by Karen Keller Capuciati
“Somehow you wake up one morning and you realize, I’m going to be okay.”
These are the words of our family friend, Carol, as she looked back on the eight years since her husband Ernie died of cancer. But getting to this realization took time, and before she got there, she was feeling that nothing in the world was worth facing without the man she loved.
“It was my friend, Charlotte, who wouldn’t let me go into the hole,” Carol recalled. “When I wanted nothing more than to curl up in a corner and withdraw, Charlotte would insist on me getting out to do something — go for a ride, out to lunch, pick strawberries, anything but stay home. She wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Carol had feared that nothing in life would ever bring her joy again, but eventually she came to realize that, even though life would never be the same, she could have fun and even feel happiness.
I was talking to Carol about her journey through grief because I wanted to see what I could learn that might help others who are struggling with a recent loss — specifically the loss of a spouse. So I went about interviewing a few friends who’ve been widowed for several years so that I could learn not only how they handled their grief, but also how they carried on to create new lives.
What I discovered was that the pain ran even deeper than I had imagined. While keeping up strong appearances for the outside world, the private times in their empty homes were constant and painful reminders that the partners who shared their living spaces were indeed gone. The morning and evening hours in particular were most difficult for this reason. But keeping up that strong appearance, choosing to be positive, connecting with people, forcing themselves to get out and stay busy, were coping mechanisms they all shared. It was hard work, but in the end they all recognized that life could go on and they would be okay.
About a year after my dad died, Carol had mentioned to my mom that she was starting to see how she could have fun in her life again. Mom was perplexed! She didn’t believe anyone who’d lost a spouse could feel this way. She understood that Carol had an additional year of grieving under her belt, but Mom was still deep into her “firsts.” The first Christmas alone. The first birthday alone. The first time coming up north to visit us kids without Dad, and then, returning home to an empty house, for the first time.
Now Mom admits she no longer thinks that way. “It helped me to keep busy,” she said, confirming the accepted wisdom. “And I was lucky to have a group of friends who are also widows. We go to the movies, out to dinner, have parties for Super Bowl, Fourth of July, birthdays — any excuse we can think of.” I know that there were many times, especially in the beginning, when Mom wasn’t up for going out at all, but she forced herself anyway, and about a year later, she began to understand how Carol felt. “The pain just eases after a while,” she acknowledged.
I put the same questions to my friend Pat, who lost her husband John in 1999. Pat told me, “It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do in your life — taking care of yourself after the loss. But I would set an alarm, get dressed and get out of the house every morning.” She said she would head down to a local luncheonette called the Sugar Bowl to read the paper and have her coffee. “I could never explain how hard it was to get up with the alarm, especially when the mornings were dark. But if I didn’t get up and out, my whole day was a mess and I would be worse off.”
This forced routine paid off in ways Pat didn’t even foresee. “Pretty soon you start to connect with the people you see there, and new relationships begin.” Pat is also grateful for a piece of advice a former doctor gave her. “He suggested that I schedule something to look forward to each week — simple things like going to lunch with a friend or going to movie — even if it was by myself. This really made a difference in my life. Even to this day.”
My friend Eva’s mom, Erna, had a similar remembrance. It was almost 15 years ago when her husband Janos passed away. “I was frantically reaching out to neighbors, some were divorced or widowed. I found it very difficult coming home to an empty house and so I became very, very busy. Of course, there was so much to do right after, with the bank, lawyers, doctors, etc. Suddenly you are responsible for everything! I was constantly doing. I always kept cheerful. This was my way of coping.”
With her charming German accent, Erna continued: “After a while, you can have a life and . . . enjoy that life. It took two years to get out of the tunnel. And now, there are times when looking at a brilliant moon and the sea, I still feel the presence of Janos. Perhaps to overcome the crushing sense of lonesomeness is to try to remember when one had these moments of sharing the miracle of nature or music.”
Lastly, I spoke to Reverend Roy, the pastor from my childhood church, who lost his wife Margaret in 1992. He had a congregation, one thousand strong, that rallied around him after she died. He also kept busy — he has always been good at this. For the first couple of years he traveled extensively, as his friends suggested. He has since found camaraderie in a group of widowed male “cronies” who have lunch together on a regular basis at the local senior center. But ultimately, as you might expect of a minister, it’s Reverend Roy’s faith that has gotten him through. The simple message of an old gospel song spoke to him at that time, and still does. “Farther along we’ll know all about it, farther along we’ll understand why, cheer up my brother, live in the sunshine, we’ll understand it all by and by.”
Karen Keller Capuciati is the Co-Founder of In Care of Dad.
The photo was taken by Peter Capuciati.