TURNING TOWARD TOMORROW
Excerpt: Chapter Three
"Friends are the lifeline." That's the chorus I hear from everyone. And when I ask what friends do that's so helpful, the answer's invariably: "They listen."
But friends come in all shapes and sizes. Some are able to be there for you, others aren't. Even the most well-meaning often don't know what to say. So we're subjected to a range of remarks such as the infuriating, "Get on with your life." (The first time someone said that to me was the day after my husband's funeral!)
An elderly widower tells me what he most resents is being told his wife had a "good life" because she lived to seventy. "Hell," he says, "I wanted her to be a hundred and ten."
Then there's unsolicited advice such as "Keep your chin up" ("Both chins," I answer) and the equally useless, "Don't think about it."
"I can't stand being told to keep busy so I won't think about it," says a man widowed just a year. "You need to think about it,not run away and lock it up. I can only be with people who understand you come back from grief quicker if you don't fight it."
We also have to fend off questions about how we're "doing" from people who really don't want to hear. A young widow tells me, "I just answer, 'Fine.' That's my code for Fucked-up, Insecure, Neurotic and Exhausted."
The questions that make us defensive are the ones that begin, "Isn't it time you. . . (stopped crying, saw a movie, had a date, got married, whatever)?" I've found the best way to protect myself from well-meant but hurtful remarks is, "I appreciate your concern, but that kind of remark doesn't help."
There's a Greek fable about a man who wanted to help a butterfly emerge from its cocoon. When he blew on the cocoon it opened and the litle creature landed on his palm. "You can fly now," the man said. The butterfly lifted itself an inch or so on its fragile wings -- then fell and died. It hadn't had enough time within the cocoon to grow to full strength. That's a metaphor for all of us when we're asked, "Isn't it time you were over it?" We need friends who understand that "it" takes as long as it takes, and we each have our own timetable.
Some friends want to be helpful but don't know how. "Let me know what I can do" they say, but we want them to be mind readers. I finally realized it would be better for both my friends and myself if I became willing to ask for what I needed.
Jennie was too proud to ask for help with the massive task of packing when she was forced out of her apartment by that landlord. The night before moving, she wanted to carry over some glassware and china she didn't trust to the movers. But the thought of walking into that empty apartment was too upsetting. Hesitantly she asked one of her friends, "Would you be willing to come with me?" The friend was glad to. When they got there, Jennie wandered forlornly through the echoing rooms. "I'll always be a stranger here," she said. Her friend said, "Let's send out for Chinese food." Jennie asked how they could possibly eat there, since there wasn't any furniture. Her friend said, "Picnic style! We'll sit on newspapers." And that's what they did,laughing at themselves. By the time the "picnic" was over, Jennie says, "Those rooms had begun to be my home."
Sometimes, though too rarely, our "friends" are actually our relatives. Bereavement doesn't necessarily unite families; in many cases it splits them open and old resentments seep out. But sometimes death leaves an unexpected gift in its wake. It did for Phoebe. A former psychologist, she analyzes the troubled relationship she'd always had with her sister.
"We were set up as rivals from the beginning. My sister thought our mother preferred me, so she felt left out. But I'd keep hearing how adorable my sister was and how much easier a child."
When Phoebe was widowed, her sister tried to be closer. "But I held her off because I was still jealous of her. Besides, I couldn't stand how she tried to boss me." Four years ago, her sister became a widow, too. It forged a bond between them. "She still tries to tell me what to do, like how to organize my closets, but now I see her bossiness comes from a fear of being vulnerable. So I try to respond with humor, instead of resenting her. Recently she told me to wait before crossing the street. I laughed and said,'I'm seventy-seven, not seven.'"
When her sister wanted them to vacation together,Phoebe agreed on condition they have separate rooms. "To my surprise my sister said she understood. So it's become a rather sweet relationship -- on balance, that is. As long as I concentrate on what we share, like our both being health food and exercise freaks. You have to maximize the overlap and let the rest go."
