Diary of a 50-something Widower

Two years ago May 10th my wife of nearly 24 years passed away after a nasty illness. We had two children of college age living away from home, which meant that I was entering my 50’s flying solo, picking up the pieces of a life that was once a partnership. How does one do that? There’s no survivor’s manual: do A, next is B, then follow up with C and Presto! you now have a life with new routines and go from there. Unsurprisingly it’s not quite that easy. While thinking about that, this Rumi quote has been sticking in my mind lately:

“Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.”

There is a process in the death of a spouse that may be different than that of a parent, sibling, friend or even a child. First of course comes the shock of death. Then the mechanics of funeral arrangements and dealing with insurance or other official arrangements. That’s pretty common for anyone who’s dealt with the death of a family member. But finally, after all that subsides, comes the realization that while you still live in the same house, have the same job, have the same friends, things are different. You are suddenly confronted with a new life and you have to figure out how to live it. What do you keep, what do you create new? These were all the questions bouncing around in my head that summer. These are questions that still persist to this day.

One thing I knew. Elaine would want me (and her children, friends, and family) to continue to live a fulfilling life. Sure she wanted us to mourn her death, be sad, never forget. But we couldn’t use that grief to wallow in misery doing nothing or to feel sorry for ourselves. She loved us too much to want anything but the best for us, to continue living. That knowledge has driven me.

Elaine had health issues most of our relationship with the last five years increasingly harder and a last year that was just devastating to be part of. As the end neared it was unbearably stressful being on edge 24 hours a day and trying to be a loving partner, medical caregiver, and a doctor appointment keeper, while also trying to be a dad and a productive co-worker. Also it’s incredibly sad watching someone come to the realization that they will never get to live the life they thought they would. So in some sense death was liberating, not only for Elaine but for me as well.

That summer I was continually asked “how you doing?” and I could honestly say “pretty good.” I now had time to pursue my loves of hiking and biking, get out to see live music, just spend time on me all guilt free. Six months after Elaine’s death I had lost nearly 15 pounds, had taken a trip to London, began a yoga practice, and had a budding romantic relationship with an old acquaintance. As Rumi states above, green leaves were growing in place of the yellow ones. However that didn’t mean everything was great or that I had turned my back on the past.

The Rumi quote above, while assuring, is also troubling. It implies that the present is better than the past. But is that true? Are all the old roots rotten? The biggest issue that confronts me is how do I preserve the legacy of a pretty good relationship and show respect for what the two of us created while at the same time create a new life, one that cannot include Elaine?  What rituals and habits do I keep? What about furniture, household items, landscaping, clothing? If I get rid of something that Elaine picked out or loved is that disrespectful? Is there a golden ratio of old and new one should incorporate into their new life? Is there an expiration date on keeping something you picked out together? I’ve struggled with this question for nearly 2 years now but at the same time I’ve changed things up, got rid of Elaine's clothes and stuff I didn’t like, altered some decorations, created new routines. But it’s not over I think more needs to be done.

Of course I also complicated things by falling for someone new, probably quicker than some people were comfortable with. But as Nora McInerny Purmont recently wrote about in similar experience:

“…a cool thing about your heart is that it is constructed exactly like Hogwarts: filled with secret passages and rooms you never knew existed, a place where new love can grow alongside your grief, your sorrow, your own inner happiness, and all of your insecurities. It has room for all the feelings, even the ones you'd rather not admit to having…”

So I while was diving deeper into a new relationship it was important to me that -- in my mind and outwardly -- that this new, wonderful relationship not reflect poorly on the partnership I had with Elaine nor was it seen as some sort of back-up plan or second place relationship. It needed to stand on its own. It’s a fine line but one that was important for me to establish.

So it’s been nearly two years and while I feel like I’m in a good place, there is still a sense that I have one foot in the past and another in the present. I live in the same house and there is still a lot of stuff hanging around that is Elaine’s. Change comes slow -- some of it out of a sense of respect for the past, some due to inertia, some because there are things I still need to process. Who knows maybe that’s normal (where’s that dang manual?) Maybe two years is too short to forge a completely new life. Maybe one never does. But I do know one thing, I’m excited about the future. Elaine firmly placed me on a good path and taught me life lessons along the way. Now it’s up to me to continue on, use those lessons and learn some new ones too. Ultimately I don’t think Rumi had it quite right. It’s not that the old roots are rotten and need to get pulled up, but in fact those old roots stick around creating a bed of fertilizer so that the new roots can grow and thrive.

9 thoughts on “Diary of a 50-something Widower”

  1. I want to give a pre-emptive thanks to everyone for allowing me this forum to write this. I'm not sure I want to put it on facebook, but I wanted it "out there." I may link to this via Twitter as well.

    1. pieces like this one are proof that this really is the World's Greatest.

      Thank you. I can't imagine going through what you did, and I have incredible respect for how you've done it and what you've shared.

  2. Thanks for this, Free. It is well written, and well thought. It's also incredibly timely, as my widower brother-in-law recently reached out to our family about his new relationship heading towards some significant growth. I'm going to share this with him - I think he will really appreciate it.

  3. Thanks for putting this out there, free. You may have more rooting for you than you even know.

  4. Appreciate the insights free, and truth be told, I'm proud to be counted amongst the "forum-enablers" and grateful to be a beneficiary of your grace and hard-won wisdom.

  5. Thanks for sharing your thoughts/feelings - I don't know that I could ever do that as open and well as you have.

  6. It sounds like you're doing as well as can be expected. Should there be anything any of us can do, or if you should ever need someone to talk to, we're all here for you.

  7. Thanks for putting this out here, free. I've watched my mom & stepmom take similar journeys over the last five years. We haven't talked about the changes they've made in their lives much, but I've made it as clear as I can that I support them doing what they need to do to live a happy, healthy, fulfilling life. My stepmom made some changes to their house that Pops would have reeled a bit over (color on the walls?!?), and my mom's in a long-term relationship with a really nice guy who I would've never guessed was her type. Reading what it's like from inside that perspective makes me feel a little more secure in my sense that they're finding new ways to live within the loss of Pops & Pa. Much appreciation for sharing it.

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