Warning. Some sweariness.
One of the first, and wisest, things someone told me about the impact of bereavement is that it is three-fold. We lose our past, our present and our future. This helped me a lot. However, I wasn’t prepared for how much the death of a partner changes us. How much we become different people.
Grief rewires our brains. This rewiring may be temporary, as we go through the fog that is widow’s brain. Some of the changes may also be long-term, or even permanent. For example, bereavement can lead to heightened anxiety, where everything seems like a threat or a potential catastrophe. I am actually less anxious about myself after bereavement, because I realised that I dealt with the worst thing that could ever happen, and I survived. I have more confidence in myself (well, most of the time), because I rebuilt my life on my own. However, I do worry about other people, and I no longer believe in the permanence of anything.
I think it now takes me longer to accept change, as there have been some many changes in my life. I am more patient with other people and their pain and sadness. But I have lost the ability to tolerate fools gladly (not that I was ever that good at it before Tim died). To quote Hank Green, “Behold the field in which I grow my fucks. Lay thine eyes upon it and see that it is barren.”
All of this doesn’t mean that you will never be happy again. My grief is still part of me but I am moving forward. I am happy – not the kind of happy that I expected. After all, one version of my future was taken away from me when Tim died. But a different kind of happy.
I've shared my story on the WAY Widowed and Young website.
"I was widowed at 50 when Tim, who I expected would be my happy-ever-after following a marriage break-up, died suddenly from heart failure linked to his type 2 diabetes. Although we'd known each other since our early 20s, we’d been married less than ten years.
I was fortunate to find WAY Widowed and Young and the subgroup WAYWOCs (Widowed and Young WithOut Children) just a few days after I was widowed. I can honestly say that I couldn't have got through the past four years without this incredible bunch of young widows, male and female, cis and trans, straight and queer.
We have shared (virtually and face-to-face) our tragedies, our successes, our tears, our laughter, and any number of truly bad puns and Marmite-related comestibles. I’m bisexual, I’ve known since my 20s but been married and divorced and then married and widowed, each time to a man, had me hiding in plain sight. I’m now in a same-sex relationship with an amazing woman called Dee and we’re getting married in August.
It’s important to me that I am a bisexual woman, and that I am still me, whoever I’m in a relationship with.
Getting involved in queer communities has helped me explore who I am. The amazing WAY LGBTQ+ group allowed me to be out in a safe space, where I felt supported and listened to. These amazing people looked out for me as I came out to my family, and told them that I had a new partner. The LGBTQ+ group is a little glittery place of fabulousness filled with people who are looking after each other and shouting out for each other. We celebrate the good days and the successes, support each other through the bad days, make each other laugh, talk about frocks and lipstick and films, rant, and send each other virtual hugs. I have been fortunate that, apart from some rare occasions, I’ve seen nothing but acceptance. My family, friends and village have fully accepted my partner, which is fantastic. But I know that the WAY LGBTQ+ group would have been there for me if it hadn’t been like that."
Widow’s fire describes the (sometimes) uncontrollable and all-consuming desire for sex following bereavement.
When we lose our partner, particularly when we lose a partner young, we lose a lot of things. And one of those is the sex life that we had with our partner, either throughout the relationship or prior to them being ill. But it’s not just about losing the sex life we had. Grief and bereavement leave us with a void, and our libido can kick in to fill that void and provide us with the kick of feel-good neurotransmitters and hormones we need. Sex is also a distraction from grief, a way to take control back in our lives, a comfort, and something that makes us feel alive.
What to do when widow’s fire strikes? Masturbation releases the neurotransmitters and hormones, such as oxytocin, that make us feel good, and also helps sleep. But it’s not enough for everyone.
If you want and need sex, do what you want to do, what you need to do. Just remember that you are vulnerable. Be careful. Take steps to protect yourself, sexually, physically and psychologically. Don’t be affected by other people’s opinions or judgements. And whatever you do, understand that it does not make you a bad person, or have any reflection on the relationship that you had with your partner.
For some people, it’s not so much a craving for sex as a craving for intimacy. It’s the lack of touch. I remember going to a Pilates class and nearly crying when my tutor put her hand on my back to readjust the pose. I know it's not the same, but hugs from friends or family, or a good massage can help to fill the gap.
Other people can shut down completely, with their bodies blocking all sexual feelings, or they can feel disgusted at the idea of sex. If you don’t feel widow’s fire, or the thought of having sex ever again turns you off, you’re not doing it wrong, because everyone grieves in a different way.
