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Illustration by Katherine Streeter

“I was now attending a reunion as a widow.”

By Margot Freedman Horwitz

As I walked into the first event of my recent 65th Penn reunion, my mind flashed back to past iterations, when my Class of ’57 husband and our children often joined me in what became a fun time for all of us. But there was a big difference this time: our adult children are living their own lives far away, and my husband has been dead for more than a year. I was now attending a reunion as a widow, a single woman who has moved into a new phase of life.

Ellis’s illness did not last long, but it was intense. The health challenges he’d faced over the years had been manageable and we’d always been able to enjoy our life together. But shortly before he turned 85, he developed a bacterial infection that was difficult to treat, in the hospital and at home. Soon it became clear he could not recover. Despite my heavy heart, I realized his time had come.

When he died I mourned an amusing, caring, talented husband, father, and friend. One is never prepared to lose a loved one, and I still feel grief a year after his passing. Yet with this sorrow has come a profound sense of gratitude. I realized throughout this first year how fortunate I’d been to have so many wonderful years with him—even as I’d hoped he would reach 90, and that we would have celebrated our 60th wedding anniversary as many friends have.

But that was not to be, and I’ve tried to be realistic about it. Yet my attitude has somehow set me apart from many of my peers. I seem to have a different mindset from others in my situation, who cannot get beyond their sense of ill fortune and even anger. I can understand that. It’s a struggle to adjust to a new, often painful way of life, and perhaps it’s natural for a surviving spouse to ask, “Is this all there is?” Some friends who have faced bereavement have told me they don’t know how to deal with their lives. I listen to them, but am not sure how to respond—or whether they even want me to.

This dynamic reared up frequently as I made phone calls ahead of the Class of ’58 reunion, as our committee worked to develop a good attendance. Following the first, delighted greetings after many years, conversation soon turned to our personal lives—and losses. Along with remembrances of friends who’d attended our 60th reunion but were now gone, there was the inevitable talk of the death of spouses. This was understandable, at our age, as was the attendant melancholy. When I called an old friend and reached her husband—not knowing our classmate had died—I perceived such profound sadness as he haltingly told me the news that I could hardly speak.

I think about the people who have shared their bereavement stories. Grief is different for each person, and changes as time passes. Much depends on the immediate circumstances: the age of the loved one; the timespan of a fatal illness or suddenness of an accident. But regardless of the cause or timing of the loss, the spouse is left alone. Children can be a great comfort—mine and my extended family and friends offer solace in many ways. Yet the burden is the survivor’s alone to carry.

But then what? How do you plan ahead to make the most of the time remaining, however old you are? This is where my outlook seems to diverge from that of some widows and widowers I know whose losses happened some time ago. I have wondered about the deep despair which seems to have taken over their lives with no sign of evolving. I understand, of course, that there is no one single path out of mourning. Everyone deals with it differently, and a survivor’s feelings are not to be criticized. Yet as I moved through my first year after Ellis’s death, it became clear to me that continuing immersion in sadness would only worsen an already difficult situation. Although grief is not linear—it has ups and downs—I feel the need to seize the better moments in hopes of gaining a new perspective on life and my new place in it.

Much of my current life is, not surprisingly, different from what Ellis and I shared. But there are similarities, too. Shabbat dinner was special in our home, throughout our marriage. Whether eating with our parents in the early years, or later on with our children and their friends—Jewish or not—it was to be savored. Even during the last, difficult year of his life, Ellis made a big effort to get ready for Shabbat, and never failed to tell me how much he enjoyed the meal.

After he died, as I sat in our dining room with candles and challah, I decided to create my own rituals—first with special books given to me by family and friends, then by sharing the meal with others. Over the year I have prepared Shabbat for those who enjoy being part of an evening they would not have created for themselves. It is a pleasure to set out a good meal, in a home filled with Ellis’s fine photographs, which keep him very much alive. I look forward to continuing this tradition, as I hope to continue to offer friendship to those who are having their own hard times in life.

I have also reached out beyond my personal life, and it has brought me great satisfaction. Our nation’s midterm elections came six months after Ellis’s death, and my political concerns led me to carry on the political work I had done before. Ellis had always encouraged my efforts, and often joined me. As I worked on postcards and made phone calls, I felt his hand on my back, urging me on.

Reaching out beyond myself never stops adding positivity to my life. For many years we had organized a food drive at our townhouse complex, writing letters to the residents about the problem of food insecurity and asking for their participation in our annual collection. Since his passing, I write the letter, but now I sign it with only my name—still requesting their help. Because even without my spouse, the hunger issue remains, and I am determined to do what I can to fight it. I am also working on social action projects through my synagogue’s community efforts, and those of other local groups. I know they need my help and I want to give it.

Moving away from my personal issues has reinforced a beneficial transition to my new life, rather than worsening my bereavement. While it is not easy to get beyond loss, I have found it meaningful to recognize the wider environment beyond myself. Our Jewish tradition urges us to repair the broken world—something all of us, of any faith, can understand. I have found that taking even small steps in this regard not only helps me to make a difference in what I can accomplish for others, but also offers me a path beyond grief. And I take comfort in the thought that my mate would be proud of how I am handling my life, as it is now.

Margot Freedman Horwitz CW’58 ASC’62 has written for the Gazette since 1978. She is a writer and activist based in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

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    1 Response

    1. Toby Meyer

      How I loved reading about this new part of your life. It is an extension and testament to your past . You are one of the most involved, caring, loving , women I’ve ever known. I miss you.

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