widow standing alone

After my husband George died in 2013, I turned to the internet. There were fit widows, super parent widows, fund-raising widows and grateful widows. I did not find any widows like me who were drowning themselves in Manhattans, Mad Men and nihilism.

Probably because they weren’t writing anything coherent enough to be picked up by Google.

I had terrible caregiver guilt. George had been in denial that he was dying of cancer so we were never able to talk about it. After 32 years together, we never even had the chance to say goodbye. I just knew that he’d died on my watch, still thinking he was going to recover. I had post-traumatic stress disorder, haunted by my memories of how he was at the end.

Aside from my dad and stepmom, who were loving but housebound, caught up in their own health problems, I had no support network. Except for me. And I wasn’t enough.

I started practically living with my best friend, a younger guy far different from me, who’d helped me care for George. A poor choice, but he took care of me when I couldn’t bear to be alone. He cooked me dinner when when I couldn’t eat because, alone in my kitchen, everything just tasted wrong. I finally ended the relationship when he became crazy possessive and controlling. Later, I became an online dating fiend, moving on to my next boyfriend, who was cute but addicted to drugs and gambling. And for a little while, to me.

I “botwined,” a verb originated from Nancy Botwin of Weeds, meaning to make bad choices you otherwise wouldn’t because you’re widowed and alone. I named my blog The Hungover Widow because I didn’t want to masquerade as one of those upbeat, well-adjusted widows who became even more impressive after her loss. I was the widow who wallowed in bed, not the one who funded her kid’s college education with her new homemade soap business. I neither ran marathons nor figured out search engines. I admired those widows, but they weren’t me.

Every time some well-meaning person commented, “you’re so strong” or “you’ll get over it,” I wanted to tell them they were spewing those platitudes only to make themselves feel better. Worse were the people who suggested I practice gratitude when they themselves were going home to spouses who were still alive.

But I was my only real enemy.

I had to start seeing myself as a dear friend in distress instead of some lost cause I wanted to run away from. I had to suspend judgment, except, you know, about my terrible dating choices. I reframed “wallowing” as “hibernating.”

My grief counselor told me to calm down, to spend time sitting by the fireplace and enjoying a good book. But it was a year after George’s death before I could do that. I’d start hyperventilating or looking at Facebook to check out the world of the non-widowed. It took another year after that before I wanted to do anything but read, loving the escape.

Happier widow five years later
Me in 2018: older but smiling

But around the two-year I could actually start acting like an adult again instead of an angry teenager. Still, it was another year after that before I regained any real intellectual capacity.

I had to keep giving myself these teeny  goals: make it to evening yoga, try that meetup group for urban walks, buy healthy groceries not just Pretzels and Chardonnay. Later it was: show up to writing class with something new to read, do it again the next week.

Gradually, the widow haze lifted. The futility fog abated. I felt like myself again. It just took so much longer than I expected.

A wise widower told me that at first my loss would consume 100 percent of who I was, but one day I would wake up and it would be 99 percent. Over time, it would shrink to 85 percent. Months or even years later, it would be down to 33. The loss would never be zero, but it would become tolerable.

Ultimately, I emerged far stronger and much less judgmental than when I was married. I have now (gasp) dated more than one man at a time. I understand that loneliness and guilt can drag us far lower than we ever expected. I listen to people in ways I couldn’t before. And I’m ready to use my brain again. It’s just a different one than I had as a wife or a practicing attorney.

My yoga teacher ends each class by saying, “You are enough just as you are.” I would add, “Give yourself enough time. And don’t get mad at yourself when it takes so very much longer than you think it will.”

You will return to being you.


Debbie Weiss is a writer, yogi, gardener and former attorney. After her husband died of cancer in April 2013, she turned to writing when she found herself single and living alone for the first time at age 50. You can find her on her blog, thehungoverwidow.com, which offers empathy and dating advice. Her work has been published in THe New York Times' Modern Love column, The Huffington Post, Woman’s Day, Good Housekeeping, Elle Decor, and Reader’s Digest, among other publications. She is currently working on a memoir while trying to figure out how to program her garden lights. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.