The brave new world of widowhood

I’m just going to plunge right in here– or perhaps better yet, I’ll plunge right in after a very brief intro:

I became a widow almost 3 years ago. I was extremely fortunate in that we had 4 years to prepare ourselves for what we suspected was coming. The greater part of that 4 years was focused more on fighting back the beast, so really  it was in the last 6 months of his life that John really put his energy almost exclusively into preparing his mom and me for his death.

As I have written in my blog for colon cancer patients, John’s attention to the details of how we were to survive without him were exhaustive. Grueling, in fact, from my perspective– I was forced to think about many things I would have much preferred to ignore. But John refused to countenance my head-in-the-sand approach. He had vast amounts of vital information and instructions that he HAD to share with me. So I sucked it up and dutifully scribbled pages and pages of notes in the ubiquitous yellow legal tablet that John insisted was the only proper note-taking equipment.

At a certain point, it became apparent to me that there were more than a few categories of things I felt I needed to know that were not being covered at all by John. Like: how do I take care of this wonderful house he built for us when this man who knows how to fix everything is no longer with me? His answers were along the lines of “You’ll have to find some reliable repair people and get used to paying for their services.” But then that “solution” was always followed by the admonition that I simply could not afford to continue to live in this house after his death– it is too big and requires too much maintenance (and financial output) that I would not be able to manage. Net result of this conversation was always a long lecture about the need to downsize and to change my expectations, with virtually no direction on how to actually maintain, even in the short run.

But let me bring this back to my goal in starting this blog. I’m pretty sure that almost all widows would agree that one of the biggest and most daunting challenges we face after the death of our spouses is the new reality of having to suddenly deal with “man things”– all those aspects of daily life that we never paid much attention to because we had husbands to do them for us. Here’s the image I used that ultimately grabbed John’s attention and emotional comprehension:

I don’t want to be the wife sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor at midnight, sobbing her heart out because she doesn’t know how to deal with the latest urgent repair crisis. That’s what Eve said kept happening to her after Richard died.

John was totally horrified. It had never occurred to him how it might feel to be the helpless widow. He certainly didn’t want that to happen to me. But he really honestly believed in his own image of me: “Rachel is fragile.” Fragile?? That was the last adjective I would have ever chosen to describe myself. I may be thin, but my own self-image is more along the lines of the sturdy frontierswoman. We had, after all, lived a great deal of our lives in remote rural areas, on farms we carved out of the wilderness. Somehow the use of the word “fragile” to describe a woman who spent a fair amount of her time shovelling manure and hauling seaweed in her truck seemed misplaced to me…

I offer this as a little background to my reaction to those estimations of my competence to handle the nuts and bolts of life alone– alone and in situ. I wasn’t buying this at all. My plan was to have faith in myself, to re-learn how to trust that I could do what needed to be done with as little leaning on anyone else as I could manage. Because John was also very clear about this (and I do believe that he was absolutely correct in his assessment, based on actual experience):

You can only ask those people who really want to help you once or twice for assistance. Dean is the one to ask about cars. Dean can fix anything. The next-door neighbor will try to do hundred things to help you, but if you allow that, sooner or later, she’ll end up feeling resentful– so let her do just one thing. Bob is the guy to ask about computers, but everyone he knows is always asking him for computer help– so you can only ask him once.

Here’s the bottom line: it has been almost 3 years since John’s death, and I’m still in this beautiful house that he built for us and which he thought I would never be able to maintain. I’ve already revamped our extensive landscape irrigation system (thereby reducing my water bill from $400 /month at the peak summer watering period down to $75/ month), replaced 7 light fixtures (re-wired them myself after a friend gave me a tutorial on the first one) that had corroded in the salt air, repaired the tenant’s toilet and her garage door that wouldn’t open (three times now!), replaced my car’s engine and cabin air filters… There’s lots more, but you get the idea. All this from a woman who had never even bothered to consider what might be involved in any of these endeavors, simply because she never HAD to.

Back to my goal in starting this blog: I feel as though I’ve learned a lot about navigating widowhood. I suspect (as with our hard-won knowledge on how to navigate the colon cancer maze) that a fair amount of what I’ve learned might be very helpful to other new widows. I’ll let your reaction be the guide, dear readers…

Okay, now I’m into the meat of this topic. What really gave birth to this new project was the reaction of a neighbor to my self-description as “the intrepid widow”. For reasons not quite understood, he thought this description was absolutely hilarious and apparently, preposterous. This is an older guy, very intrepid himself for his age, with whom I have spent many hilarious hours at the beach, regaling each other after our mutual half-mile swims. I was adamant in the face of his guffaws: “I AM an intrepid widow!” After listening to my tale of how I successfully dealt with the Nissan service guy at my local dealership, he was definitely singing a different tune: “You’re kidding!! You actually told him that?? Wow… And I thought my gal-pal in California was a pit-bull– wait till she hears this! “ [In this case, the seemingly insulting descriptive term was intended as a testimony to perseverance, rather than character assassination…]

So the subtitle of this entry , and perhaps the entire blog) could well be: THE INTREPID WIDOW.[Official Merrium-Webster definition of “intrepid”: characterized by resolute fearlessness, fortitude and endurance.] Feel free to guffaw at the improbable descriptive adjective, you male readers. Widows: read on and benefit.

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coffee cups for widows blogJust opened my latest score from the local library new book shelf, The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler. I was immediately struck by how she honed in on the surreality of those first few days/months of widowhood.

The book is written in the voice of the widower– but is he speaking literally or figuratively? After a few pages, I realized that it doesn’t matter. As we all know all too well, what is “real” and what is not is up for grabs as we desperately grapple with learning to live without our loved one.

