New Years Eve is very different the first year that it is celebrated without a spouse to kiss at midnight. It is a sharp demarcation of the past from the future. Everyone is in party mode while someone who has lost a spouse might feel sad and empty inside. A party may not feel right. People may cajole you to attend a gathering, but you are not in the mood. Perhaps a different kind of gathering is in order this year. For example, you could call someone who understands, and make plans to watch a movie together and order a pizza.
The year will continue to bring with it many “firsts”. The first year after a loss is the most difficult one. Emotional wounds are fresh, and you are still adjusting to life without your spouse. The first year after a loss is full of “anniversaries”. By that I don’t mean only the day you were married, but the anniversaries of many things that you did together, places you went, your spouse’ birthday, and all the holiday traditions that you shared throughout the year.
Anniversaries pertaining to your loss mark the first time you go through each of those significant days without your spouse. Memories are easily triggered, and suddenly a wave of grief comes along. Emotions are very close to the surface. Almost anything familiar can remind you of how things were.
For example, visiting a restaurant with a family member or friend can evoke memories of a time that you shared a wonderful lunch with your spouse. You may remember exactly when it was, where you sat, and what you wore. Perhaps it was to celebrate a special occasion, and the memory is painful.
You may find yourself dreading special days, and avoiding everyday places you need to go. There will be a first time since your spouse died that you run into people you know, and all of them will want to express their condolences, making you feel obligated to talk about it even though you don’t want to. Each new encounter since your loss will remind you that you are now a widow/er. Try to remember that even though these encounters are painful, the people offering the condolences are well-intentioned. Think of a short but polite response such as, “I’m a little better, thanks for asking.”
There is simply no way to avoid going through the first year. Therefore, I suggest that you expect the anniversaries of special occasions or holidays to come up and throw you off course. Each first will come and go; it won’t last forever. In anticipation, plan to spend those special days with a supportive friend. Your companion or activity helps you to focus your mind elsewhere. Before you know it, the day you dreaded will be over.
Besides, the first time every holiday comes around, there are other kinds of firsts you will experience. The first night you sleep in your bed alone. The first time you go somewhere by yourself. The first time you spend time with your family as a widow/er. The first time you take a vacation without your spouse. Even the first time you sit at the dinner table alone. The actual anniversary of your spouse’ death may be the most difficult first day of the year. The sadness feels unbearable.
Just being alone for the first time may be something totally foreign to you. You may not know what to do with yourself. You may feel terribly lonely, yet not want to burden others with your needs, so you don’t reach out. In reality, you feel much more isolated than you really are. The world is full of caring people, but you may not know how to connect with them. You may think that no one could possibly understand how you feel. Of course, there are many other widows and widowers out there who do understand. The question is where, and how to find them. I strongly recommend a widow/ers’ support group. My own mother was connected with one through the hospital after my father died, and she said the group saved her life. That was a convincing testimonial for her group. If you are looking for a group, the hospital chaplain is often the contact person. You might also find one through Hospice or through a faith community.
Keep in mind that every feeling you have is temporary, and therefore will have an end point. Your grief will not last forever. Every wave of grief will have a beginning point and an end point. Focus on getting through the immediate feelings by talking to a friend or counselor, or by relaxing in a comfy chair with a good book, a warm blanket, your pet, and a hot cup of tea. Be good to yourself. Be gentle with yourself. Do some slow, deep breathing. Distract your mind by reading or watching a movie. I believe that journaling is particularly helpful during tough times, because the feelings you may otherwise not be able to express are now down on paper, and off your mind for the moment. Every few months, you may want to reread your journal to see how your feelings have changed as time has gone by, and how far you have come in adjusting to change. You’ll be surprised at the progress you have made.
Each successive year, the holidays and anniversaries will get less difficult. Your grief will not last forever, but your love may, and that is what you have to hold on to. Loving your late spouse is a constant, and a beautiful legacy to your marriage. Love lives on beyond the grave.
Change is not only normal, it is inevitable. Unfortunately, widowhood is part of the normal course of most people’s lives, and you, like other widow/ers, will eventually adjust to this new stage of life. Being in the company of others who share your interests is also helpful. Join a club, your senior center, or get involved in local activities. Try to focus on the present, not always the past. Accept the support that is offered to you.
You can do this, and you don’t have to do it alone.
Questions in regard to life and family issues may be submitted to Jane at Pathfinder Magazine at widowedpathfinder.com/contacts/questions-to-jane-milardo, and she will make every attempt to respond to as many as possible in her column, Ask Jane.