I was at a parish picnic when I ran into a young man I’ll call Kevin. About a year earlier, he had lost his wife to drowning when she fell out of a friend’s boat during a sudden violent storm. Kevin had almost drowned himself while trying in vain to reach her through the high waves and driving rain. I was a longtime friend of Kevin’s family, and I remembered him as an outgoing youngster, teen, and young adult. Then he and his fiancé had asked me about three years ago to witness their marriage vows. So I was happy to see him. I was surprised when he told me that he had really struggled with his decision about whether to come to the picnic or not. This did not sound anything like the old “social” Kevin I had known for all these years! He explained that he felt socially isolated these days. His old buddies from high school or college were all married themselves now. He and his wife had done most of their socializing as part of an active young couples’ group which included many of these long-time friends. The group had done a lot of fun things together the last couple of years. At first, the old gang continued to invite him to their gatherings, but Kevin discovered that being the only single in a group of couples was a strain both for him and, he suspected, for them. The guys could keep talking about sports, but the wives tended to fuss over him which he noticed seemed to be offsetting to some of the husbands.
(It wasn’t like he was “on the prowl” for a new mate!) After a short while, the invitations just stopped coming. For
Kevin, the idea (suggested by some old buddies) of trying to return to the singles’ scene at bars was absolutely repellant!
Many, if not most, people find the adjustment to being “single again” after the passing of their spouse is not an easy one. They are tempted to just stop being part of social gatherings of family and friends where some seemed not to know what to say, while others fussed over one like one needed “nursing”. The resulting sense of isolation can be very distressing.
One possible origin of isolation is the reality of one’s dealing with the painful aftermath of the loss of a spouse who one had hoped would truly be a life-partner. Suddenly, one’s world seems to implode. Even if the spouse’s death was after a long slow deterioration. In one’s grieving within this new restricted personal perspective, one believes that no one else can truly understand one’s personal grief. And such a perspective is understandable since even those who have also lost a spouse in death themselves have not, of course, experienced this particular profoundly anguishing situation in which feels so terribly alone and isolated.
Another source of isolation can be the reality of even close family members and friends not knowing how best to reach out to one, especially if they have not themselves lost a spouse to death. Most people don’t really know what to do or say in the face of another’s personal tragedy, so, in the end, they either say the usual (“I’m so sorry.”) or do the usual (another casserole!) or they just step back in embarrassed silence. (Of course, it goes without saying that just because certain words and actions seem inadequate or trite does not mean they should not be offered. The main thing most people remember after a period of intense grieving are those people who tried to just “be there” as best they could.)
A further source of isolation can result from the reality of one’s connection to so many couples as (now suddenly) a half of a couple. Customary couples’ social gatherings are just not the same either for the newly-single person or for the other couples trying to figure out how to keep the newly-single person as a member of the group. There can be unspoken, even unconscious, concerns within the couples’ group. Any newly-single person in a couples’ group tends to remind the couples in a disturbing way just how vulnerable and fragile even an apparently close couple relationship can be. Also, some people currently “paired up” may suspect that a newly-single person is somehow instinctively ‘”on the prowl” within the familiar circle of couples hunting for a new partner.
In the end, people on both sides of any divide arising from a personal tragedy need to move past the temptation to blame the other(s) for not being able to “just move on”, and to be attentive as best they can to re-connect. People may wish that all their long-term social relationships would go on “as if nothing had happened”, but something more or less devastating has happened. That does not mean that closeness cannot be rebuilt within the reality of one’s being newlysingle, but that patience and attentive hearts will be required all around!
I told Kevin I was glad he had finally chosen to come to the large picnic gathering because I saw it as an encouraging first step for him back into the social relationships he had enjoyed before his wife’s death. reminded him that it would never be “as if nothing had happened”, but that he was certainly not called to be a social hermit. also mentioned a local support group that might be a helpful resource for him in his journey “back to life”, as the group’s members were themselves on the same journey toward healing these days.