Much as we all need friends, we better be selective.I found I was lonelier with some people than when I was by myself. As Phoebe says, "You have to learn to say no to non-choice people." This includes ruling out those whose view of the world is so dreary they pull us down. I used to have a friend who was perennially miserable. When I'd make the mistake of asking how she was, her standard reply was, "I'm a zombie." If I were down to begin with, talking to her pulled me all the way into the basement. Out of self-preservation, I had to end the friendship. Even though this meant another parting, it was important to surround myself with more upbeat people."
Although Martin's fortunate that his wife's name isn't "taboo," as he puts it, many people are uncomfortable with reminders. Charlie, a young man bereaved just seven months, is finding it hard to accept the way his friends don't want the death even mentioned. "A lot of people have the idea it will upset you to talk about the person," he says. "But the last thing we want is to have the one we loved ignored. What they really don't want to hear about is their own fear of death."
This doesn't mean we have to delete them from our address books. We can have different friends for different needs. One of mine doesn't want to hear about my husband, but she's great to discuss writing with.
In this couple-oriented society friends typically come in plurals: the Mendells, the Hochmans, as though they don't have individual names. A divorced friend who ought to have understood what it was to be alone, recently began living with a man. When she mentioned that they wanted to go to the opera on New Year's Eve "with some friends," I started to say I'd like to join them. But she was swiftly amending her words to: "with some couples." It was clear I wasn't considered a social possibility for that night.
Yet I'm luckier than many because the majority of my friends continued to include me. Others I've talked to have more sour experiences. "Friends may swear that things will be the same," says Phoebe. "But I've noticed it's become lunchtime socializing with the wife, not the Saturday night couples scene. Some of my friends have theatre subscriptions, but don't think to include me, and I don't ask because I want them to think I'm self-sufficient. Sure, if someone can't make it at the last minute they'll ask if I want to use the ticket. But I still feel like a fifth wheel. I have to get past this because if you expect to be rejected, you will be! Last week one couple invited me to go to a movie with them. I accepted without being apologetic. Maybe some people don't think three is a normal number, but I'm working on acting as if it is."
I had similar feelings about the social group my husband and I used to be part of. The first time they planned a get-together after he died, I told the hostess I didn't think I should come. "They're all couples," I said. "I might make them uncomfortable."
"Only if you feel that way," she said. "Aren't you an entity in yourself?"
No, I didn't feel I was, and women in particular tend to have this "not enough" syndrome. Yet I'm surprised to hear this from Carla. She's a sophisticated woman who used to have her own video production company, but sold it when her husband died. They had been part of a circle of TV and theatre people who were used to singles. Yet Carla claims that when she became a widow, her social life shrank to the vanishing point. "Even if I did get an invitation, I'd sit there thinking everyone saw me as an unnecessary part of the evening."
She was shocked when a friend told her she was acting "apologetic" about being there. Borrowing from her experience as a producer, Carla began to rehearse for social occasions. "I practiced being a lively guest like I was auditioning for a leading role," she laughs. "I also bone up on the latest films and best sellers so I can contribute to the evening, instead of sitting there like a bump on a log. And you know something? I've discovered that 'unnecssary' feeling wasn't the way my friends felt at all. It was a reflection of the way I was feeling about myself."
Dominick Bonanno, Program Coordinator for Cancer Care, agrees with her assessment. "Bereaved people frequently feel as if there's some kind of stigma attached to them, even when it's not coming from other people." One solution, Bonanno says, is to "create a new support system for yourself."
That's what Carla decided to do. "Even though my best friend and her husband continued to invite me, I found the contrast with the times when we were a foursome too painful. I knew I needed a new kind of social life. So I told my friend, 'I appreciate your invitations, but I'm trying to find my own milieu. At this point, it's best for me to be with other single women.'" Ironically, her friend felt rejected. "She told me, 'You don't have to cut yourself off from us completely.'"
Forging new friendships requires time and willingness to branch out. Many women say their closest friends date back to the years when they sat together in the playground watching their children, or worked together in the PTA. The common postscript is, "I'm too old to make new friends." That's a myth that should be put in permanent storage. Three of my most prized friends are new. Two of them I met in a writing workshop (which proves it can be rewarding to circulate among people with shared interests). Indeed, an eighty-year-old retired teacher who signed up for a beginner's class in bridge met another teacher there, and the two women now have lunch together every week.