Here’s a taste of page 1 of Chapter One:

The strange thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.

We were strolling through Belvedere Square, for instance, on an early spring afternoon when we met our old next-door neighbor, Jim Rust. “Well, what do you know,” he said to me. “Aaron!” Then he noticed Dorothy beside me. She stood peering up at him with one hand shielding her forehead from the sun. His eyes widened and he turned to me again.

I said, “How’s it going, Jim?”

Visibly, he pulled himself together. “Oh… great,” he said. “I mean…or, rather…but of course we miss you. Neighborhood is not the same without you!”

He was focusing on me alone– specifically, on my mouth, as if I were the one who was talking. He wouldn’t look at Dorothy. He had pivoted a few inches so as to exclude her from his line of vision.

I took pity on him. I said, “Well, tell everyone hello,” and we walked on. Beside me, Dorothy gave one of her dry chuckles.

Other people pretended not to recognize either one of us. They would catch sight of us from a distance, and this sort of jolt would alter their expressions and they would all at once dart down a side street, busy-busy, much to accomplish, very important concerns on their minds. I didn’t hold it against them. I knew this was a lot to adjust to. In their position, I might have behaved in the same way. I like to think I wouldn’t, but I might have.

Sound at all familiar? Tyler has done a masterful job with her story– which is really our collective story of healing, as widows and widowers. Highly recommended…

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signpost for widow's blog

A fellow widow crossed my path last week, courtesy of my new neighbors, who invited me to meet his stepmother over dinner. She had lost her husband earlier this year and my neighbor seemed to think that it might be helpful for her to meet me.

I, for my part was excited to meet her. I’d read her husband’s obituary and was amazed at the parallels in our lives. She was a professor of English, I a lover of language with a degree in English. She and her husband had been the owners of a Ranger 29, a slightly smaller version of the same racing class sailboat that had been such a huge source of pleasure for John and I. She and her husband had enjoyed traveling in France: John and I had become such Francophiles after our first trip  that we had returned for 5 more 2-month sojourns. How could we not have the makings of at least one great conversation and perhaps even a wonderful new friendship?

Imagine my surprise to her reaction when I mentioned the first commonality, the sailboat. I was expecting a look of delight to cross her slightly sad face, but she fixed her gaze on the tabletop and said in a quiet little voice, “I was afraid.” My immediate reaction was, “Well, I was too– but we went, didn’t we?” I launched into a description of John and I sailing inter-island by ourselves in gale-force winds and 30-foot seas– me holding on for dear life and utterly terrified as we surfed into the troughs of waves far taller than the mast on our 33-foot boat. John, the big-wave surfer, was delighted with the challenge of this novel version of surfing and was cackling wildly at the helm. Definitely an experience I’ll never forget, and one I thought might draw out my tablemate.

But no, she clearly couldn’t relate. So I mentioned our mutual travels in France. She did not look enthusiastic at all. “Didn’t you enjoy France?” I asked. “You took a barge trip down the canals?” Her gaze returned to the tabletop. “It was boring,” she said. “Did you go on the barge?” she wanted to know. Well, no. Actually, we rented a car and drove all over, staying on French farms where we ate breakfast and dinner with the farm family. She agreed that that did sound like much more fun.

It was a nice dinner, and I adore my new neighbors, but his stepmom seemed– well, timid and somewhat taken aback by me. When I saw my neighbor the next day, she told me that the stepmom had made two very interesting comments about me: The first:

“She seems so alive.”

“She talks about her husband as though he was still here.”

Her observations were a revelation to me. I had forgotten my dear friend’s comment about the first year of her life after her husband died, “I feel sort of dead, as though I’m going through the motions of living. There is no fun at all.” This is what this new widow was feeling, without (I suspect) the context of knowing that it has been almost 4 years for me, and that she, too, may well feel alive herself in  4 more years. How life-affirming to know that I radiate alive-ness at this point in my journey.

As for the comment about my talking about my husband as though he were here: he IS very much here, in so many ways. He is here as an integral part of me. I am realizing more and more just how much our time together has imprinted me. I continue to be amazed at how often I find myself thinking or saying something totally uncharacteristic that is most decidedly very, very John-like. Not a day goes by that I do not have a memory of John, mostly ones that remind me of what a truly incredible life we had together. Just because he is not physically with me does not mean that death has erased him from my life.

But on to the meat of my ruminations… I realized that her comment, “I was afraid”, was likely just as much a comment about her present mental/emotional state as it was about her feelings towards a new challenge in the past. But doesn’t every great adventurer feel at least a twinge of that same fear and that moment of taking off on a 30-foot wave, or free-falling from outer space with only a parachute on one’s back, or attempting any (fill in the blank) adrenaline-filled adventure sport never before undertaken?

It’s not the fear (which is a given)– it’s the fact that we/she/they didn’t allow that fear to paralyze us into inaction. What we remember when it is all over is not that we were afraid, but that we did it, and that that doing was incredibly satisfying. When we emphasize the fear over moving to the other side of that fear, we miss the fact that we have grown beyond our perceived limitations.

Here is what I would like to share with my new acquaintance, and with every widow reading this blog:

As widows, we now have the power to write our own narrative.

At the time of John’s death, I could have easily chosen to title this blog “The Timid Widow”. I had no idea who I was without John, no idea how I would be able to manage the details of daily life without him. As time went by and I became increasingly  certain that I wanted to continue to live here in this beautiful house he built for us, necessity became the mother of invention and I began to reinvent myself as “the intrepid widow”.  I’m writing my own narrative. To widows everywhere, I say: you have a new life now. Yes, you did not choose it– nor did you want it– but now you are free to write your own story.

