Are you feeling judged?
When I was widowed, I couldn’t stop thinking I was doing it wrong. Sure, I could get the paperwork done, and get recalcitrant bank employees to change the accounts, and even remodel the bathroom.
But deep down, I kept thinking I was missing something. Otherwise I wouldn’t feel so awful, so completely alone. It wasn’t that I didn’t function, it was that I felt so terrible.
I was just so used to being part of a marriage, acting as half of a pair. Almost everything I did, I was used to running by George. And if I messed something up, he was there to tell me I hadn’t really, and in any event it would all turn out okay.
He kept the self-loathing monster at bay. Maybe your spouse did too. But now we have to do that for ourselves.
I was alone the evening of the 2016 election. I went to a yoga class, then then went to a healing service at a local house of worship. But what I really wanted was George. I wandered what he would have thought of it all, what he would have made for dinner, if we would have stayed up late talking about it. I got through that night, but wondered where I’d failed to be so alone.
Acting on my own, from picking new bathroom fixtures to going out alone at night, felt unreal. It was all so much less than my life used to be, even though it took much more effort.
I worried life would always feel this anemic, and for that, I blamed myself.
If only I had more friends, more ideas of what I wanted to do, and more energy to make it happen (whatever that mysterious “it” was). But I stopped practicing law back in 2001. Aside from taking the odd writing class, I didn’t do much after that beyond fitness, and home stuff, and being with George. After he died, none it was good enough any more.
Where was that dazzling career that needed me, or network of girlfriends taking me out for spa respites? I blamed myself for never having had children though I’d never missed them when George was around.
Then there were the photos of widows I saw online. The widows who were laughing with girlfriends, and hosting adorable little dinners garnished with large bouquets of lavender from their own gardens. They were all finding sparkly new lives while I was failing to accomplish much of anything.
That feeling has persisted throughout my almost seven years of widowhood. I still feel it to this day.
I’m Pretty Sure My Kitchen Despises Me.
The kitchen was George’s domain, he was the gourmet cook. When he died, it became the emptiest room in the house, full of the equipment he used, and his fancy olive oils, with no one to use them any more. His over-sized mandoline slicer looked like it wanted to bite off a finger. Not to mention huge cauldrons I would never be filling, a turkey roaster for gatherings I’d never be hosting, and a sukiyaki maker when I never, ever wanted to make sukiyaki for one.
Over the years, I tried to reconcile with the kitchen, giving it a remodel, cleaning out all that smug professional-grade equipment, even getting a produce boxed delivered so it would know I thought of it. But I myself am not professional-grade.
The kitchen and I have since reached a detente but it took time. I still don’t really cook in it on nights my boyfriend isn’t around, but it’s finally stopped taunting for my culinary inadequacies. (Then again, anyone who thinks they have a talking kitchen probably has problems).
”You never make homemade soup. You could do that if you hadn’t tossed George’s Cuisinart,” it says softly but reproachfully as I heat up another Doordash feast which includes, I confess, a delicious cream of cauliflower soup from my local bistro.
”Shut the fuck up,” I say under my breath. “I had you remodeled. Can’t you just look pretty and be quiet?”
Ah, but that talented #cookingwidow with her wildly successful blog makes her own soup. Hell, she’d be making it for her six dinner party guests and spooning it into a Meissen terrine #whenlifegivesyoulemons.
I spoon my own cauliflower soup into a black stoneware bowl, a step up from the takeout container, and settle in alone to watch something young adult and escapist on Hulu. Ah, another night of pretending I’m a college student replete with unbridled hormones, a sense of premise, and an inexplicably nice apartment.
That widow I follow on Facebook would be finding comfort in exquisite homemade succulent gardens and lavender balms. #yougottaloveyourself. The lavender plants I planted in my own window boxes are oddly brown and scraggly. And who started the rumor lavender works as some sort of anxiety panacea anyway? Martinis, I get. Chocolate torte, I need. Even ill-chosen sex I comprehend even though it never worked for me. I’ve bought lavender lotions and shower gels, and…yup, still anxious!
The Instagram widows put me to shame. Homemade coffee table with husband’s face lovingly depicted in mosaic? Check. Teeny Lycra workout gear showing off abs from workout program named after husband? Check. Taking said program public with large IPO? Yup, and it only took six months to find an angel investor!
Here’s the Problem: You’re Probably Going to Feel Inadequate Some of the Time
There are so many reasons why. First, you no longer have your beloved to cheer you on and rebuild you when you feel you’ve failed. You have to be your own cheerleader. Which I don’t think we’re trained to do when we’re younger. We’re used to pushing ourselves, and wanting more, and setting goals. Feeling okay isn’t on that list, even though sometimes it’s the most we can do.
Second, change comes with pain. My career coach says we change not because we have some amazing epiphany wherein the heavens open up to reveal our chosen path, but because it becomes harder not to change. Yes, I am seeing a career coach to find my own sense of promise again.
But that widow with all the Medium followers would already be a career coach, or be supporting herself selling digital remembrance journals (whatever that is), or marketing her own strain of lavender infused with cannabis (called “Lana-bliss”) for de-stressing that actually works.
We’re feeling inadequate because we’re on a journey. The old selves aren’t working for us anymore and we’re waiting for the new selves we’re going to become. In the meantime, we’re not too crazy about our lives even though change takes courage, and in that way we are growing, even when we don’t realize it.
We Make It Even Harder When We Judge Ourselves
When I was newly widowed, I wanted to be an entirely different person. One with a support network in place instead of having spent years isolated in my marriage. One who was better at making friends and who knew what to do with her life. One who had lots of connections on LinkedIn (although I couldn’t figure out exactly what I did to get them). At the very least, one who took comfort in her kitchen, and wasn’t quibbling with it.
But we can only be who we are.
There is no one looking over your shoulder judging you except yourself. I hike with a wonderful, accomplished friend. He does so much every day, hiking, writing a book, caring for his grandkids. But he never thinks he’s done enough. He’ll drive five hours to visit with his granddaughter, then be mad at himself when he comes home too tired to write a new piece.
His scheduler, who coincidentally happens to be the same guy, is always dissatisfied with him. He accomplishes plenty, he just needs to fire his scheduler.
Change will come, but not all at once. Could we accept ourselves with the compassion we’d offer a friend (or acquaintance, or anyone other than ourselves). For me, it would have removed a whole extra layer of pain. Instead of telling myself I wasn’t doing the right things, I would have congratulated myself for trying. And I wouldn’t have been angry at myself when I spent a few days on the couch with a book.
So, let’s not judge ourselves. We are getting through this. Often, particularly in these disturbing times, surviving is all we can do.