The Lonely Year for Widows

After so many losses in one year, loneliness was personal for me. We’d had Golden Retrievers for years, and I missed them. One dog was named Sally and the other was named Max. I longed to have a pet again, but according to retirement community rules, I could only have fish.

In my mind, fish weren’t true pets; they didn’t respond to names or offer affection. For centuries, dogs had adapted to humans and learned to “read” their body language and conversation. While it was fun to see the pet therapy dogs that came to Charter House, they weren’t my dogs. The dogs didn’t know me, and I didn’t know them. I wanted a dog and couldn’t have one.

This fact added to my loneliness. Many of my friends had died, and I missed them. Their deaths made me think about my father-in-law. As the years marched on, more of his friends died, and he was the last one standing. If Dad was upset, he didn’t show it. Dad would simply say, “Fred (or whatever the name was) was a wonderful person and I’ll miss him.”

How Dad Dealt with Death

Then Dad went on with his life. I didn’t want to be the last person standing or become a CDC statistic, so I started an anti-loneliness campaign.

Step one: I joined an informal support group of residents. Our discussions were honest and funny. Laughing with them changed the day.

Step two: I took advantage of free coffee for residents. Getting coffee gave me opportunities to talk with friends, strangers, and staff. Even if I only said a few words, my loneliness was reduced. I lived with residents who understood loneliness and this time of life.

Step three: I talked with friends about loneliness. One friend had moved across the country to live at Charter House. She missed her husband, her house, and her friends. Another friend said they were lonely and didn’t know what to do about it. Other friends thought loneliness was a serious topic that couldn’t be explained.

Desperate to Connect

Despite their interesting careers, these friends talked the most about their husbands and children. One friend lived alone and felt separated and lonely due to COVID-19. She had no contact with others, and the silence in her apartment was oppressive. “Then the phone rang,” she explained. “I said, ‘Oh good. I have someone to talk to and am not alone.’” My friend looked forward to future phone calls.

Loneliness reminded me of a paper I wrote for Study Club about Robinson Crusoe. Daniel Defoe’s novel, Robinson Crusoe, was published in 1719 and is considered one of the first English novels. Defoe’s story is based on the real life of stranded sailor Alexander Selkirk. In the novel, Robinson Crusoe lives alone on a Caribbean island for twenty-eight years.

Selkirk was stranded for eight years, and during that time, he lost the ability to speak. He was miraculously rescued and returned to England. He had to learn how to speak all over again.

Would Loneliness Harm Me?

Was I a female Robinson Crusoe at risk for losing my ability to speak? In some ways, I had lost touch with reality. I walked into John’s bedroom to tell him something and remembered he wasn’t there. I thought about calling a friend and remembered they had died. My circle of friends was shrinking rapidly, and my loneliness was relentless.

I lost a future with my parents, my in-laws, my brother, my daughter and my husband. For the rest of my days, I’ll wonder what my daughter would have accomplished if she had lived. What would we have done together? Which holidays would we have celebrated? What would she think about the twins becoming adults?

When he was about sixty years old, I asked John to write his memoir, or dictate it. He never did. Maybe John didn’t write it because he didn’t realize he had an unusual life. Aerospace medicine, aviation medicine, internal medicine, preventive medicine, and Air Force service were ordinary things for John. Yet John’s life was extraordinary, and I was blessed to share it with him.

My Own Mortality

The deaths of family members and friends hit close to home. I realized I could die at any time. After our mother died, my brother said, “I’m in front now.” I understood his comment. And when John died, I believed I was next in line to die. If I wanted to write more books, or do more to market them, I’d better get cracking. If I wanted to do something unusual, now was the time.

No sitting around and feeling sorry for myself. Having a pity party wouldn’t be beneficial and would delay grief healing.

I asked other widows how they coped with the loss of their husbands. My next-door neighbor said she thought of her husband every day. “You have to keep going,” she said. Like my neighbor, I think about John every day and miss him. I had many happy memories.

As time passed, thinking about John became less painful. The second year as a widow or widower is often called “lonely year.” It was a terribly lonely year for me.

Without John’s presence, the silence in my apartment was unbearable. The only sounds I heard were the ticking of the antique clock and the television if I left it on. Now John was gone. He didn’t say, “Honey, is there more coffee?” or “This is delicious,” or “I like your new sweater,” or “I love you.” I missed the sound of John’s voice. I seemed to be stuck in loneliness and wanted to be unstuck.

Excerpted from Winning: A Story of Grief and Renewal: Hodgson MA, Harriet: 9781608082919: Books.

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Harriet Hodgson

Harriet Hodgson has been a freelancer for 43 years, is the author of thousands of articles, and 42 books, including 10 grief resources. She is Assistant Editor of the Open to Hope website, a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists, Alliance of Independent Authors, Minnesota Coalition for Grief Education and Support, and Grief Coalition of Southeastern Minnesota. She is well acquainted with grief. In 2007 four family members died—her daughter (mother of her twin grandchildren), father-in-law, brother (and only sibling) and the twins’ father. Multiple losses shifted the focus of Hodgson’s work from general health to grief resolution and healing. She has appeared on more than 185 radio talk shows, including CBS Radio, and dozens of television stations, including CNN. In addition to writing for Open to Hope, Hodgson is a contributing writer for The Grief Toolbox website and The Caregiver Space website. A popular speaker, she has given presentations at The Compassionate Friends national conference, Bereaved Parents of the USA national conference, and Zoom grief conferences. Her work is cited in Who’s Who of American Women, World Who’s Who of Women, Contemporary Authors, and other directories. For more information about this busy grandmother, great grandmother, author, and speaker please visit

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