“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid but the sensation is like being afraid.”–C.S. Lewis
People who lose a spouse, especially a wife, after decades of marriage are commonly struck by how many things are suddenly missing from their lives. Starting with their loved one, whose absence is profound and whose loss punches a fist-sized hole in their soul. So many things go missing–time spent traveling, time spent worshiping, time spent sharing a meal, or reading, or watching movies, or taking walks, making plans, agreeing to disagree about little things. To me, it felt like half of me had been violently sheared off, even though I wasn’t bleeding.
So many things remind us of their absence. Being unable to locate items in our home. Their closet, their dresser, their jewelry box, the little corners of the house, in drawers and desks, where they had stashed things that might have meant a great deal to them and about which we were completely unaware. Most of the stuff in the vanity under the bathroom sink. Their jackets and coats in the hall closet. Even their shoes, which will get thrown out or sent to Goodwill as soon as you get around to it, which seems like never. No one in your family wants their shoes. Yet, for many of us, disposing of our loved one’s possessions feels like disloyalty, a betrayal. Something you never would have considered doing when they were alive. It would have been wrong then; how can it not be wrong now?
Relationships with one’s in-laws generally weaken after a death; she was your wife, but she was their sister, and their memories go much farther back then your own. In most marriages she was the one who did the “kin work,” who held those relationships together; in her absence they have a tendency to fray. There will be friends you had while married, couples, who may find themselves feeling slightly uncomfortable being with just you, or with whom you are uncomfortable as a single person. No more evenings of double-deck pinochle. So your relationships with friends and relatives become weaker, or disappear altogether.
I think it’s often common to discover another thing missing from our lives after the death of a spouse: dreams. In so many cases, during the months following death, our late spouse seems to have taken all of our dreams, all of our hopes for a safe, secure future, our visions of growing old and taking care of one another, with them when they left us. We lie in bed at night, having trouble sleeping, and discover that we no longer have dreams or schemes or feelings to explore, that our nighttime canvas is blank where it once contained a host of possibilities. How many of us cry ourselves to sleep during those first months? Feeling not just their absence, but the loss of our futures. Feeling incomplete, unmoored, adrift in a world which no longer interests us. Wondering what is the point of continuing to live, beset by old age, health concerns, and a to-do list of distasteful tasks as long as our arm, none of which we wish to start.
People told me when Nancy died that what I needed was to to join a gym, a suggestion I found at once hilarious and obtuse. As if there were the faintest possibility that doing so would help me heal. I tried filling the hole in my soul by buying stuff–a reciprocating saw, with extra blades, a room humidifier, an air filtration system, herbal teas, exotic coffees, 3-D wooden puzzles, expensive socks, organic dog treats–on Amazon.com and wondering weeks later what I would do with all the junk.
One of the few things I remember from high school chemistry concerns the propensity of an element to bond with other elements. This propensity is called “valence.” A number of elements, such as hydrogen and sodium, have a lot of electrons spinning around on their outer shell and, accordingly, bind with other elements easily. Other “inert” elements, such as helium and gold, don’t. This principle applies to people as well. Some of us, generally extroverts, have high social valence, and find it easy to make friends, getting energy from a crowded room. Others, mostly introverts, are more comfortable with a few good friends and have trouble making new ones. Widowed seniors, I believe, often see their social valence decline. They experience loneliness and disconnection with their old social circles, compounding the sense of loss that has suddenly come to dominate their lives.
I think it is important for widows and widowers to identify social situations which the participants do not necessarily attend as couples and which offer the opportunity for re-engagement. Things like book, walking and garden clubs, Bible studies, political activities or activism, academic presentations, or continuing education.( I recently met a happily married couple who met at spousal group bereavement therapy.) Though these activities may not necessarily qualify as “fun,” they offer intellectual stimulation, a sense of belonging or affilation, and a non-threatening environment in which one may display one’s intelligence, good manners, kindness, and other socially desirable qualities. Such an agenda also offers the prospect of meeting like-minded people, notably people of the opposite sex. Peripheral involvement in these activities can grow into meaningful engagement, even excitement, in addition to the chance of meeting someone, someone who might develop into a good friend or even more. Engagement offers stimulation; mental stimulation can lead to the return of our ability to dream.
With regard to the subject of finding someone to love after the death of a spouse, pretty much everyone in the world tells us that our late spouse would wish for us to be happy. We grieve for the one who is beyond pain, beyond earthly emotions such as jealousy, who may or may not be looking down upon us, praying, perhaps, that we won’t dishonor their memory by abandoning our standards or ignoring our station, that we don’t go running after people decades younger than ourselves. I doubt there are many people out there who would think poorly of us were we to find a “suitable” person with whom a Chapter Two could be possible.
Finding such a person jump-starts our ability to dream. I speak from experience. For the past four months I have been conversing with a woman I was friends with over a half century ago. (She lived on the good side of the tracks.) We Facetime, text, talk on the phone and exchange emails; she lives hundreds of miles away. Ours is just a friendship, more of a conversationship, but it may become more than that. She is kind, intelligent, articulate, spiritual, funny and young for her age. As Jack Nicholson said in As Good As It Gets, she makes me want to be a better man. Our relationship appeared out of the blue, almost as if it were meant to happen. It may lead somewhere, it may not. But I now have something–someone–to dream about. For me, she is a salve for the wounds I’ve suffered during the past year. She is a blessing, and I am truly grateful for her friendship. I dream about her all the time.
“Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace and gratitude.”–Denis Waitley