Rewriting the Manual on Being a Widow
Everyone grieves differently. I chose not to die when my husband did
Since my husband’s death two years ago, I have run afoul of conventional wisdom about how a widow is supposed to feel and behave. I have been accused of not grieving long enough and been cautioned by finger-wagging friends that I can’t outrun grief and that it will, one day, catch up with me.
I get it. Despite all the warnings and so-called experts in the grief industry — and, yes, it is an actual industry with therapy and retreats and support groups — I have checked off just about every box of things that widows are cautioned against doing. Instead of steering clear of making any major life decisions and taking my time to “process” my grief, I ignored every bit of conventional wisdom and broke every taboo, right down to buying a red car with my life insurance money days after the check arrived.
Here’s the thing: Why is there only one right way to behave when your partner dies? My point is, there isn’t. And I’m proof of that.
With absolutely no intended disrespect or lack of affection for my late husband, I made a conscious decision after he passed to embrace what was left of my own life and to encourage our children to do likewise. We were his caregivers for two long, miserable years, and his death taught us that life is short and a healthy life is even shorter. I was 67 when he died, and based on actuarial charts, let’s just say that I didn’t feel I had a whole lot of time to waste.
And so, within months of becoming a widow, I got seriously involved with a widower whom I met online. Yes, an online dating site. Now we are planning to get married. And while we have that widowed-in-common thing going for us, it isn’t the glue in our relationship. We come together not out of loneliness or fear of it but from being able to recognize a good partnership when we see it. And we see it with each other. But still, a few well-meaning friends raised an eyebrow at the speed with which we progressed. Why do people think they know how much time should pass before someone else can open their heart again after a shattering loss? To those eyebrow raisers, here’s a news flash: Hearts expand as we find more people to love, and no one has a finite amount of love to distribute. You can love someone new without detracting love from someone old.
Also in my first year of widowhood, I voluntarily left my job — again, a supposed no-no for those who have experienced a loss. I won’t label what I did as “retire” per se, since, as evidenced here, I am still writing, but I certainly have retired from having a daily occupation — one that I loved pretty much every day for the 45-plus years I did it. Now I pick my writing assignments, do them on my own deadline terms and have defied the naysayers’ prediction that an unstructured day is a widow’s worst nightmare. While my work life is now unstructured, I still don’t know where the day goes — except to say that none of it is spent weeping in a wineglass. I treat every day as a gift and choose carefully how I want to spend it. Mostly, it’s with my kids or my guy; sometimes it’s with a good book or taking a hike. I try to live in the present, and in order to do that, it’s sometimes necessary to move from the past. Following the advice “Don’t make any big changes” would run contrary to how I am happy.
When it comes to my kids, it’s time for them to fly. There are no wringing hands or tissue boxes at the ready when we talk about their imminent departures for college. The mood is excited, not sad. Because my kids have experienced such a recent major loss, maybe they should stick closer to home, someone suggested. Not a chance.
Nobody grows without change. And, yes, we’ve been through a lot as a family — but we don’t all need to live under the same roof to be that family.
Which I suppose is a very good thing, as I also listed our longtime family house for sale, in further defiance of the “Things Widows Shouldn’t Do” list. With my youngest graduating high school, I made the decision, based on the real estate market, that now was the time to pull the trigger and downsize. The hardest part was the weeks we spent sorting through all that we had accumulated, deciding which possessions we wanted to carry into the future. We downsized in earnest, watching our photos go into storage pods, and strangers as they carted off our beds. Marie Kondo would have been proud. But possessions are like anchors and can weigh you down. I want to live free of baggage, the literal kind, as well.
Giving away my late husband’s things produced a few twinges but also some smiles. He was a diabetic and dialysis patient who never met a diet he could stick to, and it pleased me to find a fast-food receipt in his jacket pocket dated the day before he was admitted to the hospital for the last time. Heck, if a death row inmate can get a last meal of choice, why shouldn’t a good man with a sweet tooth?
I have no regrets about breaking the widow rules. As for what comes next, I am seeking adventure. I have places I want to see, new friends I haven’t yet met and conversations I still want to have. I have grandbabies who haven’t been born yet and fur babies waiting for me to rescue them. I may go live in a new place, a new climate, a new country. I will make love, make noise, make hay.
I will continue to live — really live — and not let widow’s grief steal that away from me, no matter what “they” say.