Widowhood is a harsh teacher. I entered her classroom with a shock. Even though we knew it was coming, death didn’t seem real. In the hospital bed, my beloved husband, who only hours ago had stroked my hair and whispered, “I love you,” was still as stone. The breath that had sighed in and out through the night was silent. He’d crossed a divide and I could no longer reach him. How would I go on?
An hour later as I trudged out of his hospital room, I received my first widowhood lesson, a primer that presaged things to come. I passed nurses who kept their eyes averted; though they are sentinels at death’s door, they prefer to pretend it doesn’t exist. I stepped outside, into a bright October day with people going about their lives as usual. Didn’t they know that his had ended, that mine would never be the same. Of course they didn’t. No one spared me a glance. Even surrounded by my children, I was alone.
Widowhood had a myriad of lessons for me. Here’s a pop quiz: What do you do when the hospital sends a bill for $250,000 because your husband exceeded his Medicare limit? For a while I ignored it but finally found the courage to write to the hospital CEO, who wrote it off.
Harder lessons: How do you get through the first Thanksgiving, the most important holiday in our family, when my husband cooked the turkey and his own special dressing and I did the rest, and we all sat around the table sharing family jokes and memories? How do you spend the first wedding anniversary, the first New Year’s Eve?
And in practical terms, how on earth do you handle household tasks that were “his” and that you have no idea how to perform? Crashed computer, water heater leaking gas, flat tire, dead battery—why is life so complicated?
There were gentler teachings, too. As the waves of grief and bitterness ebbed, I learned to cope, to be stronger. When life throws me a curve—and there have been many in my nearly seven years of widowhood—I’ve learned to duck…or face it head on. I have watched my son manage the aftermath of a stroke with determination and courage and have learned from him, too.
I’ve learned that time is too precious to spend with toxic people, with mindless activities and I’ve deleted them from my life.
Life is so brief, so fragile. As I treasure memories, I am learning to live in the moment and to savor everyday pleasures that once would have passed unnoticed—the sound of rain, the smile of my granddaughter, the purr of my cat as he adjusts his body so it curls against mine at night, the phone call from a friend, the morning paper, the book I can’t put down, a dinner out, a scoop of ice cream…and on and on. And friendship, the best thing of all.
Most importantly, widowhood has taught me to be grateful for what the two of us had together and also for the life I've made alone. And I realize as I write this, that the lesson is for everyone, widow or not. Life is a gift, and no matter how it's wrapped, we have to accept and savor it every day.