When George died, my life was very small. I’d never left the United States, had lived in the same suburban house for almost twenty years, and my grief therapist thought I might be agoraphobic. Which I wasn’t exactly, I just couldn’t think of any place I wanted to go by myself. I did not embrace change.
During our 32 years together, George had chosen where we went, and what we did, and drove us there himself. So my own driving and socializing skills were pretty rusty, and I wasn’t used to being in a car by myself for anything more than running a few errands.
Some of the worst widowing advice I received was the demand that I change.
Apparently everything and anything indiscrimately, according to my unwanted advisors. Travel, go to an ashram, sell my house, move, downsize, leave my hometown, start dating, meet someone, get back on the horse.
But I didn’t want to travel by myself and I liked my home. And why does everyone assume a widow needs to downsize? Maybe she wants to garden or refurbish an old mansion. Maybe a bigger physical space would give her more mental space.
And dating is so personal. Only we get to decide when to see other people. Not to mention that being single is the new normal. I know many women who’ve decided being on their own is exactly how they want to live, permanently, not as an interim state or something that needs fixing. I might even argue that the alleged need to pair up is a remnant of the patriarchy.
My biggest hurdle after being widowed is that I’m naturally very cautious. So I might consider new things, but generally rejected them as being too risky. Doing something different required cogitating and considering, then deciding to take very moderate action.
And then deciding against it before reconsidering, and finally actually doing something.
Like trying out a new yoga studio, or the first time I went on a U.C. Alumni tour in Europe, or signed up for group hike on meetup.com and actually went. I had to buy hiking shoes, and get up early, and drive by myself to a new place I’d never been before, and join a bunch people where I didn’t know anyone.
I wanted to be braver, but I could only be myself.
Which meant taking tiny steps forward, the kind of steps that other people took for granted, but which felt strange to me. Like when the little mermaid got legs, and every step she took hurt, maybe because it was all so new. I’d been like a goldfish in a small bowl, and now I had to climb out of it, and grow legs instead of flapping about with little fins.
I’ve often wondered if other widows feel this way, making little motions forward, feeling like we’re swimming against the tide, knowing we have to change to have rich lives on our own, but sometimes hating the entire process.
Being on one’s own for the first time at middle age doesn’t favor the naturally cautious. Our adventure muscles atrophied years ago.
It’s hard to explain to more adventurous folk that for me, those tiny steps were being adventurous. They just didn’t look like much from the outside from the outside.
I’ve been ashamed by how anxious I get when trying something new, even if it’s just a different yoga studio or a hiking in a new location. Some world travellers and those eager to uproot themselves at a moment’s notice seem to sneer at us cautious folk.
If I look at the almost eight and a half years since I lost George, I have made changes. It’s just that most of them happened over the past three and a half years. The first two years were a clouded pool, my little goldfish bowl murky and stagnant, my mind addled, first with PTSD, then with just loss.
But how can we say “just loss” when it changes everything we know?
My grandfather died at 86, leaving my grandmother of the same age railing against the universe. “But we wanted so little,” she said time and time again. They lived in a modest apartment, went out to a simple lunch together almost everyday, then ran a few errands and came home for nap-time and a light dinner, maybe with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in a glass of ginger ale for dessert.
When I told people my grandfather had died, many said, “Well, it was his time.” But not to her. And she never recovered.
She was a major worry wart, and I’m convinced I inherited her anxiety gene.
But when she was younger she had huge dreams, to be a concert pianist (she was very good), and to travel the world, and go to college. I remember her loving documentaries about China and Bill Moyers’ interviews with Josep Campbell. But she never got to do those things. In a different era, she might have been an anthropologist studying ancient Chinese culture.
Sadly, I see aspects of her life as a cautionary tale.
Who wants to realize in their last moments, “Aha! That’s what I really wanted to do.
I think my grandmother’s dreams were bigger than mine. I never felt any particular professional calling, but I did get an MFA in writing last year. I just moved from the house I shared with my late husband for 27 years into a new house with a water view, which is something I’ve wanted for a long time.
I wrote a book which comes out in a year. And now I’d almost rather let it go than promote it. Somehow getting it published was a dream, but pushing it on people just feels wrong.
In the same way, I can tell you about my loss, and how taking tiny steps forward started to form a new life (albeit one cautiously lived). I can even suggest you be proud of yourself for taking those steps forward no matter how small, and reward yourself with something you love, perhaps a new book or fuzzy socks or raspberry lemon bars.
But I can’t tell you what you should do.
Except not to give up hope.
That’s the biggest thing.