Natalie Schwartzberg, co-author of Single In A Married World, points out that when you're part of a couple you have someone to be with on Saturday nights. "But when you're single, you have to be more pro-active about creating a social life. Don't wait until the last minute," she warns. "Some people go into a depression if they try to make plans but everyone's busy."
Carla says at first if she didn't have plans for the weekend she'd think, no one called, they don't want me, what am I going to do? She now phones friends the beginning of each week to line up plans for the weekend. "Sometimes you think, why am I always the one to call? But the heck with that. They're usually glad to hear from you."
Schwartzberg advises "broadening your network" by joining groups such as religious or professional associations, where you find people with similar interests. This is especially true for men, she stresses. "Women are more socialized to network, but men tend to get very isolated when they're left on their own." (Numerous studies show that feeling isolated is a major cause of depression among elderly widowers, and that they constitute the largest percentage of suicides in the nation.) Compounding their isolation is the fact that it was usually the woman who aranged the couple's social agenda. "They were my wife's friends," is a common refrain. This need for a "social secretary" is one reason why so many widowers rush to remarry.
Men may also feel more insecure about socializing on their own. Noah (the man who gets on NPR) admits he's ill at ease in social settings. So he suggested to the planning committee of his senior center that they bring in a speaker who'd advise about social skills. "That's where so many of us older men feel unsure of ourselves."
Males have an additional burden: the need to appear "strong." Cliff, a Detroit accountant, was married to his childhood sweetheart for thirty-two years. "We fell in love in the cradle," he says. When she died of ovarian cancer, he was frightened at how "out of control" his feelings were. "In our society a man is presumed to be stoic. But I was running into feelings I'd never had before. At home, I'd go to pieces. But in public I'd try to show people I had it all together." One day he saw a friend in church whose wife had died three months earlier. "He was openly weeping -- on Sunday! He looked at me and I looked at him. Then I started weeping. From then on, he was my role model. I gave myself permission to cry in public." Rather than being shunned for "weakness," Cliff found he got "a lot of support" from people.
He decided to tackle the macho barricade. "Men need to have friends, not just associates. I made it high on my agenda to have two or three guys I could talk to in depth, who weren't afraid to listen to my story." He found that while most men wouldn't reveal their feelings in large groups, they were more open to discussing them "one on one in an atmosphere of trust."
Noah's also trying to be more open about his feelings and to phone friends when he needs to talk. At the same time, he's careful not to intrude too much. "You shouldn't be a bastard and throw your problems at your friends or use them as therapists," he says bluntly. "I start out by asking, 'Do you have time to chat?' And give them a chance to let down their hair, too."
Moving to a different city can force you to create a new social life. A shy woman with the exotic name of Romaine (shortened to an easy Ro) says that after her husband's death their daughter campaigned to get her to move from Brooklyn to Pittsburgh. "But I didn't want to leave the place where my husband and I had lived for forty years." She was also fearful about parting from couples who were familiar. "I'd never been particularly outgoing. My sister told me, 'It will be wonderful for you to meet new people. They haven't heard your stories.'
"I realized that even though my old friends were caring, at every wedding or anniversary the chair next to mine would be symbolicaly empty." When she agreed to relocate, Ro found this had a plus. "I'm meeting people who never knew me before, so I'm thrust into inventing a new persona."
She also found there were numerous other widows her age. "There's a lot of it going around," Ro quips. (In a touching poem, she described being "spun out of the galaxy of couples" into a world of "one by one.") Still, it isn't wise to let this define the boundaries of your social life. Ro tells her new friends, "We don't have to be professional widows. That shouldn't be what brings us together. Let's enjoy each other's company and have good times together."
"I do mention my husband frequently," Ro says. "After all, he was a major part of my life. But I talk about him in a way that makes him interesting, not in a sad way that brings pain to people's faces."
Since it's more unusual to be widowed young, it brings a different set of social problems. That's what Tracy, a former competitive swimmer, discovered when she was widowed at the shocking age of twenty-six. She and her husband had been college sweethearts, but he died of lymphoma just months after their wedding.
