Friends: An Unexpected Loss
Apr 21, 2016
The Social Aspect of Grief
Ours had been a social world of couples, and our friends and acquaintances called within a month or two after Lev’s death to invite me out to dinner. Sometimes, these turned out to be one-time obligatory gestures. Just as we had not thought to mix singles and couples in our social life, not all of our old friends continued to include me after Lev died. In some cases, the magic of the relationship was gone. Lev had been the glue that held the four of us together; and without him, we did not have much to talk about. And I changed. In my grief, I was a different person; and that changed the dynamic with family and with friends.
In a few cases, people who I thought were friends were not friends at all. I realized that we had been cultivated for business reasons; and with Lev gone, there was no reason to continue to cultivate me. They were looking after their interests, not mine.
Not quite so painful was recognizing those who turned out to be crossroads friends. Our lives intersected at some point, and our friendship lasted as long as we were all at the same place. The relationship was based on activities and organizations that we shared in common. We had nothing deeper to maintain the friendship when we left the intersection to go in different directions. It could be couples whose husbands worked or hunted or fished or played golf together. It could be a couples card group or Bible study or dance club. Without the husband, the widow was no longer included.
My final disappointment was realizing that not all friends were there for the hard times. They were there for the parties and the fun. As one recently widowed friend said, “I was surprised by who wasn’t there for me after my husband died.”
While those were unexpected losses on top of losing Lev, I experienced unexpected gains as well. I was surprised by the outpouring of love and concern from single acquaintances—divorced, widowed, never-married. I felt unworthy of their friendship because I had been one of those thoughtless women who was not a good friend to my widowed and divorced friends. I never visualized myself as a single. I had no idea what I would want and need in this role, so I had no empathy for friends who reached this place ahead of me. I never realized how alone they were.
I tried to atone. To those not-always-single women who reached out to me, who called me to go to dinner or the movies or Las Vegas, I said, “I do not deserve this. I was not a good friend. I did not realize … ”
Especially as that first Christmas and Valentine approached, I wanted to surround myself with other women who were alone, who understood my loss. I made a list of every single woman whom I knew well enough to invite to my home—a grand total of nine. That was the beginning of my new circle of friends. I met other women through them. Since each of them had more experience as half a couple than I, they taught me how to enjoy life as a single. They introduced me to their friends and included me in their activities. We discovered mutual friends, and new friend groups formed. I learned much more about art and classical music, I went to lots more movies, and I tried more new restaurants because of these new and renewed friendships.
Entertaining at Home Alone
Women are incredibly easy to entertain, because food is simply an excuse to get together. We are not trying to impress one another, and my days of wanting to be the next Julia Child are over. I can serve comfort food, a big pot of soup in the winter or salad in the summer, wine and cheese before a concert or coffee and dessert afterwards.
Lev had been my partner in entertaining, willing to pick up a forgotten item on his way home from the office, bartending, carving the meat, washing dishes afterwards. As a widow I needed to simplify, to reduce the workload. Cooking, as well as cleanup afterwards, is much easier for four or six than for eight or 12. While most men do not fit comfortably around my breakfast table, women happily gather in that intimate circle. I found the courage to put my gold-band china in the dishwasher. Despite all the warnings when I married, the gold did not tarnish and the plates did not shatter. I put away the Waterford and invested in less fragile stemware. I closed the bar and bought good wine.
As my confidence grew, I began to host occasional buffet suppers for two or three dozen: large enough to invite people whom I might not know well enough to ask to dinner—including younger couples and new widows—but small enough to use my own dinnerware and linens.
Like many widows, I found that my social life slowed down on weekends when my married friends are spending time with their spouses. A Sunday night supper fills that hole: Friday grocery shopping, Saturday getting the house in order, Sunday cooking. And an invitation for “Sunday supper” conveys the idea of casual and simple. Friends with full social calendars are most likely to be free on Sunday; and most widows are glad to have a social event to anticipate, to end the weekend on a high note.
In the weeks after Lev’s death, I gazed in horror at my empty calendar. What am I supposed to do each evening from 5:30 until bedtime? Now, my calendar is jam-packed. Occasionally, I even have to say “no.”
How has your social life changed?
Any advice or suggestions for the rest of us?
The Guardian recently posted an excellent essay on the subject, “We Cannot Fix People’s Grief, only sit with them in the darkness” by Giles Frazer. I recommend it.
Excerpts from my book-in-progress, RECLAIMING JOY: A PRIMER FOR WIDOWS.