Relational Health for Widows

Easing the Loneliness After Valentine’s Day

by Cyndi Williams, MSW, LCSW

A sentiment I regularly hear from widows is how lonely they feel. Like so many other dates and holidays, Valentine’s Day can intensify the loneliness we already feel. What makes this holiday more difficult is that it is specifically about celebrating love. If you watch TV, listen to the radio, go into any store, or check social media, you cannot escape messages of love and romance. Everyone seems to be sharing about their love. Sometimes even other widows who have repartnered will post photos of new relationships, and you may be wishing you could just hold your spouse’s hand one more time or just a hug…a real hug…from someone.

This longing for human touch is referred to as skin hunger. When a baby cries, we instinctively pick them up and cradle them. When a child gets hurt, we instinctively know to pull them onto our lap and assure them they are okay. Young children hold hands, hug, and provide comforting touch to each other without overthinking it. This is because hugs release the “love hormone” oxytocin which creates a sense of warmth and well-being.

After we found the person we wanted to spend our life with, we memorized the feel of their hand in ours, and when we were hurting their hug, kisses, or even just the feel of them next to us on the couch became our comfort. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing, women who were widowed since 2020 have likely been experiencing this skin hunger more than widows at any previous time in history.

If you did not have a Valentine this year, there are non-romantic ways that you can help ease the skin hunger you may be experiencing.

  • Be honest with friends and family about your need for hugs. Even if hugs haven’t been a regular part of your relationship with someone, most people will welcome the mutual benefits if they know you are not only comfortable with it, but in need of it.
  • Schedule a massage, manicure, or pedicure. Even a visit to a hair salon has some component of touch. This prolonged human contact is packed with mood-boosting benefits.
  • Incorporate physical affection into your daily norms with any children who live with you, or find a way to spend some time with babies or children in your life…they LOVE hugs.
  • If you are a dancer, find a place to go out dancing with someone or take a dance class. Even dancing with a stranger or a dance instructor will provide that human touch without requiring any romantic involvement.
  • Wrapping yourself in a warm blanket, using a weighted blanket, taking a long warm bath, or snuggling with a beloved pet may not fully meet the need for human touch, but it is the next best thing and can have some of the same benefits.

If your relationship with your spouse was strained, unaffectionate, or abusive, you may have been longing for physical comfort long before you lost them, or you may have developed an aversion to touch from past trauma. You can still benefit from the oxytocin-lifting suggestions above, but go slow. Listen to your heart and if you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, that is okay, trust yourself and go at your own pace.

Many widows eventually feel they are ready to find a new life partner so they can have that regular daily affection. If you are dipping your toe into the dating pool, a word of caution is in order. Your heart has been broken. You may still be feeling the effects of widow fog. As a widow, you may have a heightened financial and physical vulnerability. Even if you have been receiving lots of platonic hugs and human contact, when you are touched, hugged, or kissed by someone romantically, it’s not unusual for a widow to feel very intense physical and emotional responses. In addition to our physical need for touch, we often wondered when we lost our husband if we would ever be loved again. Those first physical romantic encounters can be full of butterflies, confusion, fear, excitement, and even feelings of cheating on our late husband.

I tell widows who are new to dating to guard their hearts. Remember that those first few contacts may feel incredibly intense to you, so try to calm your thoughts and feelings if you can, and take it slow. The dating world has changed a lot, even if it’s only been 10 years since you last dated. Talk to some single friends, Wisters who have repartnered, or join the MWC Dating Club for more support and connection with other Wisters.

Cyndi Williams is a mental health advisor and contributor for Modern Widows Club, currently working as a mental health therapist at Sandhill Counseling and Consultation in St. Louis, Missouri.

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Knowing there are women who have not only survived what I was going through, but were also thriving and moving forward in their lives.
— MSC Wister® (Widow + Sister)