I was 57 years old. Life was full: a busy career, a mother in a care center, active at church, marriage, family and friends, and a dog who needed twice-daily walks.
In a five-day span, my husband and mother were gone. He died unexpectedly of a heart attack, and aging finally caught up with my 91-year-old mother. I stumbled through the first months, numb to the daunting task of settling two estates, managing a nearly 100-year-old house and yard alone, and trying to function at work. My biggest hurdle was loneliness, despite a strong support system. I had always understood myself as partner and daughter, even caregiver during my mother’s final years. Those roles had principally defined me.
Suddenly I was confronted with a life that seemed to have little purpose. Who was I if not a spouse? What did it mean to be orphaned? What of value could I offer the world on my own terms?
So began a journey of reflection and reinvention. An avid reader, I bought every book I could find on widowhood. There are many out there, but nearly all deal with the first year. As any woman who is widowed can attest, this is a strange time, when you have one foot planted in a past you aren’t ready to let go of and the other foot trying to lead you toward an unknown future.
I did research in order to get a handle on the numbers. Turns out, I am not alone. According to the 2000 U. S. Census, there are more than 11 million widows in this country (four times the number of men who lose a spouse), with 700,000 new widows each year. By age 65, nearly half of all women in the U.S. have lost their partner.
Given their age, widows also are experiencing the loss of one or more parents. One role after another is disappearing. What will replace the roles they once embraced? How do they claim a personal identity that is uniquely theirs?
Every widow makes this journey. Some are fortunate to have a strong sense of self that the loss of a partner doesn’t undermine. Some feel a sudden freedom to live life on new terms. And some convince themselves they’ve reached a dead end. I have been fortunate to be able to turn to writing full time, a dream I held on to even when previous roles pulled me in other directions.
There is life after loss – it is simply different from what I once knew. It’s a powerful time to grow in ways that might surprise and even delight.
Lenore Franzen devotes herself to writing full-time, after a career in nonprofit marketing communications. She is currently working on a memoir.
Lenore Franzen recommends these books by women authors about the grieving process:
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
An unflinching look at grief following her husband’s sudden death.
The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl
A complicated relationship recalled during her mother’s long dying.
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
A deep meditation on coping after the loss of her father.
When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams
A lyrical account of her mother’s legacy and what it means to have a voice.
Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams
A brave memoir of her mother’s dying.
Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell
A tender story about losing a best friend.
And one by a male author:
Doors Close, Doors Open by Morton Lieberman
Interviews with widows on grieving and growing.