I like people. Actually being around them can be nice, too, though preferably only one at a time. Maybe a small group if I’m feeling particularly centered. Anything more is likely to result in social anxiety and a night long marathon session of what Nina used to call the Recrimination Circus. It’s the mental place introverts go to peruse every utterance or gesture they made / failed to make in a given scenario and feel badly about it. It’s a lively spot. Looks a lot like a Hieronymous Bosch hellscape, but painted on an infinitely large canvass and with all the little horrible, demonic imps focusing their wrath on a single, tortured, asocial figure at the center, who’s desperately trying to avoid eye contact with the massive, empty eye sockets of the lifeless giant head staring intently at her while a demon is birthed from its mouth.
It seems to me widowhood increases the defects of introversion. Not to beat the introvert lamentation drum too hard, but it’s challenging for anyone to rebuild their emotional/social network when its central node dies. What do you do if that central node was the only one you liked signaling with?! What if literally every other node puts me in an emotional Hofstadter-Mobius loop like HAL9000?!
There are different kinds of missing when you lose a partner. There’s the basic missing of the person you lost – the things about them that were unique to them, or to your relationship. This is the biggest and most obvious category. I miss Nina’s voice, her laugh, her scent, her idiosyncrasies, the contributions she made to our everyday life (too many to name), her presence, the shape of the space she took up in my life has become even more clear by its absence.
But along with missing my person as an individual, I also miss simply having a person. Not that I wouldn’t have chosen Nina as my person every time/2×10^23 on Sundays, but there’s just something about having someone to share the vagaries of life – a partner in crime, a co-conspirator, co-parent, etc. — that I’ve came to depend on. Planning meals, schlepping the kids to music lessons, and just bearing witness to everyday events (“can you believe that so-and-so said X?” “Yes, totally!”). There’s some overlap on the Venn diagram here. Obviously, my primary reference for this stuff is Nina-specific. But the longer she’s gone, the more I’m learning that some of the things I’m missing are endemic to me, my own needs, irrespective of her. She fulfilled them in a particularly great way, but it’s not like she created them.
I’m at the stage of grief where it gets complicated figuring out what’s what. How much of what I’m going through is still missing Nina specifically? Obviously a huge amount, but the lines get blurred at the margins, or at the place where my present needs are more manifest as a need for something new. It’s maybe just another way of restating the obvious: that it’s hard to be alone when you’re accustomed to being in a relationship. But the devil’s in the details, I suppose.
The real question isn’t figuring out some precise quotient of what I’m missing, but finding ways to compensate that meet my actual needs. Missing Nina isn’t something that can/should be addressed by a new relationship, while wanting companionship or intimacy might. On the other hand, there are lots of different kinds of companionship and intimacy. How do I know what the right kind is for me in my ever-gyrating, evolving emotional world? How does anyone do this, come to think of it? We’re all so screwed.
Ok, maybe that’s overly pessimistic. I don’t really know how to solve the relationship clarity / readiness problem, but perhaps there are some things I can do to make it easier. Here are a few things I’ve tried to help stay afloat and connected to the world since my primary person left it:
1. Routine: sticking to routine can be cumbersome and inflexible, but it also minimizes amorphous periods of time, which when you’re grieving can be like quicksand. I have had varying degrees of success with this. Snow days (or snow weeks, as we call them in North Carolina, play hell with routine); Routine also tends to work on a recursive, productive fashion with number 2;
2. Activity: Did you know that remaining physically active is good for you? This is a continual revelation for me, somehow. Turns out you don’t even have to lose your life partner for this one to work. Who knew?! I can’t measure it, but the days where I exercise or engage in some type of vigorous physical activity (Shoveling snow!) are generally more emotionally buoyant for me;
3. Initiate and accept contact: This gets tricky for introverts. But you don’t have to make plans every night of the week. Write emails, letters, and cards; send texts; social media can even be helpful here (Twitter, Facebook, even Snapchat, if you know what that is or how it works?), though it can also be a bit of a toxic trap and a way to avoid connecting. But keep as many threads connecting you to others as well nourished as you can, and maybe even form some new ones, in whatever medium you’re comfortable. My top choices were: my FB Hot Young Widow’s Club support group; texting/messaging with friends; writing letters to folks I don’t see very often; and lastly, and maybe most challenging: making it a point to socialize even when I don’t feel up to it, and trying not to turn down invitations from others to socialize unless it’s truly necessary;
4. Find a Hobby or Outlet: This is the lamest advice ever. I mean, everyone proverbially needs a hobby, especially busy parents and professionals (the less time you have for hobbies, the more you need them, helpfully). But actively doing something can be an act of creation, even if your hobby is not per se creative. It makes something in your life where there was nothing, and that’s critical when there’s something so huge already missing. You can’t fill the void left by your dead person with yoga or gardening, but you can make time that would otherwise feel fallow teem with activity and new life, albeit of a minor sort. Writing has been a huge help to me in this way. It was not something I did much before nor in the way I now do it. It’s a new space for me and it meets a very direct need I have for processing and sublimating feelings around grief and loss. But fly fishing or macramé might serve just as well for some people.
5. Prayer Beads: No, I haven’t found religion. And I’m not suggesting everyone needs prayer, or beads, or prayer beads (Nina’s favorite bumper sticker was one that said “Nothing fails like prayer,” which I think she enjoyed because of the way the dark irony applies with special force to terminal cancer patients).
But not long ago I found a bracelet of prayer beads that Nina really loved. Someone gave it to her when she was sick and she found it really comforting in a non-ironic way. I didn’t think much of it until I picked it up the other day and realized: 1. I could wear it without it breaking; and 2. It provides a tactile sensation I have always loved. I have a bit of a fetish for the feel of small, round, smooth things. Nina used to joke that she would just get me a glass jar of BBs or glass beads every year for my birthday. I always want to plunge my hands into things like that in store displays when I see them. Prayer beads are basically designed to cater to this particular weirdness. They are meant to have you run your fingers over their smooth, round surface over and over again.
This particular set of prayer beads has the added advantage of being a reminder of Nina, a small, tactile connection to her that I can use in the same way she did, though in the very different context of her absence. So I guess this one comes down to: try to find a talisman. It doesn’t have to be physical, though I think that helps. Figure out things in your life that make you feel anchored or soothed and grab on to them, literally.
IDK. It’s still a work in progress. But I’m trying to return to the things that work and figure out new ones as my needs arise. What do other widowed introverts do? What do other introverts do, regardless of widowhood, to stay connected to the world without being overwhelmed by it?
2 thoughts on “The Introvert’s Dilemma (or Nothing Fails Like Prayer Beads)”
For me, it’s a tricky fence to walk, and I tend to fall to one side or the other (too much isolation then too much time with people.) Volunteering once a week in a third grade classroom has been helpful. They seem thrilled to see me but require little more from me than minimal cheerful interaction. I like it.
I can relate. I strive for routine but then resent it as soon as I get into one! Being around littles is always a good way to get s fresh, non-world weary perspective. XOJD