Just as your marriage was one of the biggest choices that shaped your life and who you are today, the death of your husband is another of those rare moments that has the potential to change your life again and allow you to rediscover who you really are, now, in this moment. A favorite quote from Ranier Marie Rilke seems most appropriate here as a reminder:

Love and death are the great gifts that are given to us; mostly they are passed on unopened.

Writing our own narrative is a way to open those gifts.

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Doctor, widow and children re-unite to talk through through the “what if we’d tried something else?'” and “could we have done better/more?”  self-inquiries that are the inevitable aftermath of losing a beloved husband and father to cancer:

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How will I manage to continue living alone when I’m 80? Caring for myself and  my intensively-landscaped acre of land is a pleasure now, but how will it be then?

Who will take care of me when it becomes challenging to take care of myself?

What will I do when I recognize that I’m becoming an unsafe driver and I’m still living alone, with no public transportation nearby?



    • An urban village /old-fashioned neighborhood in a country setting– in Hawaii– populated with people of like mind, designed and built by the residents themselves to meet their own specific needs—a community in the truest sense
    • A cluster of individually-owned housing units (20-30) designed by a world-class architect, oriented around a common open area with a large garden and orchard
    • a common “great house” with commercial kitchen and a dining room big enough for all to eat together–as often or infrequently as each member decides upon
    • several dual-function apartments for visiting friends and family now and for shared caregivers for the residents in the future
    • resident-managed in a non-hierarchical social structure


    • the community would be populated by Tibetan Buddhist practitioners
    • Tulku Orgyen Zangpo Rinpoche, a recognized reincarnate Tibetan master in the Nyingma tradition would live on the premises and is fully committed to guiding all residents both in their own spiritual development in this life as well as through the transition at the time of their death (he is fully on-board with the concept)
    • common shrine room for teachings
    • 3,4,5 and 7-day retreats several times per year led by Tulku Zangpo Rinpoche


Co-housing is already a big deal in Denmark, where many such communities are already up and running. There are many co-housing communities in the U.S. as well, although just a handful specifically for the boomer generation.


In 2 weeks time,  a casual conversation with a neighbor (neither of us had heard of co-housing at that time) sparked online research on my part, which led  to ordering and devouring 2 books on co-housing from the local library. That led to 2 reality-check telephone calls to 2 longtime friends who are very knowledgeable about such things (one of them a planner with the City and County ever since college). Both told me that they thought this was a great idea and not at all ridiculous.

One of the two insisted, rather cryptically, that I needed to call a third old friend immediately. That friend just happens to own a 17-acre piece of land with a fantastic ocean view in one of the most desirable rural neighborhoods on this island– which he just happens to be interested in selling (!!).

My final “could I really do this?” telephone call was to the architect who has designed 5 houses for John and I over the years, who long ago moved into the “good friend” category. He has designed projects all over the world, including a dream city for  a million people in Macau, and specializes in “old Hawaii” style residences here in the islands. To say that he was enthusiastic about working on this highly theoretical project would  be a massive understatement.

Further synchronicities: the owner of this land told me that he attached only one condition to purchasing it 10 years ago: that my husband John give it his personal stamp of approval. And why was John’s approval so vital for our friend? Because the key to getting approval for anything more than 2 houses on this lot would most likely be a kind of zoning known as Planned Unit Development, a concept which was invented and pioneered in Hawaii by my dear husband. How is that for full-circle, that John’s wife would now be so audaciously daring to follow in his footsteps– a project which he would absolutely have enthusiastically, wholeheartedly supported?

And the final synchronicity: it just so happens that the name of the landowner’s daughter– who would be the closest neighbor to this theoretical community– is the same as the name of the street on which John pioneered the first PUD in Hawaii, some ten years before her birth.

End result: in just 2 weeks, with 4 telephone calls, I have managed to put together a team that includes a world-class architect and a city planner with 40 years experience in Hawaii– and will be looking at a dream parcel of land tomorrow. Considering that this was nothing more than an attractive theory 2 weeks ago, I certainly would never have dared to dream that so many auspicious circumstances could come together with such lightning speed without any conscious effort on my part. It seems that I would be a fool to not ride the wave of this forward momentum.

Stay tuned for the next installment, after I check out the dream lot tomorrow and engage in more reality-testing with my friend. If there are any of you reading this now who are thinking to yourselves: “Wow– her dream is my dream”, please comment here and I will be in touch soon.

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Wifeforlife– that was the username I chose for myself 8 months after John’s death, when I joined an online colon cancer forum. I’d been pondering my new, ripped-apart identity for some time before that. Am I still John’s wife, now that he is dead? I had 41 years of married life in which that identity had become a vital part of who I was. I could not imagine nor did I want another husband. Who I am had been profoundly shaped by those many years with John. I was “wife for life” in my own mind, whether others accepted that or not.

What a shock when I discovered that this username had already been taken! I hadn’t considered, until that moment, that there might be other women who were facing the same circumstances and had come to the same conclusion. It was oddly comforting…

Only last week, in a somewhat bizarre time lag (it has been 3 years and 3 months since John’s death), I came face-to-face with another version of this identity puzzle while engaged in the mundane act of signing the papers for my new bed. The original contract had been written in our joint name; the same saleswomen who had helped us then commented that she should change the name on the new contract to my name alone. She wondered aloud whether it should read “Mrs.” or “Ms.”. I was completely taken by surprise, having not ever considered the question until this very moment. Under the circumstances, it really didn’t matter at all; so after being surprised at my own surprise, I forgot about it.

