Becoming a widow is not something you can prepare for before it happens. You can have all your ducks in a row. The funeral pre-paid and arrangements pre-decided. All of the legal papers drawn up. But even if your spouse lingers in hospice, you can never truly be ready. It won’t become real until he takes his final breath. And even then, it doesn’t completely sink in for a while. Instead, it is like driving at school zone speed through pea soup fog — uou can’t detect anything that lies ahead.
Like a cold smack in the face, reality hits at different times for every widow. Perhaps it is when they lower the casket into the ground. For me, it was when I stood before the probate judge and declared under oath that my husband was deceased. No one told me I’d have to do something like that, or that the amount of forms I’d have to fill in would equal that of buying a house. Part of me wanted to scream, “He’s gone. What more can I tell you? Leave me alone.”
Thank goodness, a kind clerk advised that I purchase at least 10 copies of the death certificate. Two years after the burial, I found I still needed to present proof to some entity that hadn’t gotten the message. Up to seven years later, I’d get an odd piece of mail addressed to him, even though I’d moved.
Here are four other truths no one ever told me about the widow’s experience. I want to let you know that each of them are normal and are okay to feel.
1. It’s okay to be fuzzy-headed
Similar to pregnancy brain, widow’s brain is very real and extremely scary. You may wonder if you are losing touch with reality.
Forgetfulness comes with the grief, and as the grief lifts so will the short-term memory loss. For most widows, the fog begins to clear within a year to 18 months. Some of it may never come back. My husband passed away in November and I have absolutely no recollection of Christmas with the family that year. Evidently, I hosted it!
Write notes to yourself. Write things out in a to-do list when you think about it — such as a letter to post, a book to return, or your shopping list — instead of relying on your memory. Then forgive yourself when you cannot find the list — or find your car keys in the freezer after looking for them everywhere for 30 minutes.
Many will advise you not to make any major decisions for a year, mostly because of widow’s brain. However, that is not always possible. I had to sell the house as quickly as I could. I couldn’t afford to stay in it, and the last thing I needed on my plate was a foreclosure. Don’t act on impulse — weigh your decisions, seek counsel, and take what actions you believe are best for you.
We each have our own schedule when it comes to mourning. Only you can decide when it is time to give away his clothes to charity or sell his power tools. However, if you continue to put such things off for months and months, seek out a confidential mentor or counselor to talk to about it.
Tell your friends and family you are experiencing forgetfulness. Reassure them that it is a normal phenomenon and ask them to be patient with you. And by all means, if you are still employed, tell your boss or supervisor. Let them know it is a commonplace, physical, and temporary thing. Hopefully, they will appreciate your honesty.
Exercise your brain by doing online puzzles and word games, crafts, or the daily crossword. Take up reading if you are not already an avid reader. Do not mindlessly sit for hours in front of the TV or get sucked into computer games where you can escape reality by being your invincible avatar. Both are hazardous for your brain and your mental health.
2. It’s okay to seek relief for the pain and sadness
It doesn’t mean you are weak. You simply need a weapon or two in your arsenal to battle the grief.
Often, our heartaches turn into muscle aches. You are probably tensing every muscle in your body over all the adjustments you have to make and do not even realize it. Pamper yourself with massages or hot tub soaks, or bask in the warmth of a sunny day. A heating pad set on low can feel comforting — almost like the hug you crave. Chronic aches and pains may intensify during the initial grief period. Talk honestly with your doctor about the symptoms and their onset, severity, and duration.
If you feel listless or down, let the doctor know that as well. Mourning can mess with your hormones and body chemicals so pharmaceuticals or herbs may be needed to help your system get back in sync.
Other things may crop up as well. I recall going to the dentist about three months after the funeral and her asking me when I started grinding my teeth. Evidently, I did it in my sleep. She touched my shoulder. “Are you a new widow?” Problem solved. It was how my brain dealt with the empty pillow next to me. She fitted me for a mouthpiece. After a year, I no longer needed it.
Going places you both used to enjoy, such as church, out to eat, or to parties and neighborhood get-togethers may be difficult at first. However, you can minimize the awkwardness of being “one” instead of “two.” Ask another widow to accompany you. They won’t mind at all, trust me. They understand what you are going through.
Get out and volunteer. Taking your mind off yourself for a while will do wonders for your mood and your mind. Surround yourself with positive, productive things to do. But be wary of becoming too busy in an effort to run away from the sorrow.
When milestones come around, plan an activity. A group of widows and I have a potluck each Valentine’s Day. Everyone brings a rose to share. We also have a list with everyone's anniversaries and birthdays logged into our calendars so we can invite each other to go to a movie or out to eat on those days.
3. It’s okay to cry at the drop of a hat
Smells are powerful triggers of past memories, good or bad. Widows commonly won’t wash their husband’s pillowcase because they want to inhale his scent. Or they wear his shirts around the house to once again retain the closeness they miss.
Finding one of his shirt buttons in the lint trap might start the tears flowing. A song, a phrase, hearing a joke that he once told… so many little kicks in the gut can spring out of nowhere like a well hidden ninja lurking in the shadows. They steal your breath just when you thought you were coping just fine. I believe the brain lets the grief leak out a bit at a time to keep us from drowning in the deep, murky waters of loneliness and despair.
4. It’s okay to talk about it
The hardest part for me was when everyone else went back to their lives after the funeral. I couldn't go back to life I’d known. I felt very alone. Luckily, I had widowed friends who knew that would happen and sought me out.
Don’t sit lost in loneliness. Seek out other widows. We are easy to find. It is almost as if widows send out wavelengths to each other. There is a symbiosis you can find with other widows. Lean on them. Make a pact with them. Give yourselves permission to call each other anytime, day or night. It truly helps to know you are not the only one who has gone through the process.
Losing a spouse is like having half of yourself ripped away. It will take time to heal and rediscover who you are. Embrace the experience, no matter how painful it is. You will be stronger for it.
Join the Club
Once you have traveled the road a while and learned the possible potholes, seek out new widows to comfort and guide. Drive them places. Eat out together. Go shopping or to a movie. Welcome them into your “widows’ club” of friends.
Then tell them they shouldn’t worry at all about temporarily leaning on you. Someone did it for you and you are simply paying it forward. Their turn will come, too. We are a very special sisterhood who never stop needing each other.
You don't have to face your grief alone. We have confidential and free mentors ready to walk with you — to offer you encouragement, support, and a listening ear. Just use the "connect" tab below and you'll hear back from a mentor soon.
This article was written by: Julie CosgrovePhoto Credit: Thomas Kelley