September 2021

Embracing Change When You’re Widowed and Extremely Cautious

Woman holding empty frame @thehungoverwidow

Life as a blank slate

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.

A Prior Life

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 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.

And yet.

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.







Embracing Change When You’re Widowed and Extremely Cautious2021-09-03T15:40:35+00:00

January 2021

Surviving the Onset of Widowhood: A Tiny Primer


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. 


Surviving the Onset of Widowhood: A Tiny Primer2021-08-21T22:11:51+00:00
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