Today, I set out to see what the arbitreurs of etiquette had to say on the subject. Another surprise: widows have a choice here. We can choose to retain the “Mrs.”, or we can shift to “Ms.”. The surprise was that, according to Emily Post, the preferred form of address is “Mrs. John Doe”. Outrage on my part. While I definitely consider myself  “wife for life”, I most certainly do NOT consider myself as Mrs. John ____. Never was, and certainly don’t intend to take on that title now. I am Mrs. Rachel _____. I am not an appendage of my late husband with no personal identity of my own. I am wife of John, but I have my own distinct and quite separate identity. While I am happy to know that continuing to be “Mrs.” is officially sanctioned by Emily, I categorically deny any identity as Mrs. John _____.

Widows: what say ye?


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Practically secret money-saver for widows

My coup for the month: I just got a brand-new bed for free– plus a set of very expensive sheets and three memory foam pillows, one of which had a retail price of $180. Delivered to my house and set up at no charge, including the removal of my old bed. Not a penny spent on my part.

Sounds way too good to be true, doesn’t it? Ladies, the method can be summed up in a single word: guarantee. The background story on the bed is this: seven years ago when we moved into our new house, we splurged on a fabulously comfortable memory foam bed. The bed came with a 25-year guarantee, which we thought nothing of at the time.

Fastforward to the present: after spending 10 days sleeping on my sister-in-law’s guest bed, which was the antithesis of deluxe, I became aware of the shocking fact that I was awakening feeling substantially less decrepit than I had felt in the last 2 years sleeping on my own very expensive bed.  I had been suspecting for far too long that my aches and pains might have something to do with my bed– but simply could not believe that a bed with a 25-year guarantee could crap out after 4 years. The reality was undeniable, however– feeling better sleeping on a cheap bed was pretty hard to ignore, and there seemed to be only one explanation.

So I bit the bullet and decided that I needed a new bed, no matter the cost. The salesman at the bed store spent  an hour and a half trying to convince me that I needed a $6000 Tempurpedic bed. I countered with  my hard-won knowledge that even a very expensive bed may have a very short lifetime, and launched into a rant about my current bed and the trough I was sleeping in. It was only then that he offered to send out their bed inspector to check if the deterioration I was describing might be covered by the guarantee. He was a little sleazy, since he knew from the start that I had purchased my bed from his company and that I was not happy with it, yet only offered the inspection when he saw that he had not succeeded in talking me into the $6000 model. The good news about that was that company policy apparently required him to turn me over to the sales person who sold me the bed in the first place– ans she was, as I had remembered, very sweet and helpful

The bed inspection 2 days later was really an event I should have videoed. The deal is that the guarantee covers an indentation of more than one inch in the foam. The measurement process consisted of the inspector tossing 2 credit cards into the deepest impressions on the mattress, then stretching a plumb line across between them, then measuring the distance between the credit card and  the nearby high point on the mattress– with me hovering very close by. “Clearly beyond acceptable parameters!” he pronounced, looking with disgust at the aforementioned trough. “We don’t sell this brand anymore,” he added.

Then he sprung into the air, landed on the edge of the bed, and began bouncing from one end to the other as though the mattress were a trampoline. I was standing there in shock, wondering what on earth he was doing. The frame was groaning and squeaking loudly in protest. “Ah ha!” he proclaimed triumphantly. “Did you hear that? The foundation is squeaking– it’s not supposed to do that. I’m making a note of this in my report. Clearly unacceptable!”

I couldn’t believe it– the bed inspector was totally on my side! The squeaking part was an extra flourish for my benefit, as  no sane adult would ever jump on their bed like that– but hey, I wasn’t about to argue with him. He told me that the company would undoubtedly offer to replace my bed with any model of my choice, up to the full cost of my current bed– to my complete shock.

How did I end up getting a set of sheets, a new frame and three pillows in addition? As I said, the saleswoman was a doll. The bed I chose was less expensive than  the original. “You don’t want to lose any of your money,” she counseled me. “We won’t give you any cash back, but didn’t you say you needed some new sheets? Look at these over here– we can just add them on to make up for the price difference. And what about some pillows? Let’s just keep adding things on and I’ll keep track until you get up to the price of your old bed.” I swear, she was having more fun than I was with the prospect of all this great “free” stuff. It was a totally delightful experience, and one I could have never dreamed of in my wildest imaginings.

Ladies, I want you to know that this was most definitely not the first time I had received all new merchandise for free. John used to always tell me that guarantees were only worth the paper they were written on. But since his death, it has become very clear to me that if I want to continue to live in this beautiful house on my drastically reduced income, I will have to be very creative and parsimonious about my expenditures.

My introduction to the wonderful world of guarantees was a year after John’s death, when my irritation with the peeling finish on all the towel bars in our house pushed me into action. I dredged my files and came up with the guarantee from Delta: “waranteed for life against defects.” I called the toll-free number and explained my problem, adding that the peeling began within a year of installation. “Why did you wait  five years to call us?” the Delta rep asked me. I explained that my husband was a general contractor, that this was our dream home,  that he died shortly after the house was finished, and that it would have been emotionally devastating for him to accept that the beautiful furnishings we bought were self-destructing after just a few years.

“All you have to do is take photos of the peeling finish and send them to us. We no longer make the style you have (he admitted that I wasn’t the first customer to complain about this, which resulted in “a greatly improved new finish on our newer models”), but we will replace them with any of our current styles at no charge,” he told me. Not only did Delta send me replacements for every towel bar, robe hook and towel ring in my house, but they added a few extra pieces at no charge AND shipped all 7 boxes to me via Fedex Overnight– for free  (!!!)

