From wife to widow, from husband to widower, it happens in a flash: a final breath, and the life of the surviving loved one is suddenly altered. Physically single, yet psychically married, women and men must trim and tailor their lives and their spirits to confront a new way of life. It is not an easy task.
One's pre-widowhood life gives direction to one's adjustment after loss, says Evelyn Rady, director of clinical services for Jewish Family Service, an agency serving Jews and non-Jews of San Diego and North County. Many who have enjoyed a good relationship with their spouse will find the strength and ability to adjust to singleness.
Physician Lidia Everett finds that her patients who enjoyed successful marriages are able to confront grief, then move ahead to a fulfilling life-after-marriage. Others, whose marriages were clouded because of the long, debilitating illness of a spouse, or because of irreconcilable incompatibility, may experience a sense of relief that enables them, too, to move on with their lives.
But there are many widows and widowers who cannot imagine being alone. Frightened and confused by the death of their loved one, they cling to the support of family and friends. They can be helped, their fears alleviated and the cords of their dependency cut.
Rady advocates participation in a grief support group. There, under the guidance of a professional counselor, the grieving have an opportunity to share fears and feelings with others who are experiencing the same difficulties. Those who find their grief too overwhelming or who are reluctant to share it within a group setting can find counseling on an individual basis.
The New Horizons program of Palomar Family Counseling Services has an ongoing self-help group that confronts shared problems that range from handling one's finances to how to meet people and how to find work. It convenes monthly at the First Congregational Church in Escondido. Paul Michalewicz, the social worker who leads the group, said he has a mailing list of 1,400 people, most of whom find their way to the meetings through word of mouth recommendations. (Calls: 745-3811).
Jewish Family Service is in the process of forming a new group, "Learning to Live After Loss." Its brochure reads: "Through sharing . . . members will learn coping skills that will enable them to move through their grief, survive the loss and return to living life fully." This group, led by social worker Ellen Kaufman, will meet in Vista. (Calls: 944-7855).
The value of the group experience was brought sharply into focus by San Marcos resident Irene Thomas, who has been a widow for one and a half years. Her emotions are fragile, her aloneness is still new. After a happy marriage of 48 years, she finds herself coping with family problems, finances, and personal decisions that had, in the past, been her husband's responsibilities. She is, nevertheless, moving ahead, doing it all. Comfort has come, mainly, from the support group that she attends regularly.
Following her husband's death, the hospice staff members invited her to join their grief support group. There, she has made new friends and found a place where she can be herself and share her pain.
She offered these thoughts: "Be yourself. Remember, you have only yourself to please; there are no 'shoulds', so do only the things you want to do. Never hesitate to say 'no' if you mean 'no'! If crowds are upsetting, shop when the stores are empty. If the holidays are overwhelming, pass them by. Grief is tiring, it uses up a great deal of energy. I allow myself two activities a day, with lots of time left for me alone." She travels and finds that "getting away" is good for her.
Katy Smith, also of San Marcos, has been a widow for three years. When her husband of 54 years died, she "ran away" (her words) to China and cruised in the East for awhile. She, too, finds that traveling is both healing and fun, and takes a trip a month. Emphatically, she states that she is determined "never to quit; life must go on." At 78, this energetic woman has begun to take golf lessons.
She advises new widows and widowers not to make hasty decisions about changes in their lifestyle. It took her two and a half years before she sold her house and moved into a condominium. Once she did that, she found that she had made a wise move. "In my new environment, there no longer is the haunting echo 'Hi Honey, I'm home'!" The new place is strictly hers and she likes that. Others, however, prefer to be surrounded by the things that keep memories alive.
I asked both women how old friends accepted their new status. They agreed that people do not understand how easily they can offend the newly widowed: one dinner invitation, but never invited again; dirty looks if a husband offers to fix your leaking faucet or repair your garden hose. Painful experiences! "Some people act as if we had a contagion!" Of course, there are loyal couples who are unceasing in their friendship.