate writer since the age of 12, Carole thought and thought: What if I am the person to help people like me get through this? Busting out a legal pad, she began writing notes about all the questions she had and all the things a widow needed to know. Her notes became the basis for a book, Widows Wear Stilettos: A Practical and Emotional Guide for the Young Widow.
About halfway through, Carole realized Widows Wear Stilettos would be a full-time profession. She was fortunate, she had worked hard at a good job and had some money socked away. It was time. “It was a little bit of a leap of faith, but I just woke up one day and knew I needed to take this full time. I spent my time writing and just getting the word out. Looking back at what I started out doing to what it’s become … it’s been incredible!” While working on her book, Carole began envisioning how you would go about starting a widow-to-widow dialogue. And, that’s when the concept for a Web site came about. “All your friends are divorced, or married, or single. You’ve fallen into a huge divide. Nobody in your inner circle can relate to what you’re going through. I wanted to create a dialogue between these widows who needed me!” Cyberspace seemed the perfect venue.
Widows Wear Stilettos (http://www.widowswearstilettos.com/) launched in September 2006, before the book hit the shelves. As Carole went about creating her Web vision, she was very particular about what she did and didn’t want it to be. “There were lots of grieving web sites. I didn’t want to do that! I wanted it to be bright and hopeful.” Carole’s idea was to help widows help each other with both heart and a little humor—and, of course, beautiful shoes!
The media caught wind of the Web site immediately. Almost overnight, there was a huge groundswell of interest. “I knew there were a lot of us out there, but I had no idea how big a number it really was. Intellectually, of course, you think about the major tragedies that have happened in recent years—the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 9-11 … you know your demographic is growing. But, nobody was more stunned than I was when I read in Redbook magazine that over 40% of all single mothers are widows! That number doesn’t even take into account the widows left pregnant, or the widows with children over the age of 18, the widows who didn’t have time to have children, gay women, or those women caring for terminally ill partners and will soon be widows.”
Welcoming any person who’s lost a partner (including gay, transgendered, boyfriend-girlfriend, and widowers), Widows Wear Stilettos now has over 100,000 visitors and those numbers climb daily. “It’s really turned into a global support organization and it’s been wonderful! When you read the message boards, you see these women writing notes to their new friends. They exchange recipes, ideas, etc. We target issues that tend to be more pertinent to younger widows, but I have widows in their 80s who are regulars because they’ve found something in there they needed—whether it’s comfort, education, solace, friendship, or all the above. Widows Wear Stilettos has the potential to help women through what could be the most difficult period in their life.”
As the site took shape, even Kendall got in on the action for a time. Writing a column for the web site called “Kendall’s Korner,” she was able to turn her grief into something extraordinary, helping children would had also lost their father. “She still keeps in contact with quite a few of the kids who’d write to her and she’d write back. She made friends of her own as a result of Widows Wear Stilettos. Her tremendous heart was a blessing. Of course, there were other pluses as well. She enjoyed having mommy at home more. There was more time for us. She appreciated that, too!”
Setting a goal to make Widows Wear Stilettos accessible in whatever form women needed, Carole released a CD in 2007. “The CD came about because I’m impatient! The book wasn’t published yet and I wanted to get something into these widows’ hands right away.” Unlike audio versions of books, the CD addressed its own issues, things like guilt and different kinds of coping. There are even tips for dealing with the media if a partner was lost as a result of a crime, plane crash, or other high profile event.
While the majority of the feedback Carole has received—and she receives A LOT, between 800-1000 letters a week—is overwhelmingly positive, there have been a few naysayers. “I got one letter accusing me of ‘making a living off of the misfortune of others.’ That one hurt because I am by no means wealthy. My answer was, if that is what you are going to accuse me of, that’s fine. But, now you have to go to your local bookstore and write the same letter to all the authors of self-help books you can find. Then, what about doctors, psychologists, lawyers? We are all making a living by helping others in need.”
Although widowhood has clearly shaped her, Carole is resolute that it does not define who she is. And, with a wedding approaching in the fall, she is proving that widowhood is not the end of the road! “I was so surprised when I fell in love with my fiancée. I never expected to marry again. But, I’m marrying a wonderful, incredible man—a man who willingly supports the mission that I am on. I spend a great deal of time very publicly talking about this wonderful marriage I had to this wonderful man who’s legacy I am very committed to keeping alive forever. My fiancée honors Mike’s memory and respects it right along with me. At the same time, we recognize that this is a new life. “
When asked how Mike would feel about her new life, Carole can only laugh. “He was so worried that I would not find love again. He even talked to my mom about it behind my back. He was serious! This man was dying and he was serious! I really can’t imagine being that altruistic. I know that the turn of events that has taken place in my life would please him to no end. He always loved getting his way!”
Having just completed her second book, Carole smiles at what she’s done with the lemons that life handed her. One of her husband’s dying wishes was that she turn what they’d been through into something positive. “He did not want to be remembered for a disease. When he said, ‘you need to take this experience and use it for good for others,’ I had no idea what he meant at the time. How could I take this horrendous experience and help other people? I could barely get out of bed in the morning. When I started writing the book, his words rang in my ears. This is what he meant! I would like to think that Mike is proud. I would like to think that he occasionally laughs at me! I hope that if nothing else, the fact is that his legacy lives. He is being remembered for the incredible presence that he was, that he is proud of that and that I am doing honor to his memory. I am committed to it.”
For more information about Carole’s books and CD, or to join a fabulous community of widows, visit http://www.widowswearstilettos.com/
Thank you Carole, for sharing your Story with us.
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© 2009 by Tamar Burris and Story of My Life®