Widows Face the Holidays
by Annie Estlund, author of For Widows Only!
These late-year holidays should be exciting, happy and comforting as most of us spend time shopping, cleaning, decorating and cooking delicious feasts to share with our families and friends. From childhood through grandparenthood, it’s considered a time of joyous anticipation…unless you are a recent widow. Without their husbands around to celebrate with, most widows approach holidays in their first few years with fear and dread, finding ways to just get past them.
My first few holiday seasons alone were frightening beforehand and grim in reality, in spite of loving support from my children and their families, who did their best to make the days pleasant for all of us. Now I watch and read the Message Boards on my support website for widows (http://groups.msn.com/forwidowsonly), and I ache all over as newer widows bare their souls to each other, and plead for suggestions on how to get through their first Thanksgiving or Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanza services alone. Those who lose their spouses near or during the season get a double whammy, facing their nightmares while others are celebrating. These widows are often inconsolable during the first few years of holidays. Forever after, in fact, their holidays may be somewhat marred by the anniversary of his death.
Some widows I have talked with and others contributing to the site, suggest creative scenarios for getting through the holidays. One said, “There really is no way to avoid the sadness and pain of the first or second set of holidays. We just need to accept that. All we can do is try to minimize the toll this intense stress might take on our bodies.” Her answer? Physical exercise. “No matter what, I have vowed to exercise strenuously every single day from now through New Years; inside when the weather’s lousy, outside when I possibly can. I figure if I can work off most of that tension, maybe it won’t succeed in making me an ulcer or keeping me from sleeping or causing an anxiety attack.”
Another said her arthritis restricts her physical activity, but she does what she can. “Along with any exercise,” she said, “I remind myself to breathe slowly and deeply. When I feel I need to scream, I stifle it with a big pillow; that way it helps me and it doesn’t upset anyone else.
Several newer widows talk of spending their time with people less fortunate, either as part of their job or as therapy for themselves. “I now work in a nursing home,” Pat said. “I can’t believe how my patients take my mind off all my worries. They are wonderful and very kind. Doing for them is what keeps me going,” she said. “Last Christmas was unbearable. I did not even want to acknowledge Christmas. I worked at a hospital on Christmas Even and Christmas Day. That was helpful, but I didn’t spend much time with my daughter.” She planned to take Thanksgiving off this year, as well as Christmas, for her daughter’s sake and to cook for the ones she loves. “I still miss my husband terribly, as I always will, but this year I have to think of all those who have been there for me.”
Sometimes coping means not doing what’s expected. A 49-year-old widow of four months says, “I had ordered cards with our names on it…. Now I don’t even want to bother sending them. …I would feel the need to tell some of them of his death and worse yet, I am dreading receiving cards this year. I don’t want to hear someone else’s joy, ‘cause it’s not here for me. She concluded with this observation: “Widowhood basically sucks and lately has been worse than ever. …I have all of almost four months in, and I want out of this club!” But she, like the others on this support site, wants to help and give strength to the other widows. “We know our husbands would not wish us to give up on life. So, I guess I will have to find some strength and go on.”
Keeping busy works for many widows, especially in the second and third years and on. Many younger widows, especially, have so many obligations, such as working full-time, tending to children’s needs, volunteering at the hospital, collecting food for the hungry, etc., that the holiday season comes and goes with minimal time to dwell on their pain. One said, “Oh, I hurt okay. But I think it’s lucky I didn’t have time to think about it and make myself totally miserable. I’m sure I would have done that, if I had had the time. But others’ needs took precedence this year. My first year, well, that was a total blur of blubbering for weeks.”
I remember when I was widowed several years ago, I tried all kinds of tricks that first year to make myself enjoy the holidays for the sake of my children and their children. Failing in that impossibility, I numbed myself to the reality of my predicament, spent little time dwelling on it and just repeated my mantra: “Just get through it, Annie. Just get through it. You will never have to go through this FIRST again.”