Someone said the most hurtful, shocking and rude thing to me recently, but I’m so grateful for it that I feel I have to share my story.
To start at the beginning, three years ago my husband died unexpectedly after a brief, vicious joust with cancer. Aside from the slight belly and fondness of red wine, he was perfectly healthy, swam every other day and was full of life – until he suddenly wasn’t.
My husband was a planner. Consequently, we had holidays booked, savings plans in place, we’d even put in an expression of interest in a retirement community close to the beach. We assumed this was a long way off and even laughed about moving into the “old people’s home” after we’d travelled Australia.
I was devastated when he died; it was as if a cyclone had ripped through my life, laying my past, present and future to waste, and leaving behind a broken, empty landscape.
I don’t’ know how I survived those first few months, but the despair seemed endless and vast.
When the offer came through for the two-bedroom townhouse in our retirement community, my immediate response was to pass on it. My son convinced me otherwise, using all those phrases you never want to hear: “rattling around an empty house”, “got to get on with your life” and, worst of all, “Dad would want you to”.
Moving was such a trauma that I left the whole job up to my children; bless them, they did their best to make it as painless as possible. I couldn’t even say goodbye to the house; I couldn’t bear to see the empty rooms.
My son cajoled me into “making an effort”, so I tried my best, introducing myself to the neighbours, resisting the urge to run away when anyone tried to make conversation with me. Everyone was very welcoming – and curious. They quickly got to the crux of my story. I remember the jab of pain the first time someone categorised me: “So you’re a widow.”
Despite my best efforts and the initial friendliness, I failed to make any friends in my new community and wondered if I’d made a terrible mistake. Was it my imagination, or were people avoiding me?
About three months after I moved, I had a visitor who changed my life.
My neighbour across the way was a man called George. At 88 he was a small man with a shiny bald head, constantly bursting with energy. George was the self-appointed community entertainment organiser who coordinated trips, concerts, lunches for anyone who was willing.
He sat in my living room with a kind smile and his hands clasped together and told me that I wasn’t going to make any friends in the community if I didn’t ‘lighten up’.
“Truth is, we’re in the waiting room for heaven right now and no one wants to spend their time stuck with someone who is sad all the time,” he said.
I was so shocked that I can’t remember what I said or what happened next. But days later, once the anger and hurt had worn off, the meaning of what he was trying to say began to sink in: it was time to give up my grief and get back to living.
I’d love to tell you that the change was instantaneous and the sun came out from behind a cloud, but that would be a lie. Truth is, my grief is still there and I feel it always will be. But I did start putting on makeup again, smiling more, accepting invitations and spending more time outside my own four walls. Despite his harsh words, George made sure I was included in community events, and each and every one got easier. I’ve made new friends, reconnected with old ones and some days I really feel I’ve ‘lightened up’.
Having finally found a comfortable place between life and loss, the best advice I can pass on to you is this: fake it. Try smiling even when you don’t feel like it. Say yes to a function when all you want to do is stay home. Living eventually overtakes grieving and before you know it you’ve gone a whole day without feeling sad.
Have you suffered deep grief? How did you come through it? Share your experiences to help others.