Many well spouses are alone even though they are married. Their partners often cannot participate in the things they loved to do. Most well spouses realize the odds that they will outlive their partners. The various chronic illnesses progress and eventually win the battle.
It is just how things are. When there is an illness that progresses and has no cure, there is only one outcome, and sadly, it is death. The thought of that time, and of being alone, is sometimes difficult for spouses to even imagine. What will it mean to be alone, for those who have cared for another over 10 or 20 years? What will they feel? How will they cope? I interviewed several newly widowed spouses who told me they prepared for this end and were ready for it. Or at least as ready as anyone could be.
“People constantly ask me if I’m afraid to be alone, especially at night,” exclaims Anita. “They forget that I’ve ‘lived alone,’ on-and-off for years. First it was the short-term hospital stays. Then, came the ones lasting several months and finally, the nursing home.
Realistically, I guess I’ve been living alone for almost four years now. Yes, there is a difference. This time being alone isn’t temporary. But, still, I’m used to being alone. I’m surprised people forget that, in a way, circumstances prepared me for this over the past few years.”
“One of the smartest things I did during the years of illness was to keep doing some of the activities I loved to do. It was hard to find the time and the company to continue going to the Theater Center after the illness struck. It was something we used to do together. But my wife couldn’t manage it any more. She didn’t want me to give it up. So, over time, I arranged for someone to be with her the night of the play, and I went to the theater with an old friend. At first we said we’d go when there was a play we wanted to see. But that didn’t work. A whole year went by, and we never went to see a play. Maybe I felt guilty because I could still do something my wife couldn’t. But I knew I needed to do this for my own health, and maybe I thought of the future as well.
So the next year, I suggested we get season tickets. That way I could prepare supports for my wife well-in-advance, and I knew I’d have six plays to look forward to. Now that she’s gone, I’ve continued going to the plays. It helps with the loneliness. I don’t think I would have gone out if it wasn’t already set up three years before.”
“My wife and I tried to keep our sense of humor. We laughed when the wheelchair knocked down a glass display in the supermarket. Everyone was so scared, and we were laughing. It helped me later, to have these good memories. We tried to focus our anger at the illness where it belonged, and not each other. That way we could hate the illness together and talk about our feelings more openly. Now that she’s gone, I can look back and appreciate the bizarre adventure we had because of the illness. It’s a lot better than only focusing on the negative. If we did that, I think I would have died along with her.”
“It took me years, but when I began to accept that the illness wasn’t going to go away, I started to make a life for myself within the marriage. I refused to believe that when one is sick, two must suffer. So with my husband’s support I did a bit of traveling on my own. I also continued to go out with friends once in a while. I tried very hard not to lose touch with those friends or with myself. It was hard to find the time and cope with the guilt that came from others’ comments. Like ‘Are you sure you should go?’ ‘How will he manage while you’re away?’ But I pushed myself. And my support group helped. It was a matter of survival. It helped me survive the period of illness and it helped me survive his death. I knew I still had a life to live.”
We are often told that the most successful marriages are those where you come together as two separate beings and join your life together. But being together does not mean that you are living each other’s lives. By continuing to live your own life together within a marriage you help your partner and the relationship grow. After all, Hashem made Eve to be an “Ezer K’negdo” for Adam (a helpmate opposite him). When Adam and Eve were so wrapped up in one life, Hashem took them apart so they could be individuals growing separately, as well as together within the relationship.
These well spouses I interviewed continued to live their lives as individuals within the relationship, despite the chronic illness of their partners. They continued to “smell the roses” instead of seeing the thorns. They encouraged their spouses, as they were able, to do the same. They focused on living. They focused on what was good in their marriage and their life, no matter how small. In this way they enlarged the positive perspective in their lives. And as a result, prepared for their spouse’s death, when they would truly be alone.
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