Moving forward from the Thanksgiving holiday, I’m filled with gratitude for my incredible luck. As a younger woman, my wonderful husband introduced me to a life that felt safe and secure. His loving gaze helped me to bloom. He saw me as competent, caring, brilliant, and beautiful. His praise helped me to develop confidence and courage.
In the words of transactional analysis (TA), a theory of social interactions, my beloved offered me (and our children) “positive strokes.” Claude Steiner, author of Scripts People Live, describes strokes as special forms of stimulation offered by one person to another. The exchange of strokes plays a central role in human relationships.
Positive strokes can involve actual physical touch, such as a warm hug or gentle squeeze. They can also involve verbal compliments, expressions of care, or even basic recognition, such as a greeting. Because strokes satisfy a basic human need, our physical and emotional health suffers when we face “stroke scarcity.” We may even seek negative strokes, such as criticism, when positive strokes seem unattainable.
Becoming a widow meant facing new, sudden scarcity. Without my beloved, I felt less safe, less secure. We no longer shared coffee, compliments, or cuddles. Without him by my side, our bed felt empty and enormous. Losing the ability to give and receive positive strokes within my marriage created a cavernous void. As a new widow, for the first time in my life, I felt…. lonely.
According to Steiner, craving strokes from others often makes us feel ashamed and embarrassed. Many mental health professionals link loss with loneliness. In grief, how can we handle stroke scarcity? Steiner recommends that we ask for, accept, and offer strokes to others. But in grief, people often self-isolate. At least, I did, sobbing silently, on my sofa. Solo.
But to exchange strokes, we need to interact with other people, in at least some way. While heavy with grief, I took baby steps. Email, chat, text, and phone calls helped me to be alone yet also together with others. Finding a kind professional masseuse allowed me to attain physical strokes with clear boundaries. These interactions helped.
Eventually, I began dating. Dating involved many opportunities and challenges. Both via messaging, and at times, in person, I interacted with different types of men. Some behaved like clueless chauvinists. These men offered monologues as well as unwanted strokes. Some also offered negative strokes reflecting displeasure, disappointment, resentment, or rage.
On my 36th first date, I met a divorced father for coffee. In a total stroke of luck, this man seemed unlike any other. We “clicked.” His bright blue eyes shone with kindness. We each talked and listened. He asked me questions. He sounded interested and inviting. In response to my queries, he was direct yet diplomatic. At our first meeting, I felt the impulse to hug him! We’ve been together ever since.
Soon before his unexpected death, my beloved husband bought me a book, “Here if You Need Me.” In beautiful prose, this book describes loss and renewal. My favorite quote by the widowed author Kate Braestrup reads, “Your heart is not a stone. True love demands that, like a bride with her bouquet, you toss your fragile glass heart into the waiting crowd of living hands and trust that they will catch it.”
I’m overcome with gratitude to have found true love again.
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