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Here's How I Survived the First Year of Widowhood

The shock has waned and my new life has begun.

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illustration of woman seeing a shadow of her and her spouse, widow
Nhung Lê
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When my husband of 45 years died of cancer in 2022, I didn’t think I’d make it through the funeral, much less the first year. I didn’t know how I could live without Bruce, my constant companion and soulmate. But I had to keep going, if only for the sake of my friends and family, so I dragged myself from one day to the next, sometimes in shock, sometimes in tears, and always terrified of the unknown.

It’s been 18 months since Bruce died. Here are the five things I found helpful on my journey through new widowhood.

1. Lean on a loyal friend — or sibling.
Find someone who will faithfully and frequently listen to you talk and cry out your grief. You will return the favor someday when fate deals them a blow. If you can’t bear to be at home, maybe your friend or family member will let you sleep over. I found comfort in staying at my sister’s house, off and on, for six months.

She wisely insisted I get some exercise every day, so we took long walks and swam in Lake Michigan. She cooked for me and made me eat. She and my brother-in-law even let me stay with them when I came down with COVID-19, leaving trays of food at my door.

Therapy helped as did my bereavement group, with whom I still meet weekly. We have become good friends. Talk to your spiritual leader at your place of worship. My rabbi helped me figure out my new life and reminded me that God is with me wherever I go.

You’ll also be surprised at the kind strangers who want to help. I had a waiter bring me a box of tissues when he noticed this tearful customer at one of his tables. A woman at the temple hugged me when I was crying. When I asked, “Do I know you?” she answered “No, but I can see you’re in pain.”

2. Do what feels right.

You will be invited to go out for lunch or dinner multiple times. If you can’t muster up the strength to be around other people, don’t go — do what feels right. If you want company, ask.

Sleep in the guest room, den or living room if you don’t want to be in the bedroom you shared with your partner. Or, move the marital bed to another wall. Get a new bedspread or curtains. If you’re highly sentimental like me, allow yourself to cry every day. Journal. Meditate. Grieve in the way that is most soothing and comfortable.

At first, it’s hard to believe your loved one is gone. Some widows fill their houses with pictures of their spouses, and some (like me) can’t bear to see those images for eight months. Don’t worry if you can’t get rid of his or her clothing; some spouses do it immediately after the funeral and some wait years.

I gave some of my husband’s sweaters to my son, but I still have a closet full of Bruce’s clothes. I sleep with his Cubs sweatshirt when I need to and wear his robe to breakfast. I spread his deodorant on one of his handkerchiefs and sniff it when I need to sense him with me.

If anyone tells you you’re doing it “wrong,” ignore them. And, most importantly, don’t tell yourself you’re doing it wrong. There is no template for grief. My greatest times of suffering come when I criticize myself for how long it’s taking for me to heal. I have to remember that sustained sadness is normal after the death of a loved one.

3. Expect the roller coaster.

After a few months, six or seven for me, you will have some better days or at least some better hours. Expect triggers: even after more than a year, I still encounter things and events that throw me into the grief hole.

I went to dinner with a friend recently. We ordered Caesar salads. When the waiter asked if we wanted anchovies, I said no and my friend said yes. Whenever Bruce and I ordered Caesar salads, he would grin and say, “You can give me her anchovies.” This moment crushed me and I went into the bathroom and cried into paper towels. Yet, the next week I went to a funeral, expecting to be triggered, and I was fine. There’s no predicting.

4. Volunteer.

At 69, I am fortunate enough to live on my retirement savings, so I spend my time volunteering. I found a group that refreshes older flowers into new bouquets to be delivered to hospitals, nursing homes and schools. There, I’ve met a lot of nice women, some of whom are widows. I always leave with a smile.

I also signed up to work in a food pantry, separating fresh goods from spoiled, and preparing meals for distribution. There, too, I’ve met wonderful people who have welcomed me. I end up feeling like I get more than I give.

5. Hang in there.

I now believe that Bruce is gone; I no longer expect him to walk through the door or be waiting for me when I get home. I have a new kitten, Fiona, who now greets me, sits on my lap when I watch TV and sleeps on my feet at night.

I’m needlepointing Christmas ornaments for friends. I also joined a book group and I’m learning Tai Chi. I’m back to sleeping in my own bed (sleeping on Bruce’s side comforts me) and have found the courage to go to parties, plays and movies alone. I take online courses at the local library, including one in 19th-century literature.

I feel sad and scared sometimes, but I also feel joy and gratitude for the people who are still in my life. I’ll always be uncomfortable with the unknown, but I find myself more open to ways life might surprise me — whether with a new apartment, a new career or a new partner. Most importantly, I have come to realize that even though Bruce’s life is over, mine isn’t.

Have any of you lost your partners? How are you doing? Let us know in the comments below.

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