Since I was widowed, family and friends have made extra efforts to draw me out of myself. They make a point of inviting me over, and, at their parties, they are likely to ask me several times how I am doing. Socializing, they keep telling me, is better than “moping around at home.” Their efforts are well-meaning, and I appreciate the concern behind them, but I admit that I accept their invitations out of politeness more than any other reason.
To start with, I am not a person who easily accepts pity or help from others. When I’m sick, mostly I just want to be left alone to get better. I’m not surly with nurses, but I hate feeling helpless or putting people to any trouble for my sake, and twelve years of caring for a chronically ill spouse has only strengthened my preferences. I remain much more accustomed to caring than being cared for.
Just as importantly, what most of my acquaintances don’t realize is that I’m not exactly lacking social opportunities. Even without their special efforts, my social life is more active now than it has been for the last few years, when I was caring for an increasingly fragile partner. I’m now exploring all sorts of events for which I had no time a year ago.
In fact, recently, when someone sat down across from me and earnestly asked, “So, what have you been doing with yourself?” in a tone that suggested that I must have long, empty stretches to fill, I had to suppress a howl of laughter. Far from being eager to seize every opportunity to get out of the house, I have often found myself bowing out of events, just so I could have a quiet night for a change. But I have always moved in several different circles, none of which overlap, so probably few people appreciate how busy I actually am.
Not, you understand, that socializing comes easily to me just now. I usually test as someone balanced almost exactly between extrovert and introvert, but I am learning how to socialize as an individual, instead of half of a couple. Consequently, while I am glad to see people, being with more than two or three at once is a strain. I no longer know that someone automatically has my back. I find, too, that I automatically scan a group every few minutes to check how Trish is doing.
In other words, rather than helping me to forget my situation, being with other people accentuates it. I especially feel my changed situation when an event ends, and I return home, alone and unable to discuss what I’ve just seen with anybody. Sometimes, the better time I have with other people, the worse I feel because of a mixture of guilt at being still alive to enjoy myself and the contrast between my married life and now.
But there’s something else that most of those around me don’t seem to grasp: while I don’t want to cut myself off from people altogether, I don’t always mind being alone, either. Being alone with my memories is the closest I can get to Trish now. Moreover, I have a lot of things to process – not just the mechanics of probate and the winding down of Trish’s affairs, but assimilating the memories of our life together and figuring what I am going to do with the rest of my life. Although I sometimes talk over these matters, I also need to think about them, long and carefully by myself. I’m not going to adjust to the changed conditions of my life if I have no time to mull them over in my mind; right now, I need more time alone than most people do.
I can’t help thinking that, culturally-speaking, we’ve swung from one extreme to another when dealing with grief. Where once we accepted a period of mourning as a natural transition from one stage of life to another, we now view it as unhealthy wallowing in depressing subjects.
I’m sure that many people chafed at the culturally-designated periods of mourning in Victorian society, but our own attitude is no better. Depressing subjects don’t go away because you evade them – if anything, they often become worse if you don’t face them. All the well-meaning people who keep inviting me to places don’t seem to be aware that, for all their good intentions, in the long run they may actually be making me less able to cope instead of more.
But, to some extent, I suspect that all the invitations I receive are extended for the sake of those who make them as much as for me. In our death-denying culture, seeing someone in mourning is an uncomfortable reminder that there are somethings that you can’t escape and can’t mitigate with positive thinking or some other nostrum. If someone in mourning is seen socializing, acting more or less the same as everybody else, then everyone else can forget the unthinkable more easily.
Perhaps all these remarks are unfair to people who are only trying to do me a favor. Knowing exactly how to support someone in mourning is difficult, and I don’t want to suggest that I am ungrateful for the efforts being made on my behalf. Really, I’m not. But I do want to suggest that the situation is more complicated than most people imagine. There is such a thing as trying too hard, and even a well-meaning action can sometimes obstruct rather than help. Some problems, as I am finding, people have to work out in their own way and time.