Holidays and travel are supposed to be full of fun, excitement and joy. Even travelling for work, while it can be mundane, stressful and exhausting, can also be really interesting. Usually, the last thing we expect when we are travelling, is that someone is going to die
"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."
What to do
The first thing to do when someone dies abroad is to contact the British embassy, high commission or consulate. If the death is in suspicious circumstances, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office can provide specific advice and support. If the death is of someone on a package holiday, the tour operator will be able to help. If you have not travelled with the person who died, the consulate will inform you through the police force or British Embassy.
The death will need to be registered in the country where the person has died, and with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in the UK. The local police or hospital may also be able to help, and an English-speaking lawyer can provide additional support if necessary. There are a number of UK-based organisations that can also provide support, assistance and information. The personal belongings of the person who died will also need to be sent home.
Depending on local laws, a post-mortem may need to be carried out; there may also be a post-mortem in the UK if the person's body is brought home. The authorities in the country will need to know if the person had an infectious disease such as a hepatitis or HIV infection. The death may also need to be reported to the coroner in the UK.
You as next-of-kin will need to decide to do with the person's body. This could be a local burial or cremation, and will usually need a local funeral director. A funeral abroad will, however, depend on local laws and customs, and on the circumstances of the death.
Bringing the person home – repatriation – will need support from an international funeral director. This may require the passport of the person who has died, and will need a death certificate (with a certified English translation), an embalming certificate, and authorisation to take the person's body out of the country. Repatriation is likely to cost up to £4000.
The death will need to be registered in the UK. A burial or cremation in the UK will need a burial certificate from the registrar, or a Home Office cremation order.
If the person who has died has travel insurance, the insurer may cover a number of things such as medical, repatriation, legal, interpretation and translation fees. The insurer may also have a list of approved funeral directors.
I so clearly remember the moment Tim slipped my wedding ring onto my finger. A plain band of white gold, representing a fresh start and a new life. For the nine and a half years we were married it was just 'there', snugly sitting up against the channel set engagement ring we chose together. It represented us. A symbol of our love and commitment. And when he died, I buried him wearing his wedding ring, because I didn't think he would want to be parted from it.
I carried on wearing my wedding and engagement ring for the next year or two – I can't really remember how long, until the day I was stung by a bee on my hand. As a beekeeper, it's an everyday risk, and this was no worse a sting than any other, but the swelling was travelling towards my fingers. I took my rings off, just in case. I moved my engagement ring to my right hand for safe keeping. The wedding ring was smaller and wouldn't fit, so I tucked it into a drawer until the swelling went down. And that's how my rings stayed. Somehow, it felt right.
When I started dating my now wife, I took off my engagement ring and tucked that away, but I still wear silver rings that Tim gave me on my right hand. Again, it felt right.
While not all widows are married, not all people who wear a ring that shows their commitment have been through a traditional marriage ceremony, and not all people who marry wear a wedding ring, for those who do it's an important and potent piece of imagery. And that importance and potency makes decisions about whether or not to stay wearing a ring so much harder.
Some people take off their rings on the day of their partner's death. Some will wear them forever. Some wear them on a chain around their neck or put them on a different finger. Some give their rings away, or get them made into a new ring.
As with many things in grief, there's no right way or wrong way. There's just the way that feels right for you.
There really is no way to prepare yourself for becoming a widow. I had lost both my parents in the few years before, and that was devastating, but Tim was there with me. When he died unexpectedly, the one person I needed most of all to support me wasn't there. The pain started off as raw, bleeding – I had been wounded so deeply inside that I didn't think it could ever get better.
Over time, things changed. Six months was hard. The run up to milestones was horrible (though often, the day itself was easier than I expected). The second year was easier and harder in equal measures. Things gradually became less raw though, and I began to be able to plan for the future.
Next year will be six years. I have a very different life. Not the life I planned or expected, but it's a good life. I discovered hope.
I moved house a fortnight ago, from the house that Tim and I bought to house his bookshop, and where he died suddenly and unexpectedly, to a house near the sea that I hope that my wife and I will make into our forever home. The whole process, from making the decision that we wanted a house that was chosen by both of us, rather than chosen by me, to opening the door here for the first time, actually only took around seven months, but felt so much longer. It was exhausting and involved builders vanishing leaving work unfinished, arguments with the local National Park Authority, and solicitors (not ours) causing delays. It was also a very emotional process, as it meant moving away from a friendship group that carried me through some really hard times, as well as leaving behind a place that had been very important to Tim and me.
I got rid of a lot of stuff, because that’s what you do when you move, and some of that was a huge wrench. But it also was oddly freeing at times. Packing felt interminable, and every time I thought I was nearly there, I turned round and saw more. Dee fell ill with a horrible viral infection, and then I got it two days before completion date. But we got there.
The wife, dogs and the van went off, leaving me alone in the empty house with the cats. Friends scooped me up, fed me and gave me a bed. And then on the day of the move, I drove 146 miles in a two-seater sports car packed to the gunnels with all the last bits and pieces, along with a pack of cold and flu capsules, a lot of Haribo, and two profoundly irritated cats. One sulked, the other yowled for 93% of the journey, and glared silently for the other 7%.
