Finding joy again after a loss
Rebecca Gregory fell in love with ballroom dancing after she became a widow. It took her four years after her husband’s death to find a passion, but she’s glad she did.
“I started the next chapter,” she said, and it has been “very therapeutic.”
Gregory’s advice to others who have lost a partner: “Don’t get stuck. Try things you’ve never tried before that maybe you did not have the courage to try…It’s okay to still find joy even while grieving. It does not have to be one or the other.”
Every marriage ends one way or another. “Among those 75 years or older who had ever married, 58% of women and 28% of men had experienced the death of a spouse in their lifetime,” reports the U.S. Census Bureau.
In fact, there were 3.7 million widowed men and 11.48 million widowed women in the country in 2022, according to the data-gathering platform Statista. Widowed women outnumber widowed men because women, on average, live longer than men.
Coping with loss
Losing a spouse can take a lasting psychological and physical toll on men and women alike.
“At some point, accept what happened so you can start to heal,” counsels Gregory, a resident of Howard County, Maryland. “If you don’t accept it, you’ll stay stuck. And don’t feel guilty about moving forward.”
Getting used to being a single again can be a challenge — from keeping the car running, to cooking for one, to having a social life. At first, it can feel like an emotional tsunami.
“Grief is a whole-body experience,” said Elena Keller, who lost her spouse. She is now executive director of Widow Care, a nonprofit based in Rockville, Maryland.
“There’s a reason why you are simply fatigued all the time. You’re also easily confused and forgetful; it’s called ‘widow’s fog.’
“Your brain is trying to comprehend something that doesn’t make sense. Your entire body is working very hard just so you can survive another day,” Keller said.
Some find it hard to concentrate or read, for example. Others lose their appetite or have trouble sleeping.
Support groups are helpful
Fortunately, there are many resources for widowed people, from counselors to support groups to online meetings to religious institutions.
Talking about your symptoms with others who are grieving can help. Widow Care leads free support groups on Zoom, as well as bi-weekly game nights and other gatherings for widowed persons.
Widowed Persons Outreach (WPO), another local group, also offers support groups as well as social meetups and Zoom sessions.
Most people who’ve lost someone find non-judgmental, peer-to-peer support groups important to recovery. Those groups offer not just emotional support but outings like concerts, book discussions, dinners and travel. Many are free.
Connecting with others “who understand what you are going through” helps, said Linda, a local widow who did not want her last name published.
“These people get it. You don’t have to explain,” she said. She also joined the Lousy Bowlers League, where she meets many people, not just widows.
Keller laments that it took her three years to search for help. “Seek help and support immediately,” she urged. “Find like-minded people. I thought I was the only widow in the world.”
Today Keller finds comfort and self-assurance in spending time with other widows, or friends she calls “wisters” — a combination of “widows” and “sisters.”
Advises one widow, “Do not stay at home and wallow, even though you are in a horrible fog of loneliness and grief.” She found strength in a grief group, where she listened to others’ journeys.
Grief can come in waves, pop up seemingly out of nowhere, and linger in the background for years, counselors say.
Be gentle with yourself, Gregory said. “It’s important to allow yourself to grieve.”
Facing finances and “stuff”
For many people, dealing with financial matters can be terrifying, especially if the deceased spouse handled the planning and household expenses.
There’s what one widow calls the “barrage of paperwork, like car titles and his name on everything, his will and bills.” In her case, the paperwork kept her busy. “It made me put one foot in front of the other and get things done,” she said.
Some women living alone are vulnerable to scams and price gouging, like inflated plumbing or car repair prices. Some people stereotypically “see a single woman who [they think] does not know much,” Gregory said, and try to take advantage.
Disposing of clothing and personal items can be heart-wrenching. Many advisors caution against letting others pressure the bereaved into giving things away, and urge people to take time to sort through it all.
A Virginian in her 70s and married for 40 years was overwhelmed “dealing with his stuff,” including 350 boxes of papers, numerous tools, artworks, a truck and a 1968 sports car. At times, she felt angry at him for leaving her to deal with his belongings.
Fairfax County resident Steve Ditmeyer, whose wife died of ovarian cancer in 2017, enlisted his daughter and sisters to help donate his late wife’s wardrobe.
Ditmeyer, who was married for 38 years, said, “You have to move on. I was fortunate that my then 34-year-old son was living with me then and now. We could grieve together and look after each other.”
Still, Ditmeyer tried to stay busy, attending church dinners, discussion groups and college alumni gatherings.
Starting Chapter Two
Loneliness and the fear of being alone are significant hurdles for many widowed people. You can feel invisible because you were formerly half of a couple. Your family and friends are used to “salt and pepper. Now you are just salt,” Keller said.
Some people who lose their partner want to find another; some do not. Ditmeyer’s wife told him the day before she died, “I regret that I did not line up someone for you to go the rest of the way with.”
Most counselors advise people to take it slowly.
“Getting into a relationship too quickly could be a mistake,” Gregory warned. What some widows call “Chapter Two” should be about loving yourself, she noted.
Ken Gordon, president of WPO, lost his wife 14 years ago and stresses that support groups like his provide social connections. But these organizations are “not a dating service,” he said.
One 65-year-old Gaithersburg widow said she wrestled with “trying to accept the fact there’s nothing I can do to bring him back. I’m alone. That was the toughest.”
The flip side for some is that once you come to terms with solitude, there are some plusses. You don’t have to consult about every meal, outing or what to buy when. And you can control the television remote, one widow joked.
Going out again
Gordon says it takes a little bravery to forge out on your own.
“For some, getting out of the house is a difficult process,” he said. “At a certain stage, you have to be proactive. It takes encouragement to get out of the house, to go do something. Don’t be afraid to go [out] to dinner alone.”
After the initial shock of the loss dissipates, holidays and anniversaries can be difficult. The pain isn’t quite as acute as the first year, though, according to most widowed people.
“I keep saying, ‘The really tough stuff is over,’” said an Alexandria widow, who went through an agonizing six months as her husband’s health declined.
Above all, Keller says, be kind to yourself. “It’s okay to cry. Just take [it] one day at a time.”
For more information about Widowed Persons Outreach, visit wpodc.org or call (202) 537-4942. For Widow Care’s support groups, visit widowcare.org.