Widowhood during COVID-19 part three
By Marguerite Oberle Thomas
“Widowhood is the loudness of the silence”. He won’t be coming through the door shouting, “I got the mail”. Now, I can get my own darn mail and listen to the silence when I bring it home.
Welcome to the third article in this series. I hadn’t yet seen the second article published when my friend Jacquie, who did see it, offered great advice. “Whatever you do, please tell people to make out a will and be sure that everyone who needs to know, does know what is in it. Ask people to designate things like real estate and vehicles and precious objects. Tell all your family what you want for your final wishes and put it in writing. And whatever else you do, please write down your computer passwords.”
That is great practical advice. We know that lawyers, clergy, accountants, financial planners, those widowed and others would all suggest saying it more than once. Like the message to keep your mask over your nose during the pandemic, some folks need to hear the message way more than once.
You never know when death will come. My friend Don had a lifelong buddy who passed suddenly. Don said, “When he died, it knocked me silly”. Karen told me, “I was totally whacked upside the head”.
With death, especially sudden death, we do feel like we have been severely battered. My immediate response was that I couldn’t breathe. This is not uncommon as my fellow mourners have told me. One of the immediate reactions after a huge loss is just having trouble breathing. When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters. The grief can be at such a deep level that it is physically painful. We do need to breathe.
Suggestions from others included deep breathing and calming exercises; shifting your breathing from short, shallow breaths to longer, deeper ones, perhaps through mindfulness or meditation. This can help you to get more oxygen, which can calm your lungs and help your chest to not feel as tight. I found that the warmth of a Magic Bag or heating pad over the heart helped me to breathe. Going out walking in nature can be helpful as many of us find that being outdoors is soothing. The wise, but-not-so-people-smart Sheldon Cooper suggests a hot beverage, also soothing.
Those who pray can find great solace in doing that and in reaching out to those who will support them spiritually. Having family and friends nearby is physically difficult during the pandemic, but we still have telephones and technology to keep in touch. Each of us will handle it differently and there can be benefits for those who have studied meditation, yoga or other programs designed to calm and centre us.
You don’t know how you will feel. We take life with our partner for granted until our world gets rocked. Our lives will carry on whether we want it this way or not. You don’t just lose him or her. You lose the care-free person you were when you felt love and were hugged regularly. You miss the excitement and joy of the future that you had planned, and you have to deal with the sorrow and the emptiness of today. Anything that was unresolved will forever be unresolved. All questions are now forever unanswered. You move from a day-to-day certainty and safety to a world that is unpredictable and no longer secure. And you have no partner to tell all about it.
When we lose our partner, it is a reminder that we are all mortal and that we should think about what will happen when we pass away. There is so much to think about, but for now the first thing is just surviving. We need to eat, even though food has lost its appeal. It is hard to swallow when your throat is choked up in sorrow. Soft foods help: soup, scrambled eggs, cereal – whatever has any appeal and slides down easily. But please do consult with your doctor if you are worrying about any physical issues.
You may also experience muscle aches, body aches, not being able to relax, feeling tired and irritable, trouble sleeping, rapid breathing, sweating, trembling, even gastrointestinal upset. If you’re certain your symptoms are from grief and anxiety, and not an actual physical ailment, start by talking to yourself with positive statements. You are wounded and it’s okay to feel not okay.
Sleep disturbance is frequently part of the early days. Some mourners, like Isobel, will say that they sleep on their partner’s side of the bed as it makes them feel closer. Often, they will wear a t-shirt or other article of clothing that still has the smell of their lost partner. Other tips to promote sleep are:
• Develop your own routine of locking the doors, closing the blinds, turning off the lights, turning off the television, brushing your teeth, etc.
• Say your prayers and be grateful for the good people in your life
• Take a warm bath if that is enjoyable to you
• Enjoy a warm drink, especially something with a soothing aroma
• Prepare a cool, dark room like they offer in hotels
• Wear comfortable night clothes and use bedclothes that totally suit you
• Perform physical activity earlier in the day
• Make a conscious effort to self-talk away the negative pressures of the day
• Try to go to bed at the same time every evening
• Warm up your bed with Magic Bags or heating blankets if that is comfortable for you.
• Practise relaxation techniques or other sleep-inducing strategies.
• Using electronics late into the evening
• Exercising too late into the evening
• Looking at the clock if you wake up
• Using sleep medication except for short-term or intermittent use
• Trying to solve the world’s problems and your own when your job is to sleep.
Remember that if you don’t sleep tonight, you’ll probably be tired enough to sleep tomorrow night. Recognize that your lost partner was truly a gift. Some of the best advice is the simplest. Get a routine of getting out of bed in the morning, having a shower, getting groomed, making your bed and ensuring that you eat and keep that house neat. Clutter and mess can be depressing. Order can make life seem more normal. The pandemic makes it awkward, but keep those medical, dental, eye and other appointments. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. You go through the motions of living and after a while, it feels real again.
Learning to live with loss is a marathon, not a sprint. And we can only master that marathon by practising moving forward. Some days, it will hurt so much, we have to slow down or stop. But we know that we need to keep going. Grief counselling, bereavement courses or groups and resources from agencies can be helpful, but we also need to look at ourselves and our own personalities for how we deal with stress and loss. If we tended to reach out to others, this is a good time to continue doing that. Pick friends who care and are comforting. Be strong about when you want to be alone. It’s not hard to insist on being alone during a pandemic. It’s not so much good days and bad days as it is all the emotional flip-flopping during parts of each day.
This month’s final advice on healing: we who mourn know that we are not the first and we will not be the last. When singer Eric Clapton lost his four-year-old son Conor, he wrote the song “Tears in Heaven”. The famous line is, “I must be strong and carry on, ‘cause I know I don’t belong in Heaven”. Neither do we. Not yet. Little kindnesses do make the journey easier. Both ask for and give them.
After the second column, my doctor, Heather, told me that she liked these columns being raw, real and not pretty. She said they need to be that way, because grief is not pretty. Being a widow herself, she knows that. But she liked that these columns express the difficult parts of grief and give ideas to help.
There has been such a great outpouring of helpful suggestions, that this topic merits several columns of raising those difficult issues and offering the helpful suggestions from others. Want to help by contributing to the next columns? Please e-mail email@example.com or contact Shawn Loughlin at 519-523-4792 to leave your phone number. I promise to call you back. Advice can be shared anonymously with full confidentiality.