Chapter OneThe ABC's of Widowhood
I wish there had been a primer written for widows. There are books for children entering school, for your high school years, college manuals, and self-help novels for new moms, old moms, menopause, and everything else under the sun. But I have read nothing that tells you what to expect when a part of your life ends.
When a spouse dies, through a process of trial and error, most women tread the tightrope of life not fully understanding all that is going on around them. And there is really no one who can get to the depths of the pain, anger and fright. Your days are spent walking alone through a haze, not fully comprehending what you should do next and yet you must go forward. There are arrangements to be made, family to cope with, and countless other duties that come with the new title "WIDOW".
My widowhood came suddenly. My husband had been sick for five years with a non-threatening illness made worse by an alcohol addiction. After overcoming the dependence, our lives were sailing along smoothly. Since both children were away at school, our routine was fairly normal. We had come to mutually respect each other's space and were great friends. However, one day at 7:20 AM, I received a call telling me my husband had been killed. He had been crossing the street when an uninsured motorist, in a hurry, ran into him and he died instantly. I remember screaming but nothing else. I know that someone took me to the hospital that I did call my daughter at school, and I enlisted her fiancee to go to my son's apartment to talk to him, as there was no answer to my phone call.
I was definitely making decisions in an out-of-body state. It was like I was in a dream world and was just waiting to wake up. I chose the funeral home because it was close to home, not from any personal experience. I was lucky, as they were wonderful. I selected the casket by its name, Titan. My son's high school football team was called the Titans. My floral pieces were personal favorites and the clothes he wore were items he had just received for his 51st birthday. However, because his family was also involved, I became overly sensitive to making everyone feel comfortable with my decisions.
The one thing I remember most vividly is waking up early the morning after his death and sitting in my family room. It was February and in the Midwest, it was cold. I made myself a cup of coffee and stared out at the stars. One shot across the sky and I remember tears coming to my eyes and thinking, "What am I going to do now? How will I get through this?" I had two children in college and knew something about finances. But I was not prepared for making my life's decisions knowing that my future was riding on those decisions.
Since my husband's death was an accident, it suddenly became news and reporters, began pestering me, asking for any tidbit of information. I gave them none. This was a personal moment, not one to be played over and over on the six o'clock news. The days preceding the funeral were another matter. As the PR director for a large regional supermarket chain, I came in contact with hundreds of people on a regular basis and many were kind enough to show up at the viewing. However, I was not prepared for the 236 floral baskets and 1500 people that stood in line to speak to me. The minutes melted into hours and I could not tell you, from one minute to the next, who was there and who was not
I selected my husband's boyhood church for his funeral services and since we were not members, I only spoke briefly to the priest. I was amazed and gratified how eloquently he spoke about someone he had personally never met. Our daughter recited a beautiful poem, one that she had brought back from college, filled with haunting words to a song by a local group. I am sure my husband would have approved.
I like to think that my family and I were strong. We all survived the funeral. I sent my daughter back to school, my son back to his apartment, and I went back to work trying to get my new life started. However, that was not quite to be. Before I could get into the tasks of being a widow, I was presented another challenge. On a Saturday evening, eighteen days after the death of my husband, our house burned the result of a refrigerator fire. My daughter, who had come into town for the weekend, and I were attending a birthday party at the time and were summoned to come home from the party. We found the burned out shell that had been home for nineteen years. As I stood with the firefighters looking at the smoldering ashes, I realized I truly had nothing left but my children. Even our pet dog perished in the fire.
Today, looking back, my children and I like to think that the fire was somehow the work of my husband. I have read several books and many say when someone dies suddenly they are given a short time on earth, as a spirit, to tie up any loose ends.
Our house was on two acres, a larger house than I needed, and certainly time consuming with all the yard work. There were two two-car garages and a basement workshop full of machinery, tools and his collectibles. I really didn't know where to start. When my husband died, I was aware that keeping the house would be foolish for one person. However, this was the only home our children had ever known and I did not want to add more upheaval or anguish to their lives. They were already in enough pain. But the fire truly gave us a new beginning.
