I became an unexpected widow and Solo Ager at age 63. Despite my husband’s diagnosis of lymphoma, considered one of the better cancers for remission, I never thought he would die. Yet, after five years of chemotherapy and a failed stem-cell transplant, it happened. On that day, I became a Solo Ager.
Losing a spouse is painful—it’s like losing your second half. For some it’s the hardest part of life; for others it can make them stronger. For me, it was both. I am not alone in this experience. In 2021, there were 11.6 million widows in the United States (Statistica, 2023), with 2,800 new widows daily. The average age of a widow was 59 (Balasek, 2022).
The challenges of new widowhood were many, such as coming home to an empty house. That meant returning from a business trip, event, movie, or presentation, walking through the front door and confronting the deafening quiet and emptiness.
Then there was tradition. My husband Lloyd died between the Jewish high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a day of prayer and fasting. For decades I have hosted a break-the-fast meal. I remember wondering, “Can I do this?” Tradition doesn’t give you much choice; it does not acknowledge “I don’t have time” or “it’s just too much work.” I did host the meal and for the first time faced the empty seat at my dining room table. That was painful. New responsibilities such as paying bills and learning more about insurance were relatively easy tasks compared to addressing the emotional vacuum of being a Solo Ager.
Family and friends were supportive. They sent me books, articles, and reports about the grieving process. The words struck me as interesting but did little to fill the void or lessen the grief. Having worked in the field of aging for many years, I was well acquainted with the work of Kübler-Ross and the grieving process. I taught about grief to new and young financial advisors who were learning how to speak with recent widows to address their financial needs. Although I knew some of the literature, reading the articles and books felt like an intellectual exercise.
The support group offered catharsis, but I wanted tools, techniques, and suggestions for coping and adjusting.
Then I reached what is considered to be the appropriate time to reconnect with the world. I attended a nonprofit board meeting after observing a seven-day mourning when a colleague greeted me, looking shocked, and said, “I am very surprised to see you here today.” I wasn’t sure if I should apologize for showing up or just assure him that I was OK. It was an awkward moment.
For this Solo Ager, work and nonprofit activities were saviors. Writing my weekly syndicated column on Successful Aging forced me to stay informed and to produce. Speaking engagements and presenting seminars took me to new venues. Showing up at meetings provided ways to remain connected to colleagues and issues. I had somewhere to go with my mind and soul, something to occupy the empty space.
Upon the recommendation of a college roommate, who is also a Solo Ager and a widow, I agreed to join a support group, knowing its value. My expectation was to find some guidance, but very little occurred. As with most support groups, the conversations focused on shared feelings and experiences—a group catharsis, and it felt good to know I was not alone. But I wanted tools, techniques, and suggestions for coping and adjusting. Perhaps that was difficult to achieve because members in the group were at different phases in their grieving processes and had different needs. Some were literally paralyzed; they couldn’t wash their dishes or do their laundry, and could barely get out of bed. Others seemed to be managing well.
Our final session was memorable, one I hoped would bring some closure. We were asked to bring a photo of our loved one, a candle, and some prepared remarks about them to share with the group. At that final session we went around the room, one by one. Individuals carefully lit their candle, shared their photo, and made some remarks, with several members in tears. I was a wreck and felt I was attending 10 funerals all at once. There was no closure.
I decided it was up to me to make this support-group experience work and thought about doing something beyond myself that would make me feel better. I asked permission from the facilitator to engage our group members in helping me write my column addressing “What to Say—or Not to Say—When a Spouse Passes Away,” based upon each group member’s experience. All agreed enthusiastically to participate. The column was the perfect platform.
Here were their suggestions:
- “Stay in touch. Send emails, greeting cards for different holidays and make telephone calls. ‘Just thinking of you’ goes a long way.”
- “Be the planner/initiator. Instead of asking, ‘What do you want to do?’ Say, ‘I’ll pick you up at 5:00 and we’ll go to Emilio’s café for dinner.’”
- “Be honest. Say, ‘I don’t really know how your feel. I just want you to know that I will always be here for you.’ Then make sure you are there.”
- “Share dinners. Suggest a potluck; you are the company for dinner. Days can become very long.”
- “Give a hug. A warm and caring embrace provides a wonderful feel-good moment.”
- “Give permission. Tell her it is OK to talk about her deceased husband. Shedding a tear or two is equally acceptable.”
- “Suggest overnight company. Ask her if she would like a house guest for the night. This helps fill a void, at least for an evening.”
The group suggested avoiding these well-intended phrases.
- “I really know how you feel.”
- “He is better off.”
- “Are you dating yet?”
- “You’ll get over it.”
- “You just need to keep busy.”
- “With such a big house, you really should move.”
- “’You’re young,’ implying you always can remarry.”
I am an unexpected Solo Ager. Although it has been 20 years, I still get teary-eyed when I hear Louis Armstrong sing, “It’s a Wonderful World,” the song to which Lloyd and I last danced together at our daughter’s wedding. I get emotional when I pick up a book from his library on journalism, politics, and economics and read the phrases he underlined and the notations in the margins. I get emotional when his name is read in synagogue on the anniversary of his death and when I recite the traditional kaddish prayer.
Perhaps the grieving process never ends. Rather, it morphs into occasional moments of sadness followed by wonderful memories that elevate. It’s the latter that matters most.
Helen Dennis, MA, is a columnist, author, lecturer, and a specialist in aging and the new retirement. She lives in Redondo Beach, CA, and can be contacted at Helendenn@gmail.
Photo caption: Helen Dennis with her husband Lloyd.
Photo credit: Courtesy Helen Dennis.
Balasek, K. (2022). Widows are younger than you think. Rethinking65. https://bit.ly/3Ti9IOo
Statistica. (2023). Marital status of the United States population in 2021, by sex (in millions). www.statista.com/statistics/242030/marital-status-of-the-us-population-by-sex/