Helen: My Role Model for Widowhood
May 26, 2016
I never guessed that Helen, my mother-in-law, would become my role model for widowhood. Lev’s dad was killed in a plane crash when Lev was only 13 and his mother 39. About 18 months later, Helen married Russell; and for more than 20 years, they enjoyed the good life together. Then, in her early 60s, she was widowed again. I recalled her announcement shortly after Russell’s death:
“I am going to accept invitations to go out. At first you don’t feel like seeing people, and so you turn down invitations. People want to be kind; but if you keep saying ‘no,’ they will soon forget you and move on. Then when you’re ready to be with friends again, they’re not there for you.”
Russell was the love of her life, and she grieved deeply, but she didn’t stop living. She didn’t throw pity parties. She entertained her friends. She went out. She traveled. And she married again—about 60 years a wife, 20 years each to three very different men.
I frequently read that widows need time alone, that we should be careful about accepting invitations, that our friends should be patient and understanding when we say “no.” I disagree. We need friends more than ever. While reflection is important, isolation can be deadly.
Say “Yes” to Everything
After Lev’s death, I emulated Helen and tried to say “yes” to everything. I also knew that if I lived reactively, only responding to the invitations that came my way, simply acceding to others’ plans, I would find myself among the widows who sat home alone at night.
What was I supposed to do after 5:30 every afternoon, when Lev came home from the office? As half of a couple, I could say, “I don’t feel like cooking. Let’s go out.” As a new widow, I had no friends—married or single—whom I was comfortable calling at the last minute. Many friends and even casual acquaintances were kind and invited me out after Lev died. I quickly realized that I needed both to reciprocate and to initiate social occasions if I wanted to be invited a second time. I couldn’t stand my empty calendar. Weekends seemed to drag on forever. I developed the habit of checking my calendar on Sunday afternoon, then calling friends to make plans to fill the week ahead.
Make New Friends; Develop New Interests
One friend admitted to me that she had turned down invitations from other widows who reached out to her when her husband died. The word widow was so awful that she didn’t want to be identified with other widows. That never crossed my mind. I was both surprised and grateful when widows who were not close friends reached out to me. I eagerly accepted their invitations. Those new friendships have been invaluable, for no one else can fully understand the depths of a widow’s grief or the length of time it takes to heal. Within the sisterhood, I can acknowledge my down days and my sinkholes. They understand, and they are gentle with me.
I am not an extrovert. I still find it hard to walk alone into a room full of strangers. But by repeatedly pushing myself out of my comfort zone, I have made new friends and developed new interests. Today, sinkholes are the exception, and happiness is the norm. God is good.
Adapted from my book-in-progress, RECLAIMING JOY: A PRIMER FOR WIDOWS.
Photos: Helen and Lev with his father, with his stepfather Russell and at her third wedding.