Each year, as the Jewish high holidays approach, I take stock of my life as is traditional. Four years after my 52-year-old husband became terminally ill with brain cancer and I became his full-time caregiver, and three years after he died, I’m alone a lot of the time and there’s a lot to think about.
I’m not completely alone. I have wonderful friends. I have my beloved children. And I have my new partner, the love of the rest of my life. But still, I am pretty alone. My partner lives five hours away, in a different city. So I live in my house alone. I am building my business alone. I eat alone, and I conduct most of the daily business of life alone. Sometimes I hate it. Sometimes I love it.
The hardest thing to learn to accept is the dialectic of grief and joy – loving and hating things at the same time. I love eating alone. I hate eating alone. I miss my husband. I love my new partner.
So as the Jewish new year peeks out from behind the waning moon, I have a list of the 21 things I hate – and love – about my widowhood.
What I Hate
- College drop-off/family weekends. Designed for two-parent families. Painfully boring. Sad.
- Happy empty nest couple vacation pictures. A reminder of all those national parks we never got to visit.
- Humble brags about children’s successes. A reminder of my own children’s stumbling blocks, how grief clouds their lives in every way, and how they live on a different plane. They are more mature, more tender, more sad.
- Attending parties stag. Since we live hundreds of miles apart, my new partner is not my sidekick most of the time. So I choose my social outings carefully. Gatherings at my closest friends’ homes are comfortable. The next rung out gets harder, and every rung after that is almost impossible. The world remains coupled.
- Being alone in my house. Our house was designed and built for a family of five. In that sense, it was a home. We’re down to a family of one. And a dog. Thankfully it’s a big dog who takes up a lot of space and muffles the echoes in the hallway. But it still feels like just a house now.
- Cooking for one. I spent 30 years assembling meals for many people with different tastes, the final year preparing food for someone who was dying. The joy of cooking is gone. Frankly, I kind of hate cooking for anyone these days. Take-out was made for empty nest widows.
- Widow’s weight. Thirty pounds that are very, very hard to shed.
- The contagion of death. I still reek of my experience to others. I am a cautionary tale. Maybe if you live your life in a certain way, you won’t catch what I have. But actually, it doesn’t work that way.
- Dealing with my children’s’ crises alone. It’s awful not to have a second parent to help to figure out the best way to respond.
- Absorbing the sadness of others. When my husband was sick, and after he died, much of my time and energy was spent absorbing the sadness of those around me. I’ve always done this – try to intuit what people are thinking/feeling/worrying about and meet them right there. I just can’t anymore.
- Knowing the story was supposed to have a different ending.
And What I Love
- Executive decision making. I can live my life in any way I want. I can re-paint my house in any color. I feel closer to my true self than I have in 30 years.
- Going to the movies. Any movie, and usually in the morning.
- My finances are my own. I can spend whatever I want, on whatever I want, and save whatever I want. Or not. I am no longer accountable to anyone for my budget.
- The dog sleeps on the bed.
- Being alone in my house. I love it. Everything is always in the same place. It’s peaceful and lovely and I transformed one room into a reading room – a room of my own at last.
- Cooking for one. I love only needing to buy things that I like to eat. And then preparing them the way I like to eat them.
- Travel. I’ve traveled a lot over the past several years. I have spent money we never would have spent on plane tickets and rental cars. Sometimes I’m lonely traveling alone, sometimes I’m deliriously happy.
- Creating my own business. I don’t think I would have taken the plunge back into self-employment had I not found myself mired in grief and desperately needing to not work a regular job. It’s scary. It’s financially risky. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made.
- Being the primary driver. My husband was always at the wheel. Since his illness and death, I have logged thousands of miles. I am now fearless – something that never came easily to this New York City-born, late-in-life driver. I love being the driver and the power it brings.
- Being in love again. Middle-aged love, with all its baggage, incidentally, is utterly divine.
Karen Paul is a writer and non-profit consultant who lives in Takoma Park, MD. Read her blog about loss and widowhood, Dwelling in Possibility.