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As most of you know, I am currently putting the finishing touches on my book, Reclaiming Joy: A Primer for Widows, in which I recount snippets of my own struggle, as well as the experiences of others and the observations of the “experts.” Today, I would like to ask for your feedback and observations about some of the toughest challenges.

My journey from grief and loss to acceptance, hope and joy has not been quick or easy. Repeatedly, I step unknowingly into sinkholes, those undetected emotional triggers that ignite my anger or grief or depression. The novelist Joyce Carol Oates named them in her memoir, A Widow’s Story:

“The widow must learn: beware sinkholes!

“The terror of the sinkhole is that you fail to see it, each time you fail to see it, you don’t realize you have blundered into the sinkhole until it’s too late and you are being pulled down, down….”

While every widow has her own list of sinkholes—those occasions when her aloneness overwhelms her—some are common to most widows whom I know.

Attending church services was surprisingly hard. I felt alone in a sea of couples. I expected my church to be a major source of comfort and companionship, but it was not. People were friendly and compassionate, but I missed having Lev beside me in the pew. Sunday lunch was perhaps when I felt most conspicuously alone.

Going to a big luncheon or dinner alone was intimidating: Walking up to a table with two empty chairs—the other six or eight occupied by couples—and asking if I could join them, suffering the humiliation of being turned away because they were saving places for another couple, or sitting down and having a couple come in later who could not find two places together. Assigned tables and place cards were a welcome relief … except when all the single women were relegated to the same table.

Grandchildren’s weddings and other major family events were agonizing. Lev is supposed to be here! When the oldest grandson’s big church wedding approached in 2012, I panicked at the thought of being escorted down the aisle and sitting by myself on the second row. After I finally confessed my anxiety, the bride’s mother graciously resolved my seating crisis by sitting the grandparents on the first row with the parents of the bride and groom.

Holidays were worst of all. Even the remote possibility that I might be alone on a day when everyone in the world seemed to be with family caused major anxiety that set in weeks, even months in advance and was alleviated only when the children’s plans were finalized and I knew where I would be. I had never spent Christmas Eve or Christmas night by myself. When I was half a couple, Lev and I could leave our daughter’s home at noon on Christmas Day and drive home to spend a quiet evening together in front of the fire or the tree … or we could take an afternoon flight to Colorado Springs and stay at the Broadmoor, enjoying the mountains and snow and lavish decorations. But as a new widow, the thought of coming home alone to an empty house after spending the day with my family terrified me. My stress was contagious, and it impacted the entire family. It took six Christmases for me to begin to adapt to celebrating without Lev.

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

Photo: Dinner in a private home in Seville, Spain. No place cards–the dreaded ordeal of finding a single empty place.

What are your sinkholes?
How do you handle them?