What Does a Widow's Life Mean?

During the past few years, I have read several accounts of bereavement written by widowers. The authors narrate their experience in detail, and then speak of the newfound happiness and zest they have discovered in subsequent relationships. What impressed me was the relative ease with which these men seemed to redirect their lives with a second marriage.

Although each declared explicitly that his new partner had not replaced his first wife, the scripts didn’t read that way to me. After telling how his wife had died in his arms, one described how he had later disposed of everything reminiscent of his marriage—including what he described as its “baggage” and “ghosts”—not because they caused him pain but to insure that his new partner would not be uncomfortable with the lingering aura of his first wife. All of this gave me pause. “See what I have done!” they seemed to be saying. “Now go and do likewise.”

Some time after my own husband’s death, a bereavement minister asked me if I thought women grieve longer than men, or in a different manner. I have concluded that the answer to both questions is probably yes—but not because of innate gender differences. To the men’s experiences recounted above, I offer these reflections as a counterpoint. They are based on my own struggle for survival following my husband Jim’s death.

I have been a member of my condo association for ten years. During that time, seven other women have become widows. Three were already widowed when they moved in. During the same period, there have been no widowers. The group now includes twelve single women but no single men. My own birth family now consists of eight living women, four of us widowed, and no unmarried men. Although these examples are anecdotal, they are not demographic aberrations.

Being the greater number is not the only difficulty women face if they hope to marry again. Age also invites discrimination. Not surprisingly, men tend to seek partners younger than themselves. One of the writers I mentioned noted a twelve-year difference between him and his new spouse.

It is a fairly well-observed phenomenon that on the death of a wife, available women will inundate the surviving husband with baked goods and prepared meals. Casserole in hand, they beat a path to his door. In senior facilities, where males are greatly outnumbered, the female majority dotes on them. It is natural, of course, for a surviving spouse to long for friendship and perhaps even loving companionship with the opposite sex—and God bless those who are open to new relationships. But the reality is that most bereaved women will never find another partner. The challenge for them is to adjust satisfactorily to the rest of their lives without one.

During the past year, I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. She describes the instantaneous, cataclysmic event that utterly changed her life: the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, from a heart attack. Her exquisitely calibrated prose details this seismic shift and what followed. For me, the void opened in a hospital. As the orderlies transported Jim to surgery, his last words to me were, “I’ll see you in the morning.” But that morning never came. My husband was gone almost as suddenly as Didion’s.

Except for minor details, Didion’s story could be my own. For twenty-seven years, my life with Jim had been the point where our two lives intersected. In a “poof,” one of those lives ended and my world dissolved. Suddenly I was in a terrain with no boundaries, no descriptive landmarks. All my reference points and a huge portion of my self-identity simply collapsed. “Who and where am I?” I kept asking. When the initial fog finally began to lift, I knew nothing was ever going to be the same. It would be up to me alone to create answers to all the new questions.

After Jim’s death, when my home was finally empty of relatives and friends, I knew that only implacable determination would get me through. Out of sheer instinct, I set about making a list of the things I must do to survive the following day. I managed to set the alarm clock and to rise dutifully the next morning. My “to do” list kept me putting one foot in front of the other, until merciful night arrived. Each day thereafter, I made sure I had a prepared schedule for the following day, one I honored robotically. “Evening came, and then morning, the second day....” Every night I noted with amazement that somehow I had survived. I have no idea how many weeks or months I operated in this mode. But slowly, I began to function more normally. When I noticed this, I relaxed the rigidity of my schedule. And when the ground finally stopped shifting beneath me, I decided I needed something more than a mere day-to-day schedule. I needed purpose. I needed a mission statement.

Before Jim’s death, we had begun to wind down our business. We were looking forward to full retirement. Now I had to finish that process alone. It took about three years—the same period it took me to formulate new goals.

Reading books and other materials that were meant to offer solace did little for me, but writing poetry and keeping a journal helped. Fiction provided an escape into the lives of others, and e-mail reduced the throb of loneliness. Sometimes television offered an isolated reprieve. It was the thoughtfulness and the caring gestures of friends that brought me real comfort, and what sustained me most was reading the Resurrection story in Matthew’s Gospel (28:7): “He has gone before you into Galilee; there you will see him.”

Not having had children, Jim and I had planned a legacy to leave to future generations. We had created a trust to hold our financial assets. It would be distributed in the fields of education, health care, the arts, the church, and among the poor. Now, as I exercise custodianship of this trust, I can contribute to various causes along the way. In this way, I continue my partnership with Jim and find the motivation to keep going.

In setting goals for myself after Jim’s death, I decided I had to continue my theological work on topics such as global justice and peace. This takes the form of reviews, essays, and speaking engagements. Life is not what I would like it to be, but I have vowed to make it productive—even if my offerings seem insignificant.

Although I generally express my grief only in private, I have never shunned the reality of Jim’s death. When appropriate, I speak of him, casually and naturally. To refrain from doing so would be to deprive him of his deserved honor, and it would do nothing to allay my own grief. His photo remains in plain sight, along with treasured keepsakes that preserve his presence, including his beloved Tilley hat that still accompanies me in the car. Such props help me retain a sense of his presence.

Still, “nature abhors a vacuum,” so in social settings I am always aware of being uncoupled. Not surprisingly, invitations to evening social events have dwindled. Luncheons have replaced dinners, and more often than not, it is I who must take the initiative to host gatherings.

On the other hand, bonding with other widows is easy, but I strongly resist being pigeonholed by society into a social subset of “widows.” In addition to married couples who are close friends, I’m grateful for friendships with a number of very good men—all happily married. Together, we share personal and professional matters, and we socialize. Such relationships supply some yang to my yin, and I deeply value them.

Several groups of like-minded people have embraced me as one of theirs. I am a member of a small group of men and women who meet informally for discussions about theology and spirituality. The office staff members at the hospital where I volunteer have welcomed me, as has the staff in a friend’s business. People in our condo have proved another caring group. These various communities reassure me that I am not alone.

Six years have passed. It required at least four to make the full transition to my current life as an independent, unmarried retired woman. Life is now a balance of activities, of contemplation, and of prayerful solitude. Silence has become a friend. I still miss Jim deeply, but I have grown accustomed to being without him. My grief is no longer acute. It now makes only occasional returns, in brief but vivid flashbacks. More common is a low-grade sense of being left without him. Strangely, this brings a bit of comfort: awareness of his absence provides a welcome sense of his presence.

My husband is dead, but he remains firmly imprinted in my psyche, my soul, my identity. Should I meet someone else, he would have to accept me with this precious dowry. It would be impossible for me to shed that identity for a subsequent relationship.

But the point is moot. Since I am an “older woman,” it’s probably not going to happen. For now, Jim has gone before me into Galilee, saying he’d see me “in the morning.” He always kept his promises.


Related: The Final Hunger, by John Savant

Published in the 2008-11-21 issue: 

A. Regina Schulte holds a doctorate in theology from Marquette University. Now retired, she taught at St. Mary of the Plains College in Dodge City, Kansas.

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