As a widow, I had to take steps away from our past to find my own happiness

By Debbie Weiss | June 1, 2023 |  Living

I was talking to the contractor about remodeling my bathroom, emphasizing that the project needed to be reasonably priced, with an eye towards resale, and above all it had to start soon. The moldy shower was leaking into the dining room, threatening to drown it. Best to keep the remodel in scale with my suburban tract home.

A woman hiking on a trail. Next Avenue, widow
“A new mindset helps to see possibilities. Reframing yourself as an individual with your own interests can jumpstart your dreams.”  |  Credit: Getty

Then my husband George popped up, reminding me about the waterfall feature he wanted for the tub he’d selected, a particularly pricey model that had to be ordered from Europe.

The thing is, George had died four months ago.

The son of family friends, he and I had known each other since I was seven and he was an older man of eleven. We’d started dating in 1981 when I was a high school senior who needed a prom date. A college senior majoring in engineering, he’d graciously agreed to go with me.

I had to either change or reconcile myself to a very lonely existence.

We were together ever since, lasting 32 years until he died of cancer in 2013 at age 53. When he died, I was 49 and for the first time ever, I was alone. George was my life.

He Was Still With Me

George and I were isolated, with no kids and few friends, and we spent almost all our time together. He was a software engineer happiest at his computer; I was an introverted, former lawyer happiest with a book. We spent our weekends tracking down ingredients for the complicated recipes he liked to cook. Even during the week, we had dinner together every night.

My life without him was empty; I could go for days without talking to another person. I still saw him stirring a pot of his favorite Risotto Milanese at the stove or coding software in our home office. I worried the rest of my life would be a shadow of my past, living with his ghost.

I had to either change or reconcile myself to a very lonely existence. Here’s what helped to quiet my late husband and create a new life.

Small Steps Forward

I’m a homebody who suffers from anxiety, so I wasn’t up for any big leaps, but I could take small steps forward. I started by changing our house to feel like my home, but with every decision, I kept hearing his voice.

A couple on their first date. Next Avenue, dating advice widow, widowers

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He asked if I really wanted to abandon his design for the bathroom remodel (yes, it was too expensive), hated the girly throw pillows I added to the sofa, and howled in protest when I replaced his complex home theatre system with something a Luddite like me could use. New bedroom furniture transformed that space from a sickroom into my sanctuary.

My next task was to figure out what I like to do on my own and from there, how to do it with other people.

My next task was to figure out what I like to do on my own and from there, how to do it with other people. I returned to the daily walks I’d taken before he got sick, noticing the orange poppies and red bottlebrush, grateful to see in color again. I’d greet my fellow walkers, get a smiling hello in return, and feel a tiny bit less alone.

I joined a yoga studio and a synagogue, and re-enrolled in the writing class I used to take. Small steps, but over time, they started to add up to a new life.

If you don’t know how to move forward, returning to what you love to do is a start. Joining classes or groups centered around those activities helps to fight loneliness and be with others.

Thinking as an Individual, Not Half a Couple

As a new widow, I was so used to thinking as a couple, as in “we” like our Steak Diane medium rare and “we’re” excited about six-channel surround sound. But I’d never considered whether I even liked Steak Diane and I could barely watch a movie on George’s engineer-designed home theatre system.

I had to stop seeing myself as George’s wife and start thinking in the singular. I signed up for a group trip to Italy with my college alumni association. George hadn’t wanted to travel, and I’d never pushed him since “we” didn’t like to travel, although I’d never agreed on that one. He’d been a loving husband, but a terrible workaholic.

He still popped up occasionally, like when the piano player started playing our favorite song when I was alone in a Sorrento café. But as I got more confident, he stopped weighing in all the time.

I will always love and miss my George, but my passions are different from his. A new mindset helps to see possibilities. Reframing yourself as an individual with your own interests can jumpstart your dreams.

Rediscovering Old Passions and Finding New Ones

My walking habit led to joining hiking groups on Meetup.com, filling my lonely weekends with nature and conversation. Some of the group members organized holiday potlucks and attended outdoor concerts. One warm summer night, I danced to an eighties band with the group and felt lighter than I had in years.

When I re-enrolled in my writing class, I heard George reminding me I’d never been serious about it, and I still wrote like a lawyer.

The yoga studio offered evening classes that shortened my solitary nights. Best of all, it yielded a friendly bunch of midlife women who folded me into their tribe. On Thursdays, we went for wine after class. Over time there were Yogathons, paddleboard yoga, and parties for birthdays and hysterectomies — with no yoga.

When I re-enrolled in my writing class, I heard George reminding me I’d never been serious about it, and I still wrote like a lawyer. But I need to find my voice, I said to quiet him. Over time, I attended workshops, had essays published, and even taught writing classes.

Eventually, I went back to college, earning an MFA in creative writing in an effort to sound less lawyerly. (See George, I was listening).

George disappeared from my side when I went to new places or did different activities because I had no memory of him being with me during those times. The group tours I took were a vacation from grief. Delving into my hobbies saved me.

My Late Husband Was a Great Dating Coach

Despite all my activities, I was still lonely. Fourteen months after my loss, I decided to start dating again, soon discovering that much had changed since I’d last dated in 1980 as a high school junior.

Not only was chivalry dead, but it seemed to have taken courtesy with it, from last minute requests to meet and even more last-minute cancellations, to refusals to meet halfway, to pushy requests to become physical. Many midlife men seemed mired in the past, still lamenting their exes, and expecting their current dates to act like emotional labor machines in push-up bras.

George started showing up again, weighing in on my prospects.

George started showing up again, weighing in on my prospects. He reminded me that he’d lived with cancer for years, undergoing chemo and radiation without complaint, how could these guys lose it over a few break-ups. And how could they keep making such bad choices?

He’d been courteous to everyone, so how come this guy was whining at the server or unable to open a door. Most importantly, he reminded me that we’d had true love and — best dating advice ever — do not settle for less.

I did find my second love online; we’ve been together five years. Two years ago, we moved into a new house by the water, fulfilling one of my dreams. The publication of my first book fulfilled another. But my most important lesson is to start pursuing your passions now, without needing a catastrophic event to show you how finite this life can be.

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