Mature Women's Guide is very pleased to feature this thoughtful essay by Joan Stommen "What I Learned in Becoming a Widow". Rooted in painful experience, it will, we hope, be helpful for other women confronted with loss who are searching for ways, despite their grief, to move forward. "Nothing prepares you for having your life interrupted and forever changed," Joan says "but over the last six months I've learned to be a little braver and move a bit more forward as I face life on my own."
"What I Learned in Becoming a Widow". by Joan Stommen
Losing my husband unexpectedly last summer was like a merry-go-round that suddenly stops! Our marriage ended when he didn't wake up from his afternoon nap. I've been on an emotional roller coaster; wandering through financial mazes and unknown pathways into this world of widowhood.' You cannot start a new chapter unless you stop re-reading the old one' the saying goes. And yet I cannot put the story of our Great Adventure down. Over and over I revisit the memories and what might have been. Nothing prepares you for having your life interrupted and forever changed, but over the last six months I've learned to be a little braver and move a bit more forward as I face life on my own.
Your Adult Kids will step up and do what needs to be done. Let them. They will give you strength and comfort as their spouses comfort them. They will use their talents and resources to make things happen. They will shield you when necessary....but give you that push you may need at other times. They will give balance to decision making; knowing when to take over ....and when to step back and respect your choices. My son and daughter were hit hard with the loss of their Dad and their kids' grandfather. I'm still amazed at how well we got through it and have never been prouder of my children.
Ownership of credit cards, vehicles and houses make a BIG difference in the debt and varying shades of red tape you'll face! Two of our cards were in his name only; I was an authorized user. I don't recall us ever considering this or being asked any preference. Visa was quick to write off the balance; American Express not so much. They inquired regularly about the estate, but the calls finally stopped when my lawyer explained there was no estate; no probate. Collection calls are frightening; know your rights and seek legal help if necessary. Our cars and home were in both our names.....with the house having the important "joint tenancy with survivorship" clause in the contract!
Finances I had to think about money. I sold his car and refinanced the house; reducing my payments by $600! My husband was retired, but did free-lance writing for several publications. I would miss that income, so I had to make changes quickly. His insurance money came within weeks; but it took a while to secure results with Social Security and our pensions because frankly.....it didn't occur to me for months to pick up the phone; and the processing took more time. Stopping newspaper subscriptions, reducing cable, phone and internet to the minimum needs... and discontinuing pest, weed and lawn services helped make a dent in monthly expenses. Doing without car washes, hair appointments, Starbucks or browsing Target taught me I could live frugally while waiting to get things settled! Someone told me it takes a year to really know where you stand with your financial future, so I continue to be wise and careful.
Accepting comfort is not always comfortable; but you quickly learn you have more grace than you ever imagined. I'm a hugger and a crier, so that part was easy! I answered questions truthfully, but without much detail. It was raw and private in my opinion; giving CPR, the paramedics suggesting 'cease and desist.' As phone calls and texts started coming, I replied to some; my kids handled the others. The doorbell ringing with gifts of food and wine was awkward. I didn't feel like eating or serving anything; couldn't think about dishware, napkins, glasses. And so I said as much. I recall now that my pals took over the kitchen and handed me a plate and drink. I just let it be....and they just let me talk. The stack of sympathy cards was overwhelming. Do I respond? I've saved these comforting words and have acknowledged each one little by little. I don't think it's expected, but that's me.
Kids' Views about death are amazing. My grandchildren touched my heart and saved my soul with their sweet innocence. A child cuddled on your lap is peaceful glue that holds you together. Their questions and comments are spot on: "grandpa got dead; now it's a grandma-only house" and "don't worry, grandma, I'll help you understand sports!" I laughed through my tears at "grandpa will be a writer in the sky." Two months after he passed away, my teenage granddaughter spent a week with me. She listened and talked with me like an old friend; asking how our story began, and remembering all that she missed and loved about grandpa. Our first; she knew him the best and the longest. All five attended the funeral... each with a role to play. Helping with the photo and memento displays, manning the guest book, passing out programs and, to my delight, the second oldest spoke the welcoming words as the service began.
Handling the fog and heaviness of grief is tough because you don't know when it's coming. Music will do it, a kind word, an older couple walking hand-in-hand or just roaming through your home with reminders of him around every corner. Some days you feel uncertain, unsteady and unanchored; I learned to stay put and let the teary sadness come. Be careful if it grips you while driving; scary to wonder where you are, where to turn or where you were headed. I had to pull over and wait it out. Other days I'm eager to get to the gym or store or lunch with friends. Joining a grief group allowed me to face my anger over his leaving; and keeping my grandkids on weekends helped strengthen me and ease the pain. The kids wrote notes and drew pictures for grandpa in heaven. Surprisingly, this nonchalant celebration of him makes me happy. One day at a time is absolutely true!
