When I was first widowed, I searched for advice to proceed along this new journey I had been so unfairly placed upon. I read widow self-help books, what to expect books, articles, and conducted numerous searches. I wanted to know if what I was feeling was “normal,” and if I was doing everything “the right way.” There was a lot of useful information and tips in these resources that helped guide me along: not making any big decisions in the first year, financial advice and cautions, information about grief stages and emotions, and general pick-me-up and keep living encouragements. As helpful as some of these resources were, though, I still found them lacking in grit. It’s as if some subjects were too taboo to be put into written form and distributed widely, and it was often those taboo subjects I found myself most confused about. Here are some things I’ve learned along my 5+ years of widowhood that “they” aren’t likely to tell you in those books. These may not only aid a newly widowed person in handling some of the confusion, but I have hopes that they might also shine some light on what a widowed person is feeling for those who are supporting her or him.
1. No one’s going to “get it”
Your friends and family might feel like strangers at times. They are not like you, they haven’t “done this,” and while they will try to empathize, they won’t really understand what you are going through or how you are feeling. Some will say you aren’t “normal” or “better” enough in their prescribed time frame. Others will think you appear “too normal” or “too better” too quickly. The only one who can determine how you feel is you, and most the time you won’t even be certain about that. Your biggest resource for understanding will be fellow widows, but even then each person walks a different path on his or her grief journey. No one can truly understand 100% how you feel. Remember that your friends and family love you and want to help, even if they don’t “get it.” Try to communicate with them but also try not to get too frustrated when communication gets lost.
2. You might want sex
The thought of this to a person who has never experienced loss might be appalling, but it’s true and it’s okay to admit it. You might desire a warm body next to you, you might need affection and comfort, you might want to seek pleasure in a physical form. In my journey, I have come across many widows who had physical intimacy during their immediate grieving period. It doesn’t make you a “bad widow,” or a “bad wife,” and it certainly doesn’t make you some kind of deviant. The best advice I received in this regard in my own journey was, “The relationship you had with your husband is not dependent on your choices now, whatever and whomever you choose to do in your life now does not reflect upon or change what you had with your husband.” In fact, some small studies even suggest strong relationships before being widowed might lead to desiring or finding healing from an affectionate relationship sooner than one might expect. That being said, remember you are extremely vulnerable right now, make wise choices with whom you choose as a partner and be safe in those choices. Protect yourself.
3. The thought of sex might repulse you
The former being said, the opposite might be true for you, as well. The thought of ever being physical with someone else might entirely disgust you. You might not be able to fathom how you could ever be intimate with another person. I have come across several widows who felt this way, as well. Feeling no sexual desire or want for intimacy is not abnormal. Some widows completely swear off the idea of ever being with another person. Sometimes that changes, sometimes it doesn’t, but only you can determine what you want and what you’re comfortable with.
4. It’s okay to be selfish
In fact, right now is a good time to lean toward the side of being selfish. If you’re naturally a people pleaser as I am, this might be a struggle you find surprising. You want to make everyone happy, do what you’re “supposed” to do, and be the picture of strength. Well friend, there is strength in loving you just as there is strength in loving others. Do you feel you will be too overwhelmed going to that wedding? Don’t go. Or go and have a backup escape plan. Do you really want to go to homecoming but are concerned it might make others uncomfortable? Go. Chances are the discomfort of others will pale in comparison to what you are handling. Do you want to go on a weeklong tropical getaway with your best friend? As long as you can safely afford it and your responsibilities can be taken care of while you’re away, enjoy yourself! It is okay to seek out what makes you happy, avoid what incites panic, and to look out for yourself right now.
Excuse me, what did you just say? Yes, you read that right, I said laugh. Don’t feel guilty about it either. Or do, if you must. But know that it is completely okay to laugh and, honestly, it will probably help. Surround yourself with people who embrace laughter and find the humor in life. Your sense of humor might change, it might get a bit dark, it might cause some double-takes and jaw-drops from those around you, but I doubt it’s nothing we fellow widows haven’t heard or laughed at ourselves before. It’s probably a safe bet that laughter is one thing that pulled me through some of the darkest of times. If I hadn’t found the funny side, no matter how dark or morbid it might have been, I don’t know if I would have made it through.
This one they might tell you in the books, but it’s important enough to be mentioned here, too. It might seem logical and a given that in the depths of grief crying is inevitable, but you’d be surprised by how much you just don’t want to cry. Oftentimes we desire to be the picture of strength and hold back our tears. Or we are all cried out or too numb to really let it out. I found there were times when I had to be completely inebriated to fully let myself let go and cry. While I’m not suggesting to go and get trashed (although if you do that I’m definitely not the one to judge – just be responsible and realize it won’t really solve anything), sometimes, drastic measures need to be taken to really let out what you’ve been keeping inside. Get that ugly cry on, let the pain escape. Even years later, sometimes you just have to let loose and let the tears release your grief. This is true with anger, as well. If you need to be angry, let it out. Yell to the Heavens about how unfair this is (I did, on multiple occasions), sit in your car with the windows up and have a good scream, invest in a punching bag. As humans, we have emotions and it is okay to not only feel them, but to experience them and release them as well.
