In response to “From a Plea for Help,” Julie Z. wrote: My husband died about 1.5 years ago, I continue to cry daily. He was everything to me. I am so tired of being so alone. I miss him so very much. Why did someone so wonderful need to go? I pray so very much, that the wonderful memories we made together will make me smile, not cry. I miss everything about him. I miss him, the wonderful marriage we shared and I miss, who I was when I was with him. He completed me. Will I ever find me again? How do I go on without him? I wanted to grow old with him.
Beverly McManus, Grief Companion, responds: Before I answer your questions, please let me offer my most sincere condolences on the death of your dear husband. You have been through one of the hardest things a person can endure, and I hope that you know that just by reaching out, you’re already taking healthy steps to heal from this enormous loss.
It takes a long time to figure out who we are without our spouse. Whether we have warning of their death or not, we cannot even remotely comprehend all the losses we’ll experience that accompany our spouse’s death. In the instant when his or her heart stops beating, we have lost our life companion, we have lost the stability that comes with being in a marriage, in some cases we have lost our financial footing. But I think one of the most profound of these losses is the loss of our identity–we’re not just losing a wife or husband, but also all those roles that went with it. For so many years, we have been part of a couple. And now, the question looms: Who am I without my spouse?
Even though I have always thought of myself as quite strong,as an individual, internally, I know that my reference point for much of my own self-definition had been Steve. Since his death, I have had to figure out who I am without him, and to determine what adventures I want to accomplish, how I like to spend my time, what makes me happy, and who I feel happy with. It’s very tricky to assimilate all the grief and at the same time, figure out the answer to “What next?” And making it especially tricky is the ambiguous timeline of our healing process.
Of course, each grief journey has its own timeline and path, but there are a few milestones and stepping stones that are universal, and this very big step of figuring out who we are is one that can’t be rushed.
What I’ve discovered:
- For me, one of the toughest new roles to handle was parenting. Steve had always been so close to our daughters, and was very active in their lives. Now, I felt I had to step up and be both mom and dad, something I felt so unequipped to do. We had different parenting styles-Steve had grown up in a much more relaxed and lenient family than mine, and I tended to be more hard line in terms of decisions and rules. While he was alive, we had been conciliatory influences on each other, mellowing out the extremes and always presenting a united union to our daughters. I know our daughters missed having their “old softy” dad who could often be convinced by his oh-so-persuasive and charming girls. Instead, now they had only mom, and many times, I felt I needed to stand firm and make some decisions they didn’t necessarily like at the time. Then guilt would kick in, and I’d reverse myself, thinking, “If Steve were here, he’d let them do XYZ.” Over time, I realized I didn’t have to automatically assume Steve’s “Dad” role – I could just be myself, doing the best I knew how.
- Making decisions on my own was initially extremely hard for me. I’d always had a partner with whom I could float ideas, hash things out, and reach conclusions. Without someone to lean against, I felt so alone and vulnerable. Even though in the business world I felt confident about my decision making, with regard to home, cars, and family, I felt so uncertain. What if I made a mistake? What if I made the wrong decision? Over time, I realized that although I no longer had Steve to turn to, I did have a small group of trustworthy advisors who were generously willing to share their opinions and provide reassurances that even if I did make a mistake, the world wouldn’t come to an end. I also have learned to trust my own judgment, and to tap into a deep well of experiences, as well as trust my guts as to whether something “felt right.” I also take heed of Gen. George S. Patton’s remark, “Better a good decision now than a perfect decision 10 minutes too late.”