A few months later, when my faucet began to leak, I shifted through my household documents again and discovered that Moen also proclaimed a lifetime warranty against defects. The service rep I spoke with seemed completely delighted to offer a replacement faucet, and went into great detail as to how to install the new faucet, even adding that if I encountered any difficulties at all, I should call him and he would be happy to talk me through it.

My take-away from these highly satisfactory experiences is that most consumers never take advantage of guarantees or warranties– in fact, never even think to check out the possibility. I am convinced that reputable companies DO stand behind their products and  thoroughly understand that a happy customer is the best advertising they could hope for.

For all you widows on tight budgets: remember the guarantee. Never hesitate to ask. Guarantees can be like the Publisher’s Clearing House showing up at your door with a big fat check made out in your name.

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Grief is so sneaky. I’m coming up on the third anniversary of John’s death, on April 29th, and I definitely would not say that I am grief-stricken, nor inordinately sad. I’m certainly not weeping all the time– in fact, even crying is an infrequent and brief occurrence for me. I continue to be quite surprised and delighted by my newfound ability to function on my own. On the surface, and even deep within my inner being, I’m  doing very well, by my own assessment and that of my hospice cohorts.

Yet grief is clearly having its way with me. Grief is making its presence known via a flagrant bodily display (in my case, back spasms)– and even though this is an established pattern with me, somehow I repeatedly fail to recognize its manifestation until it literally cripples me.

I have witnessed many variations of this somaticizing of emotion after the death of a spouse in (most memorably) my dear friend and one of my hospice bereavement patients. In the case of my friend, at the apex of her husband’s physical agony, her eyeball literally almost popped out of her head, protruding in such a grotesque way that the patients she passed on the way to her doctor’s office were literally gasping in shock and horror, and even the specialist she consulted was completely aghast. My bereavement patient’s  grief manifested as a myriad of strange and seemingly unrelated but undeniable symptoms for which her doctors could find no explanation. Both endured a year of physical hell, my friend treated with massive doses of steroids until her condition resolved, my patient untreated simply because her doctors could not determine how to treat her. I received a letter from her at the end of that year; she had left the Islands and moved to a remote cabin in the woods of Northern California, bonded with a kindly neighbor who had just lost his wife, and experienced the gradual disappearance of all of her symptoms.

Despite this tutelage at the feet of those who preceded me in grief, I repeatedly failed to notice that this was happening to me too– even as my symptoms escalated. No doubt my self-image as the intrepid widow clashes with my until now mentally uncontested bias against what I perceived as the histrionics of somaticizing. It seems that my metaphorical Freudian slip is showing, and no matter how I tug at it, I’m not succeeding in covering it up.

Let me be quick to say that I am not distressed by this revelation. Unlike most widows, my hospice background has freed me from the “conventional wisdom” that grief has a time-frame or a schedule, and that there is some set point at which the grieving person should be “over it.” My heart goes out to all who grieve and are confronted at some point by a well-meaning but incredibly ignorant acquaintance who tells them that they have lingered too long in the domain of sadness, as in the “it’s been over a year– you should be getting back to normal by now” idiocy.

Now, at the beginning of my fourth year of widowhood, at least I have some perspective on how my grief somaticizes and some practical knowledge of how to deal with it. I practically lived at the chiropractor’s during the most emotionally stressful part of John’s treatment, yet the relief that those treatments offered was fleeting at best– probably because at that time, I didn’t fully recognize the emotional component and how it actually caused my body to contort. It wan’t that I had a bone out of place; it was more that my mind had lost its center.

It took me a while to figure out that my symptoms always spiked as the anniversary of John’s death loomed on the horizon each year. During years one and two, I sought treatment from an amazing osteopath whose skillful treatments were so understated that they seemed antithetical to the term “manipulation”– much like Reiki, little seemed to be happening, but the healing result was very profound.

It is interesting to note that even thought the symptoms appear in my body, traditional bodywork seems to have little effect. This year, when my back began to seize, I sought out a local massage therapist with a stellar reputation. The massage was fantastic, my body felt much more comfortable, but the symptoms came back quickly. The masseuse recommended a local chiropractor, feeling that my back had some long-term alignment issues. I felt much worse after seeing him, no doubt due  largely to his very cold and impersonal approach. He may have been a good chiropractor, but he was a total washout as a healer– clearly did not care about me or my pain and did not care to learn.

I turned to an acupuncturist whom I have been seeing for the last 18 months. She was quick to remember that I came to her with the same symptoms last April, and totally agreed that I was probably right about my Qi being stuck. An hour later, I walked out of her office feeling like a new person– so alive and well that the difference was astonishing. Aches and pains? There were none. I went for a joyous 1/2 mile swim in the ocean, revelling in the strength and power of my precious human body.

The take-away from my experience?

Grief is sneaky– it can and does manifest in the body.

Acupuncture has been an invaluable healing tool for me, working when traditional massage and chiropractic did not. The energetic component seems to be the key.

The timetable for grieving is a completely personal matter. There is no set time when it should be “over”.

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a web of support

a web of support

There are some things in that vast category of “widowly challenges” that never entered my mind– until I was suddenly face-to-face with them. Literally, in my case, on that sunny afternoon when I found myself catapulted (again, literally and most unfortunately) from a session of admittedly semi-obsessive pruning of the homestead undergrowth to lying spread-eagled face down on the driveway with  blood running down my cheek and arms and broken glasses twisted off near my ear.

As I stared at the concrete from  a really alarmingly close perspective, my  thoughts slowly coalesced: had I broken any bones? what if I can’t get up? A sinking realization was quick to follow: the joy of our very private lifestyle now meant that not one of my neighbors would be able to hear me call for help. The dawning of the realization that if I couldn’t move, I could potentially lie on my driveway for days was not at all comforting, I can assure you.

