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I call it God’s compensation. The loss of a spouse is completely overwhelming. In place of that unique relationship, in place of that companionship, surviving spouses—if they are of sound mind and body and if finances permit—receive an enormous measure of freedom and independence. Like most women of my generation, I went from my parents’ home to my husband’s home. Except for a three-month internship at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times in the summer of 1962, I never lived alone or supported myself.

Now, I could pretty well do what I wanted, whenever I wanted. There was nobody to tell me “no.” I could spend my money as I chose. I did not have to ask permission. I no longer had to consider Lev’s tastes. I painted my bedroom green at the Dallas condo and planted palm trees in the garden at home. I no longer had to debate which painting to buy, while as half a couple my choice invariably came in second.

More experienced widows and widowers freely acknowledge that they thoroughly enjoy their newfound freedom. For those who were caregivers, the freedom is especially liberating. The danger is that the line between this freedom and self-centeredness is a very fine one.

Rabbit Food

I have been reminded of God’s compensation since I have been on this crazy diet. Lev would have called my salad “rabbit food.” He didn’t do vegetables. He would not have welcomed spaghetti squash in place of the real thing, and I would not have dared serve him roasted cauliflower. Living alone, I can eat what I want when I want. I can embark on these wild cooking experiments without facing a food critic. I can avoid meat-and-potato restaurants. I don’t have any bread, crackers or sweets in the house. I don’t have to please anyone else. But I wish I had Lev here to please, and I want to please my family and friends.

Through the years, almost every family conflict I have observed—among our family and friends, as well as some prominent families whose fights are headlined by the media and the subject of books—could be mitigated if everyone acted unselfishly, considering others’ interests as well as their own.

When I was a child, I was taught in Sunday School that JOY is an acronym for Jesus, Others, You. In other words, place God first, then others, and lastly, yourself. That is too simplistic. I need to take care of myself if I am going to take care of others. I cannot ignore my own physical, spiritual, emotional, and financial needs. During the years of Lev’s declining health and especially after his death, I seemed to have used up all my emotional resources. My cup was empty. I had nothing more to give.

Nevertheless, I found that focusing on my emptiness stripped away all vestiges of contentment and joy. When I took my eyes off myself to focus on others, I lifted my spirits and nourished my soul. I recalled the words of Paul:

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Philippians 2:3

Adapted from my book-in-progress, Reclaiming Joy: A Primer for Widows.

Photo: Chopped apples, strawberries, blueberries, spinach, feta cheese and almonds tossed in Brookwood Mesibov Dressing.