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
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.
Funeral expenses payment
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 particular in insisting that I'm treated the same way as the rest of the team. No special favours. I want to be seen to be an active member of the team contributing the same as the rest. That is really important to me. My company has a buddy system, so I can call the same person when I need help or cover for sickness and holidays. I basically don't want to be treated differently at work because I'm a widower, but its nice to know that should I trip up I've got support."
"I’m a contractor - I had a month off when my husband passed away last August. My boss was really nice about me taking the time off. I went back full time but I work from home so I didn’t need to go into the office which made things easier. It did take me a couple of months to get my head in the right space but I functioned. I’m better at functioning now."
"I went back after 8 weeks, mainly to have something to occupy my mind. I had fantastic support from my manager, he met me for a coffee the first day and set no expectations. If I had a bad day I could just message him and take the day off. But after a few weeks I asked for more work and slowly got back into working full time. I couldn't have asked for better support, he was awesome."
"I went back after 5 weeks from the initial time in ICU (4 after death and 1 week after funeral). For 4 of those 5 weeks, I needed a sick note as there was only one week’s bereavement leave (now up to two due to Covid, and the rules have become a bit more flexible). I had 6 weeks phased return. My boss was as flexible as possible - she ignored some of the rules where she could and allowed some odd part days where needed (without needing to use leave). People did their best to support me. It’s now been just over 3 years and that was all the time I had off (I work full time in higher education). My partner's employer (where he has only started nine months before death) bent over backwards to help in extremely practical ways and continues to get in touch from time to time to see if there is anything I need."
"2 months off for me. Then phased return with 2 weeks of shorter days. It was kind of good to be back I've been there 13 years and knew so many people so got lots of support. My manager was and is great (only been back 4 weeks in total) and really gets that I still have wobbles. But I needed some kind of routine back in my life. I'm managing day to day and having contact with people really helps."
"I had to go back to work asap as self employed. So it was 2 days after the funeral. Although I had no choice, I think it really helped me! Stopped me worrying about finances on top of everything else and it got me out of the house, kept my mind off things, gave me a purpose. Without it, I think i would have spiralled as i was having flashbacks and not sleeping. Starting back to teaching tired me out and enabled me to sleep."
"I worked in London, but my partner passed two weeks before we moved from Bucks to Somerset. Getting back to work proved to be one step too far, as I couldn’t cope with the new commute of an overnight train and then staying in a hotel (not helped by fact we had been in a hotel when he passed). Working from home or remotely was not possible in my job I had to be in the office. I was fully off for 8 months, and then did a few weeks of phased return doing just one or two days. But my anxiety over the travelling and being away from home got too much and I got signed off again and haven’t been in since mid-December.
"I knew I had to look for something locally so started looking and have managed to get a job which I start in July. I’ll only have to travel half an hour into the office and can also work from home. So, although I haven’t started there yet that all seems more doable. I handed in my notice at work and said it seemed pointless to start another phased return so could I just have gardening leave for my notice period. And they were fortunately fine with that. They have been really good, they arranged for me to have EMDR sessions with the work shrink which are still ongoing despite me handing my notice in."
"I had a pretty unique circumstance because my partner died on my first day of my new job, so I wasn't actually entitled to any time off work due to being in my probationary period. I work for a charity, and the Trustees gave me 2 weeks of bereavement leave and I took 2 weeks of sick leave, which was my entire entitlement. I then was placed on a return to work scheme after that where I started going in for two half days a week. Each week I would increase it by a half day, until I was back full time. Tom died on the 31st of August and I was back full time by the 9th Dec. My work made accommodations for me to have my regular 1 hour Thursday counselling slot that I started 2 weeks after my fiancé died, which I continued to do until the 6 month mark (I'm now at 8 months). My work also have an employee assistance programme, and I have a bi-monthly check in with a telephone counsellor, and my manager went on a bereavement training course for helping colleagues who've been bereaved in the workplace, which has helped a lot. It meant that she was aware about the brain-fog, confusion, low moods, motivation etc. I've also been very open with my colleagues about my loss, which has meant avoiding awkward conversations with people who didn't know - everyone knows and it's much easier this way."
"I went back to work 3 months after my partner died. For the first month I was dealing with the funeral and a succession of infections, so was constantly on antibiotics. I was absolutely exhausted and would have been no use to anyone. My work, for a charity, really depends on me motivating myself and others, and I couldn’t even think about it. After a few weeks, a friend of mine met my boss at a conference and my boss told my friend that he didn’t understand why I wasn’t back at work - after all, the funeral has been at least a week ago!
My GP was brilliant and wanted me to stay off for longer, but I was getting a lot of pressure from my boss and in the end I felt it was easier for me to just get on with it than to deal with his comments and unsubtle messages to/through colleagues. I did send him the newly-published (at that time) ACAS guidance on bereavement, but he didn’t read it. When I went back to work, I asked him for a return to work conversation and a phased return. A colleague offered to be with me in the meeting. We both waited but he didn’t turn up. Eventually my colleague phoned him and he said he couldn’t come because the trains had problems in his area. We checked online and couldn’t even find a single delay or cancellation. The phased return didn’t happen - I was expected to carry my full workload with no support. We’re a very small team, each responsible for their own area of work, so I had 3 months-worth of e-mails waiting for me and no support. I was so relieved when that boss left a few months later. It was all a really bad experience."
