In November 2018, writer and podcaster Nora McInerny gave an amazing TED talk. She founded the Hot Young Widows Club, a US Facebook group for people widowed young. When she asked the group what phrases they hated most hearing in the early days of grief, 'moving on' came close to the top.
'Moving on' implies that the people we have lost are firmly in the past and that's exactly where we should leave them. But, the people we have lost do continue to be present with us; and that's as it should be. It doesn't mean that we are clinging onto a ghost of a dead person, rather that we are influenced by all the people that we have ever known and loved.
After Tim died, it felt like everything was gone. But with hard work, amazing support from friends, family plus the charity Widowed and Young, and some psychotherapy, I rebuilt my life. But I didn't 'feel' it. Feeling better felt wrong, because I thought it meant I was moving on and leaving him behind. Forgetting him. Falling out of love with him. Coping without him, the man who I described as the still centre of my turning world. These feelings sabotaged my journey, because I was afraid of letting go of my grief.
McInerny's talk changed things for me. I started talking about moving forward, which takes our people with us, rather than moving on, which leaves them behind. Even so, I still had to give myself permission to feel happy.
I had to let go of some of my grief. I had to learn that letting go isn't about forgetting them. It's about helping ourselves to live in the now. About understanding that we are who we are because they were in our lives, and because we went through the trauma of bereavement. It helped me to remember that Tim's memories live inside me through my continuing bonds with him.
"How long will I grieve? You will always grieve. In time grief changes and rather than be consumed by sadness we remember with love and happiness."
Some days we potter along. Everything is, if not marvellous, then pretty much okay. Then seemingly out of the blue comes an attack of grief. It feels as if you are standing on a beach and a wave has come up and caught you behind the knees, throwing you off balance. Grief attacks can seem overwhelming.
What triggers a grief attack?
A few months after Tim died, I watched a Lancaster fly across my village. I knew that Tim would have loved it, would have had so many stories about it, and I dissolved into grief. Grief attacks can be triggered by different things – thinking about milestone dates, suddenly hearing a piece of music on the radio, someone saying a particular phrase, seeing someone wearing a particular colour or style. Even a particular kind of weather can trip off a grief attack.
When a grief attack hits, sometimes we need to just 'sit' in the grief, and let it wash over us. Cry if we need to. Be gentle with ourselves. Remember that the attack will pass. And then breathe slowly, and use grounding techniques to return to the here and now.
After Tim died, I became so tired. The kind of tired that squashes you flat. The kind of tired that it felt like even my bones hurt. Feeling this exhausted can be scary. But it is a normal part of grief.
Why does grief make you tired?
You're in shock
A psychological shock triggers the fight, flight or freeze response. Our bodies fill with the stress hormone cortisol, desensitising us and putting us on alert. After a bereavement, particularly a sudden and unexpected one, our cortisol levels remain high for a prolonged period of time, leaving us exhausted.
Your brain has so much to process
Our brains get tired when they are being asked to process information all the time – every decision requires energy. So grief exhaustion is both physical and mental.
You can't sleep
Grieving often means your head just won't stop – it's full of spinning thoughts and tough memories. You may also be having nightmares, flashbacks or intrusive memories. All of these will affect your sleep.
There's so much to do
Bereavement leaves us with a lot of admin, from bank accounts to businesses, and from phone contracts to funeral arrangements. There is so much that needs to be completed, and some things must be done in specific timelines.
Losing someone also means losing their help at home. This can include routine jobs around the house and caring responsibilities. For some people, bereavement means having to find somewhere else to live, sometimes at short notice.
You are hypervigilant
Hypervigilance is a state of extreme alertness where you are constantly assessing the environment for threats, both real and perceived. You may feel that since you have been through a traumatic event, what's to stop another? Hypervigilance can be a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is exhausting in itself, as well as making it hard to relax or sleep.
You aren't eating properly
It can be hard to eat well when you are grieving – it may not seem worth it to cook for one, or your appetite may not be what it was. Not having enough of the right kind of nutrients leaves you without energy. Both your diet and your alcohol intake can also affect the depth of your sleep.
What to do?
I'm a writer by trade. Science writing pays the bills and fiction provides the creativity. After Tim died, I used my blog as part of my grieving, sometimes writing to Tim, sometimes documenting the steps I took, other times just setting down in words how I was feeling. There were bees in there too.
Writing The Widow's Handbook is helping me work through parts of my grief, and understand why I feel how I feel.
Writing your grief
Writing can be a way of making sense of the world, of getting feelings out of our heads and putting them in order, of processing our grief. It can help us to manage the chaos in our heads. Writing can trigger emotions, so be prepared for what I call grief attacks, those moments that feel like waves of the sea catching you behind the knees and sweeping you off your feet.
Writing can actually help our health – it can boost our immune systems. It can also improve our mood. While depression isn't the same as grief, a study of people with depression showed that writing every day lifted their mood.
Just sit down and do it, with paper and pen or pencil, or on a computer or tablet. Whatever works for you. Don't worry about whether what you are writing is any good. Later you can edit it if you want others to read it, or if you want to keep it as a record, but for now, just pour it out on the page.
Writing for yourself means that you can be more open and honest than you perhaps can be with other people. You can just let out exactly how you feel, whether that's anger, relief, hope or heartbreak.
How to start
The spoon theory was created by Christine Miserandino to explain to a friend about what it felt like to have the chronic illness lupus. She used it to describe how every task in a day requires a block of energy, be it physical or mental, and that she had to budget out those blocks across the day. She wrote it up as an essay for her blog.
