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If You Are Over 65 and a Widow.
Helpful Tips for the Newly Bereaved. One Widow's Perspective

By Maureen Kramlinger

Three out of four women outlive their spouses. The average age of widowhood is 56, and only 7 out of 100 of these widows will remarry. By age 65, more than half of all married American women are widowed.

What is next for these widows? Maybe you’ve had a wonderful marriage … or even just a so-so marriage, but now you are alone. Your family and friends have been attentive; some have brought food and done favors. Some have written nice notes. A few have given unsolicited advice

There are many books on the subject of mourning. There is the famed Kubler Ross five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. Others describe grief using terms such as numbness (protecting oneself from feeling the impact), disorganization, loneliness, depression, sleeplessness and even hallucination —visualizing your deceased husband. They discuss how experiencing the pain of loss is just as much a part of life as experiencing the joy of love. Most describe grief as an automatic inborn biological reaction and most encourage you to FEEL and experience your grief. They describe how grief sometimes arises at unexpected times.

The manner in which you became a widow will, no doubt, influence your grieving. Was it sudden? If so you may feel abandoned and angry. Or, did you suffer right along with your husband through his long illness? If this is the case, you may feel guilty about the relief you feel.

People’s response to your new situation will vary. Sympathy expressed through words like “you poor thing” is not much help, even if it was meant well. Letters with special, specific memories are more meaningful. Most insightful are those who ask, “Do you feel like talking about it, or about him?” especially if they then really listen when you do begin to talk.

You may be too busy at first to experience emotional grief. There is paperwork to do, lawyers to see, funeral arrangements to make. All of this may be new if you and your husband had not been prepared for his death. There is a great deal of information for widows on the internet related to financial and legal issues, life insurance, pension benefits, probate and taxes.

As you climb out of your first devastated feelings, avoid the “if only” thoughts. Instead, tell yourself, “I did the best I could at the time.” Make up your mind that this will be a new phase of your life. Dispose of your spouse’s clothing when you are ready. This may be hard to do, but others can make better use of them now—better to remember him by visiting his gravestone, planting a tree in his memory, making a videotape with photos or writing a eulogy.

If you can’t sleep, try breathing deeply; deliberately relax each part of your body. Have a regular bedtime ritual. Try a warm bath or listen to a tape or CD with repetitive sounds like the breaking of waves on the shore. Exercising during the day may make you sleep better, too.

After some time has passed —a few weeks for some, much longer for others —begin to face the fact that you must start a new life. There will be adjustments and acceptance that life is not the same, but there will come a time when you can say to yourself, “Let’s get on with it,” and you will begin to get a sense of well-being. Don’t expect a return to “normal.” As a single woman now, your social life is sure to change. Sometimes there are fewer and fewer invitations, and it may be too much to expect couples to keep including you in their evening plans. But it is helpful to continue some of your favorite activities from when your husband was alive. Did you have a bridge group? A book club? Did you like to go to the movies? Resuming familiar activities gives continuity to your existence.

In addition, try something new! Keep a journal; set aside a specific time each day to write, even if it’s only a few lines. Record your dreams. Begin a sentence with the words, “I am remembering…” Write rapidly for 5 or 10 minutes. No one else need read it.

Perhaps go further and try to do something you always wanted to do: travel, start a business, get a puppy. Read up on one subject that has caught your interest; become an expert on it. These things make you a more interesting person, not only to yourself but to others as well.

There still will be down times. For some, they come with a change in the weather—maybe a frightening thunderstorm or many successive days of rain. There are jobs around the house that he used to do that you are neglecting. You can opt for help with these tasks when they are beyond your ability, or if not, you can learn new tasks and feel good about your accomplishments!

One woman did without her gas fireplace for the first year of her widowhood because her husband had always lit the fire. The next year, she called the gas company, which sent a man to explain how to light it. He admitted it was tricky, but after he showed her how to do it she was able to enjoy its warmth from then on. Seeking help, whether paid or not, is hard for many. Often, though, the helper really enjoys helping, and all benefit.

Another woman worried about getting lost when she drove to a new place alone. Not only did she write out directions carefully and in big readable print, but she printed them out in reverse so as to find her way home again.

If holidays are hard, volunteer at a soup kitchen. Doing something for someone else always makes one feel better. Bring a birthday cake to a day care center. Listen to someone else who needs a friend.

Take a trip …a short one at first, but eventually longer ones, if you can afford them. They are a wonderful way to get out of yourself and into another world. Pamper yourself by getting a massage or buying something new that you’ve always wanted. Throw yourself into something bigger than yourself: politics, volunteering to help those less fortunate. Consider new friendships. While doing all these things, you are bound to discover new independence.

Congratulate yourself when you have overcome a hurdle. A friend told me she actually pats herself on the back when she has done something that her husband had always done and that she has now learned to do herself!

When widows are asked what they missed most, the answers vary, but “missing someone to relate the news of the day to” is a frequent answer. Others say eating or cooking alone. Having to ask for help more often is another common answer. But, they also add that they get a “charge” out of being able to cope and learning that they will be OK.

People vary in the number of friends they want or need, but usually most of us need new ones when our life circumstances change. How many single friends did you keep once you married long ago? Or kept when you moved out of town? Widowhood often generates new friends as well. Old friends often will still call, but try calling someone new. Perhaps you’ve heard of a neighbor who also is a widow; give her a call. Give a call to an old friend from the past. It might lead to a renewed friendship or perhaps just an interesting conversation.

There are a number of resources for widows that might be helpful:

1) VITAS Innovative Hospice Care® (100 S Biscayne Blvd., Miami FL 33131 (tel:305-374-4143) has hospice programs in at least 12 states.

2) American Association for Retired Persons (AARP), 1-888-893-4639, has a lot of resources for the widowed, including booklets on Survivor’s Benefits, etc.

3) Action for Independent Maturity (AIM) (1909 K St. NW, Washington, DC 20049) publishes a directory of services for the widowed in the United States and Canada.

4) Society of Military Widows (PO Box 254, Coronado, CA 92118) also provides widow services.

5) The Theos Foundation (306 Penn Hills Mall, Pittsburgh, PA 15235) lists Christian fellowships for widows. (Many religious institutions have groups for widows as well.)

6) The National Hospice Association (1311 Dolly Madison Boulevard, McLean, VA 22101) will give you information about local support groups.

Most hospices have excellent bereavement services, including free or low-cost support groups and grief literature.

If, as time passes, you are gaining confidence in your adjustment, have taken up new and old interests and feel you have accepted your new place in society, you may be beginning to think of starting a new relationship. A word of caution: Don’t think you will be able to replace what you had. A second marriage is always different than the first, and when you are over 65 you have a long history of established values, associations, habits and ties. Adjusting to a new person sometimes can be challenging.

If you are definitely interested in looking for a new mate, look up Parents Without Partners and see if there is a group near you. You must be a parent, even if the “child” is fully grown. There is no age limit and some branches have groups for older folks. Also look in the newspaper for events that might be of interest that have single men: tours, dancing, dinners, etc. Sign up for a class on bird watching, hiking, photography, etc. You could follow up on personal ads in magazines or newspapers. If so, make sure you meet in a public place and don’t give out your phone number.

Again a word of warning: If you do remarry, be prepared that your grown children may have a difficult time accepting your new relationship. You may not be completely welcomed by your intended spouse’s family either. There also are couples who travel together, go to the movies together and are accepted by friends as “a pair” without the legal aspects of a formal marriage.

Whatever widowhood brings, we all share the fact that uncertainty is a fact of life.

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