"I was self-employed with a flower shop and staff, so I got 2 weeks off before I had to go back to do someone’s wedding flowers. Not sure how I did it, but I knew I couldn’t sit in the house on my own all day every day. It kept me going for a while, but made me ill eventually so I sold up."
"I was due to start a phased return in April, after losing my partner in November. Obviously that was put on hold due to lockdowns and covid. I started phasing back at the end of the following March… had to constantly remind them that I was returning to work after bereavement rather than just coming off furlough, and have had to ask repeatedly for back to work discussions and an idea of what their expectations of me are so that I can understand or ask for help when I fall short. I did not get support, other than them agreeing to a phased return since it also suited them. I have had coping strategies dismissed/undermined and self-care belittled. I also had to raise an issue with my direct supervisor and have been told I’m just more sensitive now I’m a widow."
"I went back after a month. Was one of the hardest things going back. I didn’t want to, but I knew going out would occupy my mind."
"I work for a very small company and went back after two weeks. I did however work from home or my parents' house for a long time and then said I would be moving away from the area, so I never actually went back in the office at all. I have made an effort to do my required hours since then, so I haven't actually taken any further bereavement or sick leave and in return they have allowed me lots of flexibility and patience. If I had a more demanding job or children to care for then I would probably have needed a lot more time off, but I felt if I didn't go back I might never been able to. It was also helpful in giving me a routine and a reason to get up each day even if I only fetched my laptop into bed to work."
"I lost my original job when my partner was poorly and I had to become his carer. I got a new job 7 months after he died, it was difficult to get a new job as it was during lockdown. I started my new company and was honest with them about my situation, they were somewhat supportive, but when I mum in law died while I was at work a month later they told me I couldn’t go home because it was bad timing and month end!! I left just after that as I couldn’t cope. I started a new job the following month but working from home which is much better."
"I was back 4 weeks after his heart attack, he was 3 days in ICU, so I was already back by the 4 weeks since he died and only a week and a half after his funeral. I'm self-employed so had no support and no pay while I was off so needed to return. No option really. I would have been back to work sooner but my dad insisted on helping me financially for a few weeks."
"I went back on reduced hours after 10 months off. I’m still on reduced hours as my sleeping is still very hit and miss. My company have been incredibly supportive, and I am temporarily in a different job with less responsibility for the same pay and they are happy with this to continue until Christmas! It may be because my partner also worked for the company when he died."
"Went back the following day. I know it sounds crazy but with the shock and feeling lost I needed something in my life to be the same. Work was, and still is, the only thing in my life that hasn't changed at all (for now...!). Initially work was great. I was told to take as much time as I needed and that my job was safe (I am agency). At almost exactly 3 months I was told I needed to increase back up to a full case load or drop to 15 hours, which I can't live on. I tried negotiating but met brick walls and was told my recommendations didn't fit the needs of the service!! I reluctantly agreed to increase my case load slowly... now it's 4 weeks since I made that decision and I have been given 4 sets of court proceedings (10 children). I met with my manager today and told her this isn't manageable, and I cannot do what is expected. I explained it's not to do with grief or my capacity as a Social Worker. There just isn't enough time to do the work needed between now and mid-July. I was told I will get some support from a student, which of course will help... to then be told as she's leaving the room that everyone on the team is going to be expected to take on 2 more sets of proceedings (could be any number of children). I'm quite looking forward to handing my 4 weeks' notice in in a couple of weeks."
"I lost my husband in mid-July last year. I had been working at home since March. This was good whilst he underwent brain surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. I pretty much was still able to fit my full-time job around him so didn’t take much time off apart from the two weeks before he passed away. Work gave me two weeks compassionate leave, so I went back 4 days after his funeral in early August. I think I probably went back too early - but felt numb and was in shock. I needed the routine at that time. As the numbness started to wear off - I just found myself sitting at my desk crying for most of the day. I think it all caught up with me. My doctor signed me off at the start of October and I had 3 months off sick before returning in early January. During my time off I started grief counselling. I had a phased return to work and in early February decided to go down to 4 days a week. My immediate boss struggled with the situation and didn’t show any empathy. However, after tackling him things have got better and I’m back into the swing of things now. I tend to go into the office once every two or three weeks.
"I went back a week later after my mum died (I worked in law then) and also a week after my wife died (a uni student as I'm now retraining). I'm not good at actively processing grief and prefer to get on with stuff while it happens in the background. It wasn't easy but I don't think being alone with my grief and metaphorically staring at the wall would have been either."
