Widows and widowers learn to navigate successfully

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Lucy Isenberg sold all her furniture a few months after her husband died and she left Los Angeles for San Francisco.

It was 1979. She was 60 years old, had been married for 39 years, had never held any job except that of housewife, had never even ridden a bus. Soon after she arrived in Northern California, she got sick and could not leave her apartment.

When the person at a phone counseling service asked if she was feeling suicidal, she answered, a little to her own surprise, that she was.

For those who work with the elderly, assisting people after their husbands or wives have died can mean helping them become new people in a mysterious and confusing world.

Survivors sometimes take on responsibilities they have never faced and adjust to an isolation they have never known, all while grieving. Not everyone makes it. The suicide rate among the elderly is about twice as high as for the general population. But counselors, widows and widowers alike say that at the other end of a long grieving process lies a new life, where the rules and satisfactions are a little different.

Carla Rosenblum of Saratoga, whose husband, Rabbi Leon Rosenblum, died a year and a half ago at age 78, has a friend who is a psychiatric nurse and who helped her realize something important.

"I asked her, is it normal to be walking down the hallways one day and break down crying, and the next day be laughing because you're looking at pictures? She said I was probably one of the most normal people she had ever known."

But some of the ways people grieve may seem shocking to outsiders, according to Allan Grill, an Albany-based marriage and family counselor who works with seniors. A geriatric specialist and former director of senior services at Jewish Family and Children's Services of the East Bay, he has a large Jewish clientele. Aside from the commonly acceptable feelings of anger, guilt and sadness, he said, the survivor may feel relief.

This, Isenberg said, was what she felt. Her husband had suffered from cancer for two years, and was finally out of his pain.

"I went out dancing every night," she said. But she would eventually call her sense of relief a sign of denial. She joined a grieving group, and began going to a therapist. The next thing she felt was anger, a feeling she has still not entirely shaken, even 18 years later. She resents having been left to face the world alone.

"It comes up and it never really goes away," she said. "I think, `Damn it, why do I have to do this by myself?'"

By the end, a widow has to experience the pain of loss and to remember realistically what her husband was like rather than turn him into a saint, said Patrick Arbore, director of the Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention at the Mount Zion Goldman Institute on Aging in San Francisco.

"One of the most simple and least used interventions is to listen to an older person and encourage them to talk about loss," Arbore said. "Even though the person had been married for 60 years, no one brings it up because it would be too painful."

Isenberg, however, found solace through grieving groups and the Friendship Line at the Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention. Rosenblum talked it out with her daughter and her doctor. Iver Larson of San Francisco, whose wife, Eva Metzger, died a year and a half ago, said he spent time with his three grown children.

For Jewish widows and widowers, Jewish ritual can also play a part in the healing process, Arbore said.

With the tradition of sitting shiva and waiting nearly a year before unveiling a headstone, people are given space in which to grieve, as well as handed a reminder of when a year has gone by. But after acceptance comes an equally difficult challenge — figuring out what future life will be like.

"My happiest days were spent as a housewife," Isenberg said. "I loved scrubbing and cooking and cleaning and entertaining, and having a beautiful home. When my roles are gone, my sons don't need parenting any more, I'm not a wife anymore, I just have to be me, without those roles that brought me praise and recognition.

Yet, "it just doesn't seem like it's enough," she added. "I'm like a person who lost a job after so many years. You're not the CEO anymore. You're just Joe."

Jeanette Kadesh, a licensed clinical social worker at the Marin office of Jewish Family and Children's Services, said widows and widowers often have to learn a whole new set of practical tasks as well.

"Financially I hadn't a clue," Rosenblum said. "He did the taxes. I was aware of where certain things were. But I didn't know where the mortgage for the house was. I did a lot of quick learning in about six months, and it's still not complete."

Then there is the question of future companionship. Because there are fewer older men than older women, women are less likely to remarry than are men, Kadesh said.

For Isenberg, learning to live on her own was an achievement, and she does not want to give it up.

"Little by little, I found I could do things I had never dreamed of doing as a housewife," she said.

"The world was there for whatever I could make of it. I found how resourceful I was, how creative I was."

One morning as she walked down Market Street in San Francisco, she realized she had even developed a taste for autonomy, and anonymity.

"I thought, `Nobody in the whole world knows where I am right now,' and I loved that feeling."