April 10 marks the 10-year anniversary of losing my husband George. He and I were together for 32 years, beginning as high school sweethearts and ending with his death from cancer at age 53. When he died, I was almost 50 and for the first time in my life, I was alone.
He and I had led isolated lives with no kids. He was an engineer’s engineer and happiest at his computer. I was an introvert and a bookworm ― a former lawyer who’d retired at 40 to escape the stress. George was my life… until I lost him. After that, it would be over a year before I could concentrate enough to get through an entire book.
When I first lost him, I thought I’d die from the widowhood effect, where the surviving spouse dies relatively soon after losing their partner, especially if they were under the stress of being that partner’s caregiver, as I was.
George was in denial about his illness, somehow thinking he was going to recover even as his body wasted away. I’d spent his final year trying to jolt him into reality ― to make him understand what was happening ― but I couldn’t. He was my best friend, and we never even had a real goodbye.
I have anxiety which started at age 10 when my mom died. I was young when I learned that those we love can vanish at any time. It got worse after losing George, who’d always been there to reassure me that everything was going to be okay. I’d wake up at 4 a.m. almost every morning, heart pounding, seeing George as he looked at the end of his life, and not seeing much of a future.
My recovery took years and happened sporadically, sometimes with epiphanies, like realizing I felt better doing new things I’d never done before so that I didn’t miss George by my side. Sometimes it was small moments, like discovering orange poppies on my morning walk and being grateful I could see in color again. And sometimes with epic fails, like starting to date again at age 51 when I hadn’t dated since 1980 as a high school junior
The hardest part of my loss was dealing with the loneliness ― it became larger than the loss itself. For 32 years, George and I had woken up together each morning, talked about our days over dinner, and curled up closely at night. Now there was only silence. We’d led such isolated lives, with no support group or close friends, that I could go days on end without talking to another person besides my dad.
My guilt threatened to overwhelm me. I’d been such a flawed caregiver ― sleep-deprived and stretched too taut, and sometimes angry. One of my final memories of George is the Sunday the paramedics took him to the hospital for the last time. Unable to breathe on his own, his body tattered by cancer, he screamed that he didn’t want to go and that he’d “never forgive me for this.”
In the months after my loss, I spent my nights on the living room floor with my back against the sofa, Manhattan in hand, listening to George’s favorite songs and feeling like the room had turned upside down. A couple of times I threw my glass in the fireplace like I’d seen people do in the movies when they’re upset, but I’d just have to vacuum it up and wipe the bourbon off the wall in the morning.
I finally got off the living room floor because of my dad, a scientist who’d never had to deal with domestic responsibilities until my mom died after a brief illness in 1973, leaving him with a suburban ranch house, a 10-year old daughter (me), and a spoiled white cat. He’d rallied, learning to make meatloaf, get me off to school, and take the cat to the vet. Most importantly, he never complained.
Aside from my becoming a lawyer, we both turned out fine. When George died, Dad was 82 with health problems, and I didn’t want him to worry about me.
My guilt whispered that I didn’t deserve a good life after having been such a flawed caregiver to George and failing the person I’d loved most. But I had a good grief therapist, who explained that my situation had been impossible: me caring for him with no support and George closed off in his denial ― rejecting help from the hospital or even his own parents. I did the best I could, but I still regret how angry I was during that time. To this day, I work on being okay with the past.
Some people deal with loss by going on a long trip or relocating, but they don’t have my anxiety. I coped with loneliness by joining groups close to home: a car club since I had George’s old sports car, Rotary, a synagogue, a yoga studio, and a writing class offered through my local adult education center.
They didn’t all match my interests, but the car club met for Saturday breakfasts and Rotary for Wednesday dinners, which broke up my solitary meals. I discovered that meeting new people wasn’t that scary, most were welcoming to a new widow. The yoga classes included a friendly group of midlife women, many of them single, who folded me into their tribe. The shyness I’d always fought melted away, or at least stopped being a roadblock.
My new friend Dana invited me to join her weekly writing group. That first Friday morning, she directed me to a rose-patterned armchair and gave me a cup of mint tea. Surrounded by the other writers, her little dog sniffing at our feet, I felt like I had come home. For two days a week, with class and group, I had people to be with and writing to critique. Other days of the week, I had a purpose: writing new pieces to share
Joining groups helped me to see myself as an “I” instead of the “we” that comes with being half a couple, as in “we like marmalade on our toast.” But having been with George since I was 17, I’d never even considered whether I liked marmalade in the first place. My task was to figure out what I liked doing on my own. Eventually, I discovered hiking groups on Meetup, and I filled my empty weekends with nature and fellowship.
