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We're friends, not doctors, financial or legal professionals, and we're not "grief experts." But we are here, and we've been "there."

Doing OK -- is that wrong? And why is it so unusual?

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.

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Comment by NoLongerInBergenJC on February 6, 2015 at 12:03pm

@mixelated:  Yep.  You got it.  I posted elsewhere about this:  I have recordings of many of my husband's doctor visits.  This is something we started doing back when my stepfather got sick and it's helpful because when you are dealing with cancer, you can't follow everything they say.  One of these recordings is the first visit back to his horrible urologist after he had the TURBT which revealed that he had muscle-invasive bladder cancer.  This one is on my phone.  At least three times this recording has started playing while I am in the car -- for no reason.  My phone is not turned on.  I always leave it in my purse.  But I will be driving home and suddenly this recording starts playing.  And it's the only one that does.  I just got a new car and the other day I turned on the radio, it connected to the Bluetooth, and there was that recording. 

In that recording my husband says "I don't think this life has anything else to offer me" and start talking abut wanting euthanasia.  He was depressed because he had just had a contract job terminate early (he didn't get full-time, they hired a 22-year-old instead) and now he had cancer and was pretty much unemployable.  I can't say what happened to him...I think his brain was doing things to him that he didn't understand or recognize.  He'd had bouts of depression dating back to 1989.  But I think he makes this recording play every now and then so that I remember how much he wanted out of this life...and so I don't second guess myself or even grieve too much.  I've been thinking a lot about this again with this business with Whitney Houston's daughter.  I've found myself even hoping she does not come out of this because maybe it means that my husband could have come out of it too.  Yes, I know that makes me a terrible person.  Sue me.  Then I remind myself that he did not want to live disabled, or having to rehabilitate, or having bladder surgery.  And I think he really does remind me that this is what he wanted.

I don't miss those last five years other than certain times when he was happy, like when we cruised to Canada or vacationed in Jamaica, and when we surprised my father for Christmas in Florida after dad had finished chemo and had our traditional Christmas Eve Indian restaurant dinner outdoors in Florida.  But I sure do miss those happy ones. 

Comment by mixelated on February 6, 2015 at 11:46am

I can relate to a lot of what you say here. I've been the breadwinner. My husband and I had about a decade that was really good - happy, healthy, busy, connected. When he got trigeminal neuralgia, then fibromyalgia, and then bipolar disorder, that pain and confusion eroded our relationship and the person he was.

You said "...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."  That's been exactly my experience. I'm looking back and mourning all I loved about him, and it's harder to remember how withdrawn he was, how bitter, in his last few years and especially months. When I do remember, about half the time it brings me a little peace to know he's out of pain, and about half the time it creates more anguish that he was in such pain.

Comment by joe'swife on October 19, 2014 at 5:25pm

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post.  You echo my sentiments and my husband just died on September 11.  However, I became his caregiver when he had a stroke on Dec. 26, 2010.  From that point forward I did everything for us while continuing to maintain a fulltime job.  When my husband became critically ill on June 22, 2014, the doctors gave him 3 to 9 months to live.  He and I talked about it a lot and I believe this helped prepare me for his death.  Also, his death was a release for me.  I didn't want to see him suffer and I knew that he did not like living as he was, having to depend on people to do everything for him and in the end, not being able to talk.  And, it freed me from the caregiving.  I loved my husband with all my heart, but he depended on me so much, even to the point of not wanting nurse's aides to do for him in the nursing home because he'd rather wait until I got there to do for him.  It was so exhausting on top of working, which included a 3-hour daily commute.

I'm still getting it together, but not falling apart either.  I was truly happy being single before I met my husband and didn't get married until I was 43, one month shy of turning 44.  My husband and I were married for almost 7 years.  He died on Sept. 11 and our anniversary would have been on Oct. 6.  I'm sure that not having been married for 20, 25 or 30 years probably has something to do with me not being completely consumed by grief.  But I also know that my husband would not want me to be.  He actually lost his 2nd wife to ovarian cancer after they had been married for 20 years and he was consumed by grief.  Thank God he didn't give up because "we" would not have happened.

I feel so much better knowing that I am not the only one doing ok, because I was beginning to think something was wrong with me and that I should be ashamed for not grieving so hard.  Thank you for your words.

Comment by only1sue on October 19, 2014 at 2:42pm

I am two years out and just getting to the place you are at.  I don't work but do a lot of volunteering.  I know how to fill up my time so I am not as lonely also was a year ago.  I also enjoy some solitude and can fill in the hours.  I would like to find another companion but that is not to complete me but to have someone to share things with.

I am glad you find some satisfaction in your present life, I hope that continues to grow for you.

Comment by NoLongerInBergenJC on October 19, 2014 at 12:39pm

OK, there is one more thing that helped me:

1)  Financial independence:  Because I was the primary breadwinner anyway (and the only breadwinner for the last year of my husband's life), AND did almost all the housework AND wrote the checks AND hired the plumbers, the electricians, and the contractors, I didn't have to deal with financial problems.  There are two things my mother was right about:  1)  Always be able to make it on your own if you have to; and 2) Go out and live your life and do the things you enjoy -- and that's when you'll meet someone.  Fortunately, my husband was perfectly happy for me to handle things like that.  There's only one thing I can't handle -- the portable generator.  So now I'm looking for someone to drain the old gas out of it and service it, and praying that we don't lose power this winter.

Comment by Patience (Diane) on October 19, 2014 at 8:46am
Thank you for posting - it was helpful to read this ....

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