When couples reach their 60s or 70s they begin to think of retirement. They have worked hard, saved their money and now plan to enjoy themselves. Then, without warning, illness or accident leaves one of them facing old age alone. Many both fear and resent this new situation.
Of course, how you lose your partner makes a difference. For some, it happens suddenly. A woman kisses her husband goodbye, goes to meet a friend for coffee and comes home to find him dead from a heart attack, a beer in one hand, TV remote in the other. Then there is the slow, traumatic death from cancer, or the partner who announces they have met someone else. Indeed, this is becoming increasingly common. Though the divorce rate is generally stable, among those over 60 it has spiralled. So common has this become, such people have been dubbed the “silver splitters.”
However your partnership ended, resist self-pity. The woman whose husband dies suddenly thinks, “why me? I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye.” The husband whose wife dies of cancer thinks the opposite, “why couldn’t it have been quick? Why did I have to see her suffer like that?” The individual whose partner is killed by a drunk motorist struggles to get over the randomness of it all – if only she hadn’t crossed the road at that spot! If only she’d had a cold and missed work that day! And of course having your partner leave you for someone younger is not just upsetting but humiliating.
People often take offence when therapists advise against self-pity, replying that they can’t pretend to be happy. But avoiding self-pity does not mean pretending to be happy. Grief, pain, loneliness and fear are perfectly natural and understandable. Self-pity is different. First of all, the self-pitier is deluded, convinced that she has been singled out by some malevolent power. And this is only fuelled by social media, with its highlight reels of other people’s lives: there they all are, your old college friends, grinning and tanned, sipping cocktails with their partner on a Mediterranean cruise. And here you are, alone, facing the future without the person you love.
The truth of course is that you are not alone. Every year countless people lose their life partner, often in circumstances worse than yours. Therapists do not remind their clients of this to be cruel. No one denies that it is a sad and painful experience. But, though kindness and support help, feeding your self-pity does not. Self-pity is a prison, trapping you in a dark, suffocating little cell. It also makes you difficult to approach, thus deepening your isolation.
Be Prepared for Compassion Fatigue
The brutal truth is that many people simply don’t care about you. And those who do have lives and problems of their own. Eventually, they will become exhausted by your crying and despair – even a little bored. Sooner or later you must pull yourself together and find a way through. Even the kindest heart will drift away unless you make an effort.
A sibling, child or grandchild has their own life. Do not expect too much of them. Your grandson will want to get back to college; your siblings and children have work and bills to pay. Today, almost every problem or complaint can be googled, producing endless advice and information. Every bookshop includes whole sections dedicated to self-help, and even children understand “therapy speak”. Because of this we assume everything has a solution, that everything can be cured or overcome. Unfortunately, this isn’t true. Sometimes you must rely on courage instead.
Taking Care of Yourself
At some point, you are going to have to take responsibility for your future. Even if you are fortunate enough to have children living nearby, or good, close friends, you do not want to become dependent on them. Be careful to avoid self-destructive behavior: drinking too much alcohol, eating bad food, staying in bed until mid-day, and so on. Not only will you damage your physical health, you will also lower your mood, reducing motivation still further.
For many, this becomes a kind of slow suicide; they don’t want to be here, but they do not wish to take their own life in a sudden, violent manner. Instead, they just stop looking after themselves (also a symptom of depression). But that does not mean you drift into a peaceful sleep and never wake up. Instead, it means years of deteriorating health: obesity, diabetes, problems with your knees and ankles, immobility, deepening depression, and so on. In other words, a hellish downward spiral.
Some dislike the very idea of self-care, as though it is somehow self-indulgent. Others, who have been unable to let go of their grief, find it disrespectful. This is understandable. Guilt is a central part of the grieving process and one of the last emotions to disappear.
First, take a look at your diet. Cut down on sugar and junk food and eat more fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and oily fish. These will both improve your physical health and brighten your mood. Be especially wary of comfort eating (also known as “emotional” or “stress” eating). When people feel lonely and sad, they often fill that void with alcohol, drugs or food – especially warm, fatty or sugary food.
