Being a widow at 92 is a daily struggle

The other day, I stopped outside Dairy Queen, ate some chocolate ice cream, and started crying. I cried because of the inspiring sound of “Finland”. Thunder from the radio, and my husband was not there to “conduct” the orchestra – eyes closed in rapture, hands raised, beating out every chord.

Ward, my husband of 56 years, died unexpectedly three years ago, and I still tear up when he evokes such a precious memory as his joyful maestro tones. Or getting the Kennedy Center's seasonal ballet brochure, which Ward would have checked off at least six dances he wanted us to see. Or standing at my kitchen table, sampling different yogurts. Ward and I would have considered it a great wine tasting and declared, “We've found alpine grass.”

Stupid. Ridiculous. But fun together.

How often I want to curl up in his embrace, I ache with longing. That's when I feel lonely.

I never thought it was possible to miss someone so much that you couldn't bear the weight for even one more second. What do you do when you can't do anything?

Come on, almost without exception, even people who lost their spouses 15 or 20 years ago tell me: Take it once a day; Deal with problems every day as they arise; Don't worry about the future; Don't expect things to change overnight.

It's hard, but it's the only thing we can do.

At first, when my sadness became unbearable, I screamed. Like the call of a loon. I flushed it out.

I stifled sobs into my husband's pillow, which still held the lingering scent of shaving lotion. This happened without warning two or three times a month after Ward's death.

The first eruption was a delayed shock. This happened the night Ward died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. I was with him and caressed his cheek. His breath whispered so softly that I didn't know it had stopped, and I was dry-eyed. I didn't cry even when his head fell down, almost to the invisible side. In fact, I remember laughing because his pose reminded me of the frail, delicate attitude of Michelangelo's sculpture, Peeta.

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I didn't cry when I left the hospital in the middle of the night; I kept my emotions in check, almost numb, and forced myself to concentrate on my driving. I haven't driven at night in years.

I was shaking as I walked through the quiet, shadowy halls of my retirement community. At the door of my apartment, my tremors increased. Suddenly my whole body trembled violently. For a moment, I clung to the doorknob for support, then stumbled as best I could through the moonlit apartment to Ward's bedroom. I threw myself face down on his bed. I clutched his pillow, opening and closing my fingers as if to press his essence into the skin of my cheeks.

Then I screamed. I screamed and cried, chanting Ward's name over and over again, torn with exhaustion, sleeping in a fever and sweat amidst tattered tissues drenched in tears and saliva.

Widowhood is hard work

The next morning, white and drained, I began the arduous task of widowhood, a bad word I had never learned. I hate being called a widow. I hate the word. It is severe. It's dark.

For the next few weeks, I moved through a suspended and incredibly busy state. The days passed in a blur as I shuffled through the scattered piles of legal documents that made my stomach clench with anxiety. Sometimes, I slouched in a chair for long, dead minutes and stared at the wall.

I did all that because I wasn't ready. I'm not ready Nothing. Ward and I never reviewed his finances and insurance policies before his death. Fortunately, we updated our will a year ago, and about 25 years ago we both completed an advance directive, also known as a living will. We got ours from the Navy when Ward was on active duty. At our memorial services we spelled out our wishes, such as what hymns and Bible readings we would like, and how we would like to be remembered.

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Friends had warned me that I would be overwhelmed with widowhood work, but I had no idea that I would work eight to 10 hours a day for about six months before the workload was reduced to a few hours a day.

I kept a notebook for lists of survivor duties. There is nothing more gratifying than drawing a line through a task done. And slowly, I dug out the paperwork, one DMV visit and one call to the Navy Mutual Aid Society at a time.

People told me I was “too strong.” They said well, but it was wrong for me.

Grief – and carry

I tried to keep my grief as private as possible. But my fellow widows and widowers know how to scream and cry into their pillows. They said loneliness never goes away.

A friend choked back tears as he told me how he had tried to tell his dying wife about the photography award he had won that week. She would have been delighted, he told me.

I understood. While I was caring for the ward, I was working on a novel based on a long-ago trip we took to Chichen Itza in Mexico. I dedicated the book to him. He planned every detail of the trip and, as always in my work, read my manuscript and made valuable suggestions.

My first copy arrived in the mail the day before Ward died. Like a photographer trying to show off his prize to his wife, I held out my book to Ward. Eyelids fluttered, but I don't think he understood.

Many have told me of the need to communicate with dying loved ones and the joy of receiving an answer, no matter how small.

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Ward didn't answer my book, but I can never forget how he mouthed my name when I took his hand, and I felt love and gratitude as he tried to follow as he murmured the Lord's Prayer in my ear. I was comforted when our priest performed the last rites for the ward, which took him into God's loving arms.

As a Christian, I feel that this rite of passage has brought a consummation to my life with the ward. For those who are grieving of other faiths and beliefs, I hope there are equal moments of comfort at this time. I think of those who have lost their loved ones to the coronavirus and lack the blessing and comfort that my husband had with him when he died.

I often think of them when I am in an indescribable loneliness and grief. I'm sure that when people mention how strong they are as they go about the normal, necessary routines of life, they also feel somehow “wrong”.

I hope they continue to do as I have tried – and scream a little if it helps.

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