Surviving Valentine’s Day

A widow’s guide to celebrating love—alone—and keeping a positive attitude.

By Alina Larson

WEB EXCLUSIVE

For kids, Valentine’s Day is a time to exchange funny cards and eat boxes of chocolate. For adults, it’s often much more than just an occasion to send flowers and buy jewelry, chocolates and cards—it’s a time to rededicate your love to one special person.

But when you’re a widow or widower, Cupid’s arrow can pierce your heart in a very different way on February 14th. What was once a holiday of “warm fuzzies” can turn into a day of sorrow.

“If you find yourself alone on February 14th after years of celebrating with someone you loved very much, the void that you feel can be overwhelming,” points out author Joni Aldrich, “It’s difficult to see happy couples all around you when all you can think about is the person you have lost.”

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Aldrich speaks from experience. She knows grief firsthand. In 2006, she lost her husband Gordon after a two-year battle with cancer. She wrote two books about the experience: The Saving of Gordon: Lifelines to W-I-N Against Cancer and The Losing of Gordon: A Beacon Through the Storm Called "Grief" (both Cancer Lifeline Publications, 2009). In the latter, Aldrich tells the inspirational story of how she rebuilt her life after losing her husband.

Because Valentine’s Day held so many precious memories, Aldrich still finds the holiday difficult, even though it’s been three years since her husband died.

And she’s not alone. Red hearts and sappy songs on the radio can highlight loss as easily as they can inspire ardor. If you are facing this Valentine’s Day by yourself, perhaps for the first time, Aldrich offers 6 tips that might make the day easier to navigate.

1. Prepare in advance.
Maybe it’s true that ignorance is bliss. Even if you wanted to forget about the existence of “V-Day,” though, our consumer-driven culture wouldn’t let you. “You wish you could just hide under a rock until the last conversation heart has disappeared,” says Aldrich. “Survival requires looking deep inside yourself to determine what you might do to make this holiday less painful. There is no secret formula—we’re all different—but try to focus on the fact that it’s just one day.”

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2. Know what to avoid.
“Unless you’re joined by friends or family, stay away from restaurants,” Aldrich advises. “The empty place across the table will cast a pall on any pleasant feelings you’ve managed to work up. Along those lines, avoid any of the ‘old favorites’ that might be painful. Order take-out or cook at home, but don’t fix that special dinner you used to make with the person you loved.” Another no-no? A romantic movie. Choose a comedy. 

3. Stay busy.
Chances are you’ve heard advice like “Get out of the house! He wouldn’t want you to stop living your own life.” And while such insights might not always be what you want to hear, they have more than a grain of truth. If you’re dreading the rush of painful emotions and memories that Valentine’s Day will bring, plan an activity that will take your mind off of things. “Schedule some quality time with friends and family,” Aldrich recommends. “Play some board or card games. Focus on a new project that you really enjoy, such as redecorating your home.”

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Valentine's Day is a celebration of love, and grief is the form love takes when someone close dies. This means that the public focus on love can evoke painful longing and yearning and sadness for those who are bereaved.
Losing a loved one is among the most challenging things we ever face. People we love anchor our lives. They help regulate our emotions and guide our plans. They are a part of how we define ourselves. We celebrate this connection on Valentines Day, yet for some of us the celebration serves as a reminder of what has been lost. For those who have had time to make peace with a loss, reminders evoke feelings that are bittersweet and poignant. For those who have lost loved ones more recently or those caught in prolonged acute grief, the feelings can be intense and painful.
People experiencing acute grief often feel lost and lonely. Reminders of the deceased person usually trigger strong feelings of yearning and sadness. Sometimes there are other painful feelings, like fear, anxiety guilt, resentment, anger, or even shame. It’s good to remember that grief is like love – multifaceted, complex and unpredictable. Also like love, grief is an experience that is both universal and unique. We all experience grief and we each experience it in our own way. It is important to remember both of these facts. There is no right or wrong way to feel after we lose someone. However, it is important to stay true to ourselves and to practice self-compassion, especially when reminders like Valentines Day activate the pain.