If it's been a while since you've dated, the language change can be daunting. Here's a few definitions that might help you work out what people are taking about - the blog on abbreviations might help too.
someone who is sexually attracted to others (the opposite of asexual)
someone who does not experience the feelings of romantic love
someone who is not sexually attracted to people
saving someone for later
attracted to both men and women
being offered ‘crumbs’ of a relationship to keep you on the hook
Catch and release
a one night stand
leading someone into thinking they are in a relationship and then scamming them
someone who identifies with their gender assigned at birth
hooking up with someone just for the colder months and festive season
a rejection that’s subtler than a flat out ‘no’
keeping backups or standbys in case your current relationship doesn’t work
a date that feels more like an interview
researching someone by going through their social media profiles
Define the relationship (DTR)
deciding whether the relationship is casual or going somewhere
someone who is attracted to personalities once they get to know them rather than an immediate physical attraction
curated social media profiles that act as a dating profile
that set-up call that will get you out of a bad date
someone who doesn’t respond to texts, but randomly makes contact
a man who only wants sex and runs away from relationships
Fuckbuddy/friend with benefits
a friend for sex without a long term relationship
having feelings dismissed and belittled
people outside the gender binary, or whose gender identity varies
cutting off discussions with no explanation or warning
someone who leaves straight after sex
bald men wearing hats to hide their lack of hair
Hey and pray
saying hello and hoping for a response
same sex attracted
people who lie on their profile to look better than they are
when your significant other goes off the rails
dating someone while looking for better options in the fast lane
being (excessively) showered with love – it can be a prelude to manipulation and abuse
the sweet backstory of how a couple met
Not really cheating, but approaching the border of cheating
moving from one relationship straight to the next
someone who sees only one person
a meet up that’s no specified as a date
someone who does not see themselves as male or female
On a thing
someone who leaves the next morning
a committed relationship that allows partners to see other people
when the person who has ghosted you hangs around on your social media
attracted to all genders
dressing up to attract attention
someone who seeks out and dates vulnerable people
Pocketing or stashing
dating but not being introduced to their friends or family
someone who has relationships with a number of people
a reclaimed word for people across the LGBTQ+ spectrum
when someone reads your message but doesn’t reply
cheating and then claiming that the relationship wasn’t exclusive
someone who is attrcayed to intelligence
Several night stand
A relationship that’s a few nights and nothing more
sex before a real date
someone who is doing everything they can to get someone’s attention
a relationship that’s not serious
Sliding into DMs
flirting through messaging
ghosting, but slowly
slow responses – busy, or not that into you?
pretty damn gorgeous
Submarining, haunting or zombieing
when the person who has ghosted you suddenly reappears as if nothing has happened
hooking up with someone just for the summer
liking someone on an app
messaging but never quite meeting up
a social media post about anything that’s actually designed to say ‘look how gorgeous I am’
contacting someone on Instagram direct messaging when they don’t match you on Timder
someone who identifies as a different gender to that assigned at birth
shedding the winter relationship for the summer one
when it’s been hard working getting a date
Someone saying how marvellous and woke and liberal they are, but it’s really just an act
For some widows, starting a new relationship after loss means diving into a whole new world of online dating. The abbreviations can be daunting. Here's a list of some common ones. For a deeper dive into dating abbreviations, go to Cyber Definitions or Dating Sites Reviews.
one to one
for your eyes only
before anything else
big beautiful woman
bondage, domination, sadism and masochism
between me and you
be right back
be right there
by the way
drug and disease
drug- and disease-free
down to earth
down to fuck
define the relationship
face to face
Facebook official (relationship status)
fuck my life
fear of missing out
female to male transgender
for the time being
friends with benefits
for your information
good sense of humour
hugs and kisses
horny net geek
height weight proportionate
I don't know
I don't know you
in real life
in search of
just for your information
kiss for you
long distance relationship
lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer
let’s meet in real life
let's meet in real life
married but available
member of the opposite sex
member of the same sex
man seeking man
man seeking woman
male to female transgender
no strings attached
no strings attached
public display of affection
queer or cool
sorry could not resist
sorry for the late reply
sense of humour
tender loving care
very bad date
very good sense of humour
will answer all
would like to meet
woman seeking man
wicked or weird sense of humour
woman seeking woman
will you call me
what are you doing?
wish you were here
you only dump once
I've lived with depression for many years – since my teens at the very least. And it's not as a result of anything. No childhood trauma, no lack of love. It's worsened by stress, but not caused by it, and no amount of tree hugging, walking barefoot in the grass or eating clean will cure it. It just is. It’s in my genes. I have had counselling and CBT, I take medication, and I exercise. And together they help me manage it.
