Reflections on a lonely year
The second year of grief can be a lot harder than the first.
Everyone’s experience of loss is different. And yet, there are a few universal bits of advice that get passed around grief groups—pieces of hard-earned wisdom that are generally agreed upon.
One of those truths is that the second year after a major loss is, in many ways, harder than the first. This is something that you absolutely do not want to hear in your initial year of grief. It's the kind of hard truth that you automatically reject: That won’t apply to me!
But, somehow, it does apply. At least, it did for me and many other young widows I know.
To be fair, the second year after a major loss is nowhere near as brutal as the first. There's not as much shock, ugly crying, or wondering how you will be able to live with such big pain. By the time you make it to year two, you’ve largely found your footing in a world you never wanted to live in.
The second year, though, is undeniably more lonely. The offers for help and heartfelt condolences from others tend to dry up. Your opportunities to talk about the deceased or express your feelings of grief are fewer and farther between. It’s hard not to blame yourself for not “moving on,” because everyone else clearly has.
The second year of a major loss is also when you begin to take stock of all of the secondary losses you’ve accumulated—the loss of friends, financial security, identity, and so on. It’s the year when it truly sinks in that there’s no returning back to normal.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much 2021—our second year in the pandemic—has mirrored my second year of widowhood. If the past 12 months have felt extra lonely, confusing, or discouraging for you, you’re not alone. Many of us are feeling the same.
2021 seemed like a year full of promise. It was the year that brought us vaccines, economic recovery, and the reopening of schools. It was a fresh opportunity to leave 2020 and all of its horribleness in the dust.
But progress has been minimal. More people died from COVID in 2021 than in 2020. Inflation and supply chain issues have created all sorts of headaches. Figuring out how to operate in-person schools and workplaces continues to be a logistical nightmare. And, perhaps most unsettling, it feels like we’re all moving ahead without any collective reckoning. It’s business as usual in a world that seems anything but usual.
For me, 2021 has been a year marked by loneliness. Some of that is a result of moving; although I’ve lived in Atlanta for most of my adult life, returning to the Peach State has not been the warm homecoming I hoped it would be. Instead, it’s been a largely isolated time of facing how much the pandemic and parenthood have impacted my social options, and accepting how my life, my friends’ lives, and the city itself have changed since I last lived here.
I’m also feeling the loneliness of this “in-between” phase of the pandemic. Although the start of the COVID was a terrifying time full of fears and unknowns, it was also a period when we all shared a similar reality. We rallied around essential workers, cheered for healthcare professionals, and organized all sorts of virtual get-togethers. For a brief moment, we found collective empathy for people who were in situations harder than ours. We adjusted to the pandemic together—absorbing the shock of it all, learning how to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe, and checking in on the people closest to us.
That sense of togetherness didn’t last long. The advent of vaccines—available to different people at different times—gave us the promise of normalcy, albeit in a staggered way. At the same time, the introduction of COVID variants disrupted many of our plans to return to the real world. And now, our pandemic experiences are all over the place. Some of us are living life in a relatively normal pre-pandemic state; some of us are still living under significant limitations; and many of us are in a confusing gray area—taking some risks, avoiding others, and feeling unsure about it all.
What we haven’t gotten—any of us—is any kind of closure. Because life keeps moving, moving, moving, there’s little opportunity to reflect on what we’ve lost and how much has changed.
Without that reflection, we’re left feeling unmoored. Instead of talking about our feelings and fears, we attempt to interpret the glimpses of our friends’ lives and adventures that social media gives us. Has everyone else moved on? Is everyone else being social? Am I the only one still struggling?
The answer, decisively, is no. But it is mighty easy to feel that way. I get it. And so—in this last Sweet Dumb Brain essay of 2021—I’ve decided to share some wisdom I’ve learned from my own grief experience, which might help you articulate some of the losses you’ve felt this year.
Grief changes your priorities.
Almost a year after Jamie died, I quit my job without a solid plan in place for what I wanted to do next. All I knew was that I needed to give myself space to grieve. I took the opportunity to travel and write, and by the year’s end, this newsletter was born and things were getting serious with freelancing. This period of solitude also helped me to discover that I really wanted to become a mom, if given the chance.