Tracy's friends, who had so recently been her bridesmaids, loyally rallied around her. "But I felt there was a huge gulf between us," she says. "We'd all gone to each other's weddings, and now I was the only one not married. They were talking about having babies and looking to the future. I felt my 'future' was over already."
Finding it too hard to listen to her friends' plans, Tracy went looking for people who wouldn't know she'd been married. "I feel more comfortable when I don't have to fend off sympathy or give explanations. This way I have a chance to be seen as a normal young woman."
It was more difficult for her to get a new identity at work. "Everyone avoided me, even at the water fountain. They'd scurry away when I came near because they didn't know what to say. I felt like saying, 'Don't treat me as if I'm from outer space.'" Tracy realized if she waited for others to come to her, she'd wait forever. "It was up to me to reach out my hand and tell them, 'It's okay, I'm going to get through this.' I tried to act normal so they'd feel they could treat me like they always had."
Although this eased the strain somewhat, after a few months Tracy decided it would be better to get a job where no one knew her history. "When I meet my new co-workers I just tell them I'm single." She shrugs. "Let's face it, I am."
Being a single woman can become a monetary hurdle in a restaurant Many men think they have to be gallant and pay for the meal. Then the woman isn't invited often because it gets very expensive. I found that when the check arrived the husbands would divide it up. When I'd ask what my share was, I was invariably told, "This is on us." One night I was with two couples in a restaurant and knew they'd feel they had to pay. On a pretext of going to the ladies room, I cornered the waiter and instructed him to give the entire check to me. When he did, one of the men said, "Wrong person." Covering the check with my hand, I said firmly, "My treat this time."
A woman in my support group said she made it clear she wanted to pay her share of the check "just as my husband would have done." She had to stubbornly hold on to that line for months, before it became accepted procedure. "You can't protest and then keep giving in."
We can also repay invitations by hosting dinners in our home. But this can feel intimidating when you have to do it alone. When I was married I loved to entertain. But after Mel died,I felt inadequate to do it single-handedly. I also thought people wouldn't want to come if it was "just me." Beverly Brown, a Massachusetts therapist, says this is a common feeling for newly-single people. "It's as if you don't believe you're enough to hold your guests' interest or be entertaining in yourself. You have to get past this and take that leap of faith."
That's what I finally did with that group of couples we'd socialized with in the past. I was embarrassed because although they rotated the homes we met in, they no longer expected me to reciprocate. One evening I announced that the next get-together would be at my place. In the past when anyone asked, "What can I bring?" my standard answer would be, "Just yourself." But this time I made myself accept offers. "You can make a salad." Or, "If you'd like to bring dessert. . . ."
When my guests arrived I became so flustered I was close to tears trying to mix and pour drinks, which Mel had always taken care of. Finally I apologetically asked one of the men, "Would you mind playing bartender?"
"That's my favorite role," he said.
When it came to serving dinner, pride demanded handling everything on my own -- until one of my guests, seeing how frantic I was, said, "You really don't have to do everything yourself." After a moment I said, "Offer accepted!" I realized it's important to allow friends to give, too. The dinner became more relaxed for everyone when we chipped in to carry platters back and forth, bumping into each other and laughing. After the door closed on my last guest, I turned to face silence again. Suddenly I was surprised to find myself thinking, I can leave the dishes in the sink all night if I want to and there's nobody to object! More importantly, I had reclaimed the part of myself who loved being a hostess. And I'd made the unspoken statement: I have a home, too.
Men frequently feel they can't be hosts because they don't know how to cook. "I have zero tolerance for any man who thinks he can accept invitations without returning them," says Carla. "The least he can do is offer to take us out." Men can also do what I did: accept help. One man cleverly hosted an ethnic dinner, asking each guest to bring a dish that reflected his or her roots.
All this takes a willingness to reach out, but our tendency is to wait to be called. The first few months we usually get concerned calls. This dwindles in time. I felt abandoned (it's so easy to feel that way!) when a close friend stopped phoning. Then one day she called and in her "tough love" voice said, "You can call, too."
