Monday marked four weeks since my husband died in a local hospital. His death finally ended the suffering brought on by multi-system ailments–one of those cases where an exit brings a kind of blessed relief, calling to mind the trite saying, “Well, at least he’s not suffering any more.”
Suffering is for survivors. And so is cleaning up, sorting out, legal wrangling, bill paying and spending sleepless nights adjusting to a quietly echoing vacuum where a spouse once resided.
There is no right way to grieve and no one does it the same way, with the same circumstances. So there are no rules or roadmaps, but for those who travel that road or will in the near future, here is a list of what is proving helpful for this new widow.
- Busy is best, the more physical the better. Once the flurry of funeral activity ends, it can be soul-cleansing to tackle a project you may have put off when you were in a caretaking and supportive role. For me, it was planting three hydrangea bushes in my back yard and finally tackling the weedy expanse that bordered my driveway. Maybe it’s just me, being a Kansas country girl from birth, but digging in the dirt and watching things grow can be so satisfying and therapeutic. And even if you don’t have a green thumb, you might find solace by just visiting a greenhouse and smelling the plants and soil, feasting your eyes on colors and textures and using your nose to take in the living, thriving things. It could take your mind off of the opposite.
- Take care of yourself. We hear this admonition all the time as widows and widowers, but it is important, since it is all too easy for the grief to lead to despair and illness. The next advice does not apply to the male griever, but there is surely an equivalent activity to treating yourself to a trip to a hair salon or nail salon. I am eternally grateful for the trend in modern salons to massage your scalp during a shampoo and to massage your arms and legs during a mani-pedicure. So grateful, in fact, that I plan to make these treats a regular regimen, as long as the bank account will allow. Which brings me to a third tip, dealing with finances.
- Learn to deal with the scary arena of money. If you are one of those unlucky survivors whose spouse always handled financial transactions, enlist the help of a trusted advisor to help you navigate the treacherous waters of changing bank accounts, applying for survivor benefits through Social Security, changing beneficiaries and title on death clauses, filing life insurance claims, etc.
This area can be overwhelming for the uninitiated, but getting organized and developing a degree of expertise is a must. Just breathe deeply, tell yourself you can do it, and dive in. The water is cold at first, but you’ll get used to it.
- Don’t panic, don’t rush to decisions. Give yourself time to adjust to your new circumstances. You don’t have to put your house on the market, sell a vehicle or make a rash decision that you could live to regret. Again, breathe deeply, let your rational self come to the forefront, and your many years of life experience will eventually prevail. One of my first thoughts was to trade my two vehicles for one to lower my car payment. Wisdom (and my wise son) said to wait and perhaps use life insurance funds to eliminate any car payments, especially since my monthly income is suddenly dramatically reduced by the lack of a second Social Security check.
- Tap into your spirituality. This is the most important time in your life to learn to put your trust in God. Answers come in prayers, comfort comes in dreams and healing can ensue from attending church services. Yes, you may be brought to tears like I was when the responsorial hymn the day after my spouse’s funeral was from Psalm 23, his favorite. But tears are another soul cleanser and don’t be embarrassed by them.
One of the few benefits of being alone, for me, is that I now pray aloud in the mornings, and sometimes even sing. There is no one but my pets and God to hear me and nothing to be embarrassed about. In fact, that may be how we are supposed to communicate with Him.
- Create some kind of personal memorial to your deceased loved one. For me, this is taking the form of using my mate’s 159 ties to make a colorful quilt top. The other clothing that filled three closets (he would have been a good candidate for an episode of Hoarders-Clothing Version) is going to a local charity that will find good uses for 250 dress shirts in their original packaging. That, to my way of thinking, is a great recycling memorial. The living memorial is in the back yard hydrangeas.
- Don’t forget to laugh. I have spent a lifetime looking for the humor in everyday situations. My late husband didn’t always appreciate being made the public subject of laughter in my newspaper column, but it gave him an identity that our readers loved . . . made him more human and loveable.
I had to laugh at myself yesterday as I put sealer/stain on half the deck. This was a must-do project and I made a sloppy mess of it. I am sure my spouse was laughing at me from the Other Side while I was learning to handle a paint roller. He was a perfectionist in the painting department and would never have allowed me to tackle such a project.
I also find much humor in grocery shopping nowadays. Things like single serve Asian dishes and personal pan pizzas find their way into the basket as I try to get out of the habits of stocking up for a famine–habits inherited from depression-era parents–those same parents who told us to clean our plates because there are starving children in China.
- Don’t rely on Facebook and fiction. Being newly alone is not fun. Nights and weekends are close to terrifying. Taking regular and early doses of Melatonin are now a part of my nightly regimen, just so I can finally fall asleep. And I have learned to stop my use of electronic devices early in the evening and switch to a book in print while trying to get into a drowsy state. This being said, I know that relying on Facebook and fiction for human interaction is not healthy. I have had to force myself to get out and about, making my car head to the local YMCA for an arthritis swim class three times a week, reaching out to family members on the phone and quickly accepting dinner or lunch invitations from dear friends.
Now, thanks to things like setting up a trust, scheduling a dental visit and dreaming up places to go and visit, my calendar is filling up. And the daily kisses I get from my two dogs . . . the comfort that comes from a cat that curls himself around my legs and hugs me with his tail . . . the squeals of laughter and the joy that exude from my precious grandson . . . all of this eases the pain of loss and tells me I still have a zest for life and so much to look forward to.