By Gwenn Voelckers
It’s been five years now since my former neighbor Karen lost her beloved husband to cancer.
Initially devastated by her loss, she understandably retreated into the safety and security of her closest family and friends. And then COVID-19 hit.
It’s been years since we’ve seen each other, so I was delighted when I bumped into Karen at the grocery store last week. I asked how she was doing and she declared with a touch of hesitancy, but noticeable pride, that “I’m more resilient than I thought.”
Then she quickly added with a good-natured smile, “Did you hear? I moved into a smaller home in that new housing development near the village.”
I could tell that Karen had taken the time to grieve and grow into the next phase of her life. And I was pleased when she readily accepted my invitation to share a little bit about her journey.
We met in her charming patio home for a heart-to-heart about what it’s been like since her husband of 49 years died in 2016.
Karen and Jim were high-school sweethearts. They married right after college and started a family soon thereafter, two daughters and a boy. “Jim was my rock,” said Karen. “He did repairs around the house, mowed the lawn, kept our cars running, and so much more. We were good partners. And best friends.”
She stared into the distance, “I still miss him.”
They shared a conventional marriage, with responsibilities drawn along traditional lines: Jim took care of the finances and maintenance projects, while Karen managed the household and tended to the children. “It was a happy marriage,” said Karen, “and we had an active and fulfilling social life.”
And then, unexpectedly, Jim (a non-smoker) was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died four and a half years later. For Karen, his death felt very sudden, despite his long and brave battle. “I guess I wasn’t facing reality,” she confided.
Karen’s next few years were consumed with grief and mourning. But slowly and steadily she began to feel a return to normalcy. “I could talk about Jim without crying,” she shared.
As Karen regained her footing, she was also becoming more aware of her surroundings. Absent Jim’s care and attention, the house had fallen into disrepair. There was water in the basement, peeling paint and long overdue maintenance. “It was overwhelming,” Karen revealed. “I couldn’t sleep for worrying about the house, the finances and the long, never-ending list of chores.”
Below, Karen talks about how she got through the toughest times.
Q: How did you carry on after the love and support you had enjoyed for years was suddenly gone?
A: It wasn’t easy. Getting a handle on financial matters was one of my first priorities. Thankfully Jim had made good provisions for our retirement and made sure I knew what was what before he died. That was a blessing. Still, though, you wouldn’t believe how much there was to learn and do after Jim’s death.
My saving grace was our financial adviser. He helped me make sense of all the accounts, the transfers, the documents . . . everything.
Looking back, I don’t know how I got through it. It took time, but now I feel more in control of things. I even enrolled in online bill paying. I know that’s commonplace these days, but for me it was a big leap.
Q: Beyond finances, what other challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?
A: The emotional ups and downs were my biggest challenges. I could be going along just fine and then a wave of deep grief would wash over me out of nowhere. Or I would get overcome with fears about the future.
Thank goodness for my adult children. They were my emotional anchors and I didn’t hesitate to call on them. When I was feeling sad and scared, they would scoop me into their arms and remind me that I wasn’t alone.
On a more practical level, my children also helped me with the new house. My daughters showed me how to change the furnace filter, my son mowed the lawn, and I’ve taught myself how to make some basic repairs around the house. Thank goodness for “how to” videos on YouTube! If needed, I’ll hire contractors to tackle the big stuff.
Q: What are your challenges today? Is loneliness an issue?
A: Today? Oh, my challenges are very different. (Karen is smiling.) A challenge might be choosing between two equally inviting options: Walking with friends or playing Mahjong with my foursome. I think I’ll do both!
My life is very full; I don’t struggle with loneliness. I have my piano, my books, my friends and my adorable cat Lucy. I love curling up with her and a good mystery novel by Louise Penny.
Q: And what about romance?
A: I doubt I’ll marry again. I’ve come to enjoy my independence. If I feel like eating cereal for dinner, that’s what I have. If I want to wear purple and pink together, that’s what I wear. I take pleasure in that freedom. Would I welcome a male companion for walks, movies or a dinner out? Sure, I’m open to that. I like to stay active.
Q: What advice do you have for others?
A: Maintain your friendships. My friends carried me through the tough times and now they carry me through the good times.
I don’t wait for people to call me. I pick up the phone. I invite people over and make plans. And, while I don’t consider myself computer savvy, I use email and Facebook to stay in touch with friends and family. We share videos and jokes, and make arrangements to get together. My friends make all the difference!
As more women like Karen embrace the challenges and opportunities that come with living alone, they are finding their wings and the ability to fly solo with confidence and creativity. They learn first-hand, just as I did, that life goes on, that life can get better.
Even with the inevitable turbulence, living alone can lead to meaningful new relationships, surprising and satisfying self-discovery, and a renewed love for this precious, ever-changing life we live.
Gwenn Voelckers is the founder and facilitator of Alone and Content, empowerment workshops for women and author of “Alone and Content,” a collection of inspiring essays for those who live alone. For information about her workshops, to purchase her book, or invite her to speak, visit www.aloneandcontent.com