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Rebuilding Home: The Dreaded Tilted Head

By Fairport Wealth

By Deborah Feldman, CFP®
Director of Wealth Management, Chicago

“It’s a couple’s world.” I still remember when I first heard this phrase – it came from Marjorie, my childhood friend Lillian’s mother. Marjorie was unexpectedly widowed when she was in her early 60s.  She felt very displaced in the world.  All her friends had husbands and the couples socialized often.  Marjorie was initially included in all activities, however, after a while it became awkward for her – she felt that she was always the third wheel at the party. What made life even more awkward was that she was often met with what she called “the tilted head,” and she really disliked it.

For the uninformed, in Marjorie-speak, “the tilted head” most often occurs when a widow meets a friend, neighbor, colleague, etc. and the person attempts to show empathy or sorrow or concern for the widow’s loss by tilting their head, employing a slight frown, and speaking in an exaggerated voice while trying to express their condolences or sympathy. Marjorie knew that death was often a difficult subject for people to deal with and she could tell that it was a struggle for some to convey their sadness/sympathy/support. She appreciated the effort; however, she was a woman with very strong opinions and principles and what she disliked was the feeling that she was being pitied. “The tilted head” felt like pity and pity was not a word that resonated with her. Many times, she would state that she was alone, in a state of shock, terribly sad, and scared, but she did not want to be pitied. Ever. The End!

Her desire to appear “normal” (and not one to be pitied) to the world outside of her home caused her to make some interesting choices in a short amount of time. She propelled herself back into life at warp speed and became a force of nature! She began treating friends to lunch, dinner, theatre, opera, etc. She started traveling with people from her church who were on missionary work in Africa. She contributed fairly large sums of money to several charities at the advice of some of her newly-found friends. She was constantly on the go – much to the chagrin of her children, who were all concerned for her mental state and her financial future.

When my friend Lillian mentioned her mother’s strange behavior, she began by telling me how disappointed she and her siblings were with their mother’s life choices. She told me that they were all at odds with Marjorie and didn’t know what to do. Then she asked me the question I was anticipating and dreading – Would I speak to her mother? “I’m not a mental health professional,” was my first response. She countered with, “But you have both had the same loss in life. You get the financial stuff. Maybe you can talk some sense into her… She won’t go to a therapist, and we are all at the end of our proverbial ropes.” I reluctantly agreed to attempt to have a conversation with the woman that most of the kids on the block feared beginning at age 5 and continued to fear well into adulthood. 

My first conversation with Marjorie was illuminating – she realized that her children thought she was crazy; yet she knew, thankfully, that none of them had experienced what it felt like to lose the love of their life, security, stability, and purpose. She then added that she knew that her family and friends would be very present in her life for a month or so after Stan’s death, but eventually would return to their normal lives, while her life had irrevocably changed for the worst. She embarked on a plan that would help her cope with the sorrow she was experiencing – she would purposely fill almost every waking moment of her time with something. She didn’t have to deal with any sadness if she was busy. I remembered feeling the same way – some days it was very depressing to think about my miserable situation and filling the day with something was therapeutic. 

Marjorie and I had many conversations over the years. I was no longer only known as her daughter’s childhood friend; I was also her trusted friend – widowhood was the great age equalizer. We both belonged to a club that no one wanted to join, and we frequently commiserated about it. 

My advice to Lillian and her siblings was to have patience and to try to respect their mother’s decisions.  Marjorie had to live her life on her terms and any choices made had to be hers.  After all was said and done, it was understood that Marjorie allowed each one of her children to choose their own journey in life…and now it was time to let their mother do the same.

For more insight from Deb, you can read the previous issue of Rebuilding Home here, or stay up-to-date on new issues by following Deborah Feldman’s blog on LinkedIn.

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