Depression comes in waves. I can feel when it's coming on, the slide down. It's sometimes triggered by something small like a squabble on social media, or not being able to do something I should be able to do perfectly well, or actually nothing specific at all. And I know it's on its way, and I know I need just to ride it out, keep doing what I'm doing, until I feel the start of the climb up. I have it today.
When I'm low, all the colour seeps out and it feels like the world has become black and white. Sounds are muffled and my brain fogs. I'm very good at putting a mask on, and I can work and function perfectly well. In fact, before I was first formally diagnosed I assumed that I couldn't be clinically depressed, because I got out of bed, kept myself clean and tidy, and went to work every day where I met my deadlines perfectly adequately. After all, everyone knows that people with depression can't do that.
The day that the gym being closed unexpectedly left me sobbing, curled up in a ball on the floor in the corner behind my bed should have told me something was wrong. It took a wonderful and kind friend who made me go to the doctor, and a gentle GP and patient counsellor, to make me realise that not only was there something wrong but that it could be faced up to, and it could even be fixed. Or at least managed.
After Tim’s death I found myself in a more complicated world. Tim understood depression. He understood that it couldn't be fixed, but that it could be contained with care and the wave surfed. He would hold me while I cried, hug me when I just felt melancholy, and then make me laugh at the ridiculousness of it all at just the right moment. And so, after he died, I lived with depression and grief.
Whereas depression is a world without colour, and tastes of mud, grief is a different thing. It is greeny-yellow, and tastes bitter. It is sharper-edged than depression. And while both come in waves, grief waves I can't see coming. They crash in out of nowhere, sweep me off my feet, and leave me breathless and gasping. Some days they are both there, and I can visualise the colour or grief and the grey of depression, intertwining but separate. I know the difference between the two. Those days are hard.
Adapted from a post on my website The House of Correction, written during the first year of bereavement.
Grief hijacking – also known as competitive grieving, grief, emotional or energy vampires, grief tourists – call it what you like, it’s exhausting and heartbreaking. You’ve started a conversation, whether on social media or in real life, about your loss, and the conversation twists to become about their loss, not yours. They might be grieving for your person, they might bring in their own loss in a way that it seems like they are playing grief Top Trumps. They might be the acquaintances who pop up from your past to tell you that you are brave, or share your social media posts to show that they are ‘supporting’ their grieving friend without ever actually doing anything to help. Whichever it is, the person you are talking to has made it all about them.
If you are approached by grief vampires and grief hijackers, have boundaries to help protect yourself. Share only what you are comfortable about sharing, and say no if they ask too many questions or want to share things about you on social media that you want to keep private.
If you, as the friend or family member, want to respond to people’s posts or stories about bereavement, think about what to say. Remember that it’s about them, not you. And if you are going to offer help, be there and do it.
I am proud and honoured to announce that The Widow's Handbook has been nominated for The WAY Widowed and Young Helen Bailey Award for Best Widowhood Blog.
Helen Bailey wrote the Planet Grief blog.
On the 27th February 2011, whilst on holiday in Barbados, my husband got off his sun lounger, adjusted his glasses and headed into the sea for a swim. Moments later, I heard him call for help, and watched helplessly from the beach as he was pulled out to sea by a rip tide. He drowned. Bizarrely, after he died, almost the first thing I said was, "But I’m wearing a bikini!" as if bad things can’t happen when you’re wearing a good bikini. But they can, and it did. At the age of 46, I crash-landed on Planet Grief, a place where nothing, not even my own reflection in the mirror, felt familiar.
She worked in character licensing by day, and in the rest of her time she wrote and published over twenty books of short stories, picture books and young-adult fiction. She disappeared on 11 April 2016, and her body was found, along with that of her dog, at the house she shared with her partner, Ian Stewart. Stewart was arrested for her murder, and given a life sentence.
WAY Widowed and Young created the Helen Bailey Award for Best Widowhood Blog to celebrate Bailey's blog and her book on grief, When Bad Things Happen in Good Bikinis.
Planning a funeral for my husband wasn't what I expected to be doing a few months after my 50th birthday. What was a little – ironic, or just providential – was that, a few weeks before he died, we had talked a little about it on the drive home from a friend's burial. Some people have the opportunity and the foresight to discuss funeral plans in detail; all I knew was that he wanted to be buried in Somerset to the soundtrack of Shine on you Crazy Diamond by Pink Floyd.
I used the funeral director that had arranged my parent's funerals a few years before. If you know the person that you want to lead the funeral, whether religious or humanist, ask if they have any recommendations. The National Association of Funeral Directors and National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors have lists.