My family and several friends came back early Sunday morning to help pick up any pieces of our lives we could find in the rubble. The amazing things we found intact made us wonder. The house had burned nearly to the foundation, but there were a few odd spots that survived. Incredibly, our boxes of pictures, that chronicled our life, were smoke filled but fine. The jewelry my husband had purchased for me was found safe and sound. Most amazing was that in the rubble of the family room, we found intact and unharmed, the movies and videos we had taken through the years. There was nothing else salvageable but we had all we needed to go on with our lives ... our history and ourselves.
I have learned so much since his death eight years ago, some good, some bad. The idea for this book came about during this time as I dealt with attorneys, insurance adjusters, new relationships, old relationships, children, grandchildren, car accidents, employee downsizing, and more. I thought seriously about what women go through when a spouse dies and how little help they actually receive. This is why I wrote The ABC's of Widowhood. We are all familiar with a dictionary and how we can open the page to a word and learn distinctly what it means. That is what this book is for ... open to a page and find the word you need to add more clarity to your life. You can use this book now and later. Many of the words will comfort and soothe, but I believe many will make you think. With this in mind I pray you find some peace in your new life.
Abandoned - The first word you think about at death is that someone has abandoned you. That sense of being abandoned does not go away easily. Whenever something goes wrong in your life that old feeling will creep up on you. At this time it is necessary to busy yourself with other things. Call a friend; go out to dinner. The feeling will soon pass.
Absent-minded - As a new widow you will find yourself quite absentminded. You will begin to doubt your sanity as you forget simple appointments and day-to-day happenings. This is normal and your forgetfulness will subside. Your mind is overloaded with so much that mundane tasks seem to fall by the wayside. For the time being, place a big calendar near your phone. As an appointment or task comes up list it on your calendar. Make sure that every morning upon waking, you check your calendar, at least until your mind clears.
Accident - Widows can be prone to accidents because their minds wander. I was in a serious car accident five months after my husband died. It was my fault because my mind was not on my driving. It is very important that you take your time when driving or doing household tasks. Don't hurry; take your time with things that need to be done. And if it is possible, hire some outside help for your major chores. That would be a plus.
Action - There will be many times when you will need to take decisive action. You must gather all your strength from deep within and make decisions. It will be hard at first especially if your husband was responsible for your financial well-being. Make sure you do your research and then act accordingly. You will make some wrong decisions. Simply regroup and correct them. Remember that a good decision made today is often better than the perfect decision made tomorrow.
Administrator - As administrator of the estate, you will be expected to be knowledgeable about what is necessary to settle the estate. When seeking basic information, check with the research desk of your local library, university or law school. Many television and radio stations have an "ask an attorney" program and the local bar association may also have some basic information or can refer you to qualified estate attorneys. Unless you are an attorney, you will need to seek professional advice. Since all state laws differ, be sure to talk to someone in your state. One note of caution: be careful of financial or other personal details you share in seeking information. DO NOT provide details to strangers no matter how helpful they seem.
Advice - It is often difficult to ask for advice. I know when I first became a widow I did not want to bother people with small, petty concerns that I had. Several times things went awry because I acted without thinking or discussing the problem with a professional. Jot down questions as they come up and then call someone who can give you an answer. Note the name of the person, the time and date of the reply along with the response. It is easier to review written information than to try to remember it. If the information you receive doesn't seem complete enough, seek more information before you act on it.
Afresh - Your life must start afresh. It will be difficult to think of one instead of two. For several months you will refer to things in a dual role ("we" and "us" instead of "I" and "me"). This is temporary. You must start to think of your life singly instead of together. For many women this will be difficult - especially if you and your husband had a particularly close relationship. Start by exploring activities you have always wanted to do but had no time because of your family duties. Add more as you feel comfortable.
Afterlife - I believe there is an afterlife. I did not come by these thoughts easily. I was not prone to hocus pocus or magical beings. But I believe there is someone who watches over a widow. Several times when I needed a boost because I was feeling blue something quite mysterious would always happen to help me out. If it had occurred only one time I would have thought nothing about it, but it has happened several times throughout the years. My advice ... just let it happen!
