By Isabelle Bujold

Imagine living in a world in which every woman is expected to be someone’s spouse and partner, including any woman of child-bearing years who suddenly finds herself to be a widow. Imagine that the idea of a grieving widow is so heinous, that such women are confined into special shelters and subjected to so many schedules, rules and suggestions for improving their looks and appeal to future spouses until they are “chosen” to become someone’s wife. In this story, losing a husband is grounds for being shunned. When the protagonist becomes a widow, she must begin the process of forgetting her past life with her first husband and begin moving on toward a new life and a new marriage but secretly she continues to grieve as a sign of rebellion against such societal norms in fear of being chosen until she capitulates in order to make the best out of her future.

This is the world portrayed by Diane Cook in her short story, “Moving On”. In this story, the protagonist unexpectedly finds herself widowed at a very young age. Almost immediately after her husband’s funeral, she is taken to a special shelter for widows which she describes as a “spa facility on lockdown” (Cook 45). This image is particularly revealing because it suggests that the shelter is under tight control. However, the word spa implies a rather relaxing environment. Hence, the words “spa” and “lockdown” qualify as an oxymoron because they both have completely different meanings in my book. Therefore, bringing them together produces a puzzling but engaging image of where the story takes place. Furthermore, over a period of eight months, we witness her struggles with her own sense of grief and loss. Not only the loss of her husband and love of her life, but also the loss of her status and her sense of the future. We follow her through the trials and tribulations of the process of getting back her life, her rebellion against the shelter’s rules and regulations as she works her way through her bewildering grief until she collapses into a feeling of detachment that will allow her to become “chosen” by a future second husband.

Throughout the story, Diane Cook contrasts the debilitating and contradictory emotions that are a normal part of grieving and loss. The loss is made more concrete and tangible since the protagonist has literally lost everything that will remind her former husband and life. She has lost her home, her possessions, her belongings and most importantly, her dreams which is clearly shown when she states: “Ideally, you marry the man you love and get to stay with him forever, through everything you can think to put each other through, because you choose to go through it together” (Cook 48). This passage implies the sudden upend of the protagonist’s expectations and hopes that have left her bewildered and lost. Consequently, she talks about herself and the other widows in the shelter and claims that: “[They] are women with very little to do and no certain future” (Cook 47). The purpose of the shelter is to assist young widows to forget their past lives and get over their grief but it is a dark and dangerous place. There are constant references to the manual about the need for change in order to move forward.

Yet such change “feels more like a collapse” (Cook 51) in which past loves and dreams are forsaken. It is this fear of letting go of the past and losing what once was that sparks a rebellious nature in our protagonist. For instance, she keeps a picture of her and her husband hidden under mattress in violation of the rules. The kind of pictures that “couples take when they are alone in a special place, at a moment they want to remember” (Cook 47). Despite knowing that the grief-stricken are confined that much longer, the protagonist is hesitant to forget. She imagines joining those who try to escape at night to be on their own. Curiously, she finds herself secretly cheering them on even though it is dark and cold because she realizes that they are running toward what they believe is best for them rather than what the manual claims is best. She even considers running herself but then realizes that she could not do it because she “[is] too domestic for that kind of thing” (Cook 47) and there is no guarantee of food or money or comfort or love. However, the fear of the forest and escaping towards nothing still seams much less frightening than being chosen.

As she wavers between rebelling by having a friendship with a man with the widower’s shelter across the street and following the advice of her Case Manager, the protagonist must face her own fear of being “chosen”. Her fear caused by the not knowing what to expect once you were chosen as well as her fear of forgetting about her husband. She observes: “From what I can tell being chosen is bittersweet” (Cook 49) as she relates the story of Marybeth who was chosen but who did not want to leave. She whispered: “I’m not ready…I still miss him” (Cook 49). She and the other women made a care package and stood in a circle embracing her encouraging her to move forward. When Marybeth’s replacement turned out to be cruel, she realized that even though there is uncertainty in being chosen, there was also uncertainty in remaining among the women at the shelter.

Everything comes to a head when she finally realized that “what I want, I can’t have. My husband is gone. So, my future will be much quieter” (Cook 54). With this final acceptance, she resigns herself to follow the manual and the advice of her case worker. She is eventually “chosen” by her new husband Charlie. Despite feeling that she is not ready because she remembers being told that someday she’ll barely remember that she ever knew her first husband she is glad to finally have a home.

One of the great strengths of this story by Diane Cook is how she has made the stages of grief so concrete and tangible, especially for women. The initial loss of her husband is also represented by the physical loss of all her worldly possessions. The emotional dislocation of not having a life partner is followed by the literal relocation to the widow’s shelter and the tensions between wanting to stay and wanting to move one. The emotional upheaval of anger, frustration and even hatred that one would place on the deceased love one is suddenly displaced onto the shelter and its rules and regulations because the shelter is a symbol of security, safety and predictability. It is only when the protagonist accepts that her first husband is truly gone that she is able to be “chosen”.

The story has a very dark and dystopian feel to it, even though it uses physical manifestations in order to describe what would be a normal grieving process. This also represents how women are disadvantaged in many societies.  For even though women in Western society can still function upon the passing of their husbands, we still live somewhat in a society where people are largely defined by their relationships. The story serves as a useful reminder of the precarity of your life and the fact that your world can be easily upended and your dreams forestalled or even shattered.  In the end, after some reservation and doubt, the protagonist is able to accept that one day she’ll never think of him again. However, she claims that: “[she] won’t turn [her] back on it. As the manual often states, it’s [her] future. And it’s the only one [she gets] (Cook 55).

“Moving On” is the kind of short story that will have you thinking about many aspects of grief and loss. It will have you contemplating how you may react to the loss of a loved one but it will also have you question the value of living in a society which can only value women if they are married to someone.

Works Cited

Boyle, T.C., editor “Moving On” The Best American Short Stories 2015, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2015. 44-55.