Lesbianing with AE! Finding Life After Loss

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This week Lindsey answers a tough question about life after a very difficult loss.

I am 59 years old and my wife died in November, 2015.  She had a chronic illness for years which progressively got worse.  We were together 33 years.  Even though I knew she was getting worse, I refused to believe that she was dying.  I was devastated when she died and still feel adrift most of the time.  I hate being alone and loved being a couple. I know I need to move forward and stop living in the past, I’m just not certain how.  I’ve been seeing a therapist for over a year which has helped some.  I don’t want to be alone for the rest of my life but than feel guilty when I even think about trying to meet someone.  I’m not close to my family nor do I have any close friends.  We tended to just keep to ourselves and were focused on her declining health.  I need advice as to how to slowly crawl out of the hole that I’ve been living in.  Thank you.

-Sad and miserable

Getty Images

Getty Images

Dear Sad & Miserable,

I am so sorry for your loss.

I know that I’m no one to you, but sometimes it helps to have your pain recognized, even by strangers on the internet. So I’ll say it again: I am so sorry that you lost your wife.

Have you been to a grief support group? It can be helpful to talk to others who have lost their spouses, children, parents, lovers, siblings, or close friends.

These people who are going through a similar experience as you are will hold you lightly, yet intimately, and maybe when they express their condolences over your loss it will resonate with you as being truer than the intentions of other well-wishers, because they move through their grief the same way you do. Daily. As best they can, when they can. With gentleness when it overwhelms.

If you live in a large enough city that there’s an LGBTQ grief support group, that’s wonderful. If there’s nothing specifically LGBTQ-inclusive, please don’t let your fear of being the only lesbian in the room prevent you from going to these spaces.

Don’t let your fear of moving on prevent you from working through your grief or giving yourself permission to live your full life and (when you are ready) be part of a couple.

Your wife would not want you to be stuck like this. Maybe she never told you that before she died, maybe she couldn’t acknowledge it either, but let me assure you, your wife would want you to honor her memory by living.

Life is a gift and it’s short and she’s gone and nothing you do will bring her back to you. Staying stuck in your grief will not bring her back to you.

Your wife would not want you to be stuck like this. Maybe she never told you that before she died, maybe she couldn’t acknowledge it either, but let me assure you, your wife would want you to honor her memory by living. Life is a gift and it’s short and she’s gone and nothing you do will bring her back to you. Staying stuck in your grief will not bring her back to you.

I know it’s easy to wallow in your memories because the idea of letting in something new is terrifying.

But something new does not have to mean letting go of your wife and the love you shared.

A year ago, nearly, I lost my dog. He was 16, and he couldn’t really walk or hear or see. He loved to snuggle beside me on the sofa, and he loved to go for walks in the neighborhood — we pushed him in a baby stroller — and he loved to eat everything we gave him.

Toward the end we were generous: Cream of wheat, bananas, scraps of vegetables, eggs, bits of cheese, beer, a slice of birthday cake, beer, wine, because it didn’t matter anymore. He was dying for months, slowly, and I knew it and didn’t want to know it, equally.

I woke up in the middle of the night when he howled in confusion, from a spot on the rug where he’d fallen after peeing in his dog bed and trying to get himself up and getting stuck, because his back legs barely moved. I placed him on the sofa beside me but he couldn’t get comfortable, so we tried one side and then the other and eventually he slept or else panted beside me until I slept. I tried to read a magazine. I got a glass of whiskey, and then another, because it didn’t matter anymore, because he was dying and he was my best friend and there was nothing I could do for him except take the very best care of him I could, until there was nothing I could do except hold him while the vet administered euthanasia drugs.

And then move on from that horrible moment to the next, to the next, until his last day was over and I began my first day without my best friend. And into the next day, figuring out what I needed and giving myself permission to be a mess.

I knew he was dying and it was still an impossible task, to love him and to let him go. And yet I had to go through it, as you do now. Yes, you’ve let your wife go, but you are still carrying her, and the weight of carrying for her, and the burden of loneliness at no longer being part of a couple.

I’ve moved on, in a sense. I have my old dog’s ashes on the bookcase, and every time I make popcorn I place a piece on his little urn. Grief sneaks up on me; I cry when something reminds me of him. Like right now, in telling you this story. Grief isn’t done with me, and I don’t know when it will be.

But I’m able to tell my favorite pet stories and laugh and smile, and I have a tattoo of him on my arm so he’s with me always, and I have new dogs who are different from him and that helps.

You need to find your own way through your grief. So, a grief support group will let you vocalize what you’re feeling to people you don’t need to pretend to. It will let you be honest with the raw and real emotions – pain, anger, sadness, guilt.

