Marriage Math: Fifty Years Minus Five

Marriage Math: Fifty Years Minus Five

My marriage of 45 years ended five years ago. On our forty-fifth anniversary, I bought myself flowers and told his unconscious body lying in a hospital bed, that in the future, whenever I buy myself flowers, I will tell myself they are from him. I showed him pictures of our wedding. I thought I saw a flicker of comprehension in his eyes. A few weeks later, his body failed him. I wrote on the evening of that day elsewhere on my website Last Breaths.

I imagine celebrating a fifty-year wedding anniversary June 7, 2024. What would my husband, Clement, and I be doing? Maybe traveling, certainly we would be celebrating with our family. Two little granddaughters would be the centerpiece of festivities, but they only know their grandfather from stories and photos. What does a widow do on a non-anniversary day?

If you, dear reader, think that you will never be a surviving spouse, will never be the caretaker of a terminally ill loved one, or will never minister to someone bereaved, then move on. Forward these words to someone who can benefit from them. If you are still reading, I hope very much that I can offer small words of advice and encouragement from my own experience, acknowledging that everyone moves through grief at their own pace. I wrote a previous blog at the two-year mark in June of 2021. I am trying not to repeat myself, so look up previous blogs: “Marriage Math: One Plus One Equals One; Subtract One Leaves Only One-Half.” Find it here.       

I stumbled upon the idea to continue the “marriage math” theme, because anniversaries are about numbers: dates and years. Maybe it is not so congruent to you, but that is my life now, I have the privilege of not always making sense!  That is my overall theme for anyone in life transition. Give yourself some leeway in how you approach your life now. This is a very abbreviated overview of how I have survived and may help others, I will write about the transition from married to single, how to prepare for it, and self-care.

What has changed since I posted the first “Marriage Math” blog three years ago? After five years I still miss the little favors that only a husband can do: zip up the back of my dress or fasten the clasp of the necklace he gave me. After a fun night out with friends, I drive home by myself to my cat. No one is around for possible medical emergencies, or to drive me to medical procedures that require sedatives. A snow shovel is still out of reach in the garage. Time ran out; it is still in place. I see it all the time and wish I had asked him to reach it for me. Yes, that tall body is missed. That is the hard part.

He left me many little favors. He always over- bought lawn watering system parts, so now when the sprinkler man comes, I always have the needed parts for repairs. He dated and stowed away every instruction manual and his handwriting reminds me of all the ways he took care of me and the kids. A VA life insurance policy was a surprise in the mail four years after his death.

I review photos of my life the last ten years: first there are many photos of my husband and me together on travels, our kids’ wedding, and plenty of everyday activities. Then suddenly the photos rotate to just me and fun with two granddaughters. The lives of Naomi and her grandfather overlapped by only a few months. At his first view of the baby girl, he said she was like a kitten. He adored his “kitten” even when he was suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Speaking only from my experience, how does a widow- this applies to widowers too- prepare to ease the transition? Besides, my wonderful kids and in-laws, which are the best investment possible for the future, I kept up my circles of friends in choir, church, and music groups. They are my biggest source of companionship. The gardeners of the columbarium are a new group and we have much in common. Somehow caring for the location of his burial is time spent with him, although I don’t feel a large connection to his physical presence there.

Now the hardest part, which none of us really can anticipate or control. Years of caretaking, which is a subject in itself, is draining. Every nonessential activity is pruned down to basics. As his illness progressed, hope was far away; joy was unimaginable. As much as I had time, I read a few books about hope and unresolved sorrow. (See bibliography.)

Where is hope when the only relief is in the spouse’s death? You don’t want to face that either. The future is a black abyss of despair. The days are never going to get better, every decline in the spouse’s ability is a small death. Doesn’t God care? Anyone in a pastoral role needs to be aware of the deep despair. Many Bible verses, joyfully read at weddings, emphasize husband and wife pairing. “Humans are not meant to be alone,” (Gen. 2:12). “One who finds a spouse, finds a good thing,” (Prov 18:22). (Note how my inclusive interpretation changes effectiveness for women.) The joy of John 15:11 is unimaginable. “Joy in the morning” (Ps. 30:5) just does not have application. I have 40,000 words of a potential book written. The title:  Is it Tomorrow Yet? Anyone who has lived with a dementia patient will understand.

The last years we had together when Clem was suffering from dementia, I prioritized doing something special on anniversaries and birthdays. Sometimes I felt like I was propping him up at a restaurant table and the waiter probably thought we were the most silent couple she had ever served! We looked very dysfunctional at times in public. Survival is the only goal for the caretaker. Practice grace: you don’t know what other couples may be suffering.  

We took cruises up until the year before he died, which he enjoyed, even if I had to hang on to him on excursions off the ship. Cruises are a good plan for traveling together. It was somewhat of a vacation for me, and on a ship, he could not get terribly lost; I usually found him digging into the buffet. I made sure he had his room number on him, and he was capable of asking staff for help. (I am speaking of several years ago, now a GPS system on ships locates family members.) I have observed couples where one is feeding the other or helping with the wheelchair. They are bravely making one more memory together. I had one good photo professionally taken that could be used for an eventual memorial service. Yes, I am preaching to you, young marrieds: this is practicing “in sickness and in health.” So unimaginable at the initial wedding!

