Photo by Luis Galvez on Upsplash

I often hear from the newly widowed asking how to get through their losses. The short answer: I don’t really have an answer. I lost my George eight years ago this April. I still see his face when I close my eyes. 

But time passes and we do get through this. This article from The Guardian was helpful in writing this post. While it’s about finding joy–which may feel impossible at the beginning–it suggests that small actions can help, including acknowledging there are times we are going to be unhappy.

What helped at the beginning was finding a few quiet things I liked to do.

Which I know sounds odd having lost the man who was my life. This sometimes appeared strange, like weeding the garden at 5:00 a.m., but I needed to connect to the dirt. I replaced dead plants, which led to a short trip to the nursery, which led to a little project that kept the pain at bay for at least a few seconds at a time.

I walked a lot. Saying hello to the people I saw and being in the fresh air, maybe noticing the different shades of green of the trees on the path, or the blooming poppies, helped me to see beauty, and from there, a sliver of hope. The world was too beautiful to want to leave it. 

Changing our home to make it feel like mine also helped.

I couldn’t control George’s death, but I could turn my space from cancer-colored to nurturing. Almost the first thing I did after he died was to clear out the paraphernalia of illness, the oxygen tanks that he wheeled from room to room, the nebulizer I had to help him with several times a night, the medications that ultimately failed to heal.

Removing these things allowed me to remember there were better times, with other Georges who were still vibrant. I could see he did have a good life in total, just not at the end.

From there I moved on to dealing with the deferred maintenance of having had a spouse dying of cancer. I might not have wanted to remodel the bathroom soon after he died, but the shower was leaking into the bedroom closet, providing its own imperative. The project turned out to be a savior by providing me with a sense of purpose. Suddenly I had new things to do, picking out fixtures, conferring with contractors, checking out model bathrooms online.

I’d never before done a home project without George, and with each decision, I felt more competent. At the most basic, looking at colors and textures was lovely. Did I want soft pink tile the color of shells or shaded gray tile the color of fog? And I knew, the world still had shells, and oceans, and fog…and I would see them again, and I could bring them into my home.

Another aspect of asserting control was doing the administrative work to settle the estate.

Some of us, myself included, have an ingrained need for order that keeps us functioning and going through our to-do lists, even if we are dealing with the stuff of grief. I’d go through my chores, credit card companies to call here, banks to contact there, and find some relief from my  thoughts.

I learned I could put a few things to right, even if I was miserable. And from there a few more, from collecting the life insurance to re-doing bathroom, to fixing the broken garden lights, and from there to venturing out of the house for the first yoga class in many months. Each thing accomplished led to something else. Having come up against mortality, these simple tasks felt life-affirming. 

I could create my environment, even if I couldn’t control death.

Sometimes what helped was just to allow myself to feel terrible. Our society so often construes grieving as an ailment to be gotten over as quickly as possible. But that isn’t how it works. The loss becomes its own entity, with its own needs, its own timetable. Sometimes we just have to bend to it, and care for it, like a fragile new seedling. Tamping down our pain just makes it pulse with more intensity as it demands to be heard.

Being sad is so frowned upon. People want to see a silver lining in everything.

They don’t mean to be cruel when they say “everything happens for a reason,” but they can’t accept that sometimes fate is random. Sometimes things happen because they just do.

Perhaps that viewpoint will change in these times of the pandemic when so many of us are mourning. There is something very right about taking the time to grieve our losses without rushing. These are the people we loved. They return to us in our grief, and we honor them.

Our best friend at this point is the passage of time. At the beginning when each day felt like walking on a knife blade, little things helped me still feel human. It took about two years for my fragmented widow’s brain to have ideas and another year to be able to think in the abstract. I always wrote, but it took a few years to eke out coherent paragraphs.

Now, let’s learn from my mistakes. 

Consider not getting romantically involved for awhile, until you feel stronger. I got involved with someone a few months after my loss. At first I felt as though I was coming back to life, but I failed to see that the guy was trying to control my life and make me dependent on him. I would have done better to wait until my critical thinking had come back to me.

Another thing I wish I’d known is that there are many dips on the road to recovery. I’d feel better one day, satisfied that I had something new for class and made it to evening yoga, but then the agony would hit the next day, a chilly loneliness enshrouding my morning walk. The cloud might abate later that day, but return in the dark. And there was nothing I could do about it. My loss had its own feelings even as I was working on gratitude and light.

Two enormous words: self-esteem.

You are no less you because your spouse died, even if it doesn’t feel like it. And you can get through this by believing in yourself, again, even it doesn’t feel like it. The worst thing I did was to beat myself up–for being a poor caregiver, and having led such an isolated life, and being so alone. Which led, in part, to my diving into a bad relationship so soon after my loss.

Finally, despite the people who ask “Are you over if yet?,” being widowed isn’t something to get over. For me, it’s been a journey that changes over time. I am always a widow. But since being widowed in 2013, I have had new experiences involving travel and friends and hiking and going back to school and even finding a second love.

And I still miss George sometimes and wonder what the rest of his life might have held.