Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Meeting The Challenges Of Widowhood

November 3, 2002

He is gone. Will life ever be as good? How lonely! How hard! Can the emptiness of the heart be filled? Will the pain go away? The answer is the same. No.

The sweet companionship of husband and wife has been overtaken by death. It is over. The loneliness begins.

Is there anything a woman can do to prepare for those years of empty rooms and empty arms after her mate dies?

Some wise widows have shared with me some thoughts about the challenges they have faced and overcome.

Facing the loss. Some things can't be prepared for. Gone are the loving and sharing, the intimacy and the companionship. Activities, friends, children and grandchildren cannot replace the irreplaceable.

Being alone is a sad reality. A widow finds herself alone - alone at church, alone at night, alone on holidays, alone in decision-making, alone when memory is jogged. The first time going through things alone is the hardest. And there are so many first times.

"Weekends are a killer. Friends desert you. The only people I could associate with were the widows in their 70s. I was only 55. I was so lonely."

Decisions. During times of sorrow and loss, judgment is impaired. Important decisions have to be made. Other decisions should be made in advance. As one widow put it, "My husband and I made those final plans together. It made it easy for me to go on living."

Other decisions need to be put off until there is time to think, pray and appreciate the consequences. Decisions made in a hurry and under duress will often be wrong. A widow needs grieve instead of being distracted by big and painful decisions.

A decision to move should not be hastily made. Too much security has been ripped away to change familiar surroundings, routines or leave faithful friends.

One widow explained that the toughest decision she had to make was to change her attorney and her accountant. Her attorney was her husband’s best friend but he was making mistakes.

"I thought the system would take care of me. I was taught not to rock the boat. Too many things fell through the cracks. Nobody was devious. I woke up to the fact that nobody was going to take care of me. It was my life. I had to take responsibility. I had to insist on accountability. Death and finances aged me as much as drought aged my [farmer] husband."

Going forward. Time has a healing, softening influence. It starts with duty, a willingness to take on commitments and be involved again. Here's what some widows said.

"I had to have commitments, to know I was needed. It was good for me to get out twice a day. It was something to get out for."

"I worked part-time. I had to get up."

With time, the "I have to's" turn into "I want to's." A purposeless life is a life of fatigue. Once an outlet is found for energy, innate powers come to life and expand to meet the challenges at hand.

One widow cautioned, "On the other hand, you can't go, go, go all the time. You have to get to the place where you can be alone with yourself. That is the final step."

New challenges. So much of what a woman does is in concert with her husband. Within the economy of a marital relationship, responsibilities are divided. One does not have to learn or duplicate what the other knows or does.

Alone, a woman has to deal with the wholeness of life. There is the business of living - taxes, investments, vehicles, plumbing; the decisions - personal goals, priorities, obligations; and the fears - being alone, driving distances.

It is by struggle that strength comes. A widow shared, "I surprised myself when I was able to pick up and go on and handle my own affairs. I could do it when I had to."

Opportunities for love. When a woman is preoccupied with one love, her heart is full. Now with an empty and open heart, she is freer to meet the stranger, to listen to another's struggles, to offer a helping hand and to give love where it is needed.

Time is more flexible. Commitments less fixed. The heart is more available. The grandchildren need love. The sick need care. The lonely need visits. The confused and sorrowful need counsel and comfort.

The joys of solitude. In solitude, there is time for memories and reflection. There is time to think deeply and put things into perspective. There is time to reflect on the past and the experience one has gained. And there is time to come to terms with life and death.

However poor the tradeoff between the loss of a mate and freedom, nevertheless, it is freedom. Freedom to come and go, to choose or not to choose, to shape one's life according to one's desires. There are new doors to open, old dreams to dust off, and new dreams to excite the imagination. Life moves on, cast with a more personal imprint.

The steps taken in widowhood won't be the most joyous, but they may be the most courageous. This is a different phase of life, different enough to have its benefits. As one widow stated, "It feels good to be alone. I never thought I’d say that."