Strains of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” underscore a commercial on my television—as if I really need to be reminded. Now, I’m not a “Bah! Humbug!” type of person, but these past few years, Christmastime hasn’t been so ho, ho, ho.
As I write this, it’s been three years and nine months to the day since my husband Steve died. I did a lot of anticipatory grieving in the wake of his cancer diagnosis, and despite the fact that there were a couple of “good” years in the five-and-a-half years he was ill, the doctors had made it quite clear that his type of cancer was one that would most assuredly recur. We had been handed a death sentence without a date of execution.
My job as a caregiver was to make his life as joyful, stress-free and simple as possible. When it came to holidays we celebrated with gusto and hosted party after party, even going so far as to create our own occasions to rejoice with our friends. But there were always dark thoughts in my head around the holidays. Is this his last Christmas? Will we be able to celebrate Thanksgiving together next year? What will the New Year bring? Remember, I had been told that his cancer would kill him and though I needed to be bright-eyed and cheerful, I was still living with a ticking time bomb.
But there were always dark thoughts in my head around the holidays. Is this his last Christmas? Will we be able to celebrate Thanksgiving together next year? What will the New Year bring?
I had done a lot of reading—the “what to expect when your loved one dies” type of reading—telling me what I could anticipate a life without him to be like. Books and articles suggested how I would feel, what I would do and even what my friends would do. Life was a blend of reality and hope, and I was, if nothing else, a realist. My own control issues led me to prepare as much as I possibly could, so that surely my transition would be smooth and by-the-book. I never expected that people could grieve by-the-book. Especially me.
No doubt all of my preparation helped me when I needed it, and I encourage anyone going through the grieving process to join a support group, journal about your feelings, and be kind to yourself; but I recognized my life had revolved around this man for more than thirty years and there was a real gaping hole in my life where the man and the caregiving had been. Continuing to get support, to write and to ease up on self-expectation were key, but healing and grieving do not happen in a vacuum, and my friends were very much there for me.
I had a birthday a month after Steve died—I got cards and flowers and was taken to lunch and dinner. I really didn’t want to do anything except sit home and feel sorry for myself, but I was smart enough to drag myself out and be in company. I had been duly warned that the “first year is the hardest.” My datebook was marked with holidays and birthdays and special events, like the day we would be opening my summer house. Oh no—it wouldn’t be WE. Instead, it would be my first summer as a widow. I’m a widow now. I AM A WIDOW. Wherever I went that summer, people would ask where Steve was. I had to be the bearer of sad tidings and comfort them. As for me, I invited friends out to spend weekends to fill the void. They came. The pages of the calendar were being counted as “Steve has been gone for one week,” “…for two weeks,” “…for three,” and so on. The first year he was gone, I made note of the weeks. The occasion of his birthday in August was to be celebrated by a group of his friends from the old neighborhood, but Hurricane Irene put a stop to what would have been a great weekend and we all had a celebratory dinner instead. But when it came to his actual birthday, I was left alone to grieve.
At summer’s end, the Jewish holidays came and friends made sure to include me in their plans the same way they had always included US. Then Thanksgiving rolled around and I was invited to three different dinners. When it came to Chanukah, I lit candles every night, as usual, but gone was the pleasure of having a special gift for my husband every single night—as if he were ten years old. Steve’s parents had never celebrated the holiday and I had been determined to make it special, year after year after year. Then, just like that it was Christmas and friends made sure I had somewhere to go for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. A week later it was New Year’s Eve and for the first time in a long time—there was no one to kiss when the ball dropped in Times Square. Sure, I was invited by close friends to spend the evening with them—we’d all outgrown raucous parties long ago—but dinner is one thing and that mandatory kiss at the stroke of midnight was another.
So we were into the New Year and the next holiday was Valentine’s Day. I got a few cards from friends trying to cheer me, and their thoughtfulness was appreciated; and just like that, the first year was over. I found myself starting to count the months instead of weeks he was gone. Now things would start to get easier. Right?
Wrong! I began to wonder if I had done something to offend my friends. They had moved on. They weren’t really worried about me any more, because after all, I had gotten through the first year with flying colors. The second year was fast becoming the loneliest year I had ever known. I was determined to build a fulfilling life for myself, but it was exhausting. It would take time; I understood that now. I also knew I needed to be proactive in my new life; I couldn’t expect to wait for others to ask me to join them—I learned to make plans for myself. I never had problems going out to a restaurant alone and that was a big plus. I’d create weekends full of things I wanted to do. When the summer rolled around, it was time for me to make some changes at the house at the beach and if I had company that was fine; if not, that was also fine. Now, I had the feeling that if I’d managed to get through the first year, I’d get through the next year. Each one held its own challenges.
if I’d managed to get through the first year, I’d get through the next year.
When Chanukah came that second year, I made a big party for family and friends. It was a huge success and left me feeling—“Yeah…I am ready do this. I’m ready.” There would, again, be Thanksgiving with family, but this year Christmas was a different story. It was all about the hype and the presents and I really didn’t care if I was part of it or not. When New Year’s Eve reared its ugly head, I had dinner with close friends, lifted a glass of apple cider to toast to our health and happiness and I was content to do so. Then I went home alone.
The third year was much the same as the second and now the fourth has brought me back into the arms of both old and new friends. I think some of them had to deal with Steve’s passing in their way before they could be comfortable with me as a widow. Seeing me get through all of it has helped them.
Lastly, I must talk about how much founding The Caregiver Space has contributed to my sense of self-worth. I finally feel as though I’ve done something truly worthwhile in my life so when one holiday or another is on the agenda, I have the opportunity to write about what it was like for me and hopefully help some of you. For that I thank you more than you could ever imagine.
Just remember that there is a way through what you’re feeling at this time of year and it will keep changing as time goes by. If I can help any of you, you know where to reach me!
I wish you all serenity, joy, good health, and good friends.