Making big life changes is a common response to major loss, which is why it’s not surprising that 2021 was the year of the Great Resignation. The pandemic upended our routines, which opened our eyes in many ways. And this year, with a bit more perspective and solid footing, many of us responded by changing our career plans and quitting our jobs. It’s harder to measure how many people made other major life choices as a result of the pandemic, but I suspect there were plenty.
Grief changes your relationships.
This is, personally, a hard truth to swallow. It’s estimated that, on average, widows lose 75% of their support network in the years after their partner dies. It’s another harsh reality that I vehemently denied: That won’t apply to me!
Reader, it did. And it sucks.
With big loss comes big shifts in relationships. Some of your friendships will survive. Some will strengthen—especially with people who understand grief. But many of your friendships will change significantly or end entirely.
As things started to return to “normal” this year, many of us have discovered that our social circles are anything but. Because we’re all still managing our own grief, anxiety, and comfort levels as a result of the pandemic, it can be hard to know who to reach out to—either for support or company.
I don’t have a ton of great advice in this realm; I mourn all the time how much my relationships have changed. But it does bring me small comfort to know that the changes in my social circle are natural. They are not signs of a personal failing. It’s all part of the grief cycle.
Grief changes the way you interact with the world.
Almost five years later, I’m still taking stock of the ways that Jamie’s death has shifted how I approach the world. I am, for the most part, kinder to myself. I view aging as a privilege, not a curse. I am less focused on success and more preoccupied with happiness.
Similarly, the COVID pandemic has changed my worldview. I care more about my relationships with neighbors. I care less about my relationships online. I am acutely aware of how terribly unfair and unjust things can be, and I’m committed to doing more to help right those wrongs.
Perhaps the biggest change, though—as a result of Jamie’s death and the pandemic—is the knowledge and acceptance that life is always uncertain. Nothing will change that fact, not a new partner or a better job or a vaccine.
Emily Oster addressed this masterfully in a recent newsletter. “The future is always a little foggy,” she wrote. “That Christmas trip you planned to the Bahamas? Even before COVID, all kinds of stuff could get in the way.” Oster, an economics professor and author of data-driven parenting books, reminds us that there are all sorts of factors out of our control: illness, travel delays, weather, and more. “COVID—and the possible policy reactions to COVID—adds another dimension to this uncertainty, but it was there in a substantial way before too,” she explained.
Oster is right. The future is a little foggy, and it always has been. Our illusion of control is just that—an illusion.
As we head into 2022, I encourage you to embrace the fog. It’s scary to not be able to see what’s ahead, I know, but it can be wonderfully exciting, too. There are all sorts of changes in store for us. The challenge is to learn how to welcome them.
p.s. As I mentioned above, this is the last public issue of My Sweet Dumb Brain for 2021. Paying subscribers will get one final dispatch this year—landing next Tuesday. And as a reminder, starting in January, 5% of all subscriber proceeds will go to a different nonprofit or charity each month. This is a great reason to become a paying subscriber! I’m also still collecting your nominations for organizations we should support. Leave your ideas in the comments below.
p.p.s. Thank you for making this year a lot less lonely. It has been truly incredible and humbling to watch this newsletter grow! I can’t wait to wade into the fog with you all next year.
💖 Sharing is caring
Thanks to the Shelter in Place podcast for this sweet shoutout! (They recommended listening to this episode for Sweet Dumb Brain readers.) Speaking of podcasts, I was thrilled to see that My Sweet Dumb Brain was mentioned in the finale episode of Highly Enthused. Getting a shoutout in Australia is the coolest thing ever! And big thanks to Girls’ Night In for the link love last week. (Hello to the new GNI readers!)
Will you help me end 2021 on a strong note? Please consider sharing My Sweet Dumb Brain on social media, recommending it to a friend, or—if you haven’t yet—becoming a paid subscriber. Thank you!
My Sweet Dumb Brain is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who wishes a healthy, safe, loving holiday season to our incredible readers. And to those who aren’t feeling festive or merry or bright this year … that’s ok, too. We see you. Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.