Next, get exercising. But don’t overdo it. The best exercise is vigorous enough to cause a sweat but not so extreme that you damage the joints or inflame the body. Yoga, swimming and walking are best. Ideally, do these outside with other people. Yoga and pilates are especially good as they stretch and work every muscle.
Above all, get into a routine. The body loves this (which is why dogs, those little creatures of routine, add years to their owner’s life). So work out a healthy diet and exercise regimen: the same healthy breakfast, the same two-mile walk with the dog, the 30 minute yoga session after lunch, and so on.
Reaching Out to Others
People become irritated when doctors cheerily tell them to “get out there and meet new people.” When you lose your life partner, socializing is often bottom of your list. And it can be tricky. For years, you lived life as a couple. When you went out, it was usually as a pair, often to dinner parties or tennis matches with other couples or mutual friends. Consequently, people don’t know where to begin. Where are you supposed to meet these new friends?
This is especially true for introverts. Quiet, shy people are often drawn to more confident partners, who tend to do the groundwork for them: making the first moves at a party or on vacation, then taking over the conversation when it flags or grows awkward. Now that person has gone. Not only are you grieving and sad, you feel naked and exposed as well. Plus, of course, joining clubs and trying to meet people reminds you of your new, single status.
The key is to be both persistent and realistic. Join as many clubs and societies as you can. It may not be easy, but life never is. At some point you just have to grit your teeth. Do not expect to like everyone there, however. You aren’t joining these places to befriend everyone. Instead, filter out the one or two people you like. In any case, the cure for loneliness isn’t random strangers. On the contrary, the wrong people will make you feel lonelier than ever. You cure loneliness by developing intimacy.
The difficulty – and this is true at any age – comes when you try to move from a casual acquaintance to a deep and intimate friendship. Begin by considering whether you are open and receptive. Are you good company? It’s futile to complain that no one reaches out to you. What do you expect? The world owes you nothing. People are not duty-bound to be your friend. If you are miserable, whiny and boring, who would want to spend time with you?
The best friendships usually begin with a shared passion. Unfortunately, many people seem interested in nothing but money, sports and reality TV shows. The old cliché is true – the bored really are boring. So take an interest in as many new things as you can. Don’t be afraid. Take a leap out of your comfort zone.
Once you have made a new friend, do not allow the relationship to falter. If you meet at some kind of club or society, you need to move the relationship away from that setting. Going to new places and chatting to people in a polite, superficial manner is relatively easy. Moving from that to something more intimate is hard. It can also be a little awkward and embarrassing, almost as uncomfortable as asking someone out on a romantic date. Sometimes you will misread the signals; sometimes you will be rejected. That’s just the risk you run.
When you do meet up, be as informal as possible. And be open and intimate. Friendship begins when you relax and let people in. Just don’t rush things or force the pace – few traits are so off-putting as neediness.
The more focussed you are on yourself, the more lonely, depressed or frightened you will be. So embrace anything that lifts you out of yourself. Mindfulness meditation would be a good place to start. Numerous guides are available (Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now is very good), but the basics are simple enough. In essence, you learn to detach from, and then observe, your own thoughts and emotions. At first this seems strange, but that is because you assume consciousness and thought are synonymous. In fact, you can be fully conscious without thinking – the “empty mind” state sought by all meditators.
If mindfulness does not appeal, get out into the natural world. And fully immerse yourself when you do: swim in the ocean, lie on the grass, look at the stars and breathe deeply. Take an interest in your garden as well. Nothing heals and soothes you like growing something – even if it is only in a pot on your balcony. Allow the natural world to remind you how brief and insignificant you really are. You could even buy a telescope and learn about astronomy. Or take classes in astrophysics, botany, natural history, etc. And read plenty of popular science books. This may sound like odd advice, but anything that shifts your mind away from yourself will help.
Aging without your life partner can be lonely and difficult. No one denies this. Sadly, it is a brutal fact of life. But it is a fact you can cope with.