Advice from the “Saturday Night Widows”
Becky Aikman was in her 40s when she lost her husband to cancer. She formed a group with five other widows. Their goal: To learn to live again after the worst thing that ever happened to them. In the process, they found that some of the traditional thinking about loss and recovery wasn’t helpful.
Here, advice for rebuilding your life—when you feel ready to do so—in the months or years after the death of your husband or wife…
AVOID COMMON TRAPS
Beware the missteps that can stand in the way of remaking your life.
Don’t put off rebuilding because you haven’t yet experienced the stages of grief. In the late 1960s, a psychiatrist named Elisabeth Kübler-Ross popularized the idea that the grieving process has five predictable stages—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These “five stages of grief” have become so ingrained in our culture that some widows and widowers believe they can’t be truly ready to move on with their lives if they haven’t yet passed through each of them. In fact, these stages were never intended to apply to grieving spouses but only to those who were dying themselves.
People who lose a spouse often experience waves of emotion separated by periods of feeling relatively normal. Over time, the waves become less extreme and less frequent until the widow or widower feels ready to reengage with humanity.
Be wary of support groups. These groups are supposed to help widows and widowers cope with their grief by talking about it with others. Trouble is, spending time with other grieving people and focusing your attention on your grief can make you sadder.
Give one of these groups a try if you think talking about your grief might help. But if you discover that it isn’t for you, don’t feel that your recovery depends on your continued attendance.
Make decisions based on what you want your life to look like in the future, not on maintaining the life you had before. It can be very difficult to give up the plans we made with our late partners, but those plans might no longer be appropriate for us.
Example: Some widows hang onto the family home, even though they no longer need the space, and then feel isolated living in communities full of families. Many who move into smaller homes closer to other singles are glad they did.
It might make sense to alter whom you socialize with or how you arrange to spend time with them…
Be proactive about making plans with friends. You can’t just sit at home waiting for friends to call with things for you to do. Your friends might go out of their way to extend invitations in the months immediately after your spouse passes away, but those invitations are likely to eventually dry up as your friends return to their normal patterns and forget that you’re sitting home alone. It’s up to you to contact them to make plans. Do this days or weeks in advance, when possible, to reduce the odds that they already will have made plans.
Construct a new circle of single friends. If you and your late spouse were like most married couples, you probably socialized mainly with other married couples. You might start to feel like a fifth wheel if couples remain your only friends. If other members of your circle have also lost their spouses, make a particular effort to socialize with them. If you don’t have unattached friends, ask your friends if they have other friends who have lost their partners or are otherwise unmarried and suggest that they be invited to get-togethers, too.
Get over any guilt about new romantic relationships. Widows and widowers often worry that seeing someone new implies that their departed spouse wasn’t really the love of their life. This isn’t true—researchers have found that it’s people who were very deeply in love with their departed spouses who are most likely to find love again.
Certain pursuits are particularly worthwhile when you’re trying to recover from the loss of a spouse.
Seek new experiences. Explore new hobbies. Visit new places. Take classes in subjects you know little about.
Examples: I attended the opera, took architecture tours and joined a group of friends on a spa trip, all things I don’t normally do.
Doing new things isn’t just enjoyable—it also helps widows and widowers gain confidence in their ability to face new challenges. That can be very empowering for people worried that they might not have it in them to remake their lives after decades of marriage and routine.
Cook well for yourself. Losing a spouse can mean losing the person who cooked for you…or losing the person for whom you cooked. Either way, the result often is a dramatic decline in the quality of the surviving spouse’s meals. (When the survivor is the cook, he/she often concludes that it isn’t worth preparing elaborate meals that no one else will eat.)
Dining out can be challenging, too. Many newly widowed people find it uncomfortable and boring to eat alone in restaurants.
But if you stop eating well after the loss of a spouse, you deny yourself an important source of pleasure when you need it most. Your health might suffer, too, if you resort to junk food.
What to do: Make cooking good food a priority, even if you’re the only one who will eat it. If your late spouse was the cook in the family, enroll in cooking classes. Not only can these classes teach you to cook well for yourself, but you also might meet new friends.
Travel with tour groups. Travel is an excellent way to have new and enjoyable experiences, but many people find it awkward to travel alone, and not having someone to share travel experiences with can detract from the fun.
If you travel with a tour group, you’ll have people with whom you can share the adventure. You might even form lasting friendships with other members of the group.
Helpful: Before signing up for a trip, call the tour operator to confirm that a significant number of the members of the group are single. It can be uncomfortable to be the only one traveling alone in a group.