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'I'm truly blessed.' Books, music and a toy otter help new widow learn how to be alone

San Luis Obispo Tribune logo San Luis Obispo Tribune 1/20/2021 Kathe Tanner, The Tribune (San Luis Obispo, Calif.)

Jan. 20—Recently, I've been relying more heavily on escaping into other lives created in books, especially light, well-written mysteries with relatable characters, snappy dialogue and plenty of plot twists.

Yeah, it's escapism. I get it. As a new widow, I figure I'm entitled.

In fact, these days, we all are.

But through the years, I've winnowed out various book genres that no longer appeal to me.

My "don't go there" list so far? Anything truly evil, or plots that involve the mafia, World War II, interstellar travel, stalkers, ghosts, vampires, witches, serial killers, the military, vivid gore, amnesia, witness protection programs, torture, substance abuse or anything that harms children or animals.

What can I say? I scare easily.

Since Husband Richard's death, however, I've learned to avoid another popular category: Romance novels.

I don't need to be reminded in print of something that, after it was such a beautiful part of my life for 44 years, isn't there anymore, except in photographs and my memories.

I'm also not watching chick flicks or Hallmark movies.

And, while I desperately need sounds of life in the house, filling somewhat an emotional hollow that's amplified by quietness, I'm fussier now about what fills that pervasive silence.

I love music, but if I'm already feeling down, hearing one of "our" songs won't help, and neither would a singer crooning about intense love.

That's when I cue up my father's Dixieland jazz, "Uptown Funk," "La Vida Loca," "Get on Your Feet," Lady Gaga, Van Halen, a playlist of DJ party songs or Broadway musical scores.

Or I'll turn on a DIY or cooking show on TV. It's friendly, upbeat background noise, a Band-aid on the aloneness.

Learning how to be alone

In the past six weeks, I've learned a lot about myself, being by myself rather than as part of a devoted couple.

Self-awareness isn't much fun, but it's interesting. And it's helping me slog through the fog of pain when faced with our suddenly silent house, an empty room, a two-person bed with just me in it.

I regularly remind myself about a philosophy Richard emphatically endorsed. As an Internet meme states it, "Life may have given us a cactus, but we don't have to sit on it."

My dear friend and fellow widow Consuelo Macedo told me, "I've always been an upbeat person, and now I choose to stay that way."

It may be harder for other newly bereaved spouses and others to do that, especially those who live alone, are retired and have limited commitments.

I know I'm truly blessed. My work keeps my mind busy, and I get regular support from so many wonderful, loving friends, coworkers and readers who repeatedly reach out to cheer me on and remind me how much they care. I appreciate all of you so much.

I'm also very lucky to have our son Brian living with me; I'm not always alone. That's huge. He's also mourning the loss of the dad he adored and helped care for during the past decade, so we're getting through this together.

Missing a husband and father

Of course, we miss Richard intensely. Certainly, we've cried, often side-by-side. Some days are super tough; it's hard to even get out of bed.

Mostly, though, the pain comes in waves now, and the emotional king tides are receding a bit. We're trying to hang 10, emotionally.

Often, we can think of Richard without breaking down. We find things that make us laugh, and acknowledge that a giggle fest is not only OK, it's really good for us.

Joy and fun are still out there somewhere. We just have to be ready to seek them out and then immerse ourselves in them. And we deliberately choose to do that, every day.

Why am I sharing all this? Things that work for me now might, maybe, also help others dealing with their own sorrows, heartaches and depression ... whether they be from a loss like ours, the effects of the coronavirus pandemic or the severely unpredictable, troubling world in which we live.

Some things that have helped

I regularly reach out to upbeat friends and members of my family, especially if I'm going through a rough patch. Sharing can be tough, but it helps get me out of my own head.

I frequently touch base with others who are mourning. We share in a grief group, a socially distanced meal, or one-on-one phone, email or social media conversations. We can share in special ways, because others who haven't gone through this themselves don't truly understand the ache or the process.

Getting out of the house, even for no obvious reason, can be an instant boost. It's way too easy to huddle and hide.

Focusing on other things can be helpful. I'm cooking creatively again, something I had little time for when I was a 24/7 caregiver. It's a double-edged sword, because I'm cooking for one or two, not three or more.

But cooking requires my full focus, so I don't burn the food, myself or the house.

Son Brian and I hug each other a lot, which I cherish. But it's not the same as the long, intense hugs Richard and I shared regularly, joyfully. So now I rely on my huggie pal, Ott — a large, soft, squishy, stuffed otter toy with fur as silky as my husband's hair was.

I can hug that otter for 15 minutes, if I want to, and every time one of us goes past it, we stroke the fur on its head, just like we did to Richard when we were near his hospital bed. Believe it or not, the silly otter helps.

Reading self-help books on grieving can be a comfort, but in small doses. I'm not trying to avoid the mourning. I just don't want to bury myself in it.

I do sense that Richard is still here, somehow, somewhere. We regularly go over to his "tribute corner" and talk to him. We say "Hello," "Good night" or "I love you." I whisper, "Hi, honey!" when Richard's beloved hummingbirds show up at the feeder, his deer race across our meadow or a flaming sunset ends the day.

No, it's not the same. Not even. But it's what we have now, and we'll keep learning, hugging and sharing as we go along, one day at a time.

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