Waking Up to New Reality

You open your eyes and look at the clock.  You slept well and murmur a quick “thank you” because you’ve learned through many sleepless nights to appreciate the blessing of a good night’s rest.  It feels like a normal day for a second or two, until your memory comes back.  Then, the new reality hits.  Not the new normal, because there’s nothing normal about it.

The new reality.  Another day without a shared meal, without a loving or comforting human touch, trying to imagine the future and only being able to see yourself standing on the edge of a bottomless, endless canyon.  The dread of not knowing when you’ll be able to look forward to something with confidence it might actually happen.  Another day of data – how many sick, how many dead, how many too few masks and ventilators.  Which cities, states and countries are locked down today.  Another day of quarantining or sheltering in place.

The new reality is a pandemic, and it’s not something most of us ever could have imagined.  It’s hard for everyone.  But if you are a widow, it’s only the data and the quarantining or sheltering that are new for you.   You’re already all too familiar with the incomprehensible shift in reality, the loss of the future as you thought you knew it to be, another seemingly endless day of missing the connection you most desire.

empathy you are not alone


The Cost of Understanding

Everyone has experienced that moment of amnesia during the first few seconds of wakefulness in the morning, before remembering the lost job, the diagnosis, the loss or other bad news.  As widows, we know that, but we also feel our loss is somehow different, harder.  If we have truly experienced two becoming one as we read about in Scripture, then now we feel like a half. There is a stress scale that puts loss of a spouse at the top, more stressful even than being in jail.  It’s commonly written that widows lose, on average, 75% of their social network.    (I’m thankful that hasn’t happened to me.)

We don’t feel anyone who hasn’t been through it can truly understand.  We get frustrated or angry when the lack of understanding emerges as a careless comment, unsolicited advice, judgement or an expectation we can’t fulfill.  But when we really dig deep, we admit we are glad others don’t know, because knowing would mean it had happened to them.  This misery does not love company, no matter how much we appreciate the empathy.  My first thought whenever I learn the club none of us wanted to join has a new member is sorrow that another person knows how this feels – especially if it is someone I care about.  I’ve heard or read more than one widow express gratitude that the spouse who went first never had to know this feeling.  We’re not glad our spouses are gone, but as we might feel relieved their physical pain has ceased, we are also relieved they never had to feel this emotional pain.

Coping Strategies

Now, not only is our club growing by the number of widows the pandemic will create, but non-widows all over the world are experiencing much of what we do – loss of connection, uncertainty or lack of clarity regarding the future, a reality that seems to be fouled-up-beyond-all recognition.  More of us have this in common now. Lots of company for our misery.

This is Year 2 in my new reality of widowhood.  Both personal friends and online sisters told me it would be the hardest year.  With that knowledge, I assigned myself some coping strategies.  Be more social, travel, get back to the gym, get back to volunteering, get back to writing.  Four out of five of those are off the table now.  So, I’m writing and reverting back to Year 1 strategies.  Here are four perhaps others in grief – either because of the pandemic or widowhood, or both – might find helpful:

Manageable To-Do Lists

The to-do list, whether it’s the necessary chores or the would-be-nice-and-I-really-should-do-now-that-I-have-time chores, can be overwhelming and seem never-ending when looked at as a whole. Be realistic and take it a day at a time.  Whether you realize it or not, just living and breathing through grief and uncertainty takes a lot of energy.

Don’t expect to be able to do in a day what you could do before.  Each night before bed, make a list of no more than three things to try doing the next day.  Then you won’t have to spend time and energy the next day wondering where to start.  It’s OK if you only get one done, or even just get started. Feel good about that and move the rest to the next day’s list.  It’s also OK to drop something from the day’s list if you realize it’s too big, too hard to do by yourself, or too soon.  There will be a better time.

Tend Something

I read somewhere once that if your emotions start to feel overwhelming, redirect them by tending something. For me, that means my dogs got brushed more often than usual in the early days, whether they needed it or not.  If you have gardens, this doesn’t mean to frantically get all the edging, weeding and mulching done.  Rather, it might mean  mindfully trimming, fertilizing or dividing one special plant.

Cut Yourself Some Slack

If it feels good, do it, but don’t feel required to deep clean or declutter just because everyone else is.  I did a lot of decluttering last year, but I’ve reached a point where, emotionally, I need a break from the sorting, organizing and decision-making regarding Jim’s things.  People may wonder later why I didn’t finish it during quarantine, but that’s not my problem.

Try Not to Anticipate

It’s very hard but try resisting the urge to anticipate. Like most, I dreaded so many specific dates last year.  The first this or that, anniversaries, etc.  But when each day came, if I treated it like any other day, the day returned the favor.  They were just days.  Not necessarily good, not necessarily bad.  Anticipation was always worse than the event.


Stay Strong

Surviving loss and uncertainty isn’t an expertise we sought, but now that more of us have some of aspects of it in common than ever before, I hope shared empathy will help us all get through this.

Wash your hands, maintain physical distance, and stay #widowstrong.


Kathy finally concluded her career as a geologist and followed Jim into retirement in 2015. The same year, having lived in upstate New York throughout their marriage, they bought their retirement home in coastal Georgia. After wintering in Georgia for three years, they scheduled their transition to year-round southern life for mid-February 2019. But Jim’s 66-year-old heart stopped, without warning, seven weeks before that – on New Year’s Day 2019 and two weeks after Kathy’s 59th birthday.

At the time of Jim’s death, Kathy counted about a dozen widowed women and men among her friends – some closer than others. She called them her guiding lights, proof that it was possible to survive and maybe, someday, even thrive. But no one else’s experience mirrored hers, without children and half-packed for a 900-mile move. Having lost the love of her life and unable to see the future, Kathy’s just making it up as she goes along. She remains in upstate New York, devoting most of her much-depleted emotional energy to being the sole caregiver for two beloved senior coonhounds. She writes to share her perspective on the effects of sudden loss and deep grief on day-to-day living, thought processes and vocabulary.