They say you can get away with anything if you walk purposefully and carry a clipboard. At times of uncertainty we all look for the person who seems to know what they’re doing but those are the times when it is most important to be that person in your life.
Okay, let’s be honest: none of us really know what we’re doing. At best we know what did or didn’t work last time. But today is everyone’s first crack at today and tomorrow morning we’ll all be beginners again.
What you are an expert in is what feels right for you, from moment to moment. Another person’s experience of being widowed or bereaved might help you or it might not. It’s your call.
So to help the clipboard seekers and to ensure you don’t get made part of someone else’s plan that doesn’t suit you, I suggest you state what you intend to happen next. You don’t need to know how you’re going to do it. You don’t have to be held hostage to it – you are always allowed to change your mind. But today and tomorrow and the next day, plant your stick in the sand and say, ‘this is how it’s going to be’. That way everyone knows – for one day at least – where they stand.
Seeing their child widowed is heartbreaking for a parent. It’s common for them to want to take you back under their wing and start, well, as they see it, looking after you and as an adult might see it, treating you like a child. Alternatively, if your parents have traditionally relied on you to look after them and now you’re not up to it, they might start to unravel.
You need to look after you and your children first. That is your biggest and most important statement. Always.
If you have dependent parents, talk to a carers’ charity about finding alternative forms of support. If your parents are smothering you, enlist help in trying to sort out some boundaries. They’re grieving the loss of your partner too. If you’d like to be fussed over for a few weeks and then go back to being a grown-up, let them know.
Most people have a role in a family and whether you’re usually the peacemaker, the baby or the fixer, everyone will be unsure about how your bereavement affects that order. For a day or two at least. Then someone will make a move that either resumes the old order or sets a new dynamic into action. Be that person or be ready for them.
Do not allow yourself to become everyone’s free babysitter unless that’s a role you would eagerly choose for yourself. If you were the peacemaker or fixer, you need those skills for your own life right now so be ready to delegate the dealing with other people’s problems to the owners of the problems.
If this feels like a worrying loss of control or status, talk to therapist or family therapist about navigating a path to a new role for yourself. Don’t fall into the trap of avoiding your own feelings of grief and loss by getting tangled up in other people’s stuff.
They are not your in-laws anymore. Is this a good or a bad thing? Chances are they’ll feel as uncertain as you about what to do now. They’re worried you’ll meet a new partner and they’ll never see their grandchildren again. You might be worried that they want you to spend all your spare time with them and you don’t know how to ask for some space.
It will help if you set expectations sooner rather than later. How do you feel about a weekly phone call, a monthly visit and a weekend stay twice a year? What do they need from you in order to feel that you still care about them? How do you feel about stating what you want?
There are some excellent books around on coping with in-laws, if you can handle all the assumptions about having a living partner. Alternatively, as always, most therapists see in-laws issues every day.
Step children and sort of step children
Your partner’s children from a previous relationship might have been a huge part of your life but if you haven’t legally adopted them, and more so if you and your partner weren’t married, they could easily drop out of your life. Whatever age they are, their wishes should come first. However, if you don’t make it clear that you’d like them to continue being part of your life, they might assume you’re not bothered.
Tell them and everyone around them that you intend to maintain a positive bond with them. Ask if they’d like to call round or to meet for pizza, once a week, once a fortnight or once a month. Listen to them. Be ten times more patient than you think is humanly possible. Learn about how children deal with grief.
If you’re the first widowed person in your group of friends, and even if you’re the fifth, they are going to be worried about doing the right thing by you. In their panic, they might not think to ask you what you need and merely go on what they’ve picked up from films and anecdotes.
It can be hard to ask directly for what you want but try it. For example: I’m scared and very tired. Could you phone me each morning to make sure I’m okay but please don’t try to drag me out to lunch until I say I’m up to it? Or: I don’t know what I want but can you come round and watch tv with me?
I’ve yet to meet a widowed person who hasn’t lost a few – and sometimes a lot – of friends. It happens. It feels horrible but don’t brood over it too much. It was good while it lasted. Hold on to the happy memories then go out and find new friends. (In Issue 11 we wrote 50 Ways to Meet New People and it’ll be up on our website in mid-January)
When you’re telling other people how it’s going to be, it’ll help a lot if you remind yourself. Some possibilities:
I need to look after myself and my children first
My spare time, spare room, spare energy, is mine. I need these things for myself right now.
Your problems are your business. I am busy rebuilding my life
I love keeping in touch with my stepkids
I like to see my in-laws once a month
My parents have been great but now I need to find my feet again
I welcome friends who can accept me as I am
First published in Issue 13 Widows and Widowers magazine
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