Is fear of loving again the next phase of grief?
Published by Cheryl Eckl
A year before my husband died of colon cancer we bought a standard poodle puppy and named him Bentley. The idea was that I would have another living being in the house when Stephen was gone. I had never really lived alone and the prospect of that first night without any company was more than I could bear.
Stephen teased me about replacing him with a dog, but as it turned out, the dog was really for the husband to help him through the pain of losing his life. Yes, Bentley was great company to me on those first lonely nights. But he kept growing and, in a few months, became just too big and bouncy for me to handle. On Valentine’s Day 2009, he went to a good home and I settled in to the rather monastic life of a writer who occasionally emerges from her cave to do a workshop.
I suppose there is nothing really wrong with this. I’ve written two books and dozens of blogs and articles in the past three-plus years. And I’ve recently been doing workshops on the benefits of palliative care when dealing with life-limiting illness. At least this gets me out to interact with people on a regular basis.
The problem is that it’s Valentine’s Day weekend—which always brings up the whole idea of love and for widowed persons, the question of loving again after loss. Clearly, this is a matter I have avoided because, in surveying my present circumstance, I realize that I have, indeed, replaced my husband—but with Apple products, not with a sentient being. These days I spend the majority of my time with my desktop Mac, laptop, iPhone, and soon-to-be-purchased iPad.
Judging from the e-mails I have received from other widows, I suspect I’m not alone in this situation. But this lover’s holiday does kind of rub my nose in the fact that there is nobody in my life right now who is going to send me flowers or take me out to a nice romantic dinner. My electronics may be interactive devices but they are neither thoughtful nor proactive when it comes to the most basic of human needs: relationship.
So, while I have lots of friends (and not just Facebook friends!), they are spread out across the U.S., U.K., and Canada. We write and occasionally talk on the phone, but almost nobody shows up in person. I really hadn’t planned to become such a recluse, but that seems to be what has happened. It’s understandable, I suppose, when you have been married to the love of your life. That’s something you never replace and to be perfectly honest, it’s a lot easier to stay in love with a sweet dead guy because the positives are all that remain. You don’t think about the fact that he snored or maybe watched way more sports than you were interested in or didn’t always understand your emotions or hot flashes.
But always, in the back of your mind, there is that recollection that relationships with actual people are messy. They take work and commitment—and they often end in sadness. It’s a risk. And when you’ve just recently begun to feel as if you’re shattered heart has mended, it’s really troubling to consider putting yourself in a place where it might get broken all over again.
So, I find myself in a new phase of grief. The abject sorrow of losing my husband has faded. I have found rich meaning in his passing and renewed purpose in my life’s work. I hear from others who say I am helping them on their own journeys with grief. I’m even happy much of the time. However, when I dig into the odd “itchiness” for change that I’m beginning to feel, I notice that it is permeated with a fear I had not recognized while stronger emotions were more prevalent.
Here’s what I’ve uncovered so far: Bottom line, I’m afraid of what will or will not happen if I open myself to a new relationship. Would it be a betrayal of my love for Stephen—even though one of his greatest concerns was the thought of my being alone?
And how in the world does a “woman of a certain age” go about dating again—or really for the first time? I find it somehow surprising that I don’t get to rewind the years with Stephen and start over as the very youthful forty-something I was when we met and married. I mean, I’m not old but I’m not young either, and frankly, I feel as gawky as a teenager. Who knew that widowhood could be a kind of second adolescence? That is so unfair.
This article does not conclude with a miraculously happy ending or deep insight into how to resolve this issue. What I can say is that at least I’m aware of the fear that has been percolating just below the surface of awareness. And that’s always a good start.
Over the years I’ve learned that I can’t force change. I tend to feel it coming long before outer circumstances alter their course. My job in these situations is to notice what is, often subtly, arising and to focus on loving what’s happening (or not happening) right now.
The present moment has always been my salvation and it’s no different on Valentine’s Day. In fact, it may be even more important on a Hallmark holiday that creates such false expectations in the minds of so many. I’ll probably do a simple ritual of remembrance for Stephen and I may go out with some single female friends. Or I may stay home and watch a couple of romantic movies—just to remind myself that love really is what makes the world go around.
The point is that the truly great romances emerge in their own sweet time, not because we have caused them to happen. We live in a gracious Universe and—if we can live in the flow of today—we do encounter exactly who and what we need for our growth and happiness. I really do believe that, which gives me great comfort—even when the media would make it seem that everybody in the world is getting roses and chocolates this weekend.