George hadn’t wanted to travel, and I’d never pushed him, thinking we’d have more time when he retired, but that time never came. With no one to go with, I went on group trips put on by my college alumni association, a great way for an anxious person like me to travel on her own. Had George lived, I might never have explored new places or gotten serious about writing or discovered hiking, as I wouldn’t want to take time away from “us.”
Despite reaching out, I was still lonely. Fourteen months after my loss, wanting to find love again, I joined an online dating site. My guilt came with me. It felt wrong to consider life with a new man when George’s time had been cut short. I learned about sexual bereavement ― the grief associated with losing intimacy with a long-term partner ― that it’s normal, and there’s nothing wrong with having needs. That was a difficult concept for a woman of my generation.
My first real date was with a cute mortgage broker, an Alec Baldwin look-alike with a wicked sense of humor. But he spent the entire time lamenting his exes, from the hot blond with breast implants (not sure why I needed to know this) who’d cheated on him with a guy from the gym to the emotionally damaged brunette who couldn’t commit and he’d still be with if she could. Inexplicably, he was surprised when I didn’t want to see him again
Most of my dates were terrible. When I was a teenager, if a boy wanted to ask you out, he called in advance, offered an activity he thought you’d both enjoy, and showed up on time, often wearing a sweater his mom picked out. He met your parents when he came to the door, or in my case, my dad.
Modern dating seemed devoid of these types of pleasantries, and I felt like a refugee from a Jane Austen novel. Sane people do not send unsolicited photographs of body parts.
There seemed to be an unspoken power struggle. Male baby boomers were raised to conquer, like James Bond or Gordon Gekko with “greed is good.” Women my age were raised to not offend, to keep our skirts down on the playground even as we were told to ignore the little boys who lifted them up. As a young lawyer in the early ’90s, my boss told me to be more “pleasant,” a complaint not leveled against my male co-workers and certainly not a word to describe a successful attorney.
Perhaps because I was a long-married widow with little experience, many guys seemed to think they could turn me into a combination therapist/doormat, from my agreeing to so-called exclusive relationships to paying for things I never asked for to settling for minimal scraps of time and lots of ego. Modern dating seemed antithetical to finding love or even friendship. I felt like a shell was calcifying around my heart and sealing it off.
After five years of dating, having almost lost hope, I found Randal, my second forever person. We met online when he messaged me asking if the skull-patterned sneakers I was wearing in one of my profile photos were Vans because he wanted to get a pair. I answered they were. At our first meeting, he told me he was mourning his mother who’d died nine months prior. We decided to be friends.
I knew he was the one when he invited me on a Memorial Day drive down the Marin coastline with stops at his favorite restaurants. When I offered to meet him at his place since it was on the way and I lived a half hour away in the wrong direction, he said he’d pick me up ― it was what he did. I’d missed chivalry.
For our first getaway, he took me to Carmel because he’d read one of my blog posts about going there alone but leaving early because I missed George so much. Randal wanted me to enjoy it again. He got separate rooms so there wouldn’t be any pressure and never even knocked on my door. I had finally found someone as old-fashioned as I was.
Ten years later, I have a new life, including making friends and traveling and earning an MFA in writing at age 56 and having my first book published. Two years ago, I moved to a new house by the water, leaving the home I’d lived in with George for 27 years. This May marks a happier anniversary, five years with my second partner, Randal, a love that’s all the sweeter for having come later in life when I’m more aware of mortality.
But most importantly, changing my life has given me a measure of peace. When I was first widowed, I despaired that my remaining years would be only a shadow of my marriage, carrying on as before ― only without George. I worried I’d wake up with a chill every morning for the rest of my life ― that my first thought of the day would be he’s still gone.
Over time ― though far more than I expected ― life got better. It took about three years for my brain to reconstitute and four to get over my guilt ― years of recovery I couldn’t speed up. But I could take small steps forward — the best I could do with my anxiety — from signing up for a writing workshop to asking a new friend for a walk to redecorating George’s house to make it my home. Those steps led to leaps like moving and going back to school and finding love.
Debbie Weiss is a former lawyer and the author of “Available As Is: A Midlife Widow’s Search for Love.” Read more about it on debbieweissauthor.com. Her writing has been published in The New York Times “Modern Love” column, Woman’s Day, Good Housekeeping and Reader’s Digest among other publications. A longtime resident of the California Bay Area, she lives in Benicia, California.