From my days of being a caregiver in the stroke community I know several women who were widowed in the same time frame as me---just over two years ago. So it’s natural---or maybe I should say it’s tempting for me to compare where I’m at compared to where they’re at as we all transition to a life of living alone.
One of them—I’ll call her Exhibit ‘A’---within a couple of months of losing “the love of her life” was signing up for internet dating and she has been swapping out new relationships as often as Mother Nature does the seasons ever since. She says she’s having a good time. Good for her, if she’s telling the truth. She’s in her fifties and she has a long life ahead of her. But here comes the big BUT…I wonder if Exhibit ‘A’ has truly finished grieving not just the loss of her beloved husband but also the years of being his caregiver, the loss of her purpose in life. Yes, I know that long-term caregivers often do a lot of their grieving before their spouse dies so dating so soon isn’t all it appears to be on the surface. But it’s a whole different can of worms to grieve part of yourself, the spouse/caregiver without a care recipient. In our own unique ways, Exhibit ‘A’ and I are both running around trying to fill up the time we once lavished on our needy husbands. But the fact that all the men she meets have small flaws that causes her to discard them in short order makes me think she is unfairly comparing them to the spouse on the pedestal.
I compare ‘A’ to a widow I met at the senior hall---Exhibit ‘B’---whose husband made her promise that she’d have fun after he died and she is like a rat on speed, in a maze trying to fulfill his wishes through her tears. Both ‘A’ and ‘B’ know what their husbands wanted for them, but do they really know what they want for themselves beyond fulfilling deathbed promises? Can any of us move forward while trying to live someone else’s dream for us without taking the time to dream our own dreams, decide for ourselves what would make us happy again? I don’t have an answer to that question other than I’m glad I don’t have a death bed promise to keep. Life is complicated enough. All I know is that I’ve read too many widows’ stories where they’ve gotten right up to the edge of remarrying again, only to back out or have the guy back out. Unresolved grief? I find it hard to believe that the Exhibit ‘A’s of the world who are searching frantically for love could not be harboring unresolved grief that keeps them from finding the very thing they are looking for.
Two other long-term caregivers-turned-widows that I know are still having a hard time just getting through their days. They are both standing still. Both Exhibit ‘C’ and ‘D’ cry often and don’t know where to begin putting down new roots. They know they have to dig out the old roots to move forward---purge their husband’s stuff from the house---but they can’t seem to make themselves do it. It’s a hard process and I’m only 90% finished with my own purging so I’m not passing judgment here. I’m just stating facts. And it’s certainly isn’t fair of others who haven’t lost a spouse to judge why a widow just doesn’t call the Salvation Army or Goodwill and send off all her husband’s clothing, tools, hobbies, books, half done-projects, cars, boats, mementos and work related stuff. For one thing, some of that stuff has too much value and many widows can’t afford to just donate it when selling it would help build up a nest egg. <See me raise my hand here.> But mostly it’s the memories attached to The Stuff that makes it so hard to let go. Letting go of stuff is a smack-yourself-in-the-face admission that he’s never coming back and if The Stuff is gone are we worried the memories attached to those things will get harder and harder to recall? My answer to that question has been to take photos of The Stuff before purging it.
At some point in the purging process (even thinking about purging) the sheer volume of stuff that a person leaves behind when they die gets overwhelming. You might even start getting suspicious of those who offer to help. Do they really care about you or do they just want The Stuff for themselves? Or worse yet, do they see no intrinsic value in the memories attached to The Stuff? And it’s not unusual on occasion to get mad and/or resentful of your spouse that you have to do all that physical and emotional work of disposing of The Stuff. Why did he have to leave so many things behind? Why did he have to die in the first place? Exhibit ‘A’ did the purging without batting an eye. Gone, done in one week. She had a mission to fulfill. Out with the old, make room for the new. Did she let go of things she’ll later regret in her mission to find a new love of her life? The sentimental soul that I am likes to think she did…or does now and just isn’t admitting she acted too fast.
There are so many ways to grieve and move forward and if I knew more people I could fill the alphabet with more exhibit variations of the process. All I know for sure is how deeply sad it makes me feel when I see women from my old caregiver circles struggle so much. We all went through so much together dealing with the repercussions of our spouses’ stroke. You’d think we’d know the drill on how to handle adjusting to drastic changes in our lives, but in the end we are no better or worse off than a million other widows. ©
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