Alcohol - Be careful! As a new widow it will be very easy to drown your sorrows in a bottle, even if you were never inclined to do so before. But that will only add to your problems. Watch yourself carefully at this time and if you feel like you are overindulging, talk to a mental health therapist or a friend you can trust. Don't try to deal with it alone. The shame lies not in asking for help, but in not asking.
Alone - No matter how old or young you are when a spouse dies, you truly feel alone. No matter how many family or friends you have, they cannot and will not take the place of your spouse. The little things that you took for granted will suddenly bring you to tears. It happened to me two weeks after my husband's death. It was Valentine's Day and his ritual was to buy me flowers for every special occasion. In the afternoon, it finally dawned on me that I would not be getting flowers and I could not hold back the tears. The loneliness I felt on that day repeated itself many, many times after that. What I did when I felt desolate was to get out of the house. I would get in my car and go shopping, to the library, or visit a friend. Usually a change of scenery will be just the thing to kick the "lonesome blues" away.
Allocate - It will be necessary to learn to allocate your time, money and resources. If your husband was the financial whiz, it will be necessary to learn or relearn basic finances; if he was the gatekeeper for vacations, household projects etc., you will have to step in and take on some of the tasks. You will be uneasy doing this at first but through trial and error; you will gain new confidence and soon will feel pretty proud of your accomplishments. My first independent achievement was fixing the lights at my new condo. When they all came on the first evening I smiled quite brightly ... you can too. An important caveat to this is to make sure before tackling tasks, that may present hazards or require special tools, to ask for help ... "when in doubt, ask first". In the early stages, please make sure you allocate enough time for yourself.
Angels - Don't let anybody kid you, there are angels. You may never see them. You may never touch or smell them ... but they are there. I don't know how many times I have had uneasy moments that suddenly and unexplainably cleared up. As a new widow, angels help you through the rough spots. My advice is to name your angel (mine's Annie) and allow yourself to accept their help and guidance ... they will always be around. Thank goodness!
Anger - As a widow, it is easy to be angry. Everything you have known and been comfortable with has been taken away and you feel angry. It's good for you to express these feelings and it is part of the healing process. But, beware, anger can also be destructive. It can turn inward and make you bitter and resentful. You cannot heal until you open your heart and mind and let the rage out. It will take time ... it will not happen overnight. Grief therapists encourage you to talk about your anger; this may be only to a friend. By expressing your feelings, the resentment will begin to subside, eventually allowing you to return to a more normal you.
Anniversary - This word will never mean the same as it had previously. You will still celebrate birthdays and special occasions, but "anniversary" will come to mean another year has gone by since your spouse has passed. The anniversary month will find you anxious and reliving the sad memories all over again. Don't panic. Make sure you keep busy. My husband died on the last day in January and his birthday was also in January. Every January without fail my heart goes cold. I make sure that month I am extra busy so I don't wallow in self-pity. I can also say with some conviction that your life gets easier after the first full year of living through each holiday without your spouse.
Annuity - This is a means of investing for your future. Your funds come back in periodic annuity payments when you retire. Speak to an investment counselor, if this is something you may want to pursue.
Apology - Widowhood often finds you being curt, almost rude at times to people who have no idea what has happened in your life. The clerk at the store, someone on the phone, a neighbor, or your children will all incur your wrath from time to time. Apologize as quickly as you can. If not, you will feel even worse. But better yet before the words are spoken, think what effect they will have. Perhaps, that will allow you a moment to think before overreacting.
Assert - The one thing a new widow must learn to do is to assert herself. You may be lied to, treated unfairly, made to feel downright stupid and sometimes harassed by any number of ignorant souls. This is the time to speak up. After the death and fire, I knew I was not going to rebuild on the old lot. Yet I allowed myself to be harassed by a builder hired by the insurance company who insisted that I must rebuild. Instead of reporting this man to the insurance company, I fretted and made myself sick. When I finally got the courage to speak up, the issue was resolved quickly. DO NOT ALLOW ANYONE TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF YOU. No one can, unless you give him or her permission to by not speaking up for your rights.