Taryn Davis married the love of her life and was about to finish college, then she got the worst news of her life. Her husband Michael had been killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq.
There was no organization dedicated to addressing the concerns of military widows, so she founded one: American Widow Project. Digital Dying spoke with Taryn about losing her husband, the stigma of the word widow and why becoming one can actually lead to happiness.
Explain the stigma of being a widow?
People look at us like we’re handicapped. The word widow used to make me think of a 90 year-old woman on a rocking chair living outside a cave. Our society has put such a horrible stigma on the word that people don’t even like to use it. I was 21 when Michael was killed. I never thought of a college student as being connected to such a word. After many nights of crying and figuring out how the hell I was going to get through this I realized the biggest thing was just accepting that title. Death and grief and sorrow are all things connected to the word widow but that word also represents Michael’s sacrifice, it represents my sacrifice and it represents my survival.
How’d you find out Michael was going to war?
Michael and I met in marching band at Texas State University, I played the clarinet and he played the trombone, we were little geeks. His junior year he said was joining the Army. What I knew about the war was what I saw on the news before I watched shows like The Simpsons. It totally blindsided me. He had showed me what love was. It was scary to see him go off. Even his family was saying, ‘How about the Navy? How about the Air Force? Why infantry? Why Army?’ He said, ‘I want to feel a challenge in life. I want to feel passion for something and I think taking the hard route is the way to do it.’
When was the last time you saw him?
Michael surprised me on R & R. We spent a lot of days just sitting with his family by the river, or on the patio with a Dos Equis and their dog. About a month and a half later, on May 21, 2007, Michael was killed. I had talked to him that morning. He didn’t tell me what was going on and I didn’t ask but he had to get off early so I knew they must have been about to go on a mission. I know this sounds cheesy but I told him I loved him more than life itself. He said, ‘That’s really sweet babe, I love you too.’ …And then I was a widow.
How’d you find out about his death?
I was at my parent’s house and the phone rang, it was my neighbor. He couldn’t tell me why but he said I needed to go home right away, there were people who needed to talk to me. I just kind of dropped the phone. It was a 10 minute drive, the longest 10 minutes of my life. I saw them standing next to an unmarked car. They gave me a line every military wife knows. I just started dry heaving. I started screaming that there was no God. I had this Johnny Cash-June Carter idea of our love and I was just waiting to die. I thought, Johnny Cash died really soon after June, let’s get this going.
What led you to start American Widow Project?
After Michael died people were constantly at my house. I was handed a booklet called Day’s Ahead, really not an appropriate title. You don’t have time to yourself until after the funeral. Like with planning a wedding, you focus so much on the wedding then the wedding is over and you realize you don’t have anything to do. And instead of being left with a new husband you’re left with an urn. There are support organizations. In World War II, a 19 year-old widow started an organization called Gold Star Wives of America. They are now a 501(c)(3) but really work on the legal issues. There is another organization called TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors). These resources are for any type of loss and involve going to seminars with thousands of family members. They have helped many people, but for me, as a 21 year-old widow, the last thing I wanted to do was be sitting in a plastic chair with l,300 people and having some counselor tell me what to do. We’re really the first and only group that focuses exclusively on today’s widows.
How do you contact the widows?
We’ve reached out to some 920 widows in the past three or four years but there’s more, at least 3-4,000 widows from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and at least 1,000 more widows from deaths that occur on American bases and suicides. We’ve been trying to get the names of the spouses of the deceased from the Department of Defense but it has been tough. We don’t have a PR company, it’s really just me. Our facebook page has 25,000 people, a lot of woman share their stories there or through other social media and when they’re ready attend one of our events. We use text messaging to let people know about events and we have a 1-800 line. I have had non-military widows call too, people just wanting to talk. No matter how you lost your spouse, grief is universal.
How has becoming a widow actually inspired you?
Widows have this tool no one else has. To know that life is short, that life can be taken away at the drop of a dime. Most people don’t recognize that until it’s too late. We try to turn the tables, tell people they have this knowledge. Our widows have gone on to write books, go back to school, get pilot licenses after their husbands have been shot down in helicopters, do all these amazing things. It’s kind of crappy knowledge, that you have to lose your soul mate to gain it, but use it to your advantage. Use it to follow your dream. Use it to push outside your comfort zone and do the things you’re scared to do. Knowing that tomorrow might not be there makes you love the people you love harder and try things you may have been putting off. Michael and I had always wanted to travel, we never even had a honeymoon. After he died I vowed to once a year take a once in a life time trip. I’ve backpacked across Spain, done England, Ireland, parasailing, skydiving four times, surfing. The moment you put yourself outside your comfort zone is the moment you truly start living. And for widows, grief and pain can be a comfort zone.
What’s the future of the American Widow Project?
I want this to be an organization that will be there if God forbid there is another generation of war widows. People always ask me, ‘What are you going to do after the war ends?’ I tell them, ‘I’m still going to be a military widow.’ That’s the most important time, we’ll be out of the public’s eye. Widows are going to need more support than ever.