- Figuring out my new role apart from Steve also meant identifying my own tastes and preferences. For many years, I’d been searching for a certain unique brass tray table, and a year after Steve died, in a stroke of serendipity, my daughter and I happened to find the exact table I’d been seeking for so long at a Persian Rug store. I was thrilled to bring it home — it was something uniquely my own taste. As I set it up in the living room, to my dismay, I realized that it clashed with everything else in the room and, worst of all, did not lend itself to the furniture layout of the room. At that point, I realized that it was time to make some changes if I wanted the table to work. Little did I know that that lovely antique table would be the catalyst for a major overhaul of my entire living and dining rooms! And little did I realize that with the purchase of the table, I was embarking on a major exploration of my own tastes and desires. Because we always conferred about nearly every major decision in our home and family, many of our choices resulted in compromises. It was quite an adventure, and actually quite a bit of fun to realize that even though there was still some useful life left in our old furniture, I did not have to use it if it didn’t make me happy.? I decided to replace the extra-long sofa with four very comfortable upholstered chairs that gathered in a circle around the new coffee table. Well, the chairs made the carpet seem dingy, so I decided that we’d replace it, and we were thrilled to discover beautiful hardwood floors underneath the dated wall-to-wall carpeting.But as long as we were taking out the carpet, I realized we should also paint the walls — and it was such a joy to replace the bland “Navajo white” walls with a rich creamy maple sugar hue that picked up tones from the new table and chairs. Next, I added a new oriental rug to tie all the colors together, and then decided to rip out the old brick hearth and replace it with cool sandstone. Once the hearth was gone, I decided to paint the “rustic brick” fireplace facade a creamy white to match the baseboard and crown molding trims. And of course, the windows needed new treatments. And with those, the old dining room set looked shabby, so was replaced with something that could accommodate the large groups who often gathered at our table. Basically the only thing that remained from our old layout was my beloved piano, which now had a regal home on the back wall of the living room. It took almost a year to complete all the redecorating, and most of that time was spent exploring choices, and determining what I really loved. Even now, every time I walk into the rooms I feel a thrill because of how it all works together so beautifully.
- Making all the choices was fun, but this endeavor also included getting the work done, something that in the past, Steve would have handled. I had to figure out that just because Steve would have actually tackled all the tasks himself, because he really loved doing handyman jobs, I did not need to also handle them all myself. Instead, I brought in a floor refinisher to polish up our hardwood, a professional painter for the walls and ceilings, and a drapery service to help hang the new drapes. The adventure left me feeling confident that I could handle just about anything around the house.
- Figuring out how I like to spend my time was something I grappled with for quite some time. It was so easy to bury myself in work, and by doing so, I didn’t have to address this question for a while. But I have gradually been exploring options and activities that bring me joy. In addition to the home decorating, I have rediscovered my passion for music, and these days, on weekends you can find me with my singing companions in front of the microphone singing old favorites at local karaoke venues. It’s been quite fun to explore new places, and to make new friends along the way. While we were in Hawaii on our last family vacation together, Steve had become entranced with Hawaiian music and bought a ukulele. For the longest time, it sat on the shelf in my closet, and I’d earnestly urge Emily and Mary Ella to try to learn to play it. But after a while, their lack of interest was apparent, and I realized that I could take lessons and learn to play it myself! (This was quite startling at the time!) I signed up for lessons with a local teacher, and it was so much fun, so I promised myself that once I mastered the uke, I’d take guitar lessons, since we had several of Steve’s guitars sitting around unused. I soon concluded that there was no reason to wait — since I had time available, I decided to take both guitar and ukulele lessons, on alternating weeks, and have really enjoyed the satisfaction of learning something new and actually sounding halfway decent!
- I think that this new sense of self-satisfaction was something I never expected as I explored new roles in my life without Steve. Even though Steve and I had planned to grow old together, to travel, to be grandparents, and to enjoy life without the day-to-day demands of full-time parenting, entering this stage of my life alone has been a challenge. Without him at my side, I’ve learned to find pleasure and fulfillment on my own. I’ve had to revise some plans, discard some, and create some new goals for myself. It has taken time, and it hasn’t come without the shedding of lots of tears as I have relinquished the dreams we’d had of shared tomorrows. However, as my children have continued to grow, reach their own milestones, and become successfully “launched” into the adult world, I’ve realized a newfound freedom. I can continue charting my course, and engaging in the activities that make me happy, with the people I enjoy. Of course, I miss Steve and I especially miss the lack of ability to live out our dreams. But in this new life, I’ve realized that I am enjoying figuring out who I am without him.
Julie, I hope you will feel that you are not alone in your questions — you are facing a totally changed life path, and it can feel daunting. Please let me assure you that you have made it through the worst. And since you’ve survived, you should know that you have within you what it takes to keep moving forward and figure out the answers to your questions. I wish you joy and hope as you explore your new roles without your husband, and hope you’ll stay in touch and let us know how you’re doing.
What new roles have you discovered in your new life without your spouse? How have you negotiated the often conflicting demands of each role? We’d love you to share your stories.
Beverly Chantalle McManus lives in Northern California with her two daughters, who have each now graduated from college. She is Vice President and Treasurer of the Board of Directors for the Open to Hope Foundation, a bereavement facilitator and core team member of the Stepping Stones on your Grief Journey Workshops, and a frequent speaker and writer on the topic of loss and grief. In addition to grief support, she is also a marketing executive for professional services firms.