However, it's difficult to initiate contacts if you're burdened by excessive shyness, as Talia was. A bookkeeper widowed in her fifties, Talia would postpone going to her empty house after work by browsing aimlessly in stores. But Friday nights she'd be a self-styled "mess." All she could think about was, how would she get through the weekend? She knew two women in the neighborhood who went out together on Saturday nights, but she was reluctant to ask if she could join them.
One Saturday afternoon Talia forced herself to phone one of the women and ask what she was doing that evening. "It was so hard for me to call that I'd been sick to my stomach all day," she says. The woman told her that she and a friend were going out for dinner. There was a pause. Talia stammered a few words about whether she could, maybe, join them? "Love to have you," was the answer. It was the start of an enduring friendship.
At dinner that first night the women urged her to go to a local Widows and Widowers Group. Talia drove there the next evening, but it was snowing and she got lost. "By the time I found the place I was in tears." She sat in a corner and left without speaking to anyone.
Afterward she gave herself a stern lecture: "You have to push yourself!" The following week she forced herself to return. That evening the leader announced he was going on vacation and the group wouldn't meet for the next two weeks.
"I amazed myself by raising my hand to suggest, why don't we all go to the theatre together?" All thirteen women enthusiastically made plans to go. That was ten years ago and these same women have been meeting socially ever since.
They also formed an advance support group geared toward socializing. There are nearly a hundred members and Talia is Program Chair. "The first few times I had to speak in front of an audience I was so nervous I stutttered," she says. "Now I get right up there without thinking anything of it." When the group held a talent night, once-shy Talia did a mock striptease! "It's as if I've become another me."
The reality is that no matter how hard we try, some friends may distance from us. I talk about this with one of my oldest friends, dating all the way back to college days. Judy had married and moved to Canton, Ohio. Over the years we kept in touch with holiday cards. Although Judy missed her old friends she determinedly made new ones, primarily colleagues in the high school where she taught English. This changed when her husband died, as she tells me when I visit her in what she calls her "comfortably rumpled" house.
"Two of the friends I'd counted on became increasingly aloof and critical," she says. "At first I agonized over what I might have done. You know, the mea culpa bit.Then I realized they simply couldn't deal with my feelings. It was very painful for me, because I needed their support. Then I told myself, there's nothing you can do so don't belabor it. But it took months of repeating: Let them go."
Canton's a comparatively small town,Judy points out, and it's not easy to meet new people. "But I've dicovered you really don't need a big circle. The important thing is to have one or two 'buffer' friends you can trust with your feelings, and who'll accept you as an important part of their life." This doesn't mean "leaning," she adds sternly. "I draw strength from friends, but I don't allow myself to be dependent on them."
"What's the difference?" I ask her.
"Dependency means using people as a crutch. That just pushes them away. I don't let myself get into, 'I need, need, need.'"
"That's good advice when it comes to our children, too," I tell her.
"You better believe it!" she says.
It's clear from stories like Talia's that support groups can be a source of camaraderie. Beryl wanted this, but was unable to find a group. One night she saw a commercial on TV for a support group for people who'd lost pets. "I'm going there," she told her son.
"You can't do that!" he said. "They've lost dogs and cats, not husbands."
"So how will they know it's your father I'm talking about?"
Fortunately a widow in her neighborhood was organizing her own support group. (See Phyllis in the last chapter.)
I'm frequently asked if I recommend groups. It depends on what kind of person you are. Some people say they're too "private" for this kind of sharing. For me a group was invaluable because it meant being with people who had the same concerns, and where I found empathic new friends I didn't have to put on a "happy face" for. As one of the men said, "I can't stand being told by married friends that they know how I feel, because they don't. But here we really walk in each other's shoes."
However, groups -- like friends -- should be geared toward the positive. I was actually in two groups. The first was too focused on "poor us." The second turned my head toward the future, by focusing on what we could do to move forward. When I describe them to therapist Beverly Brown, who's led a variety of groups. she agrees it's not helpful to get caught up in reinforcing one another's loss.
"You should reinforce what you still have," she says, "and what you can create for the future."