By Dr. Joyce Brothers
Six years ago I devised an exercise I called "the widow game" to help Trudy, a woman I had known for several years. Trudy complained that her husband was so unutterably dull that she was considering divorce or, at the very least, taking a lover. She spent hours fantasizing how great life would be without him. It was a classic case of what is commonly termed the "seven-year itch." which afflicts women as well as men.
Despite her complaints, I felt the marriage could be revitalized. "Before you do or say anything irrevocable." I told her. “I want you to try a psychological exercise. I think it will teach you something about yourself that will surprise you. I call it 'the widow game.' I want you to pretend that your husband is dead."
She rolled her eyes. She shrugged. She sighed. But she agreed.
"As of this minute you are a widow." I instructed her. "and you are going to be a widow for the next seven days. When you wake up tomorrow, pretend that he is not lying there beside you. You have no one to talk to. You drink your coffee alone. In the course of the day, you are to do all the things you usually depend on him to do. Take out the garbage. Put up a curtain rod. Call the garage to complain about the bill for tuning up the car. Bring in the logs for the fireplace. Stop by the liquor store on your way home from work. Whatever.
"If it is something that you cannot cope with by yourself, then pretend that you have to find someone to do it for you. As nearly as you can, lead the life you would lead if he were not there.
"If he does not feel like having sex one night, imagine what it would be like not to have sex with him ever again. If you wake up in the middle of the night and feel comforted just to have him there beside you, think how you will feel all those nights when you wake up and there is no one there.
"If he pays you a compliment or thanks you for something or gives you a present, think how it is going to be without his thoughtfulness and appreciation the rest of your life. If he tells you something interesting that went on at work or a joke that he heard, think how it is going to be without his sharing his life with you.
"Don't cheat by telling yourself that if he were not in your life, there would be someone else, someone more stimulating, more attractive, sexier. Chances are that there would not be. Remember that without him, you will join the ranks of the 7.3 million unmarried women. According to the last census, there are 7.3 million more marriageable women than men. Even if you should manage to find another man, you could not be sure he would be a better husband.
"When the week is over," I told her, "let yourself rejoice that you are not a widow, that he is still there beside you sharing your life. Be grateful for all those things you don't have to do by yourself.'"
Trudy called me at the end of the week. "You were right," she said. "Life without him would be terrible. He brought me coffee in bed Sunday morning, the way he always does, and I burst into tears. I was thinking that no one would ever love me enough to bring me coffee in bed again. He couldn't figure out what hit me. I told him I was crying because I was so happy."
"The widow game" had been a success. I was happy for Trudy, and I was so pleased that the psychological exercise I had devised worked so well that I included it in my book. What Every Woman Ought to Know About Love and Marriage.
I never dreamed that five short years later I would be a widow myself, one of those leftover women. For me, it was no game. It was cruel reality, much worse than anything I could have imagined.
When my husband died after an eighteen-month battle with cancer. I thought my life was over. There was nothing I wanted to live for. I was full of tears and self-pity. I felt lost and frightened and lonely. I was angry, self-centered, and. in my preoccupation with my grief, I fear I was boring. The truth is that by and large, no matter how calm and controlled and accepting a face she may present to the world, a new widow is miserable and can be a very difficult creature.
What else could she be? The most important person in her life is no longer there. She has lost the love and companionship of the person with whom she has shared much of her life. She has lost status, both social and economic. She has lost her future. She cannot believe what has happened to her. Cannot accept it. "Why me?" she asks over and over again. And there is no answer.
I have always thought of myself as a teacher, sharing my knowledge of psychology through the media, but in the winter of 1989 after Milt died, I became a student again. My subjects were the grim ones - dying and death, fear and grief and loneliness - all subjects that I had written and spoken about hundreds of times; but suddenly they were new to me. No matter how much research you have done, when a whole chunk is torn out of your life, when forty-two years of love and sharing go down the drain (we were engaged for three years and married for thirty-nine), you face the unknown, terra incognita, and it is frightening.
I cannot promise a widow that what I have to say in this book will blunt her raw sense of loss or banish her loneliness. What I can do is chart the course of the pain - horrendous, unceasing, and cruel - that we call grief and reassure her that this is normal and that all widows travel this same road. And I can offer hope.
The pain is necessary. Only by experiencing it to its full degree can you heal yourself. When Milt died I found myself in a dark tunnel of grief. There was only the past (and I could not go back) and the present (a cold and lonely hell). I could not envision a future. There was no light at the end of the tunnel.
I spent the first six or seven months after he died in one long wail of despair. What was to become of me? What was I to do? What was left in life for me? For one mad moment I hovered on the brink of suicide. Overnight I found myself in a world that I had never imagined, a world that had no logic, no stability.
I was more fortunate than many women. I had no young children dependent on me. I was financially comfortable. I had my work. But work, although it provided a discipline and a framework for my days, offered no escape from my misery.
I maintained my lecture schedule, made television appearances, wrote my columns, flew back and forth across the country, but it was all on automatic. The zest was gone. There was no one to share my triumphs and disappointments. When I came home at night and stood outside the empty apartment scrabbling through my purse for the key, I would be overwhelmed by loneliness. Tears would stream down my face. I knew that I would never recover from my loss.
I was wrong, I have emerged from the tunnel of grief into the light. Life is better. Not the same, but good and getting better all the time. There are still tears, but they are gentler tears now. There is still the loneliness, but it is not the agonizing loneliness that gripped me last year. Best of all, I know there is a future. I have begun to get on with life, to look ahead instead of back. I find my work stimulating again.
And most of the time when I think of Milt, it is with a smile, not a tear, for he left me a blessed legacy of happy memories that f will cherish for the rest of my life.