I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how lonely and isolating the widowhood journey truly is. Whether you’re 20, 40, or 70, widowhood hurts, devastates, and tears you down to your knees. Humans love to fall into routines and patterns – find peace and comfort in it even – and death strips it all away, leaving us stumbling in the new normal, lost and confused without the familiar routines. Unless you have widows and widowers in your normal circle of friends, no one in your life is going to truly “get it”. Not your friends, not your siblings, not your parents, not your coworkers. With that comes the loneliness and isolation.
I remember the early days after Brandon’s death, it felt like I woke up in a nightmare that just wouldn’t end. I had so much pain in my heart, my body physically hurt all the time and it was hard to breathe. My chest felt so heavy. I didn’t see a way I could possibly survive so much pain. And the only person I wanted to talk and cry to was my now dead husband. As the saying goes, I wish I knew then what I know now.
Over the years I’ve made somewhat of a mental list of things I wish someone told me early on. This list is part lessons learned and part advice I received when I first shared my story on Widownet from other widows and widowers who’ve been on the path longer.
- Everything will initially be a blur and nothing is going to feel real. It’ll feel like you’re in a dream and you’ll wake up any minute now. Remember to breathe. Just breathe.
- Be kind to yourself. You’ve just been wounded in the worst way possible and it will take time to feel normal again. That’s okay. Be kind to yourself. If you find something that brings you a little joy, do it. If you want to eat a pint of ice cream, do it. If you want to turn off your phone and hibernate at home for a week, do it. Your body and mind know what you need, listen to them. Forget what you “should” be doing, and do what you feel like doing. Society loves to place expectations on how to act and what to feel during these situations…don’t feel bad if what you want doesn’t measure up. Widowhood is a lonely journey, everyone goes through it differently.
- Acknowledge the small victories. You got out of bed today and fed your pet? Wonderful! You took a shower for the first time this week? Great! You ate a small pack of peanuts for the first time in days? Excellent! In many ways widowhood reverts us back to a somewhat childlike state, where the simplest of activities and tasks are now excruciatingly difficult. That’s okay. Congratulate yourself when you can.
- Drink lots of water. Chances are good you’re not going to be eating much for a while, but all the crying will dehydrate you. Make it a priority to at least drink water every day. It’ll make your body thank you. Grief is a difficult thing.
- Take it one day at a time. Don’t look ahead and wonder what your life will be like in a week, a month, or a year. That is so terribly overwhelming when you are newly widowed, so unreal, so painful. You’re in enough pain, don’t add to it if you don’t have to. Focus on getting through this hour, then the next, and the next. Take it one day at a time. Everything else will sort itself out in time.
- Find simple, ready to eat snacks. For me, the idea of cooking was impossible after Brandon died. A widowed friend of mine came by one day with a bag full of small, packaged snacks (cheese sticks, protein bars, just add water mac and cheese, etc). That was the most helpful thing anyone did for me. Forget about cooking meals for a little while, just stock up on some snacks. You won’t be eating to the nutritional pyramid standards, but at least you’ll be eating something.
- Don’t get too angry with your friends and family; they will say stupid things that they think will be helpful to you (and they really won’t be, they’ll cause you anger and pain). I’m talking about the popular “Time heals all wounds”, “They’re in a better place”, “Things happen as they’re meant too”, and the one that caused me to almost punch someone, “Well, at least you guys didn’t have kids.” Forgive them. They don’t know what to say to you. Society is allergic to anything to do with death, so no one ever wants to talk about it, therefore no one (unless they’ve gone through it) knows what to say on the topic, other than the Hallmark platitudes. It took me a really long time to understand this, but it really isn’t their fault. They do mean well. And they do hate seeing you in pain. They think they’re helping.
- Listen to your instincts. Only you know what you need. You want to take off your rings this week? Do it. You want to keep your rings on forever and never take them off? Do it. There’s no right or wrong answer. If you feel like boxing up all their stuff within the first month, do it. If you feel like never moving a single item of theirs from where they last left it, don’t move a single thing. Everyone has these ideas on when it’s appropriate or inappropriate to do some of these things, but please remember, at the end of the day, the only opinion that matters is yours. Do what you want to, and forget about how others will react to it. This is your journey and no one else’s.
- Keeping busy is good. Your friends will probably ask you to come out and do stuff with them. Don’t say no. It’ll be so incredibly hard in the beginning to go out to a dinner and sit without your spouse, or go to an art show, or go see a movie they will never get to see, but it gets easier, and soon you will look forward for the small mindless distractions (at least I did).
- If you can, find a good therapist to talk to. Five years ago I would have laughed at the idea of sitting on someone’s couch, talking about my feelings. So if you think the idea of talking to someone is ridiculous and can’t possibly help, please reconsider. Try it. It might take some trial and error to find someone you like, but once you do, it’s worth every penny. I loved my first therapist, she specialized in trauma victims and even though she’s never been through anything like this, she had that natural ability to empathize and understand. She was a wonderful lady who helped me survive the first couple of months after Brandon’s death. Initially I went just because I got 5 sessions for free because of a program my work had, but very quickly my weekly visits to her office were what I looked forward to the most. I made lists of things I wanted to talk to her about. After a couple of months she got a new job, and couldn’t see me anymore. I was devastated and decided to try someone she recommended. The second therapist was AWFUL. She didn’t understand and would only give me textbook answers and sayings. I barely made it through the first session with her and never went back. My third therapist I found over a year later. She turned out to be wonderful, and helped me through the major depressive episode I was going through in the second year. My point is, it helps to talk to someone. It’s okay to ask for help.
- Don’t be surprised if your address book changes. What I mean by that is how people react to death will surprise you. You will lose friends, people you thought would be there for you through thick and thin. You’ll also gain new friends, those who really will be there for you through thick and thin. One of my best friends completely vanished from my life shortly after Brandon died…simply disappeared. She stopped responding to any calls, texts, emails I made. She just…poofed. To this day I don’t know why, maybe this was far too much for her to deal with. Maybe my widowhood was too much reality for her. But just the same, I also gained friends. People I never expected to step up did just that. And now I really do know who my friends are. Because if someone stays with you through this awful experience, they’re never going anywhere.
- Start keeping a journal. Write down any and all thoughts you have. It doesn’t have to be in any kind of format. Just get your feelings out on paper. If nothing else, you can look back on this down the road and see how far you’ve come. It’s good to have a visual way to track the progress.
- Try to find a place where you feel some peace. Anywhere – a park, a museum, a river. Just somewhere that brings you a touch of peace. For me, it was the beach. It was something about the sound of the crashing waves and the smell of the salty air…I could breathe freely there.
- Remember that it’s okay to be angry. It’s okay to feel cheated. It’s okay to feel like it’s all unfair. It’s not. You’ve been dealt a very bad hand of cards by life. It’s okay to feel whatever emotions you feel. Don’t let anyone tell you different.