I was worried that I would lose Tim in the move, and in some way, lose me as well. But now the house is beginning to feel like mine, rather than someone else’s. I have my office in place. There are touches of Tim here. And the sulking cat is asleep on the bed.
Widowhood comes with a lot of different secondary losses, and one of these is the sense of losing who we are. When we are in a relationship, however independent we are, our partner becomes part of who we are and how we see ourselves. We are a wife, a husband, a partner, a girl or boyfriend, a significant other, a spouse – whatever name we use for it, we lose this part of us when we are widowed*.
Loss of identity can especially be an issue for people who are widowed early on after a change in a relationship, for example getting married or civil partnered or moving in together, as they haven't had chance to find out who they are in these new situations before having it taken away from them. It may also have a huge impact on people who move a long distance or change countries to be with their partner, as they are a long way from their support networks
Some people take a pause from their job or education when they are widowed, or stop working or studying altogether. Some people lose their faith. Some people lose touch with their partner's families, their own families, or their friends. These are all part and parcel of the loss of our identity, and the sense of missing the person we were before our person died.
Finding us again
Finding us again may be picking up something we did before. This could be something we did before we got together with our partner – perhaps even something we did as a child or teenager. It could be something we did with our partner before their death. This allows us to reclaim a thing we loved, as well as creating continuing bonds with the person we lost.
It could be doing something new. I went back to university to do an MA in Writing for Performance. It did me good to be somewhere where no-on knew me as Tim's wife or widow. I created The Widow's Handbook. I made new friends. I even went axe throwing.
*Don't forget – you are a widow if you have lost your partner, however long the relationship lasted and whatever the relationship status.
When you are widowed, people don't always know what to say or what to do. They might even avoid you because they are anxious about saying the wrong thing, or are afraid to be around grief and death. What people don't realise is that often all we want – all we need – is to hear our loved one's name. We want to talk about them, and we want to hear people's stories about them.
Around the world there are over 258 million widows*, and according to the Loomba Foundation , almost one in ten live in extreme poverty. In parts of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, around 50% of women are believed to be widows.
In parts of the world, widows:
According to the census, there were just over 2 million widows in England in 2020. In the UK, an estimated 1.5 million widows lost out on pension income after bereavement, with almost 60% seeing a major drop in income. It was only in February 2023 that unmarried cohabiting parents could claim bereavement benefits. Cohabiting partners without children are still not eligible for benefits.
The origins of International Women's Day
On 23 June 1954, Raj Loomba's mother, Pushpa Wati, became a widow at the age of 37. That very day, she was ordered to remove her bangles, jewellery and bindi, which gave her the status of a married woman, and wear white for the rest of her life. When Raj Loomba, who was ten at the time of his father's death, got married to Veena Chaudhry, the priest told him that his mother had to sit away from the alter in case she brought bad luck to the couple.
Five years after his mother died, Loomba and his wife set up the Shrimati Pushpa Wati Loomba Trust (now the Lomba Foundation) to support widows and their children. The Foundation created International Widow's Day in 2005, and in 2010 the United Nations declared 23 June to be a United Nations day of action to highlight and combat discrimination and injustice suffered by widows worldwide.
What we can do to safeguard and advance widows’ rights
From The UN Women explainer on what you should know about widowhood:
*While The Widows Handbook usually uses 'widow' as a non-gendered term, this piece talks about female widows
The day Tim died I had to do the hardest thing ever – break the news to his parents. I then had to tell my family. Friends passed the news onto friends. It was unbearable. Every conversation relived the awful shock of that morning.
The next day, the news had travelled fast. People around the village, people on social media, sent me messages of love and concern.
What I hadn't realised, though, was how often I was going to have to tell people that he had died. His bookshop customers. All the people involved in the sadmin – banks (over and over again), DVLC, business contacts. People we hadn't seen for years.
Even years later it still catches me. A mailing list he's still on. The tax office because his company is dormant but not yet closed. Breaking the news doesn't seem to end.
As Father's Day approaches, sending love to all who are:
After the death of her husband, Geoffrey, fashion journalist Felicity Green said: " I have got plenty of people to do something with, but nobody to do nothing with".
After Tim died, I missed the big things. Going away together. Planning Christmas together. But it was the little things that I missed the most. I worked upstairs in my office and he worked downstairs in the shop, and I'd potter down with a cup of tea in his favourite mug, or to tell him something about my day, and he'd potter up to show me a new book that had just come in. I'd notice when he'd cleaned the hair out of the vacuum cleaner (a job I hated), or when he emptied the bin in my office. He'd do things around the house when I went away for work, and I'd wander round when I got back and spot them. If we were both awake in the night, we'd talk about anything and nothing. If I got up early to work I'd come back to bed with a cup of tea and he'd warm my feet.
Like Felicity Green, I missed doing nothing with him.
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.