7. Don’t make big decisions, but don’t rule out change
In nearly every widow advice book or article you come across, they will tell you save big decisions for at least a year. It’s true; you’re not completely in a solid frame of mind to make life-altering decisions. That being said, don’t find you must stay stuck in your current situation with no change, either. If you really want a change, don’t completely rule it out. Maybe you need a new look – get your hair done, heck, chop it all off – you might regret it later but it will grow back. Maybe you need new scenery – paint your walls. Use your resources; friends, family, and fellow widows, to discuss anything big. Sometimes a big change is inevitable, try to hear the perspectives of those who love you and those who have walked similar paths to help see situations from sides which might be a little blurred right now.
Or don’t. If you find it difficult to be alone, don’t be ashamed to ask for company. Chances are your family and friends really want to help you through this time, but don’t really know what to do. It can be hard to articulate what you want, and even harder at times to know what you want. If you want to be around people, try to let them know. Ask for a sleepover night or actually call one of those friends who said call anytime. They meant it. If you don’t want to be around people, don’t force yourself to. While everyone does want to help and be there for you, you might find you just need solitude. As mentioned above, don’t worry about others’ feelings so much. Don’t worry that declining invitations will upset people. If they really care about you, they will respect how you feel and what you need. Be particular about those who you keep in your company. At a time when your judgment might be most clouded, try to see through the haze to who is really there for you and who might be there for the wrong reasons. If everyone in your circle is telling you something about someone, listen. If your gut is telling you something, listen.
9. Accept that you will screw up
We are humans and as such are imperfect. Widowhood is not the time to attempt perfection. You’re going to make mistakes. You might trust the wrong person, make the wrong decision, or make some regrettable choices. It can be really freaking hard to do things “right” when there is so much in your head. Don’t beat yourself up over mistakes that you make. They’re going to happen. There will be times you want to kick yourself. There will be moments where you will later wonder “What the hell was I thinking?!” Knowing mistakes are inevitable won’t help when the mistakes do happen, but it might prepare you for handling them. Use mistakes as opportunities to learn about yourself and your journey and make wiser choices in the future.
10. Other widows will save your sanity
When you feel the time is right, you will most likely find that you want to know people “more like you.” I realized this very early on and got involved with widow organizations (The American Widow Project, TAPS, and numerous Facebook groups) within months of becoming widowed. I needed to see if I really was losing my mind, and I credit a big part of my current sanity to these ladies who shared their experiences and feelings with me, I’m pretty sure I’d be completely nuts without them. For others, they aren’t ready right away to seek others and it takes time, even years, to connect with other widows. However, all the widows I know are grateful for their fellow widows regardless of how far along they were when they met them. While you might feel very different from these widows – their circumstances were different, they were married longer or less than you were, they don’t have kids and you do (or vice versa), they are farther out or not as far, etc. – you will find that the connection is not through the physical circumstances but the sharing of the grief journey and the pain.
And at the end of the day, it will be these widows who will tell you all the things “they” forgot to mention in those books. Connecting with someone who has experienced loss is an invaluable asset and resource; from feeling like you belong to finding you’re not as crazy as you thought to realizing you’re not the only one who did “that” – other people walking the path of grief can really help make sense out of the chaos. Utilize that. It will not only help you, but it will help others, as well.
Widowhood is messy. It doesn’t fit into a neat little box or all-encompassing self-help book. I could probably write my own book on all of the little unmentionables of widowhood left out of the healing books (maybe one day I will), and even then, it wouldn’t cover it all. The point of the matter is becoming a widow is something a person can never be prepared for, even in the midst of the journey. No matter what, there will be chaos; the best piece of advice I can offer to a widow is one step at a time; whether that be one day, one minute, or even one second, remember that each step forward is an accomplishment. Even on the bad days. The best piece of advice I can offer to any supporter of a widow? Keep an open mind. The statement “If it were me, I would…” is completely invalid – you have no idea, you really don’t know what you would do. I didn’t. I still don’t.
You can read more of Rachel’s work at manykindregards.com
Rachel Jewell Porto’s work has appeared in The Washington Post: Impact of War series, DStripped magazine online and in print, on National Public Radio, and on Headline News Network’s, “Stories of Courage: Posts From the Homefront.” Her personal blog, A Little Pink In A World of Camo has received numerous awards including MilSpouse Blog of the Year (2010) and Reader’s Digest Top Blogs of 2011, as well as national recognition.