There are a lot of myths about widowhood, and the realities one must face are difficult and harsh. I looked at the thesaurus site to see if there might be a better word than harsh, but they all describe the reality very well: bitter, cacophonous, bleak, severe, unrelenting. Yes, the reality of life after a loss of this magnitude is all of these.
Before I delve in to this messy business, let me preface this post by saying that I’m not posting this in search of sympathy. Actually, it’s just the opposite. My hope is that by being brutally honest about widowhood, I might somehow help others to realize what is helpful, should they be faced with helping someone along this journey.
One of the myths of grief is that you “get over it”. It’s not a mountain to climb, where you reach the peak and then it’s all downhill and easy. It’s more like a wave with lots of rip currents running through it. You might be overwhelmed and feel like you’re drowning for awhile, then suddenly it’s all smooth and you’re surfing along the top doing great, when all of a sudden, something pulls you right back under and you feel like you’re drowning again. Now keep that cycle going, not just for a few months or a year, but for years. Plural. Because the reality is, there will always be things that drag you back under. It might be a song, a glimpse of someone who reminds you of him, or a joke or a place. You never know what can trigger a grief attack.
This is one journey that could never be wished on anyone. Imagine, if you will, how many times you speak to your spouse in a day; how many times you text, or think about them and know right where they are and when you’re seeing them again. Now yank all of that away. Whether you’ve been married over twenty years like we were or just a few years, it’s still the same. You will never hear their voice again. Never receive another text. They won’t be on their side of the bed in the morning. No more coffee made (or in my case, Diet Coke over ice waiting) in the morning. No more shoes by the door, or dirty dishes left on the table by the chair. No more of those little things that drive you crazy. Other than a recording, if you’re lucky, you’ll never hear their voice again or see their face, except for in photos. Now take your imagination and magnify that emptiness by about a million, and that’s what it’s like.
One of the myths is that if your spouse died of a long illness, then, “at least you got to have the long talks and say goodbye.” Yes, maybe, but that doesn’t lessen the loss. Another myth is that if they passed quickly or unexpectedly, as in the case of my husband, then, “at least he didn’t suffer.” Maybe not, and I pray he didn’t, but that doesn’t lessen the loss.
I understand that people don’t know what to say, and they fall back on platitudes and what they’ve heard others say. And there are some people who just don’t “do” death. It’s easier to ignore than to face the reality that someday it will affect each and every one of us. Mortality is a messy business. No one likes the unknown, although if you’re a person of faith, it’s not nearly as scary.
Another myth is that widows are all okay because at least they got his life insurance. Guess what? Not everyone has adequate life insurance. Some don’t have any, especially those who die too young and unexpectedly. Add all the financial mess on top of navigating the loss, and it can all seem insurmountable. Think about it. Do you know everything you need to know about your house, insurance, bills, investments? In most couples, one person knows this information and the other doesn’t. It’s very rare that a couple sits down and takes care of it all together. One of the most difficult things can be figuring it all out, and finding out if you can even stay in your own home.
People often think that if a woman is widowed young or middle aged, then she should immediately start dating again. Would you? If you’ve been married for more than half your life, would you jump back into the dating game again?
Here’s what it boils down to: there is no right way to grieve and there is no set way to walk this journey. Do you feel like dating? Go for it. Do you not? Then don’t. Not sure? Then do what feels right.
As for me, yes, I’ve gone on a date. (GASP!) I’m very lucky to have very good friends, both male and female, so several months ago I went out on a “real date” with a very dear friend I’ve known longer than I knew my husband. He’s one of the good guys. There are very few who are open, honest, and as patient as this friend. And he knew it was awkward for me and didn’t push. I am blessed that we’re still friends, even after attempting that dating game again. (Turns out I wasn’t ready, by the way, but I couldn’t have asked for a nicer evening with a nicer guy.)
So, what can you do if you have a friend who’s widowed? The best thing I can recommend is listen and be there. People tend to rally around the first few weeks or months after a loss, but the reality is there is no set time limit. There can still be rough patches even years down the road. I think most widows would agree that the worst part of the whole journey is the loneliness. Not everyone is lucky enough to have family nearby or kids and grandkids around. For young(ish) widows, it’s rough because friends all still have their spouses and families, so you’re either on the outside looking in, or you’re the extra wheel.
It boils down to doing what feels right for you. For myself, I’ve become incredibly brave post-loss. It’s nothing for me to go out to eat by myself now, or go to a movie alone. I never would have done that before.
It’s a strange mix, this journey. I often wonder if he’d recognize me now, because there’s so much I do now to take care of things, that I never did before. The rip tides still come and drag me under, but they’re fewer and farther between. But it boils down to this: there is no right way to travel this path. You do what’s right for you.