Fortunately, I was able to get up and hobble to the house. I had not broken anything other than my glasses (thank God I got the polycarbonate ones and not glass!), and the road rash on my face and arms was only superficial. I had fallen victim to my own lack of mindfulness, had worn inappropriate footgear for  the challenging terrain of our property– which caused a misstep near a 8-inch retaining wall, over which I flew. There might have even been a moment of soaring, before I crashed face down. But that is retrospective romanticizing; the truth is that  I made a series of semi-mindless bad decisions.

The aftermath of this incident was that I became painfully aware of the many areas of my life in which I had no contingency plan for worst-case scenarios. In a way, this wasn’t really news, as I’d been talking to my dearest friend, who became a widow four years before I did, about many of these issues. But until now, I had conveniently labelled these challenges of widowhood as her problems– massive wishful thinking on my part.

For both of us, our biggest unsolved concern is what we will do, each on our respective island, if we suddenly become unable to care for ourselves. Neither of us wants to be a burden to others, nor do we want to incur a massive financial outlay in order to continue a life that is no longer self-sufficient.

Though neither of us has found an acceptable solution to the long-term irreversible disability issue, synchronicity has once again given us a glimpse of a really potentially great solution to how we might cope with short-term reversible disability– as in, for instance, being incapacitated after surgery.

I never cease to be amazed at the way in which I come to write these blog posts: almost always, I have an idea about what I want to write about, which I allow to “gestate” until it seems ready to be born. Invariably, just as that moment seems imminent, I read an article in the media or order a new book from the library that completely parallels/reinforces my conceptual blog post.

In today’s case, it was an article in the health section of the New York Times, a blog by Jane Gross titled When I Needed Help, in which she describes being blindsided by the degree to which she would need assistance with the simple basics of daily living after having eye surgery. She did not even begin to consider looking for a home health aide until she returned home after the surgery and realized that she simply could not cope on her own– which gave rise to the corollary realization that such aides were virtually impossible to find on such short notice. Her experience is a metaphor for the unwanted dependency that all of us who live alone will most likely have to confront at some point in our lives.

Think of it this way: if it was that difficult for an intelligent woman with good coping skills to come to grips with this kind of anticipated but temporary debility, how much more difficult will it be for any of the rest of us to deal with an unanticipated debility? The truth is that we do not want to anticipate debility– and most particularly, that debility that is almost certain to come with old age.

Here, synchronicity enters the picture again, along with a potentially great solution. (drum roll) The proverbial light bulb went on for both my outer-island widow friend and I at the same time. On her island, it was the announcement of a workshop by the author of a new book called Share the Care. My awareness of the workshop led me to order that book from our local library. My friend’s takeaway from the workshop  and meeting the author directly and my reaction to reading this book were identical: rave reviews.

The Share the Care concept was born when 12 people– including the authors Sheila Warnock and Cappy Capossela– came together to care for a terminally ill friend and continued to care for her for 3 1/2 years. Tragically, Sheila spearheaded a similar group for Cappy when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2002. The book details an impressively well thought-out and comprehensive system for creating a network of caring and concerned individuals who come together to support an acquaintance who needs help coping with the minutiae of daily life. The beauty of this concept is that the “helpers” do not necessarily need to be close friends of the one who needs help; the authors point out that it is always astonishing and gratifying how many people genuinely want to do something to be helpful to  someone they may know only through their kid’s school or the local supermarket. The problem is usually that no one knows exactly what they could do to be helpful, and they often hesitate to intrude.

So the concept is that a close friend of the person in need sit down with them for a frank discussion of their most pressing needs: someone to drive to and from doctor appointments, someone to shop for groceries, someone to cook one meal each day, someone to be in charge of e-mailing updates…. A list is drawn up, with the times at which each kind of help is needed. This is followed by a meeting of all interested potential helpers. All assistance is completely voluntary, and it is emphasized that one should only volunteer for tasks that one is comfortable and confident about being able to carry out. The squeamish person may be great as a chauffeur but a disaster at personal care; the retired nurse would be okay with medical and bodily issues but not necessarily a great cook. The beauty of this concept is that  everyone involved is doing what they are good at, and for relatively short periods of time, so burn-out is minimized– and  in the process of helping another, many discovers inner strengths they never imagined.

Reading this book was  a very bright ray of hope for me: a way in which I may, I fervently hope, be able to continue to live and die in my own home. Share the Care is a great resource not only for those of us who realize that we may need this kind of support at some point, but for those good-hearted souls who really want to be of service but  don’t know how to go about it. I am seriously considering buying  several copies and giving them to friends and neighbors who are already considering these matters. I already have two neighbors in mind who can see themselves as both helper and helpee. Just a few others, and we’ve got the making of a network, a web of mutual support.

Very interestingly, the connections between my own close encounter with debility, Jane Gross’ blog and Share the Care were further reinforced this morning when I perused the most recent issue of Time Magazine (a subscription to which, in the name of my dead husband, suddenly began to appear in my mailbox 6 months ago), which features this quote in a section titled Living Alone is the New Norm:

Solitary dwellers are primarily women, with the majority in the U.S. being middle-aged adults from 35 to 64. 

Reading further, I found this:

There’s little evidence that the rise of living alone is making more Americans lonely. Reams of published research show that it’s the quality, not the quantity, of social interactions that best predicts loneliness. As University of Chicago neuroscientist John T. Cacioppo concluded in the book he co-authored, Loneliness, what matters is not whether we live alone but whether we feel alone.

My beloved mother-in-law, a widow herself, has been telling me this for years. What a revelation: widows who have strong social networks are more likely to ride out periods of disability through a mutual web of caring others who are willing to share the care. We can do this, together.

