Surprisingly enough, our new lives don’t start with a beginning, they start with an ending. This is common for all adult transitions. In our case, the ending seems super obvious, the suicide, but it’s actually so much subtler than that. Yes, the suicide throws us into immediate crisis and change, but the event of sudden widowhood starts a slow cascade of transition in the same way that one tipped domino sends a line of them tumbling. Because our roles are intertwined so tightly it’s very likely, at some point, that you will start to question other aspects of the life you lived prior to your partner’s death. The mental toughness you had to develop to survive will be enough to throw a new light on your circumstances and relationships.
If you think about your life as a whole, you will see that transition and development as a person didn’t stop when you grew up. You can probably think of a number of times when your interests, priorities, and circumstances caused you to enter a time of transition; the experience of first becoming a mother, changing your mind about a career choice, learning to manage a disability or chronic illness. Transitions can be spurred by quiet internal changes, like growing dissatisfaction, disenchantment, and disengagement from a job that ultimately results in you looking for new work, or by sudden and obvious external changes like marriage or a geographic move.
William Bridges, author or the book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes tells us that there are four basic characteristics of adult transition periods.
First, when we’re in transition we tend to come back to our old activities in new ways. We don’t see them the same as before. If you are dissatisfied with aspects of your life that you used to take for granted, that would be normal. You had to survive a terrible, terrible trauma, perhaps the worst of your life, and you may not feel like putting up with the status quo.
Second, every transition begins with an ending. So we have to go through a process of ending our marriages inside ourselves long after the day we became widows. And maybe we have to take on external roles we never considered before- like fixing things or managing our finances, and we have to become single women, really become them, and this might bring out all kinds of anxieties, depending upon how long you were married and how independent you were. I know that personally I struggled with the fear that I might grow old and die alone, and that I might never find another partner. It’s important during this time of identity struggle, to be honest about how you feel and what you’re afraid of. Only look for new love when you feel thoroughly OK as a single person.
And you might find yourself struggling with changed expectations in other areas of your life. Maybe work isn’t as satisfying as it used to be, you need to make more money now, or you want to move somewhere that provides a more nurturing environment for you. Relationships with friends and family can be changing too. Maybe during the tough days, you found that certain people disappointed you with their lack of support. Do you want them in your life now? Is forgiveness important now or would you rather be certain that your support system is actually supportive. In summary, you may just find that you need to live a more honest and authentic life than you used to, especially if you had to dance around unhealthy behaviors in your partner.
Third, there are two styles of managing endings. Either we rush through them or stall, resisting moving forward into them. Both reasons boil down to not wanting to feel the pain of letting go. How are you managing all the changing thoughts and emotions of this phase of your recovery? If you rush too fast into a new life and new relationship, you lose the chance to grow in ways that life is calling you to. If you don’t move at all, due to fear of failure or grief, you can get stuck.
Fourth, we don’t find our beginning after we finally work through the ending. We find no man’s land, a neutral zone where we aren’t where we’re going but we’re not where we’ve just left. You just are going to have to put up with this. It’s profoundly difficult to feel the ongoing echoes of grief, and a great sense of uncertainty about your future simultaneously. But things will work themselves out and you will get to tomorrow, more at peace than you thought possible.