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Love, loss and sisterhood

A poet once told Artis Henderson she was too young to write a memoir. He should have learned more about her before assessing the depth of her life story. Knowing her memoir’s title would have been enough. “Unremarried Widow” hit bookstore shelves in January.

“I feel like a lot has happened in my life but then as soon as I start talking to other people, I learn that everyone has a story,” said the New York-based writer, who is 33. “Unremarried Widow” is her story — an intensely personal one. She said she wanted to tell it for herself and for other military widows as well.

It’s a story of loss: Henderson’s husband, Miles, an Army helicopter pilot, died in a crash in 2006 while deployed to Iraq. More importantly, the book is a story about their love, even after he is gone.

The title seems little more than an official label, until the pages reveal the description also applies to Henderson’s mother. The author’s father died in an airplane crash in which Henderson, then 5, was also injured. Her journey through grief after Miles’ death gave her insight into the grief of her mother, who never remarried.

Henderson’s story is sometimes hard to read but harder to put down. Reliving it by writing must have been harder still, but she said she felt compelled to do it after meeting other women with similar stories.

A year and a half after Miles died, she attended a weekend event for bereaved military families through Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. At first, she was overwhelmed.

“Everyone was hugging and so glad to see each other, and I thought, ‘I don’t know anybody,’” Henderson recalled. “Then I fell in with a group of women my age. … [Now] we go back every year, and I hug them. I found my community there.”

 Henderson, already a writer, began to think about telling her story.

“It struck me that moment when we were all sitting at Arlington around the grave of the husband of one of the women,” she said.

“We fell into this discussion of autopsies and verifications and briefings, and I thought how incredible and awful that these young women know these things. I felt this obligation that everyone should know what it means to lose a spouse.”

It was a personal turning point as well, when Henderson realized there were others who understood.

“My (civilian) hospice group, I love those women dearly, but we had such different experiences and most – not all – of them were closer to my mother’s age. 

 “The women I met through TAPS were my age, late twenties, early thirties. We share that and everything that comes with a military death.”

Henderson said she regrets that it took losing her husband to discover the friendship of other military wives. Early in her relationship with Miles, she mostly avoided connections to his Army life.

“Much of that came from being young, not knowing any better,” she said. “The other wives from Miles’ unit … have been so good to me. I wish I had warmed up to them sooner and realized they would be my family forever, even after losing him.”

When she first met Miles, she said she was afraid becoming attached to the Army would mean giving up the life she had imagined for herself.

“Miles used to say all the time that it was an adventure,” she said. “Everything we’re doing — it’s just an adventure. I always got so wrapped up in thinking I had to have everything figured out, my career and friends and how my life would work.”

If she could speak to her younger self, she said, “I would just tell her to relax and be patient and just enjoy it.”

Miles wrote a letter to his wife, which was returned with his personal effects after his death in Iraq. He wrote that if anything happened to him, she should continue to pursue her dreams as a writer, and she has. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Reader’s Digest, and she writes a regular column for Florida Weekly.

“I feel odd saying this,” she said, “but in a way I feel like I’ve been blessed. I’m getting to do what I always wanted. I feel that Miles had a hand in that.”

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