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The birth of the intrepid widow

island in a sea of incompetency (image courtesy of stock photos)

One of the most frightening aspects of suddenly finding myself adrift and  bereft the comforting, über-capable presence of my husband is the realization of the vastness of all that I didn’t know how deal with. “Overwhelming” is a massive understatement of the situation.

I suspect that the uncertainty over whether we will be able to continue to live in our home is like the Sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of most widows, given that  the income we had become accustomed to from our husbands has suddenly been dramatically decreased. John was very clear about this before he died; he was adamant that I would have to sell the house and move to something much smaller and easier to maintain.

But I don’t want to move. I don’t want to leave this beautiful place that he built for us, all equipped with the amenities that would allow us to live comfortably for the rest of our lives without needing to resort to a retirement community in our very old age.  I don’t want to leave everything that we labored so hard to create. So I resisted mightily, at least on the emotional plane, while understanding that on the intellectual plane, my ability to project into the future and to plan for that time was negligible in the face of the vastness and wisdom of John’s vision.

“You can’t afford to live here without me,” he told me. At the time, I could feel the inevitability, yet could not/would not accept it. After his death, the two friends whom he had asked to advise me financially both seemed to be saying, in their own ways, that this wasn’t necessarily true.

I began to ask myself, “How could I make this work?” The root issue seemed to be that outgoing expenses were far greater than income. Since there was very little opportunity on the horizon in the current economic climate for income from investments in the stock market, it was pretty clear that the only starting point for me was to try to reduce my outlay.

Necessity is the mother of invention.

When I started assessing where the biggest chunks of my outlay, the first glaring money-sucker was my water bill. We were spending exorbitant (by neighborly standards) amounts on the prodigious quantities of water spewed out on a regular basis by our extensive irrigation system. Even though John had warned me that I would never be able to fathom the intricacies of the complicated automated watering system with its 20 different stations and four separate schedules, I boldly plunged ahead with my first self-appointed challenge.

First I mastered changing the scheduled watering from 3 times per week to 2 times per week and reducing the total “on” time for each station. It wasn’t all that hard. My next water bill dropped significantly. Then I started inspecting each sprinkler head, assessing whether the plants that it covered really needed to be watered at all. In many cases, watering was actually creating more unnecessary work for me. As a dear friend observed, much of our landscaping consisted of “the plant that ate the Mayan Empire”– did it really make any sense to further encourage vegetation that was rapidly engulfing everything in its vicinity?

Now I was launched into completely new terrain: the widow as landscape contractor. A little online research, and presto! I educated myself about replacing pop-up sprinklers with “Xeriscape”caps (subtitle: shut those suckers off completely). There was actually  landscape irrigation store on the island that sold these, and the guy behind the desk was more than happy to explain to me how simple it was to install them. The bigger take-away from this venture was that virtually all the people I encountered in my forays into what I had previously imagined to be “male domains” were uniformly quite pleased to share their knowledge with a woman who was trying to learn to do things herself.

Capping off all of those redundant sprinklers was not only really easy, but very satisfying. Once I could see that my landscaping didn’t seem to be suffering from this cutting-back program, I became even more rigorous. I started cutting down pipes that seemed to be too high and therefore wasting valuable water in the form of spray, re-gluing on  new fittings and new heads that were closer to the ground. Ladies, it was like tinker-toys! A PVC pipe-cutter tool, a bottle of PVC glue and another of purple prep to be applied before the glue, a bag full of fittings and assorted heads, and voila! a radically more efficient watering system in very short order.

The proof of my success was evident in my post-renovation water bill: from a high of $800 for 2 months in the height of the summer, I had managed to  reduce my bill to $75 for 2 months (!!!)

But even more sweet than the financial triumph was the dawning realization that I had just established a little island of competency in what I had feared was a vast ocean of incompetency in which I had been set adrift with John’s death. If I could successfully navigate this challenge, then there might be some other lights on the horizon for me as I faced other challenges in the future. Maybe, just maybe, I might be capable of much more than I could have imagined… With this modest start, the intrepid widow begins to emerge from her chrysalis.

How does this apply to  you widows who may be perusing my blog? What I am talking about here is not how to repair a sprinkler system. The sprinkler system triumph is much bigger than that; I see in my experience an illustration of a larger truth. Each time that we, as widows, tackle a new challenge that was previously alien to our experience (particularly tasks that we had always considered “husband work”), we move beyond our own self-created boundaries. And with each success, we move further away from that crippling black hole of victim-hood that lurks just out of sight but not far from the minds of most new widows– and towards an undreamed-of new sense of empowerment.

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The intrepid widow tackles automotive maintenance

the wheels are spinning

No doubt about this: car repairs and maintenance is definitely, unquestionably a Male Domain. John had given me all kinds of warnings about how car dealers and those places that offer yearly safety checks and other routine maintenance are geared to take unfair advantage of women. In fact, every man I’ve ever spoken to on this subject is practically rabid in their repulsion for car dealer’s “service” and their general ethical sliminess. John’s view was that “they see a single woman walking through their door and their eyeballs start flashing dollar signs”: they know that they can tell you that all kinds of things on your car that you know nothing about need “urgent attention”, and that you have absolutely no way of evaluating  the truth of what they are telling you.

John did qualify his remarks by suggesting that I could ask first how much they were going to charge, and if it was in line with what  places like Rapid-Lube were charging, then it would probably be okay to just go to the dealer.

The sum total of what I knew about taking care of my car at the time of John’s death was this:

1. Engine oil should be changed once a year. John suggested that it was easiest if I had this done at the same time as my yearly safety check, which has worked out well for me.