Exactly one year before he died, we watched the “almost sunset” at midnight on June 24th, north of the Arctic Circle. Little did we know. They are pleasant memories and now I tend to remember the good parts. My advice for couples who still have each other: celebrate every important date. I fondly remember certain anniversaries and birthdays. At the time, we thought there would still be plenty of anniversaries to celebrate ahead of us, but the years go by. Now these celebrations are no longer possible, new memories are constantly in progress, but they are not memories of the couple we once were. So, do it!

When the end does come, recovery from a long siege of illness is hard and slow. One might feel guilty for feeling a sense of relief, but at that point, the worst is over. There is a flicker of light again, but the apprehension of venturing into the unknown. What will it be like to be living alone and single? Then, in my timeline, COVID hit. That didn’t impact me so much, everyone had to stay home anyway, and that is what I felt like doing. I used the time to get a knee replacement and had house improvements made, not knowing whether I wanted to sell or stay. Investing in your own mobility, and having a dependable furnace and car are worth it for a new single woman. So far, I have stayed in a house that is too big for me. So many decisions at this time, but keep in mind that some of them don’t have to be made right away! Many people make bad choices in a rush to find closure.

Move to the present; the conversation turns more optimistic. How have the first five years of widowhood been? I can’t say I have just survived; I have thrived in many ways. Joel 2:25 applies to me: “to recover the years the locusts took away.” I am now investing my days in as many worthwhile activities as time and energy allow. I have picked up where I left off before Clem’s illness.

I talk to other widows and widowers and seek out a diversity of experiences. A common denominator that I hear from others: life is what you make it, and you have to do it yourself. Don’t depend on others for your happiness or wait for another perfect partner to come. Make your home yours, pare it down to the things you enjoy. Just because you are by yourself, you still have visitors and family to entertain. They enjoy your house too. After the realization that his illness was terminal, I started, with a heavy heart, planning for my life alone. I maintained as many connections as I could and made more. My schedule is filled with music groups, giving piano lessons, exercise classes, doctor’s appointments, working on my own writing, classes to learn whatever I want to, and getting my hands in garden dirt.

The freedom is amazing. The compromises of living with a spouse are worth it, but you never realize how much give and take occurs in a marriage until the demand is not there anymore. On the other hand, you have complete responsibility for everything, and no one else to share knowledge and decision-making with. This is how a good egalitarian marriage works, pooling of abilities and expertise in the areas each partner brings to the table. This cooperation is very much missed when it is gone, but at least one spouse was not totally dependent on the other for all the decision-making. When the husband has been “the leader” alone, the wife is left entirely without survival skills upon his death. What a disaster and the most important grounds for a marriage with both partners functioning as equals. More about this is an earlier blog, “The Head That is Missed.” I wrote here.

Going out with men, not your husband, is very strange at first, but I was surprised by how quickly I got over it. They are going through the same thing, no one makes it to this age without tragedy. Many have faithfully taken care of ill wives for many years. I have met some good humans. Sorting through dating sites is an education in itself! So far, I haven’t met anyone in person who was a bad experience; I have been able to sort out the scammers through texts and phone calls before I met them in person. Not for the faint of heart! I wrote about that herehere, andhere.

Again I say, friends are so important, both male and female. I am fortunate to have a “friend who is a man” – what do you say at this age? Boyfriend? It is not a romantic relationship, and he knows it, but he is companionship and safety for day trips and evening events. The friendship is mutually advantageous for both of us, and I have been able to enjoy more activities because of him. I find travel opportunities with music and mission groups, which are safe, and I don’t have to take care of all the details myself. I took a cruise as a single, but I tended to offer comments to surprised strangers who happened to be standing behind me. There isn’t that person to reminisce with afterwards in the cabin.  No partner in the photos!

One adjusts and life is good. There are challenges, but you surprise yourself with what you never thought possible. Do not hang on to regrets. Be kind to yourself, you have done your best. God does not bring evil, and death is evil. God’s intention is not to separate us from our loved ones. Jesus, on earth, healed and reunited those separated in death, as a foreshadowing of the Kingdom to come. God surrounds suffering with grace and mercy in the experience of recovery. This is the meaning of Romans 9:28. In retrospect I can see where God intervened, and God was indeed not absent.

Boss, Pauline, Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief

Groothuis, Doug, Walking Through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness- A Philosopher’s Lament

Kaiser, Walter C., A Biblical Approach to Personal Suffering

Lewis, C.S., A Grief Observed

Maddux, Carlen, A Path Revealed: How Hope, Love, and Joy found Us Deep in a Maze Called Alzheimer’s

Wright, N.T. Surprised by Hope

1 thought on “Marriage Math: Fifty Years Minus Five”

  1. Such an insightful blog.

    Far too many women find themselves in just the situation you wrote about-being too dependent on their husbands then when they are not there from death or divorce, they are lost.

    I love all that you teach about our identity as women! I thank God often for bringing you into my life. A Titus women who thinks as I do about men and women in the church.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top