I remember the first time. It was a blustery winter day soon after Greg and I had returned to Colorado from Spain. A heavy, wet snow was coming down fast and furious and if I didn’t want to lose trees from the weight, I needed to bundle up every hour to knock the snow from their limbs. Every time I went outside, I thought, “I shouldn’t be doing this. Greg is the one who does this.”
That was the first time, but not the last. Over the coming months that thought repeatedly returned to me, every time I did one of Greg’s jobs. It wasn’t, of course, about the simple task. It’s that these were the tasks that Greg did. I cooked, he did the dishes. I cleaned up the dog mess, he blew the leaves from the patio. I fed the dogs, he filled their water bowls. I did the laundry, he took out the trash. I took things to the Goodwill, he cleaned out my car. I planned the dinner parties, he poured the drinks. I decorated for Christmas, he carried things to the basement afterwards.
We didn’t argue about these small chores of everyday life. This wasn’t some negotiation that young couples go through early in a relationship as they establish roles and responsibilities. This was the finely tuned dance of a lifetime spent together, little things done every day without any conversation whatsoever between us.
It’s also not like any of these things are difficult either. If I had always been alone, I would have always done these tasks and thought nothing of it. But that wasn’t the case, and so every time I did one of Greg’s jobs, it was a painful reminder that he was no longer with me. A reminder that I now had to do these things by myself.
Over time, I’ve grown comfortable with my new responsibilities. It no longer feels like I’m doing Greg’s job when I blow the dirt from the patio or empty the dishwasher. It feels natural when I do the dishes after I cook. I happily care for the dogs on my own. I take the trash out without really thinking of Greg. It’s what happens over time, as grief softens.
But making peace with doing things by myself, left me thinking about doing things for myself. Not in the “do something nice for yourself” sort of way, but rather the “who am I doing this for?” way. That thought first came to me while I was decorating my house for Christmas the year Greg died.
“Who am I doing this for? I live alone and nobody is here to see this but me, so why am I doing this?”
Then in the summer, as I planted pots full of flowers on the patio.
“Why am I doing this? Greg isn’t here to sit on the patio with me and enjoy them so who am I doing this for?”
When I start thinking about something, I often don’t rest until I’ve chewed on my thoughts enough to make sense of them. In that process, it occurred to me that this is the natural progression of life that anyone who has taken care of anyone else in their life must go through. Widows, most certainly, but also parents as their kids launch and leave them with an empty nest, or children as their aging parents whom they’ve cared for pass away.
For what seems like my entire adult life, I’ve been doing for others: from raising my three children, supporting my husband, and delivering results to my bosses, to caring for aging parents and handling their estates.
Doing for others makes us feel good. There is an ancient Chinese saying that goes like this, “If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.” MRI technology actually reveals that helping others stimulates the same parts of the brain as sex and food. Yes, helping others makes us happy.
So what happens when we reach a point when we no longer have others to help? I spent seven years caring for Greg’s parents and my parents through a variety of illnesses. They passed away one after another during that time. Greg has been gone now for two years and I live alone. My children are self-sufficient adults who have their own lives. If doing for others makes us happy, where is the joy in doing things now just for myself?
I’m learning there are two sides to making peace with this challenge:
First, allowing myself to enjoy the things I do for myself. Making a nice dinner. Rearranging the living room furniture to better suit me. Cleaning the kitchen so that it’s sparkling and welcoming when I get up in the morning. Hanging a new picture. I miss being able to share these simple things with Greg, but I’m beginning to take some pleasure from them just for me.
Second, finding new ways to do for others. This is the likely transition many of us will make as we get older, release our kids into the world, and say farewell to our jobs. It’s the time in our lives when we have more free time, and we have choices as to how we spend that time. For many, we’ll take advantage of our freedom and take the time to do something for others. I’m fortunate that I’ve found a number of nonprofits who can use my skills, and where I think I can make a difference. And while I’m sure what I do helps others, I know it’s helping me too.