I was widowed in a February, and the second half of that year was tough, with a run of firsts – my birthday and our wedding anniversary on the same day in mid-September, his birthday in December, Christmas, and then the New Year's Eve party that we'd both been going to since our twenties. After that, January and February felt like a countdown to his death date. I heaved a sigh of relief once I got into March – the firsts were all over. But I hadn't realised that firsts aren't all over in that first year. There are things that come around less frequently, such as weddings, funerals (hopefully), work trips, buying furniture or decorating, and these can bring on the grief attacks.
The second year of grieving is very different from the first. In some ways it is easier, and in some it can be a lot harder. The second year was the division between 'Tim died earlier this year', to 'Tim died last year', or 'Tim died just over a year ago'. The second year was the time that it was all real, and I had to accept that this was what my life was now. That that grief would be part of me for the rest of my life. And that I had to find out who I was again.
I was achingly lonely, even though I was surrounded by friends. I was often tired, and I still had widow brain, which made concentrating hard. I tried to fill up my time with work and took on too much, which led to a major crash in mood and having to drop a couple of freelance writing projects, which meant in turn I lost a couple of clients. I had flashbacks and nightmares going back to the morning Tim died, and I struggled with thoughts about what was happening to him after death. My depression hit a real low, and I struggled with thoughts of suicide, but wasn't able to access the mental health support I needed despite this.
The second year can be where the secondary losses become clear. As widows, we lose our past, our present and our future, and for some people this becomes more concrete in the second year as they lose homes, struggle to pay mortgages, are no longer able stay in their jobs, find their support circles are receding, or find that they have lost contact with friends and family.
Some widows I know found that people's expectations changed – they expected them to be 'moving on', and 'getting over it'. People who haven't been widowed don't always understand that there is no timeline to grief, and that, while we might move forward, we don't move on from the people that we have loved and lost.
Some things were easier, however. The pain of his death was a lot less raw. I cried less, and I could function more. I slept better, and started to cook some of the time, rather than live on ready meals and things out of tins. I also found that I could start to plan things to look forward to, provided they weren't too far in the future.
One of the things that's important about the second year of grief is that you need to be patient with yourself, and that you are still allowed to ask for help and support.
Moving into the third year of grief
The third year was a year of a lot of change. It was the year of the Covid-19 lockdowns, and while I felt the most alone I had ever been, and I lost a lot of work, it created a liminal space that allowed me to grieve and to think about what came next. It also allowed me to make the house into somewhere I wanted to stay. I managed to access psychotherapy and this made an amazing difference as well.
Posting on the blog has been a bit patchy over the last couple of weeks as I've had a cold. The kind that makes your throat sore and scratchy, your nose both run and block up, and your voice swoop between a squeak and a croak. And it's reminded me how hard it is being ill on your own.
Winter can be hard for people who are widowed. It's dark and cold, and it’s the time when we are most likely to get colds and flu. Getting ill also reminds us that we are alone – there's no-one to bring that cup of tea, check in on us, get us something to eat or pass us some paracetamol. There are a few things we can do, though, to make things not seem so bad.
Trigger warning: Discussions of death, including violent death
It's October. The days are getting shorter, the leaves are starting to turn yellow and red and gold. The nights are getting colder and there's a hint of frost in the air. The shops are filling with orange and black. With pumpkins, costumes and masks. And if you live somewhere where people decorate their houses and gardens, there might be skulls and coffins and ghosts all over the place. There'll be children dressed up knocking on the door for sweets. And then, a few days later, Remember remember! The fifth of November, with bonfires and fireworks. Parties, food, drinks, dressing up, playing games. It's just fun, after all.
For some widows, though, Halloween and Bonfire Night can be really hard.
The imagery of death around Halloween all over shops, people's houses and gardens, and in social media, such as skulls, skeletons, fake tombstones and coffins, can bring back awful memories and trigger flashbacks. The coffins bring back some of the intrusive thoughts that I have fought to deal with over the past four and a half years.
For people whose partners have died a violent death, the images of bodies with nooses around their neck, or with bleeding wounds, can be devastating. Halloween depicts graveyards as scary, with bones and reaching arms, not as the safe resting places that we have created for the people we love.
The sounds and smells of Bonfire Night can be particularly hard where death by fire or gunshot has left widows with PTSD. These can also be difficult for autistic widows.
What to do?
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.