Nurturing Yourself In Widowhood--#5


Widows and widowers expect holidays and anniversaries during the first year of widowhood to be especially hard. They were sad for me, and it was also weird not being with Ralph on those special occasions as we had been for over forty years. For me, the hardest was Thanksgiving as it occurred just a few weeks after his death, and it’s the holiday that our extended family celebrates together. Thanksgiving without him wasn’t the same for me, nor for anyone else in the family of which he’d been the much loved paterfamilias. But, we slogged through it, thanks to last-minute hosting by a granddaughter and her husband, and a shared need to gather as a family.

My niece stepped up to the plate at Christmas and included me into her festivities along with her immediate family and her in-laws whom I’d only met once before. It was strange to be with them. But, they were well-meaning and it was nice to spend time with this branch of the family, and to enjoy the Crab Cioppino I’d always heard them talk about as their traditional Christmas Eve meal.

In this way I zombied through those first two holidays, but by the time the new year arrived, I was ready to look at myself as a consultant would and think about how best for this grieving client to make it through the rest of the challenging “firsts” without her beloved husband. My approach fell into three categories.   

1)Learning from Others:

Widows Groups: Many people join Widows Groups so I had to consider that option, and I went to one event which convinced me that this wasn’t going to work for me. I have a strong psychological background, and have even run therapy groups, so I wasn’t surprised to find this option wasn’t offering me much. Even so, I picked up a couple pointers: 1) That there’s a predictable emotional dip at 3-6 months which has to do with reaching another level of realizing that your loved one is gone. I hadn’t known about this dip and appreciated having that perspective in the back of my mind; 2) That the second year is harder for some people. I found this discouraging, but I realized from what others shared at this grief group that I was already significantly ahead of where many people are during their second year of grief because of my willingness to face my feelings and slog through a lot of pain right from the start of my widowhood. It’s clear that there is a certain amount of “Grief Work” that has to be done, and if you’re willing to take it on head first, as I was, then you’ll progress faster than someone who pushes his or her feelings aside until they come up and hit him in the face. To this point, the group leader read a list of “Expectations from Years 1 through 10”, a timeline that astounded me. Yet, I know people whose lives aren’t feeling that good to them after more than a decade of widowhood. I figure they don’t know what they need to do to get through the grief, or they aren’t willing to take on the work of processing their feelings, whatever those feelings may be.

 Meanwhile, I checked out Widow’s Camp and Soaring Spirits, resources that looked helpful and supportive for many people, although not a fit for me.

Online Resources/Books: These were my cup of tea; I went online again and again and perused in privacy, finding many resources available for free. I also sent for a few books that seemed to promise value, including Sheryl Sandberg’s Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy. The title captured me as it specified exactly what I was working to do. Sandberg delivered some good stuff. I liked her treatment of Survivor Guilt, which she describes as a “thief of joy”. I found that to be true: When I wasn’t actively grieving, but somehow felt fine and then happened to notice that I was feeling fine, in crept the guilt: “Ralph’s only been dead for three months, how can you be laughing at what that person said on TV?” and other self-critical words to that effect. What I came to realize is that having fun only comes from having self-compassion, such as: “Patty is going through a lot of grief. That doesn’t mean she has to feel miserable every moment.” So I started to work on overriding my episodes of survivor’s guilt with statements to myself such as: “Let Patty relax and enjoy this nice moment… this beautiful day… how cozy it feels to have my cats sleeping nearby… how comfortable my house feels… how nice it is to be with this friend…” 

 Another insight from Sandberg’s book pertained to the Jewish religion that “mourning for a parent, child or sibling is a year, but mourning for a spouse is just 30 days. The rabbis wanted people to move forward.” I found this astounding as no death has hit me as hard as that of my husband. But, this perspective was helpful as a means of permission-giving to move forward as I felt able.

2)Expanding My Activities:

I realized that when Ralph died my social universe shrank significantly. We were so happy in our little unit of two that we didn’t create an active social circle around us. Upon his death, I came to a new realization about the value of having this so I have worked to expand my social network. I spend more time with friends; I started taking conga drum lessons (who knows why this appealed!); I joined a Bunco group (a mindless card game that brought a dozen new women into my life); I stepped up my exercise to 5-7 days a week; I reached out to my sister with the idea of taking a trip together; I took myself to concerts, plays, movies, and art gallery openings. I pushed myself over and over again to get out of the house and bring some kind of fun into my life. And, I have enjoyed all of these activities.

3)Giving Myself Permission to Dream:

It wasn’t many months into my widowhood before I started to think about how nice it would be to find another love someday. I came to realize that I was suffering on two levels: 1) That I’d lost Ralph and who he was as a unique person; 2) that I’d lost what Ralph provided me—especially love, emotional support, and companionship. While Ralph was irreplaceable, and that loss had to be grieved, some of what he gave to me could potentially be found in another relationship. The idea of there being another love relationship someday gave me a ray of hope that I found very reassuring, and the fantasies of this were pleasant to experience.

Bottom line: I remember a Psych professor in college saying that “dependency” can be defined as having only one leg to stand on. When you lose a beloved spouse, you discover just how emotionally dependent you were on that person. So, besides giving myself full permission to feel whatever it was that I was feeling about my husband having died so that I could process my grief effectively, I started working on overcoming my dependency upon that comfortable 40-year relationship. Listening to the wise counsel of my “consultant”, I began arming myself with additional support systems: Learning from Others, Expanding My Activities, and Giving Myself Permission to Dream. The first experiences of birthdays and holidays without my husband were tough, but as I developed new resources, new relationships, new activities, and fantasies of future happiness, I found new capacity to navigate these important milestones without taking an emotional nosedive.


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Patty Howell, Ed.M., A.G.C., is President of Healthy Relationships California, a non-profit that has taught Relationship Skills programs to more than 200,000 participants. A prolific author and developer of Psychosocial Education programs, she co-authored World Class Marriage: How to Create the Relationship You Always Wanted with the Partner You Already Have with her late husband, Ralph Jones. Together they have trained in 15 countries around the world. His death in October 2017 brought tremendous grief as well as an opportunity to learn valuable life lessons that she shares with her readers.