2.  I need to keep an eye on tire pressure. I discovered that I do have to put air in my tires about every 2 months, and that as a loyal Costco customer, I can pull up to their tire station and have all my tires checked and filled for free, any time. I carry my own gauge to check the pressure myself (because it is generally not apparent visually until the pressure is dramatically low) and know that the correct inflation pressure is printed on a sticker insider the driver’s side door.

3. Checking the oil level periodically is important. Ditto for water in the battery, but with less frequency.

I’ve learned a lot since then. My most recent empowering triumph over the dealer’s (possible) game plan to take advantage of me goes like this: I got a coupon in the mail from the dealership where we bought my car (John insisted that I buy a new car before he died so as to minimize potential service nightmares with an older car) for a free oil change because I was “a loyal customer”. I rarely pass up on anything free that isn’t a come-on– and I was due for an oil change in 2 months anyway.

As part of their game plan to generate business for themselves, I knew that the dealership would offer  their usual “24-point complimentary check” of all my car’s main operating systems. John had warned me that this was a scam to sell me services that I didn’t need, so I had always declined in the past. But since I was already launched into my intrepid widow mode, this time I agreed, figuring that I would subject whatever I was told to a thoroughly sceptical analysis before signing on for any repairs.

Their report came back that there were 2 areas that, although not immediately urgent, needed to be addressed in the near future: my engine air filter was dirty and needed to be replaced, and my cabin air filter also needed replacement. Engine air filter? I didn’t even know that there WAS an engine sir filter– John certainly hadn’t mentioned this. The service guy was actually really nice and not at all slimy, and patiently explained that this was an important component to keeping my engine running efficiently and should not be ignored.

When I questioned him about the cabin air filter, he admitted that many people never change this, but that if you drive with your air conditioning on a lot (I do), the filter can get pretty dirty and will affect the air quality inside the car. Hmmm, I had noticed that I seemed to be sneezing recently every time I got in my car and that my allergies seemed to flare while driving.

So, how much were they going to charge me to change my filters? They knew that all their customers were going to ask this, and had neatly pencilled in the charges for each: $45 for the engine air filter and $75 for the cabin filter. I may know next to zero about any of this, but I knew enough to recognize that these charges seemed exorbitant– especially when you consider that the dealership was willing to look at the filters for free, but wanted to  charge me $38 for a job that took less than 5 minutes and required no tools. So I thanked him, declined the additional services and left, happy to have had my oil changed and all systems checked for free– plus a complimentary car wash coupon (!!)

When I got home, I immediately Googled on “changing car engine air filter” and right away found this illuminating quote on the Edwards car site:

Anyone who pays a service person to change their car engine air filter is a fool” (!!!)

The last descriptive term the Intrepid Widow wants to have applied to her is “a fool”. A fool I am not. So I Googled on “how to change your engine air filter” and actually found a YouTube instructional video for my exact car model and year. It was about 2.5 minutes long, and showed in very clear step-by-step format exactly how to do this. Bottom line: open the hood, filter looks like this and is located here (complete with colored arrows), pop the 2 clips, slide out the old filter, slide in the new filter till it clicks– and you’re done. Wow. Couldn’t possible be any easier.

Buying the filter wasn’t so easy online because I couldn’t find any site that sold them for my car. So I went on to check for “cabin air filter for 2009 Nissan Versa”, and found that I could get one from Amazon for $11, with free shipping if I ordered something else at the same time. OMG! The filter costs $11 and the dealer wants to charge me $75 to change it??  Definitely in the category of pillaging the helpless customer!

After Googling on “How to change your car cabin air filter”, I learned that this was a matter of removing 8 screws from my glove box, taking out the glove box, pulling out the old filter and snapping the new on in place, then replacing the glove box and screwing it back in. “Ha! I can do that myself!” I thought, already anticipating the triumph. I ordered the filter from Amazon immediately. Then I called one of our friends who owns an auto parts business and asked if he could get me the engine air filter. The good news was that he could not only order it for me, but it cost just $7 (as opposed to the $45 the dealer was trying to charge).

My fellow widows, I will confess that I was not 100% able to accomplish the changing of these filters myself– but I will absolutely be able to do so the next time. The catch was the phrase in the instruction videos involving “just pressing on the tabs” to release the old filter. Massive understatement there. The tabs in question just would not budge, so I enlisted 2 different male friends on separate days to help me, figuring (wrongly) that my arthritic hands were the problem.

Turns out that neither of my friends was any more successful than I was initially– but they then resorted to what I think of as “the male solution”– the use of brute force. Both had the same Plan B: wedging a big screwdriver into the recalcitrant clip and levering it open. I was too afraid that I would break something. My male friends had no such concerns– they did exactly what John would have done– and one sheepishly admitted that he had in fact broken the old cabin air filter by snapping off all the plastic tabs that had held it in place so tenaciously. Small price to pay, as I now see it: I’m fully prepared to break the old filter next time as part of the process of replacing it with a new one.

I learned something elase from this experience besides how to change air filters on my car: I learned that the “free complimentary 24 point check” not necessarily a scam– it can be a great tool for discovering maintenance concerns that we would otherwise know  nothing about– providing that  we use this service judiciously and do not allow ourselves to get sucked into automatically signing up for repairs that we may not need or can do ourselves. And in case you’re wondering: both of the filters I changed were, indeed, disgustingly filthy.

Ladies, you cannot imagine the delicious sense of triumph and empowerment that these two small accomplishments engendered in me. I strongly urge you to boldly plunge into similar discoveries of your own. Each time you not only dare to tackle new challenges outside of your comfort zone, you are taking a step away from victim-hood and helplessness and towards a new and undreamed-of strength.

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