being social after widowhood

There is a social isolation epidemic in America. We have fewer close friends than in years past. We have fewer intimates with whom we can share those thoughts that keep us up into the night. We have replaced physical relationships with Netbuddies and conversations with texting.

For myself I am in a friendship drought again, but this is not unusual for me. I have weathered many periods of social solitude over the years, and I have never had more than two close friends at a time.

I was reading the local paper today and my least favorite columnist was weighing in on this particular topic. It was her contention that people in the Midwest are much friendlier than people in larger cities or Europe. She based this on the observations of another woman who had lived in Europe, Boston and then finally Iowa.

I am not sure I buy into the notion that it is geography or ethnicity that make some places less “friendly” than others. I think, like most things, it comes back to you and where you are in your life internally. I have been more open at different times and definitely closed to relationships at others. There have been times even when I thought I wanted relationships but did nothing to further that end because in reality I didn’t want anything more than to be on my own.

Being the caretaker of a terminally ill husband and now a widow, I have come to know loneliness in ways that defy easy definitions. There were days on end when the only people I had to interact with were a toddler and a husband with a short-term memory that was so short he could literally turn away from you and back again and have forgotten everything you just told him. It wasn’t so much losing him physically but the emotional loss. For both of us. He was so disoriented that he couldn’t access the emotions that had pulled us together in the first place.

Now, of course, I face the new burden of making people too uncomfortable for them to want to be around me. I have to choose my words carefully so as not to reference my old life too often. Too many remarks and I am living in the past and too few means that I am in denial or worse, I must not have loved my husband very much in the first place to be moving on so quickly.

An article in last month’s Oprah talked about how the socially isolated bring much of their loneliness on themselves. It gave the standard advice that the shy and socially inept always receive. Practice smiling. Put yourselves in social situations more often. Relax. Blah. Blah. More simply put, try not to be yourself so much and people will like you more for being more like them.

I don’t smile continually and that’s a genetic thing I realized only after my daughter was born. She had the most serious look on her face at all times. “She’s shy,” people would say but I never allowed her to be labeled. “She needs to assess her surroundings,” I would tell people. “When she’s ready, she’ll come to you.” I am not inept. I socialize quite well once I get my bearings, but I admit I am easily overwhelmed by numbers and noise, just like my daughter. It is easy to like outgoing and the pretty. It’s just as easy to find them annoying and shallow because frankly some people are not worth the effort of getting to know them. What they project is what you are getting.

I used to think that my loneliness was my fault somehow, like Oprah said, but it’s not. There are boundaries on my personality which make me who I am and limitations on my life, now especially, that make social situations hard to be a part of or even participate in at all. Am I lonely? Yes. I lost my husband and he had filled in all the drafty, empty spaces in my world. But am I lonelier than ever? Not really. I have been here before. It’s just a lull and it will pass and I know this because it always has.