If I had stayed home as much a year ago as I am now because of the pandemic, people would have been concerned. Is she becoming a hermit? Is she home moping? I remember being asked if I was getting out much, and fixating on the word “much.” What did that mean? Was there a correct amount of “getting out?” What did getting out even mean? I was running all my necessary errands, did that count? Meeting people occasionally for lunch, did that count? To be honest, it all felt the same to me. Being anywhere outside my house felt awkward, disconnected, like everyone who saw me could tell I was only half a person.
Step One: Getting My Own Food
Doing errands was hard, but it was important to me to show people I was capable and self-sufficient. One day a friend texted to ask if she could pick up any groceries for me. I felt proud of myself when I texted back, “No thanks; I’m at the grocery store now!”
I wondered why she thought I couldn’t do my own grocery shopping, and then I worried I had thwarted her efforts to “help” me, as everyone seemed to want to do even though I couldn’t, at first, tell them how. Then, my widow brain went into overdrive. Did people think I was being disrespectful by doing my own grocery shopping that soon? Did it mean I didn’t miss my dead husband?
To be honest, I’ve never enjoyed grocery shopping, but I needed to take back control of the food in my house. I appreciated everything people brought the first couple weeks, but I could only eat so much pasta, extra sauce and so many rolls.
Grateful for the Invitations, But . . .
I’d heard prior widows say they might have pushed friends away by declining invitations. I didn’t want to do that, so – unless it would require being out longer than I could leave my two senior hounds — I accepted almost every invitation I received even though I dreaded every outing. The longer I waited, I reasoned, the harder it would become.
What Didn’t Work for Me
I drew the line at movies, plays or concerts because I had less than zero desire to spend a couple hours sitting still in a closed, dark room, surrounded by strangers, having my emotions manipulated. People might presume I’d welcome the escape, but I remembered the time months after my mother died when a scene in a comedy movie made me ugly cry in the theater. I was with the only person I was comfortable having see me like that. Now he was gone so I had no desire to take that chance, no matter how close a friend had invited me. To those who would say it’s OK to cry, I say yes of course it is, but it’s also OK to not want to call attention to myself and my grief in a public place.
Feeling It My Way
My best outings were for a meal with one person at a time. I couldn’t concentrate on conversations involving more people, especially in loud environments. No one knows how often I almost bolted in the middle of a meal or event during the first few months. Even at Mass, I positioned myself at the end of the pew or stood in the back near the door so I could leave if I felt panicky. I told someone that going to Mass alone every week was one of the hardest things for me to do, only to hear about another widow who said it wasn’t hard for her at all because the church was her family. Here I am doing it all wrong again, I thought!
When Staying Home Isn’t Moping
We all know there is no one right way or wrong way to grieve. Demonstrating self-sufficiency, maintaining friendships by accepting invitations and avoiding potentially crowded theaters were things I needed to do. But the opposite path might be the right one for someone else.
Whenever I hear someone say a widow is being too reclusive, I have two reactions. First, I think why shouldn’t she be reclusive when she’s just had her heart shattered and her soul ripped out of her body? Then I run through my mental list of all the reasons she might be turning down invitations that have nothing to do with moping or reclusivity.
I’m not sure this is the whole list of reasons a widow might stay home more than what seems “normal” to others. However, I should acknowledge this is the list of a retired person. I think it’s safe to assume working widows have even less time and energy to spare.
Home Can Be A Busy Place
The widow might be busy at home. I’ve known widows who address their husbands’ belongings right away and others who wait years. The best time is when it feels right for each person. For various practical and logistical reasons, it made sense for me to get started right away. My pace was slow, but my husband was a collector and all the unpacking (because we were getting ready to move), sorting, identifying, decision-making and dispersing was like a full-time job.
Needing Some Rest
She might be tired. No matter what remedy I tried, I slept no more than two hours per night for six full months after Jim died. Simply getting myself and the dogs up, fed and whatever else we needed to start the day often left me exhausted. (Speaking of the dogs, they are my only dependents. I stand in awe of widows who work their way through this devastation while also being responsible for other humans of varying ages and conditions.)
Needing A Break
She might not feel up to public scrutiny. I found it stressful and awkward when acquaintances I’d never had a real conversation with in the past approached me to ask why I was limping (arthritis flare-up) or how I was “really” when “OK” wasn’t a good enough answer. I didn’t want to push friends away, but I did not like the sensation that people I barely know were analyzing me and I didn’t feel up to the effort of explaining myself to them. Yes, I appreciated the genuine concern but I didn’t have always the energy to respond.
Staying Home Alone is Easier than Coming Home Alone
Going out means going back home. To. An. Empty. House. Someone once reminded me that my house isn’t empty because I have the dogs. She said the dog’s mayhem when I walk in the door is a good distraction from Jim’s absence. I was screaming inside but didn’t bother explaining that, at the time, exactly the opposite was true. The mayhem accentuated his absence. If he were there, we’d be coming in together to share the chaos or – if he had stayed home while I’d gone out — the dogs would be calmer when I got home and wouldn’t need immediate attention. I’ve adapted now, partially through time and partially because I’ve moved to a different house. But during that first year, as hard as it was to push myself out the door, it was even harder to walk back into the house where Jim was supposed to be but wasn’t.
What Now? What Next?
Now, suddenly, we’re supposed to stay home! No one can question it, because it’s the socially responsible, loving, patriotic thing to do. But what will happen when the stay-at-home orders expire?
Susan Leathers writes of her hope that the pandemic will teach us how to better support those in grief. I hope one of those ways is to not make assumptions about a widow’s behavior. For example, let’s not conclude based on a declined invitation that she’s home moping. Instead of telling her, “You really should get out more,” maybe we’ll call and say, “I missed you lately. What have you been up to? Are you busy with something I can help with?” Maybe if it does seem she’s overly lethargic or unmotivated, we’ll be kind instead of critical.
Room for All The Feelings
Something else I hope will change is the expectation we can choose our feelings at any given moment. So many memes imply it’s up to us to decide whether to feel grateful or sad, hopeful or lonely. I say it’s not either-or. People – even widows! – are multidimensional and can feel more than one thing at a time. I can be grateful for the company of my dogs and still miss Jim so much it takes my breath away. I can enjoy their delight at seeing me when I get home yet still feel crushed by his absence. We don’t choose not to grieve because that would be choosing not to love. If it gets easier it’s not because we’ve decided not to feel something; it’s because we’ve figured out how to adapt.
Only One Rule
My third wish is that we see widows as individuals. We shouldn’t expect them all to react the same way or follow the same rules. There are no rules other than to take the best care we can of ourselves and anyone else for whom we’re responsible. That doesn’t look the same for everyone.
Can We Go to A Show and Grab A Bite to Eat?
As for me, prior to the pandemic, I was slowly expanding my social horizons. I went to see Fiddler on the Roof in a packed house about three weeks before the lockdown started. I felt a little nervous in the crowd and I sniffled at some of the lyrics to “Do You Love Me?” But it was doable. Fun, even. Who knows when it will be doable again? When will we feel comfortable in such close surroundings with so many people? I might not miss the theater that much, but I do miss breaking bread with others. I hope and pray we can do that soon. A few hugs might even be nice.