Losing a Life Partner
Former newspaper lifestyle editor Cara Swann has a different take on the subject. She is childfree by choice and lost her spouse several years ago. She generously offered to share her experiences with BellaOnline readers. I sent her my questions about this difficult subject and she responded with surprisingly upbeat answers and attitude. Following is our conversation.
Lori: So many people say that they think their kids will be their support if they are widowed - that they will in fact deal with their pain and loss by living for their kids. What support systems/people, if any, helped you cope with your loss, and why do you think so many people think they can rely on children to help them cope with the loss of a life partner?
Cara: I've always heard the same thing: that children are often the reason for living when one loses a spouse. However, since my late husband and I chose not to have children, we never lived by the philosophy of children as the reason to live. We had a long, good marriage - but I wouldn't say we lived "for" each other, anymore than parents should live just "for" their children.
When he died, after about a year of mourning (which is common among widows, even those with children), I decided to return to work - as the Lifestyle Editor at our local newspaper. I did find work helped, in that it allowed me to stay busy and be around other people. Some of those I worked with are now good friends, and I have three younger sisters, as well as grown nephews and they are all my support system, since they live nearby. And I have my beloved pets, wonderful companions and a source of unconditional love.
Personally, I will say that I've met and become friends with a few widows. They all have children, and honestly, sometimes the problems they are facing, even at my age (59) or older with grown children, grandchildren, is in some ways more difficult for them. I hear complaints that the grown children don't understand why their mom/dad can't get over it, move on, quit grieving, etc. I am constantly amazed at the lack of understanding felt by these widows/widowers in regards to their offspring.
I am sure that there are some adult children out there who are supportive of their parent in such a situation, but I've not met them. I hear a lot about disappointment that the adult children are not there for them, the way they'd always thought they would be.
Lori: What is your personal story like after the loss of your partner? How did you deal with the grieving process and what happened to you? How did your life develop as time passed?
Cara: I consider my life to be fulfilling, peaceful, happy now. I've learned many new skills that my husband always did - mowing my own lawn, minor handyman tasks, etc. I sold our farm, bought another house, then eventually sold that house and returned to our home in the city. Quite challenging at times. My late husband and I both were fiercely independent, in that we rarely asked others for assistance - but were always quick to help family and friends.
In that way, I've not changed. Yet when I do need help, I hire someone. Occasionally if it's a minor problem, my brother-in-law or nephew will take care of it. The older I get, the more I cherish my peace and quiet; I don't think I could tolerate a houseful of grandchildren anymore now than I could have children when I was younger.
I will say that I've always been somewhat of a solitary person, like alone time, and perhaps don't need the constant company of others the way extroverts do. When I left the newspaper a year ago, I decided to continue writing freelance articles. I meet interesting people, but have my alone time also - a good life, though I will always miss my husband. I really don't have plans to remarry, though of course one never knows what life has in store for them. Fortunately, due to not having children and being vigilant about financial planning, I don't have to work. I may travel some in the future; I'd love to spend more time in Europe.
Lori: When people talk about their fears about not having kids they often cite the fear of growing older alone. How do you cope with this fear? I know this is related to the questions above, but this seems such a visceral fear to many. Why do you think this is so, and how have you coped/thrived as an individual after the loss of your partner?
Cara: You know, I think it is a myth that grown children/grandchildren will take care of you in old age. I've heard so many heart-breaking stories from those who have been devastated by their family's neglect as they aged. It's always wise to prepare for the possibility they won't take care of you, especially when it comes to financial matters. One of my favorite quotes is by Orson Welles: "We're born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we're not alone." No one knows what tomorrow brings, and having a child is not going to assure that you won't grow old alone.
I'm not sure why people fear growing old alone so much, unless they are actually afraid of dying alone. In our current culture, death is hidden away, unseen, even elderly people kept out of sight in nursing homes. But like the over-population issue, it's nearly impossible to have an open, honest examination of this topic with others.
Do I fear becoming infirm, dependent, and unable to care for myself? You bet. But knowing my nature, if I had a child, I'd never want to burden them with the expectation (much less the demand) that they take care of me. That is why it's important to plan financially...so that, hopefully, in such an event, I will be able to hire the help I need. Or move willingly into assisted living; there are some pleasant facilities, and will be even more as the boomers, like myself, age. And one thing I won't be doing: complaining to everyone "my kids never come to see me."
I've coped with being a widow in my own way; the grieving of a widow/widower is always unique to that particular individual. Some never get over it, some go through a period of mourning, and then establish a fulfilling life. I've had my ups and downs, and even at nearly five years, I still have bad days; it's not easy to lose someone with whom you shared most of your life. I don't sit around and wonder "what if" I'd had kids; I never really thought about it much when I was younger, unless a parent chided me that I'd regret not having children when I was old.
I truly believe if I'd had children, I'd have more anxiety now, justified or not, about whether I'd be a burden to them at some point in time, whether they really wanted to spend time with me, why they didn't call, how their lives were developing, their problems or whatever. I have no regrets about the decision not to have children. I'm just thankful that I live in an era when that choice is available via the means to not reproduce.
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