I really wish there were some magic fairy dust that I could sprinkle on some of you who hare having such a rough time, even years later. I keep wondering why I am doing relatively OK just over a year into this widow's journey. Sometimes I wonder if I'm some kind of monster incapable of feeling, that I should still be crouched in a fetal position in the corner. But instead I look at the things that have helped me along the way:
1) Work. Yes, I hate it sometimes, especially the way it eats far too much of my life. I feel no end of guilt about how I spent the last five years looking at a laptop screen, not just during the day but after getting home at night and weekends. Had I known my husband would die, would I do anything differently? COULD I have? The fact is that I was laid off in 2008 at the age of 53 and happened to luck into a job for which my only qualifications were a brain and a pulse -- so I had to learn a completely new field. The other fact is that my husband's job history had been spotty for eight years already and I could not rely on him to stay employed. So I had to survive and thrive and do whatever they demanded.
Work provided order in the face of chaos when my husband was sick. And it provided companionship -- a place to go -- after he died. So often by the time I get home, I have had enough of people for a while.
Not everyone has a job, wants one, or can find one. But it's important to do SOMETHING that gives your life meaning and emotional satisfaction. It could be quilting, volunteering, fostering kittens, phonebanking for a charity or political campaign, immersing yourself in the study of Mandarin Chinese, but SOMETHING.
2) Friends. The very thing that vexed me so much when my husband was alive has proven to be a huge help now that he is gone. In our early years, we had "joint" friends -- couples and singles that we socialized with fairly regularly. Somewhere around 2000, that started to go away, and I think that's when his brain started acting up. For whatever reason, he no longer wanted to socialize. So I would go out with my friends, leave him at home, and bring him dessert so he'd know I wasn't neglecting him. It would cause me stress and worry about neglecting him, but I knew I could not cut myself off from the world. So when he died, I was already situated with friends and didn't suffer much of the "Everyone disappears" that so many others do. And only one of them started acting at all weird.
3) Family. I did not have to deal with my husband's family at all, because he had been mostly estranged from them for years, and his father and brother both predeceased him (his mother died when he was 12, and that's yet another story). My sister, who lives in another state, was my rock during his illness and after, and my father and his wife have been there for me as well. I also do not have children to worry about. This also means that I HAVE TO make my own way; I cannot sit around waiting for my children to make room for me in their busy lives.
4) Pets. The older of my two cats had only been with us for two months when my husband had his stroke, joining us after our 16-year-old calico died in July (ironically, from a stroke). Then three months after my husband died, my other old cat died (which about destroyed me emotionally) and I adopted a 5-month old kitten to keep my little guy kitty company. I say that I used to have daughters, now I have sons. But they greet me when I come home and it makes home a less lonely place. (I also still hello to my husband when I come home every night and I do hear his voice greeting me back.)
5) "Introverted extrovert". I have never had a problem with being alone. When I was a kid, I usually enjoyed being alone and doing crafts more than being with other kids. This is because I was both shy and weird. I got over the shyness in grad school when I had to do a lot of presentations, and age has allowed me to not care what others think of me. So I get out there. I've rekindled old friendships, joined groups to meet new ones, and I feel I have a good balance of old and new friends, and of companionship and solitude.
Now that said, what will happen when I retire, and no longer have work, and my current friends are far away because I'm going to relocate, remains to be seen. Will I find meaningful activities to fill my life? Will I continue to regard everyone I meet as a potential friend and be a person people want to be with? My father is 89 and won't be around forever. Will I be able to deal with having only my sister and tenuous relationships with some cousins? I really don't know.
Do I miss my husband? Well, the true answer is "sometimes." That's because I never made him my sole reason for being alive. I used to take a lot of flak for us NOT being attached at the hip all the time, because in our society, this is what we're expected to do. But while tight-knit couplehood or family-hood is great, the loss of any one part of it is larger than if you remain an individual at the same time as you are half of a couple. A friend of mine lost her 23-year-old daughter and that underscored how unhappy she was in her marriage. She left her husband about a year later. She and I go out often and compare notes on the plusses and minuses of solitude. Scrambling for holidays is an issue, though I decided a long time ago to "de-mystify" the holidays so that they are just another day.
I think that to some degree, happiness is a choice, not something that happens to you or that someone else can make happen. My mother was divorced at 42, met her wonderful second husband at 45, remarried at 48, and then went on a long, slow, downslide because this handsome, loving, charming, giving man she married was not making her happy -- because she refused to be happy. Then he died when she was 73 and she carried on for the next 12 years like she loved him desperately. Some of this, as I have learned, is that when your spouse dies, all the crap that gets shoveled on top of the love you feel during a marriage is wiped clean and you are left with what you loved in the first place. And that's painful when it happens. But we do have a choice. We can essentially crawl into the grave with them and just count the days till our own deaths, or we can get up in the morning, watch a beautiful sunrise, and let what our spouses no longer have remind us that every day we have is a gift, and there are better things to do than squander it waiting to die.
Of course we still grieve. We always will. But we don't have to let it take over our lives. My husband was never able to pull himself out of his depression. Neither was my mother. It is my intention to make the rest of my time here mean something other than just waiting for the Grim Reaper.