A WIDOW HAS the image of one of life's losers. Ask anyone for free association and he'll offer gray hair, loneliness, matinees, dependence on children and grandchildren, attachment to television commentators. Even in the printer's world the widow has a bad name. It's a leftover word, taking up a whole line, that must be pruned from the end of a paragraph.

There is plenty of pity for a new widow. Everybody knows that a terrible thing has happened and is very sorry, but they don't know what to say. The recent death reminds them of their own inevitable demise, and certainly the less said about that the better. In addition, there is the risk of tears. All in all, the three days before the funeral is about what the widow gets to shape up if she wants to be part of the world she knew.

All this is certainly understandable, yet the years alone are slated before we begin, the spector at the feast at every marriage. We women tend to marry older men and we are, well, tougher. Only one wife in 12 will escape widowhood, but whoever believes that her own marriage will not outlast the tides, the turning of the earth and the statistics? The result is that widows can expect no more understanding from wives than from the world at large.

Women now in their twenties and early thirties are engaged in working out whether it is possible to combine marriage, children and a career, thus avoiding the single-minded focus on a marriage. We who can remember when Bloomingdale's was tacky didn't know about this option. We took our identities from our husbands. We were doctors' wives or the wives of plumbers or teachers, and the only other identity we had was as mothers of Cub Scouts or Brownies.

"I am training you to be a widow," murmured my husband when he knew -- and I was still refusing to believe -- that he was dying But in reality no one was ever less trained. He took decisions off my shoulders, and in his sleep he tossed and turned and begged me not to worry. Until two days before he died, he dressed and commuted by bus to his office, protecting me even from the knowledge of his pain. Up to the moment when he died in my arms on the kitchen floor, I knew he was going to get better. I, like so many before me, became a widow while still believing it was impossible.

It takes two years, say the psychiatrists, before a widow absorbs what has happened and is capable of making decisions. Early, there is the merciful numbness, the long weeks before you, as survivor of the amputation, feel the real cut of the knife. And the first thing you understand when your senses begin to return is that although you are the same person, nobody else believes it. And after a while you see that they are right and you have to grow up in middle age.

When a man to whom you have been married for decades dies, a piece of you dies with him. What happens to you after that eventually changes you irrevocably, and that is as it should be. If life doesn't change you, you haven't been listening.

The changes come about gradually, because at first you are too busy. Maybe it is arranged that way or you might never get out of bed, but little by little you realize that everything from taxes and insurance to the unsticking of windows and the changing of furnace filters is up to you, and nobody is even going to remind you. Small things also take their toll, like having to take the sliver out of your own finger, having nobody to pooh-pooh your worries, nobody to catch your eye when somebody says something stupid.

Busy picking up the reins once shared by two, you eventually realize that the rules of the game have been changed, but only for you. The lives of other people you know are ticking along just as before and all of a sudden you know things they would rather not think about, have learned skills in which they have no interest. And since one chooses one's friends from among those most like oneself, a widow usually discovers she is alien.

"Don't join the widows' club," muttered my husband one evening over the hamburger he was pushing around his plate.

"You're not going to die," I shouted, angry and terrified. I didn't even take in the words. Not until after he was dead, and I began to feel like the only passenger on an excursion boat who, lifting my parasol like the others against the sun, was still aware where the motor was and where the oil ran out.

It is so easy for us widows to seek the company of others like us. They know the territory, their needs are the same, we suffer the same rebuffs. And there are so many to choose from, 10.5 million last time I looked. We have to reach for companionship and there they are.

But I was never a joiner, so I fled instead, angry and alienated -- to Paris when I didn't have the money, to a job where I got back my sense of self. And even, because I had promised myself I would never again be afraid to do anything I wanted to, to a computer dating service. That was where I finished my metamorphosis.

In Florida, we are told, lonely women tip the condominium doormen to tell them when single men move in. It is assumed by everyone that a widow is only looking for a second chance. Whereas, as I hear from the lips of every widow I meet, a good marriage is a hard act to follow and what most women left behind want is only someone to take them to dinner.

I didn't use my real name at the dating service. I did not expect to find happiness in the file drawers. I was simply curious to see what happens in the Alice-Down-the-Rabbit-Hole kind of world, to know who checks real life on the street below to confide their ultimate hopes, pet peeves, happiest moments to a stranger's file folders.

Such a pretty girl to greet me. Coffee? And what age group was I interested in? I could look over a selection and, if I found anyone to my liking, view him on videotape -- after paying, of course, a small sum. The pretty girl paused in the doorway en route to the files, appraising me like a clerk in an expensive dress store before checking the stock in the back room.

On the videotape in the next room, I could hear a slightly nervous young man speaking earnestly about the importance of a committed relationship, openness and sincerity. And then the pretty girl was back with a half dozen files and left me to sort through them. First names only. No address. No telephone number. Elaborately casual pictures.

Loneliness was so palpable in that room that I inhaled it with the lingering smoke of the pretty girl's cigarette. And I got up and walked out of there because I had finally realized, as Katherine Hepburn once remarked, that I'im not afraid to be alone.

One of the things they don't tell us is that it doesn't get easier. You get used to things, but this is only accommodating. It represents no cure.

I was married more than 30 years. That leaves a lot of places full of lingering tendrils of memory, places where you walked or quarreled or had an expensive lunch or bought a handful of vendor's flowers. It used to sweep over me in odd places, in a Chinese resturant or waiting for a traffic light, what I had lost. Once, when I was especially down, discouraged and scared, I called up a college friend who is six months my senior in widowhood and asked her if she had any answers. Did she know some secret not yet vouchsafed to me?

There was a pause and I could see her pushing a strand of hair behind he ear, considering before she spoke. I knew there were no answers, but irrationally I believed she would find some.

Her reply was soft, and the Boston accent slurred it. "Hello, sister," she said.

But oddly, after working your way through the worst of it, there are compensations. You don't believe this at first, but it is true, as true as that Tuesday follows Monday and, barring complications, spring will come again next year. I hear it from other women who have lost the men they love, and I know that it is true.

The reason we are alienated and sometimes thorny women is that we are different women. We are women who have learned to depend on ourselves, stronger women who are more than a leftover. It is the gift that comes after the fire, and I learned it in a strange way. after the fire, and I learned it in a strange way.

I was talking to my son and suddenly, surprising me as much as him, I burst into tears. Shamelessly reversing the roles we both had come to depend on, violating boundaries heretofore observed, across the wires to a distant city, sobbed it all out.

Through my sobs I could hear his voice, horrified to hear me casting aside all semblance of self-control, reasuring me.

"You're going to be all right," he said gently. "You're doing a fine job."

It was then he gave me the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, which in my anguish at the time I scarcely noticed.

"I respect what you're doing," he said.

And what ws I doing? Just what 10.5 million women like me out there are doing.

Learning to stand alone.