After losing my husband 10 years ago, I joined a bereavement group. At the final session, a few of us decided to meet monthly for lunch. Perfect for me, because for the first time in my life, I had no friends who lived nearby. I’d just left an all-consuming job an hour’s commute from home — the job that lured my husband and me to the Washington, D.C. area six years before his sudden death.
During those years, on weekends I’d either veg out or get together with my daughter (the other compelling reason we’d left our home and community behind). I’d made some friends at work, but at day’s end we’d scatter to neighborhoods throughout the tri-state area. After my “Goodbye and Good Luck” party, those friendships faded fast. And my daughter? By then, she’d relocated to Phoenix. Her siblings had settled down on opposite coasts.
One bitterly cold morning, I found my husband, lifeless, sitting in his car in our driveway. He’d started the car but hadn’t moved. One look and I knew my 911 call was pointless; in the ambulance, the siren-free ride to the hospital told me I was right. Still, an hour later, the chaplain’s soft-spoken words packed a powerful punch. He was gone.
Stunned, I kissed him goodbye and called the children. Then the chaplain asked, “Is there someone I can call to drive you home?” I tried, but couldn’t think of anyone. Reluctantly, she sent me home in a cab. Alone.
Jump-Starting My New Life
All three children flew to my side. We found a rabbi to lead a memorial service in my home. My home, not ours; I’d have to get used to that. And so much more. The children left. And there I was, after our 42-year marriage, starting from square one to make my way on my own.
It was mid-December. A blizzard and the world swirled around me. After a few condolence visits, the doorbell never rang; the only calls were from family. It seemed like everyone but me was caught up in holiday festivities or heading out of town. Sometimes I’d go the grocery store just to exchange a few words with the checkout clerk.
Time crept by. I didn’t care. I just went through the motions each day: eat, let the dog out and in, repeat. “Good,” I’d think, when bedtime rolled around, glad to escape into the oblivion of sleep.
A month later at my annual check-up, my doctor (a woman who’d always considered my emotional and physical well-being) offered me a lifeline. “If you’d consider short-term psychotherapy, I recommend Dr. Elise Simon. She does much more than listen; she’ll give you practical, action-oriented advice.”
Dr. Simon helped me jump-start my new life. Seated across from her in a warm, inviting room on the lower level of her house, this kind woman with graying auburn hair radiated the calm confidence of someone at home in her surroundings and in her role.
Sitting in a comfy tweed armchair that matched hers, on one of my first appointments I told her, “Gloria, a woman in my grief group, feels the same inertia I do.” A self-described couch potato, it turns out Gloria — and her husband, before his death — was an avid Harley Davidson rider. She’d just retired. They were planning cross-country trips with their biker buddies. When her husband died, she’d lost her soulmate, social set and pastime. When our group commiserated about getting out of bed each morning, Gloria said, ‘I’m often still in pajamas at noon.’”
“Oh no,” Dr. Simon said, leaning toward me. “Not you. You’ll be up and dressed by 9 a.m. every day.”
I knew she was right. Grief saps your energy. I’d never fill my calendar sitting around in PJs all day. Dr. Simon’s words were the first ingredients in my recipe for recovery: Get up. Get dressed. The third ingredient? Get out of the house. Some days I’d have to drag myself out the door, but I did.
One essential ingredient in any class or program I attended: time for conversation or discussion. Why come and go without finding out who’s in the room or giving others a sense of who I am?
I looked for activities that were interesting and involved conversation. Museum outing? No. “News and Schmooze” at the community center? Yes. Gradually, I met some kindred spirits.
Occasionally, someone would suggest a program I might enjoy. My recipe called for action: I’d check it out, sign up and show up. I started going to a monthly brown bag lunch-and-learn seminar, where I clicked with Lorna, a lawyer and fellow native Chicagoan. After several months, Lorna asked if I’d like to start a book club with her. My recipe said, “embrace opportunities.” I did.
The book club’s still going strong years later; women from 60 to 90 with different life stories, but shared values. Beyond our monthly meetings, my inbox fills with notes from them: “Louise Penny’s speaking at Politics and Prose. Let’s go! We can get a bite after.” Or, “Shh…I’m throwing Judy a surprise party. Are you in?” Last New Year’s Eve, we celebrated together at Lorna’s party, entertained by our hostess and her talented fiddlers’ group.
Conversation Is the Essential Ingredient
Were there hits and misses? Yes.
Coffee at my neighbor Bonnie’s home stopped there; a pleasant morning, but we couldn’t find common ground: she’s into gardening, I have a black thumb; it went on like that.
A senior leadership program looked promising, but was programmed so tightly I never got to know my classmates. One day a month we learned about our county. “Arts Day” kept us on the move from a gallery to a concert hall, to an art therapy nonprofit and more. Interesting, but no time for that essential ingredient, conversation.
Slowly, my calendar and my life filled.
Long after that coffee with Bonnie, she gave my name to Sophia, another neighbor who needed a fourth for bridge. I joined a mixed-gender foursome who have much in common, laugh often and play a wicked game!
Now 10 years into my solo status, my life’s full to overflowing. I have to check my calendar before accepting a lunch date. Recently, a bad cold had me down for the count. Friends and neighbors, including Sophia, rallied to help. “Want some OJ or chicken soup?” “Need anything from the grocery store?”
Have I stopped signing up and showing up to new groups or programs? Of course not! My recipe gets richer and zestier with each new ingredient. Next month, I’m starting a volunteer gig at a local nonprofit. Do I know anyone there? No. Ask me that question again next year.
In her encore career, Barbara Rady Kazdan writes wry, incisive essays for Next Avenue, BetterAfter50.com, LivingBetter.com and more. This lifelong social entrepreneur and empty nester calls Silver Spring, Md. home.