QDear WholeFamily Counselor,
I'm seventy-eight years old, and lost my husband a half-year ago. He was my second husband, but we had been married twenty-five years. In many ways, it was more difficult than the death of my first husband, because then I had a goal. I had to raise my children. Now, I just feel empty. I find it hard to pull myself together, just to get dressed and go out. Nothing seems worth the effort. What difference does it make? We're all going to die anyway. My children encourage me to go back to my volunteer work, reading to the blind. I know it's wrong, but I just don't feel like helping anyone. What should I do?
ADear Recently Widowed,
Your description of how you feel sounds very familiar. Almost anyone who has had a good marriage and looses a spouse has this feeling of despondency, "what's the use of going on", the emptiness that you write about so vividly. In fact, on the scale of life crises, experts like Helen Rhyr have found that loss of a husband or wife is, by far, rated the most difficult to handle, even above the loss of a child, a job or undergoing serious medical intervention.
What can you do about it? First of all recognize your sorrow for what it is -- a natural reaction to a very traumatic and heart wrenching change in your life. Feeling miserable doesn't mean that you're going mad or that you need a psychiatrist. I'm not even sure that anti-depressants should be prescribed. I do believe that loving friends and family can ease the burden somewhat, if they're tactful, understanding and give you room to grieve.
People who aren't allowed to "do their grief work" properly, to be moody, down in the dumps without any motivation; who are told by well meaning contacts to take themselves in hand, to jump into some activity or even make drastic changes in their life style like moving to a retirement home or even remarrying, are doing a great disservice to the mourner. In fact, if the grieving is repressed (maybe because it's hard for the onlookers to take it) then it takes much longer to emerge from this psychological state. At times, this very powerful emotion is redirected into unnatural channels--hypochondria, pathological mourning, etc.
All this doesn't mean that we're recommending that you sit in a dark corner and just mope. Obviously if you wrote to us you're concerned as well. Try to return to your usual mode of life, even if it feels useless and artificial at first. Reading to the blind, although it may seem artificial to you in your state of mind, may eventually help you think of others rather than yourself and will start the healing process. Also finding a way to memorialize the departed will direct you to some practical way of commemorating his name and give you a focus for your feelings. Some people are busy with the gravestone-setting ceremony; others publish pamphlets or produce tapes about their loved one. Still others continue an occupation or undertaking in which their spouse was engaged (almost like wearing his/her sweater).
Above all give yourself time. Widowhood is a difficult mantle to wear, and the really painful, grinding mourning takes about a year. It's still there after l2 months, like a nagging, throbbing toothache, but gradually the pain becomes less intense -- something that fresh widows are unable to even conceive. There are some very good books on the subject, incidentally, and just talking to others who have been through the same experience may be helpful to you. In most communities there are even support groups for widows and/or widowers, which you could probably find out about through the local social services. For some, of course, group attendance and "hanging it all out" in public is not their cup of tea and is not a desirable option. Even though it's hard to believe right now, "tomorrow will be better" and you will discover you are a better and more mature, even caring person because of your loss than you were before.