Life as I knew it ended when my husband died — 40 years after we married while still in college. For the first time in my life, I joined the category of people living alone — larger now than at any time in our history. I struggled to begin a new life without him. And somehow I figured it out.
Now, in these difficult days, my life has been completely upended a second time and I’m trying to figure it out once again. While I hold onto the hope that this time it’s a pause and not an end, I’m discovering the acute difference between being alone and achingly lonely. And I’m experiencing again the stages of grief.
In the early weeks of March, I was in denial, only modestly changing my routine, expecting “normal” to return soon. Glued to the news and hearing increasingly insistent warnings, I gradually became more vigilant about keeping distance from others.
When my adult children insisted on social isolation, I took it hard. While we could talk, there could be no more meals together, no more hugs. For the first time in many years, my days began to drag. When I started taking afternoon naps, I knew I was sinking into depression. Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against napping and even envy people who take (and are rejuvenated by) them. But that has never been normal for me. And my naps seemed more like escaping than recharging.
To see my way out, I had to rediscover the muscles I learned to use as a new widow 14 years ago. As I did then, I had to literally shake myself to focus on what I can do rather than the things I can’t change. I had to accept this new reality to make space for hope.
I cancelled a long-planned trip with my granddaughter to celebrate our signature birthdays, but rescheduled for next year. I shifted my family’s annual Seder to Zoom, and found relief in not having to cook or clean up. I paused planning a new community service initiative designed to connect the generations, and am working now to inch the idea forward so the pause doesn’t turn into forever.
Accept, then hope.
Since I can no longer be with my four grandchildren in real life, I am connecting with each of them in meaningful virtual ways, discovering to my surprise that I’m spending more one-on-one time with them than I had before.
Reading on Caribu with my 9-year-old granddaughter most every day. Playing Words With Friends with her 12-year-old sister. Scheduling individual chat time with my two older grandchildren to talk about articles we’re reading and ponder how our world could be different when the pandemic is behind us.
As the weeks extend, I’m confident we can come up with other games to play and things to read, other ways to connect virtually. But I worry that the virtual will become a forever substitute for connecting in real life — with them and with others.
It’s just one of my long list of my worries, showing up in restless sleep and panicky dreams. Dreams about someone I love who has just tested positive, friends with compromised immune systems, shrinking retirement assets. My recently adopted rescue dog, Stella, senses my anxiety and won’t let me out of her sight.
Fourteen years ago, I discovered new muscles for tamping down worry by focusing on the good things in life. As my muscle memory kicks in now, I’m thinking about the silver linings that could emerge as we move beyond the time of corona.
Is it possible that paid family leave — for which I’ve advocated beginning in the mid-80s — will finally become the new normal? Could a surge in loneliness and division lead to more creative ways to connect the generations through community service? Could Americans gain new appreciation for the importance of electing leaders who can effectively govern?
These big shifts won’t happen magically, but figuring out how to help them along feels like my ticket to purpose in the days ahead. Just as working to build a better future — continuing the purpose we shared in the life we lived together — was my salvation when my husband died.
The piling on of losses during this pandemic makes the problems we face more acute, and this purpose more important than ever.
Phyllis Segal is a vice president at Encore.org, a nonprofit working to bridge generational differences, and a long-time activist for women’s rights, gun safety and community service.