"Self-employed which really helped as my partner's condition worsened I was able to fit everything around her. It meant stupidly long days but would not have changed it. I went back to work the day after she passed as I needed to do something that wasn’t grief/funeral/shit-sorting related. I am approaching a year in a few weeks and don’t think I am back to the levels of intensity I once was. Suppose it’s good days and bad days really. Work has helped focus the mind, so you are not sitting staring at walls etc all the time. Compassionate leave was not possible. Just had my first two official days off and felt weird."
"I am a contractor which meant that I was able to pay myself from the absolute graft from the previous years… through to my partner's diagnosis and beyond. I got a contract the following March after wrongly believing that life on the emergency horror rollercoaster was slowing down but I terminated it shortly after the funeral. I simply was not able to go back to work, though I did try. Whilst always temporary in nature, my job requires me to go in and be all dynamic, fixing large scale problems, leading large teams of people, being extrovert when I am naturally introvert, and doing this with a massive energy and drive. Not only was I not even able to do the job of someone several levels below me - my brain just wouldn’t work - but I could no longer see the point in doing what I did. In January this year, I started my A-levels, on this journey to changing direction into cancer prevention, but I’m still not back at work (I guess this is the fundamental reason I worked my fingers to the bone all these years - to financially support myself through this journey!), although recently I have been looking at contractor job boards as I think I could do with that work dynamic again whilst studying. I am not pushing myself though - I’m being very picky. I’ll be 12 months in this June."
For hints and tips, see Going back to work
Going back to work
Going back to work after losing someone, whether it's back into a physical workplace or working from home, is a really tough thing to have to do. You may need to go back to work because you need the money, or it may be to provide structure, company and support.
As a freelancer I didn't have a lot of choice about going back to work. I also found that doing a job I loved meant that I got up in the morning with something to do. I started back a week or so after the funeral. One of the first stories I had to write (I'm a medical writer) was about heart disease in diabetes, which was the cause of Tim's sudden death. Even now I struggle to write on that topic, with the only consolation being that the medical research I cover could stop someone else being in my situation.
I did take on too much too soon, and that kicked me in the butt around six months after Tim's death, when I had a crash in my grief and mental health and had to pull out of two major projects. I've tried to be more measured about my workload since then (which I don't always manage), and to take on smaller rather than larger projects.
There is no specific right time to go back to work – it's whatever works for you. It may be days, weeks or months. You have the right to time off when a partner dies. However, depending on how much bereavement leave you get, you might need to take holiday or unpaid leave as well, or get your doctor to sign you off. You may go back to work and then find out you need to take more time off. This isn't a failure, it's what you need.
Unfortunately, not all employers are as good as they should be. You may need to be determined in asking for what you need, and you may experience your coping strategies being dismissed or undermined, and your self-care plans belittled. Talk to your boss (or your boss' boss) about what you need, and if you have an HR department or a union, you might want to get them involved.
Some people don't go back to their old job, go back and leave, or don't go back to work at all, after bereavement. This may be because their workplace doesn't provide the support or adjustments they need, the travelling is too much, or the experience of bereavement has changed priorities.
"I left my job a month before Steve died to care for him, so I had no job to go back to. Steve had said to me that I should work for the special assistance at the airport - he said I’d be good at it. So, 9 months later I rocked up at the airport to start my new career. Although it was hard at first they loved me for being the only member of staff that joined because we had used the service, and they were compassionate about what I had been through. I loved my job then and 7 years later I still love it. I went from doing nothing for 9 months (apart from the horses - three at that time!) straight into shift work. It was a bit of a launch but was so the right thing to do for me."
How you might feel
Hints & tips
Widow's experiences of going back to work, both good and bad.
In a guest blog, Alison Messom responds to Talking about chapters and stories
I've never liked the concept of a chapter 2 as it suggests the only thing important in your life is a relationship, but I don't have an issue with the concept of chapters per se. I see our lives as a complex novel with multiple chapters, each adding to the whole story.
Some chapters introduce new things or reveal something that we only recognise as being important later, or help us realise that something we thought was important really isn't. However, no matter how well written it is, no single chapter is complete on its own. You need all of them to understand and enjoy the whole story.
There are threads that run through the novel. Some threads have a key role in a single chapter, others are a constant feature. Some feature in multiple chapters and some play a critical supporting role that may not be immediately apparent.
My life has many chapters. Some relate to activities that were really important, some to places I've lived or have significance. There is an extensive cast list and various characters appear at different points. Some characters only make a fleeting appearance, others form key pillars on which the story builds. The key is that nothing is irrelevant. All of these things add to the picture and a theme or thread doesn't end as a chapter ends; it may well have a role to play in a future chapter.
I like to think that my current chapter is pulling together various threads and characters that were introduced much earlier and is also adding some new characters to move the story in a new direction, building on what came before.
Unlike Theresa May, Tim and I never thought that there were 'boy jobs and girl jobs' around the house. There were just jobs he did, such as taking out the bins and the recycling, and doing the vacuuming. He partly did those because they needed to be done, but he partly did them because he knew I hated them, and he was a nice man.
That first Monday morning when I put the rubbish out it hurt, and it reminded me how much I missed him. Now, while I still hate doing it, it reminds me how good he was.
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.