Everyday adjustments like cooking, taking out the trash, killing bugs or figuring out why the dryer doesn't work takes time...but will build confidence. These things my husband handled; now I use his tool box, keep a shoe handy, take my time in the grocery aisles......and what I cannot do, I put on a list for my son, son-in-law and neighbors. This is part of the deal....learning to ask for help. I built and lit a fire during the winter storms and made tacos for myself. However, I'm hanging clothes in the great outdoors until the dryer fairy comes. I was spoiled, dependent and well cared for; so it's not easy taking charge of my house and my life. But, like the good witch told Dorothy, I've "always had the power." Buying and preparing nutritious food has been my biggest challenge, so figuring things out for myself and asking questions is another step in the right direction.
His things versus our things will make you stop, think and question...probably forever. I lowered the cable bill by removing the hundred dollars' worth of sports packages he loved. Terrible guilt...I'd complained over the years...but it had to be done. More hand-wringing cancelling three papers. Newspapers were us. We met working on our college paper, he was an editor in various cities and newspapers meant coffee and lively discussions in our retirement years. His shirts and pants are still in the closet; but I did donate his warm sweaters and jackets. His recliner is still 'grandpa's chair.' His office we call the den now. I work at his computer sometimes, but the pictures and posters, the model car, the lanyards from every convention he attended are part of him....thus a part of me. I sold his beloved jeep; where he let the grandkids pile in the back and ride dripping wet the half block from the pool. The fab five will always be ours...becoming grandparents created our future 16 years ago.
Honoring his wishes and his life are huge responsibilities. We'd discussed what-ifs during our 47 years together and assured each other we were having a wonderful life. He felt strongly about cremation and wanted his ashes spread on the lake where he grew up. It was a beautiful ceremony. We held two services in two different states; one was taped and made into DVD's for us, the other was photographed and made into a photo book; treasures forever. I'm filled with joy when I get all green lights, find lucky pennies or hear the twins ask how God will let Santa know not to leave presents under the tree. Whether a spiritual connection or the humor in everyday things, he is close. I tell him about my day at bedtime; and say 8-13 (our anniversary date) morning and night as was our habit. The holidays went smoothly with the support of family and friends who made sure he was included...using his recipes, lighting candles, giving toasts. Framed photos of him sit in every room and I smile now when I glance up and see a reminder. We always knew someday one of us would be left to carry on; keeping his light burning is part of that commitment.
Moving forward will seem like two steps ahead, one step behind. Keeping busy helps; for me it's been cleaning house, going back to work and volunteering. Hazy, blue days just need the comfort of time passing....so I write, I read, I cry. But there is much more to beginning this new chapter. First, I asked who am I now? Is my body still attractive? Am I single or a widow? Will my goals and intentions change? How can I be confident in all that I do without my cheerleader? It's not easy rediscovering self-image...reinventing a future. Initially, I worried about being the only one left....that I'd die too. I stopped exercising and driving at night and was afraid of shadows. It took my doctor's push to get me back in the gym. I was needed in the evening hours, so I drove. I eventually stopped leaving lights on at night and slept just fine. Memories don't bring tears so much anymore, but rather joy in understanding that his love equipped me for what's ahead.
My mom showed me how to age gracefully, but I remember how she hid her grief and slowed down after my dad died. So consider this; what a great gift it can be to show our kids how to live the end of life. I want to keep traveling, learning and playing just as my husband and I did. Can I do it alone? Will I find a companion? Should I sell the house? I'll find a new future, but I'll still read the chapters of my past once in a while. I feel an inner whisper that tells me I'm making progress.
|Joan and her family a few month before Jim died|
About the Author: Joan Stommen
My grandkids call me Gramcracker...but I'm also a teacher and writer who loves sharing the bits and pieces of my life!
I retired after 33 years in education when my daughter announced she was having twins. They gave me a total of five grandchildren and I am lucky to play a role in all their lives. I thank my own grandmother and my oldest granddaughter for showing me how to be the best I can be. I was married to an editor and writer...we met while working for our college newspaper. Together we supported each other in all things literary. He passed away last summer five days after our 47th anniversary.
In addition to writing about family, education, active aging and fitness, I've now written about grief and moving forward. I wrote for his various newspapers, am a National Writing Project Fellow and have served as a writing coach for students and teachers alike. I contribute to various online magazines and organizations, substitute at my old school where I love to encourage and guide writing skills...and of course, write my own blog! I am a fitness nut, love reading thrillers, enjoy gardening, traveling and photography and look forward to opportunities where I can try something new.
For more essays by Joan: