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Notes on Widowhood
My volunteer experience at Elders in Action began about six years ago after my husband of 40 years passed away in 1999. At that time I was quite interested in learning about the lives of other widows and widowers and wanted to be able to help them adapt to the life changes they, as well as I, were facing. I was lucky enough to meet quite a few widows in my assignments as a volunteer ombudsman (now personal advocate) at Elders in Action and I met quite a few widows as well in my daily activities. Statistics show a sizable proportion of the senior population is widowed.
Over time I became aware through my contacts and my own experience that the grieving process, which is part of the transition many of us must make from the companionship of marriage to being once again on our own, is not only a time of deep emotional disturbance (really of emotional sickness) but that it also holds physical dangers that are not mentioned in the literature of grief. Also, as far as I can determine, these dangers are seldom discussed by the grief support groups that exist both online and in various formal settings, hospitals, churches, etc.
The way widowhood is regarded by the public in general appears to leave out important facts. I would like to contribute what I have learned to today's volunteer personal advocates at Elders in Action who work with widows and widowers. I feel that today's advocates can give needed assistance to their clients if they are aware of dangers that exist for widows and widowers, especially in the first year after losing a partner.
I began to realize that the time of emotional imbalance and loss, trying to adjust to the many changes that were happening after I became a widow, made me very inattentive to daily physical events. An example was that one day I became slowly aware that the house was full of smoke and I felt a sharp fear that the house was on fire. It took me quite a while to see the truth, that the wood stove I was then using for heat had been neglected and the flue was closed which caused the smoke to back up into the house. A simple adjustment of the flue and opening a window let the smoke out. It also made it imperative that I install smoke alarms (suggested by my daughter) which I hadn't thought about.
This is only one example. Another is that, through not watching closely enough where I was walking, I fell many times in the yard. I always picked myself up and wasn't seriously hurt, but this was not usual for me, I had never fallen before, and it simply happened through not paying attention. It is necessary for widows and widowers to realize that there is a kind of mental sickness and inattentiveness that are part of the grieving process.
I met others who were in even more dangerous situations. It was near Christmas in 2002 when I spoke to a widow who said that she didn't care about her own life and didn't look when she crossed busy streets, thinking that it didn't matter if she died, in fact that being killed by traffic would be an easy way to go and that she could then join her husband in heaven. I pleaded with her to be more attentive, that it was very important that she now look out for herself, that she was important, her own life was important, not to mention the lives of her children. After our discussion, she said that she thought I was right and that she would not take such chances in the future. She was cheerful enough to wish me a Merry Christmas when we parted. This true story bothered me so much that I wrote a piece for "The Oregonian" about it (December 18, 2002: "Commentary: In My Opinion"). After this appeared, I received several letters from others who had passed through the same time of dangerous inattention, even one who had walked out into traffic near the Powell Book Store downtown (and survived).
There have been many studies of the grieving process of widows and widowers that mention illnesses that occur after a loved one has died--people tend not to eat right or sleep well then, but the dangers of physical accident are seldom mentioned (accidents include automobile accidents). You who are active volunteers helping seniors and the disabled are in a position to contribute greatly not only to the understanding and but possibly the physical safety of your clients If you would like to contact Mary concerning this blog, you may do so through firstname.lastname@example.org
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