Preparing for burial or cremation
You will need to choose whether you want your partner to be buried in a coffin or a shroud. There are eco-friendly coffins available, from bamboo to wool, and even printed cardboard coffins.
The undertaker is likely to ask you if you want clothes for your partner. After holidays together where I would pack his bag if he was working late before we went away, I distinctly remember the sadness of packing Tim's bag for the last time.
Include underwear and shoes if you want to, and any little things that it feels right. Roald Dahl's coffin included chocolate, a bottle of Burgundy, his favourite HB pencils, a power saw, and his snooker cues. Other examples include flowers, letters, photos, books, rosary beads, religious texts, jewellery and soft toys. Tim was buried wearing his wedding ring, his suit (he'd joked after that funeral a few weeks before that it had been worn to more funerals than weddings), and the shoes he wore for his last acting role. In his pocket were the tickets for the race meeting we were due to go to the day of his funeral, and a Jaguar key ring he'd got the Christmas before from a lovely friend.
Be aware that funeral directors may have to remove things from the body or the coffin. For a cremation, these include pacemakers, leather, latex or vinyl shoes and accessories, and bottles of spirits. For a green burial, all clothes and items should be natural materials, and be biodegradable.
Planning the ceremony
You can choose to have a religious or humanist ceremony, and locate it where you want to (provided they are happy to have a coffin on site). This could be from a place of worship or crematorium to a pub, from a boat to a football ground, from a field to your own garden. You can have hymns, music, poems, bible readings or readings of poetry or prose that mean a lot to you. You can ask friends and family to talk about your partner, and you can speak yourself. From experience, I would suggest having a 'second' who has a copy of your reading or eulogy, and who can step in on your behalf if you can't carry on.
A basic structure:
Music can be recorded or live. If you get friends to do the music bear in mind they might struggle to sing of they are overcome with emotion in the moment.
The order that things are done can be changed around. For my parents, there was a short ceremony at the crematorium for just family, and then we moved to the church for a service. Tim's burial immediately followed the church service. At a friend's funeral, we had a service and then waved her farewell at the gates. The funeral directors went to the crematorium and we went to the wake.
There are traditionally four or six pallbearers, and these can be men or women. They will carry the coffin at waist or shoulder height. It's often done by friends or family, supported by the funeral director's team. It's a big responsibility, and it's important to accept that some people may not wish to do this.
Funerals can be expensive, but there are ways that you can keep the costs down. Check whether your partner had a pre-paid funeral plan, but be aware that this may not cover everything. If you are on certain benefits, you can claim a Funeral Expenses Payment from the government up to six months after the funeral.
You can invite just specific people to the funeral – for example family or close friends – or open it up more widely by posting details on social media, in the newspaper, or online, for example on the funeral director's website.
Particularly in the Western world, black is a traditional funeral colour. This may go back to Roman times, where people in mourning wore a dark-coloured toga (toga pulla). If this doesn't suit you, you can ask people at the funeral to wear a particular colour that's important to you, carry a certain flower, or wear bright clothes.
Setting up a live stream
During the COVID-19 lockdowns, many people were unable to attend the funerals of families and friends. Livestreaming funerals became more common, helping people to come together. As a result, an increasing number of churches, crematoria and funeral directors are now offering livestreaming. This allows people who are ill, too elderly to travel, or who live too far away to be able to attend. It's also possible to set up a livestream using Facebook, WhatsApp or Skype.
The day of the funeral will be tough. Check out the location so that you have somewhere to escape to if you need it. Stand tall, be proud of the person whose life you are celebrating. Clench your buttocks if you need to hold things in, but otherwise – weep silently, sob, howl, smile, laugh, talk or be silent. Or all of those, in any order. This is their day, but it is a day for you too.
Negotiating with families
You may have the freedom to have the day exactly as you want it, but you may also have to negotiate with family. If you and your partner have made plans beforehand, make sure everyone knows what will happen, and that it is how your partner wanted it. However, your partner's family may have fixed ideas in what they want. You may need to stand your ground, but you also may need to make some compromises. They are grieving too.
You can get a Funeral Expenses Payment from the government if you get certain benefits. This money can go towards:
The payment can be claimed within 6 months of the funeral. You can claim by phone or post. The money will be deducted from any money that you get from your partner's estate, not including a house or personal things.
I was widowed at 50 when Tim, who I expected would be my happy-ever-after following a marriage break-up, died suddenly from heart failure linked to his type 2 diabetes. Though we'd known each other since our early 20s, we'd been married less than ten years.