Whatever you’re feeling. Feel it. Let it out.

Then step out into the light.

That’s how you move forward. Before you put the memories of your lost love in a box beneath the bed. Before you feel ready. Before you have a plan.

By making one decision, one day at a time, to honor the future, even if you aren’t sure what shape it will take.

If there’s an LGBT center near you, go to it. Attend an event, then stay and mingle after and say hello.

If there’s no LGBT center, find peers who you can do something with, whether it’s a book club or a walking group.

If all you can manage right now is leaving the house alone, go see a movie or attend an art exhibit. Take a walk in a botanical garden. Leave the house looking vaguely put-together, maybe in the shirt your wife always liked.

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Focus on creating connection with other people. That’s something you lost as you and your wife built your own little world, cutting yourselves off from others as you grew closer to one another. Give yourself permission to socialize, and be open to whatever the experience brings.

Be honest about your past. Maybe develop an elevator pitch if you’re nervous about explaining who and where you are. All you need to say is, “I’m Eleanor. Here’s what I do for work, and I also took care of my wife who died two years ago of a chronic illness.”

Say it out loud until it doesn’t sound scary. Honor your truth.

Any decent and caring person who meets you in a social setting won’t be scared off by that information, or judge you, or think anything other than compassionate thoughts toward you.

At the same time, brainstorm things to talk about that aren’t your sad past (or present). Maybe come up with 5 other things to talk about, whether it’s your job or your newfound love of bicycling or your pet cat.

If you can’t come up with safe conversation topics, get out there on your own until you have some things you can say.

Don’t feel guilty about exploring. Your world narrowed down before your wife got sick, and then it narrowed way down with the illness and with playing caretaker. You’ve got to open it back up.

This might feel forced for a while, so if you feel silly or stupid then acknowledge your feelings, take a breath, and let them go. You feel a little silly. Well, okay, it happens. Keep doing the thing you are doing. One day, you’ll slip from feeling self-conscious about what you’re doing to doing it, with no remove. You’ll be in the present without also being in the past simultaneously.

Reconnect with old friends, even if it’s been a long time. You say that you have no close friends, but I imagine there are people you used to know and lost touch with. Friend them on Facebook, or meet for coffee. Take a weekend getaway and stay in a hotel, if you need to. Or talk on the phone, long into the night, as you put on the kettle for tea or nibble on a cookie.

Stretching yourself will feel uncomfortable. That’s normal.

Give yourself permission to try anything you’ve wanted to try. You’ve been caring for your wife for decades. I”m sure you once intended to learn a new language or hike the tallest mountain near you, and never got around to it.

Now is your time to do this. Now is your time to tend to your needs. If nothing else it will make you more interesting, and it will pass the time.

Stretching yourself will feel uncomfortable. That’s normal. Give yourself permission to try anything you’ve wanted to try. You’ve been caring for your wife for decades. I”m sure you once intended to learn a new language or hike the tallest mountain near you, and never got around to it. Now is your time to do this. Now is your time to tend to your needs. If nothing else it will make you more interesting, and it will pass the time.

As you develop new habits and form connections, give yourself permission to move forward in love if the opportunity presents itself. Once you’ve made platonic connections to others, this will feel easier and less threatening than it feels right now.

You’ll know when it’s the right time to begin dating. Maybe you’ll feel a spark with someone in your salsa dancing class, or you’ll finally let your new friend set up an online dating profile for you. There’s no timeline for when to do this, so let your heart guide you. Listen, wait, and trust.

You sound like a caring and generous person. You loved your wife and you took care of her through a long, difficult illness. That took grit and determination, love and strength, hard work and a high tolerance for stress.

Getty Images

Getty Images

Once a month, the local OLOC chapter (Old Lesbians Organizing for Change) holds a supper club at a local restaurant. Even though we aren’t in the target demographic, my wife and I have gone a few times. Everyone’s been warm and welcoming. There are couples and singles, women who’ve been together for decades and newish couples who found one another later in life.

I don’t have to take it on faith when I tell you that there are older women out there who would love to meet someone with your generous spirit, whether for friendship or for romance. I know there are. Please, go find your people. I promise they are waiting, and they will be kind, and they will make space not only for you, but for the memories you have of your wife.

You’ve got the skills to handle your own healing. Think of it as the last gift you give your wife, in memory. Be the beautiful, beloved and happy person that you were to her – to yourself, to your friends, to a new partner.

If you have a question for Lindsey, write us at memoree@afterellen.com with “Q for Lindsey” in the subject line.

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