Here’s the hard thing about being widowed: you might have to remake your life. From with whom you surround yourself, to where you live and how, to who you love. It’s like going through a second adolescence, remaking ourselves yet again.
The other hard thing: You have to figure it out on your own.
To be a widow is to be a shape shifter.
As the time passes since our loss, we lose one self and become another. It’s exhausting, this changing of selves.
“But I don’t want to become a different person,” you say. You expected your life to be super settled by now. You have your partner, your home, a life that feels like you.
But you have no choice. You don’t want to be lost or tormented or conflicted about all the changes–you just are.
When I was married, I was like a middle-aged child. George made all the decisions. I trusted him, he was smarter than I was, and that was that. So I didn’t rebel against his uncompleted home improvement projects or undiversified investments or how isolated we were.
I loved the absence of making decisions, that feeling of being cared for, of knowing I was loved. After a while, I my decision-making muscles atrophied. It was easier to go along with what George wanted.
Then he was gone and my life wasn’t liveable on my own. I should have had all the accounts in both our names, and known how to use the home network, and what to do when the home theater system rebelled. I wished desperately for a few friends to check in on me, to occasionally let me sleep on their floors. But I didn’t have that. My house had gone from beloved home to enemy.
By the time I’d figured a few things out, changing the accounts, having the home network redone, trying to socialize with car club breakfasts and Rotary Club dinners, I was different. My loneliness had become another appendage. I was so brittle, afraid I was going to turn into one of those people hunched over their steering wheels honking all the time because they think everyone is encroaching into their lane.
I’ve had some really bad phases.
Like the year after my loss when I was restless and unmoored, a holy terror with black painted fingernails speeding through town in George’s sports car. I couldn’t concentrate or even sit still. I raged at being left alone when I thought we had the rest of our lives together, and I wasn’t sure how much longer I wanted to keep living. I wasn’t going to kill myself, but if a giant meteor were to wipe out the planet, that would have been okay.
Then I started dating and morphed into a wanna-be prom queen all set to find my prince charming, but I was carrying a deep well of need and an overly developed sense of empathy. I was ready to slot myself into all manner of other lives, but the men I was meeting weren’t the stuff of forever.
Later, I discovered writing and travel and yoga retreats. For awhile the world looked open with possibilities. I felt about nineteen years old.
I finally saw Rome and Paris and Barcelona, but my loneliness let me slide into an abusive relationship that lasted, on and off, for three years. I became cynical. After that relationship, I’d be triggered if a man I was dating denied me my right to be angry. Lacking anyone else, I relied too heavily on friends who couldn’t be there when I needed them. I became leery of other people.
I started to think of myself as an embittered island.
What happens when you’re used to unconditional love and then it’s gone?
Perhaps you start to look like someone who isn’t as sweet or open or trusting as you were when you were cocooned in your relationship, insulated from having to deal with the world on your own. Maybe you’re not as pliable as before. Perhaps you’ve become wary of men because most of the ones you’ve met haven’t had your best interests at heart.
Can we admire the people we’ve become?
Our brains start out foggy after our losses. At first, it all feels like fragments. Rip out the dying azaleas, they reek of mortality. Then realize you never liked that whole flower bed anyway and you want a raised tomato box. And you never liked your husband’s choice of patio furniture either. Maybe you don’t even want to live in a place with a garden anymore. Or live in the same town your spouse wanted to.
Then it’s whether you really want to keep seeing his relatives. Maybe they didn’t handle his passing the way you wanted or they’re critical of you and God knows, you don’t need that now and why is his sister hinting about that antique chest of drawers that belonged to the family. So now you’re looking for new people you can love as chosen family. Your connections change.
Maybe later it’s whether you can stomach the thought of sex with another person. Or realizing that you got married so young that the idea of having some freedom is actually appealing. Or worse, it’s just missing your own person so much you can’t get off the couch. But you have to, not today or tomorrow, but eventually you will because you find that you still want things. And you’ll go to a yoga for knitters class or a training session for your new puppy, and smile a bit, and for a few moments, life will seem a bit less dark.
One year we might be bitter and closed down about our loss. Perhaps we’re still living in the homes we lived in with our spouses, but the rooms feel cold and dark. A year later we might be reaching out for new experiences, finding things we didn’t know we liked, moving into a new apartment to see if we like living in a different area. Then a few years later, a relationship sours, the apartment doesn’t feel like home, a new job beckons, and we’re on our way becoming someone else.
But with all these changes, we’re becoming different people. Stand-alone entities. Someone stronger and more interesting, even if it’s happening involuntarily out of necessity. Each year, we’re learning new things, discovering more about ourselves, becoming different from our married selves.
Grief writer David Kessler talks about finding meaning as the sixth stage of grief, after experiencing the original five stages. Finding meaning can be a way to come to terms with our loss, to see what it’s taught us. We may discover that we’ve become mountain climbers, or professional de-clutterers, or vloggers about obscure British sci fi. Remaking our lives becomes a search for meaning, and in that way, we learn from our losses.
So on weekends, I drive someplace I’ve never been before to hike with people I haven’t known very long, grateful for the company on a weekend morning. I come home to a different man, who I love but with whom I have to be more careful than George, because we don’t have all those years of figuring each other out. I’m in a different home with another love. We call each other different names than we’ve used with other people.
We careen towards maturity. Trying to welcome the changes.