Nurturing Yourself In Widowhood--#6


Ralph’s death was the day I had long dreaded. When that happened, the first phase of my widowhood consisted of wallowing around in acute pain and sadness, accompanied everywhere by an ample supply of tissues. What came next?

Recognizing that this was a significant crisis in my life, I was determined to cope with it successfully and sought the advice of my self-appointed “consultant”: What does Patty need to get through this? What is the best way to help her?

I recognized that to weather this crisis without significant damage to my health and well-being, I needed to be as hardy as possible. Hardiness is an interesting psychological concept, first developed by Suzanne Kobasa in 1979, describing a pattern of personality characteristics that distinguish managers and executives who remain healthy under stress. Further research has been done on the subject by Salvatore Maddi who characterizes hardiness as a combination of three attitudes—commitment, control, and challenge—that in combination provide the courage and motivation to turn stressful circumstances into opportunities for personal growth. Hardiness helps people cope with adversity, to thrive in a difficult climate—in the same way we refer to some trees and plants as being “cold hardy” or “drought resistant” if they can survive and even thrive under conditions that others cannot. Widowhood certainly placed me in a stressful climate and I wanted to maximize my ability to thrive under those conditions, so I focused on maximizing my commitment, control, and challenge skills.  

Maddi speaks of Commitment in terms of “commitment to life”, and that I had right from the start: It was always my intention to handle well the monumental task of grieving, and to find a way to thrive in spite of the loss of my husband. Maddi speaks of commitment as having an attitude of curiosity and involvement with life by staying involved with people and events. It also involves taking an active role in your life, rather than falling back as a passive victim of unfortunate circumstances. Fortunately, I seemed to have an active orientation toward dealing with my widowhood right from the start. I started keeping a journal which served both as a means of identifying and experiencing what I was going through, and of being able to observe those experiences as a curious bystander might. I somehow had the idea that what I was going through with the death of my spouse, though terribly painful, was an interesting process that I wanted to record, analyze, and learn from. In the back of my mind, I even thought I might write about it someday, as I am now. Additionally, as I had a job with responsibilities that I considered important, this also helped me think beyond my pain. Although I’ve always loved my job, I developed real gratitude for it during my first year of widowhood as its ongoing activities helped me retain a commitment to life during this time of great stress.

Control, Maddi’s second attitude, is the belief that you can influence outcomes and have a willingness to act rather than be a victim of circumstances. It is achieved by developing an internal sense of control by taking charge, assessing the situation well, and using good coping skills. When your beloved spouse dies, it’s easy to feel like a passive victim of this circumstance. My attitude of viewing myself objectively as a “consultant” would do helped me achieve control over this difficult situation. This consultant looked at Patty who was going through stress, then diagnosed and prescribed as best she could what might be helpful to Patty.

I think anyone could adopt this “consultant posture” toward themselves and I recommend it strongly: All that’s needed is to pretend that you’re looking objectively at this person’s life and the situation they are dealing with, and thinking as intelligently and caringly as possible about what would best help this person deal with his/her difficult circumstances. And, remember, the “consultant” you “hire” for this job needs to be a capable professional, not someone who says things like: “Why don’t you just get drunk” or “Why not throw in the towel”. The person you listen to in coping with the stresses of losing your loved one needs to be looking out for your very best interests, short-term and long-term, and helping guide you through this difficult terrain.

Challenge, Maddi’s number three attitude, is the one that every widow and widower knows is the crux of it: What a monumental challenge it is to deal with the loss of your spouse! As I slogged through months of grieving, it seemed endless. Each day I had to face this challenge again… and again… and again. Fortunately, I’m someone who has confidence in my ability to deal with a challenge, and I can perhaps thank my parents for that: “Just set your mind to it, Patty, and you’ll be able to do it.”   

But, of course, the matter of grieving isn’t all that attractive or easy. What is easy is to keep yourself busy or otherwise avoid facing the pain of your loss. As Maddi says, “It’s tempting to seek stability to maintain your sense of security and try to keep things the way they have always been.” But, it’s an inescapable fact that our partner has died and this fact creates irreversible changes. Change is hard for most people to embrace, yet with the death of a loved one, we have to find a way to embrace this reality.

Life is, in fact, all about change, and I think it’s beneficial to realize that essential characteristic of life. Philosophers always emphasize the importance of embracing the “Now” because nothing is permanent—not pleasure, not pain, not the comfortable habits of your daily life with a beloved partner. So, our only choices are to resist the essential reality of change, which isn’t going to yield anything but frustration, or to embrace this fundamental characteristic of life. It can be embraced with reluctance, but embrace it we must, because facing the realities of change can make us stronger, hardier, in the long run.

Ralph had an endearing but snarky phrase for those times he faced difficult challenges, calling them “another damn learning curve.” That is much of what life consists of and developing a “HardiAttitude” toward life’s challenges, as Maddi calls this skill, is an important means of coping successfully.

My Hardiness didn’t always look pretty. Because I was not afraid of being open to my feelings and experiencing them fully, sometimes being “hardy” involved looking bad, like crying in the aisles of Home Depot, or letting my voice quiver in staff meetings. Quivering in public takes real strength: no one in a leadership position, or aspiring to one, wants to be perceived as weak and if you’re not looking strong, there’s always the chance you’ll be seen as not having the right stuff. But Hardiness, my friends, is the right stuff, and developing it involves some ironic complexities such as being authentically hurt rather than denying such feelings. 

No, it isn’t always pretty, so it’s important to cut yourself some slack as you face this monumental and painful change in your life. Becoming a hardier being that can survive, even thrive, in a new and different climate will call upon your deepest strengths, so be loving and caring of yourself as you adapt to these challenging new opportunities for growth. It takes strength to embrace “another damn learning curve” and be open to an uncharted future. Increased Hardiness will be a valuable byproduct of this growth.


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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.