It never occurred to me that I would have difficulty responding to the standard question, "Marital status?" I had always been clear in my personal identity. Until Earl Higgins died.

We had been living together for five years -- longer than many marriages last. Although not sanctified by legal marriage, ours was the closest of companionships, a fully committed relationship. So five years ago, when death claimed Earl at 29, I never felt anything less than widowed, for it was my responsibility to attend to the primary duties of that position: legal, memorial, business, financial, personal.

Widowhood is one of the most difficult roles to handle. The duties are complicated, the benefits few, the cause agonizing. Still, widowhood provides you with a mantle of sorrow -- to be shed when you are ready. During the healing time, for the most part, friends and family members embrace you with patient, loving understanding. And strangers you meet respond to the signal -- keeping polite distance, or taking extra time in getting to know you.

In struggling to come to terms with my own re-identification now, I haven't really figured out why Earl and I never got married. After moving in together, it just seemed redundant. As products of the sixties, we were like many young couples around us, concerned about "losing our individuality." We wanted a deeper relationship, one that didn't require an official sanction. After seeing our commitment demonstrated, our families embraced us as a couple. We owned property together, worked together, built a life together.

Ultimately, our desire to have children together became the determining factor for marriage. "After we get settled in L.A., we'll do it," we announced to a few members of our families gathered during that last Christmas together.

But we never had a chance to "get settled" in Los Angeles. Six weeks after moving from Colorado to L.A., during a siege of disastrous storms in February 1980, Earl died a hero's death while trying to rescue a child who was being swept downstream in the flooded Los Angeles River.

The legal implications of our relationship became immediately clear when, during my first encounter with the authorities responding to the emergency, I was stung by their question, "Who are you? You're not legally related . . ."

Throughout the next several months of dealing with the police, bankers, lawyers, coroner's office, bureaucrats and members of the funeral industry, my duties were hampered by this barrier. In the most frustrating of these encounters, I had to get written permission from Earl's parents in Beltsville before I could attend to the details of their son's death.

Nine months after Earl's disappearance, and two weeks before the unexpected recovery of his body, the Carnegie Commission posthumously awarded Earl the Medal of Honor for Heroes. A few months before, I had been asked by the police to fill out several detailed forms from the commission after somebody had placed Earl's name in nomination. The task had been heart-wrenching, requiring me to return to the site of his disappearance in order to measure and photograph the river and to interview the rescue squad in order to find out such things as the temperature of the river water on the day he died, its velocity, its depth . . .

In reading about the Medal of Honor, I knew from the start the award would be presented to Earl's parents . . . not me. What I did not know, until I received copies from Earl's parents of additional literature sent to them by the commission, was that widows of Medal of Honor recipients were provided with benefits until they remarry. These and other benefits -- Social Security, estate tax relief -- that would have done much to ease the financial blow of Earl's death, were denied me.

Since Earl's death I have met several people who, like me, have lost partners to whom they were bonded but not legally wed. We have each experienced the universal grief process that accompanies loss of a spouse, but with an array of additional complications:One woman was stripped of everything by her mate's family. They used their legal position not only to claim their son's property, but also property that had been mutually acquired.

Another was denied the right to attend her mate's funeral by his bewildered, objecting and grief-stricken family.

Still another had to use vacation time off work, since funeral leave is restricted to the loss of "immediate members of the family."In several situations, women I've met were living with someone who was separated but not yet legally divorced. When the man died, the emotional and legal complications were aggravated not only by the man's family, but by the intervention of ex-wives as well.

One woman whose mate was critically injured in an auto accident was denied personal visitation and phone access to him in the hospital, because policy restricted contact to legal relatives. This prevented her from being with him in his hour of need, and sharing a goodbye before he died. And even though he had been separated more than two years, his ex-wife claimed all his personal belongings. She then stepped in to manage the funeral arrangements and estate settlement. She received full life insurance and other benefits, and was the only person legally permitted to file a wrongful death suit against the driver charged with causing the fatal accident.

In another case, a woman lived with a man who was separated and shared joint custody of two children. Because they spent a lot of time with their father, his "girlfriend" developed a close relationship with the kids. When the man died, she was devastated when his ex-wife came and took everything, then made the announcement that the children would no longer be permitted to visit or have any kind of contact with her.Homosexuals who have lost their mates may face isolated widowhood. One man lived with his lover for more than 15 years. When his mate died, he was not only bereft of his loving companion, but the compassion granted the newly widowed was denied him by the outside world and his family, which scorned his life style to begin with.

The question of "identity," when faced with a profound bereavement, isn't easy to grapple with under the best of circumstances. But the added scorn and isolation experienced by those who confront widowhood without the legal protection and social acceptance of marriage increases the conflict. One acquaintance has handled the situation by simply stating she's single. It's easier, she says, than having to justify her loss.

Even with the healing effect of mourning, the years of assimilating the loss, rebuilding my life and coming to terms with my new sense of identification, the question of marital status still catches me off-guard. When pressed, I say I am widowed. But I quickly add "kind of," because I have found some people feel cheated when they discover I was never legally married, as though this diminishes their sympathy.

I can't offer any particular solutions to this dilemma. We make choices and enjoy or suffer the consequences. However, for those who select nontraditional life styles, providing minimal protection legally, in terms of wills and stated beneficiaries, will do much to ease the burden in the event of death. Another avenue to pursue: a durable power of attorney, which permits an individual to assign decision-making powers, in the event of his or her incapacity, to any chosen person.

Earl and I didn't have a will, and it was only through the kindness, understanding and compassion of his family that the sting of his death wasn't more intense for me than it was.