"I quickly grabbed every spoon on the table; hell I grabbed spoons off of the other tables. I looked at her in the eyes and said 'Here you go, you have Lupus'… I asked her to count her spoons. She asked why, and I explained that when you are healthy you expect to have a never-ending supply of spoons. But when you have to now plan your day, you need to know exactly how many spoons you are starting with. It doesn’t guarantee that you might not lose some along the way, but at least it helps to know where you are starting. She counted out 12 spoons…. I asked her to list off the tasks of her day, including the most simple. As she rattled off daily chores, or just fun things to do; I explained how each one would cost her a spoon… I think she was starting to understand when she theoretically didn’t even get to work, and she was left with 6 spoons. I then explained to her that she needed to choose the rest of her day wisely, since when your spoons are gone, they are gone."
Spoons and grief
The spoon theory was created for chronic illness, but it can also be used for the impact that grief has on your physical and mental spoon numbers. Early on in grief I was so tired that my bones hurt, which took away some of my physical spoons. I also had widow brain, which took away some of my mental spoons too. Creating a spoons graphic based on your own needs can be a useful exercise to help you understand what you need, and what you can do to look after yourself.
What you can do
Notes about spoons
Straight after Tim died, my head was full of fog. I felt disconnected from the world. And I think this was my brain protecting me from the awfulness of what had just happened. While the disconnection went away, the brain fog – known as widow brain or grief brain – stayed.
It's a feeling that you can't think straight, and with it comes short term memory loss, numbness, lack of ability to process information or instructions, tiredness and lack of focus. But be reassured – it's normal. Our brains are acting to protect us from the trauma.
Widow brain, for many people, lifts in the first year to 18 months, but it lasts for different lengths of time for different people, and stress or milestones can make it worse. For people who have been caring for someone for a long time, part of widow brain may be a loss of purpose. Greif can also mean not eating properly, not exercising, or not sleeping well, and this all feeds into widow brain.
The science bit
Emotional traumas affect how our brains work. Imaging the brain shows that mental and physical pain trigger the same areas of the brain. While it's nothing like the same level of trauma, a brain imaging study in people who have recently split up with their partners shows that it affects their executive function, the system in the brain that sits in the prefrontal cortex and supports your ability to understand, decide, recall, memorise and have self-control. Your prefrontal cortex gets overloaded by grief and makes it harder to function well.
The practical bit
Grief has made me the most tired I have ever been. So tired my bones hurt. Rest your mind and your body when you can.
Explain to people what's going on in your head, and send them this blog post if they don't get it.
A really useful piece of advice for me was not to make any major decisions for the first year.
To do lists and notes
Write things down. To do lists are useful, and have stopped me forgetting to do many, many things (the combination of widow brain and ADHD really doesn't help my memory!) Break tasks down into the smallest bits possible – rather than having a to do for 'put everything into my name', break it into house insurance, deeds, rent' etc. That way tasks are less daunting, and crossing off each small thing make it feel like an achievement.
Digital reminders rule my life. I use smartphone alarms to remind me to do things that are daily or weekly. I put appointments with reminders on my digital calendar for everything from whether it's bin day or recycling day, through birthdays, to work deadlines and days out, and I can access this on both my phone and my computer.
Physical reminders can also be helpful. If you need to remember to take something with you when you go out, put it on the doormat, or leave a sticky note on the front door (I get through a lot of sticky notes).
Have a pad of sticky notes and a pen somewhere convenient. When you think of something that needs doing, write it on the sticky note and put it on the wall. When someone says 'what can I do', give them a sticky note.
Stilling the whirling thoughts
Grounding can help to still your brain when everything is churning around and destroying your ability to focus.
Be kind to yourself and forgive yourself. Remember – you are only human. You've been through a lot. And you are grieving. It's not your fault your head is like this. In the end, things getting missed or forgotten are very rarely the end of the world.
Tim died suddenly in the early hours of the morning. His heart just stopped. He had type 2 diabetes that he perhaps didn't manage as well as he should, and he had been feeling tired. But he was a bookseller, and we were in the process of moving his enormous stock of books from one storage unit to another.
I asked him if he was having chest pain, and he said no. So, I brushed it off as simple weariness. A banana box of books weighs a lot, after all.
After he died, and the post-mortem revealed heart failure related to type 2 diabetes, I was wracked with guilt. What could I have done? Monitored his diet more closely? Watched him take his tablets three times a day? Insisted he went onto insulin? Got the truth out of him about how he was actually feeling? If he'd died in an accident, I suspect I would have felt guilty for not giving him a lift that day, or persuading him to get the bus, or agreeing that he should cycle.
That's one kind of guilt after someone dies. There's also the guilt of feeling that you didn't say what you should have, or said what you shouldn't have. Did I tell him I loved him the night before? Did we work too much and not spend enough time together? What if our last night out had been a terrible one (rather than the wonderful evening it was), or if I'd persuaded him that we shouldn't go? How would I feel if we'd had an argument? This kind of guilt may become more complicated if you had a difficult relationship with the person who died.
As survivors, we can often feel guilty that we are alive, and our partner is dead. This is particularly intense for people surviving an incident where their partner died. Survivor guilt can also be a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – talk to your doctor or a psychotherapist if you think you might have PTSD.
In grief, I became full of 'I should have…' 'I could have…' 'I would have…' But feeling guilty doesn't mean that we are guilty – it's us trying to put order into the chaos that grief is. If we can blame someone, especially ourselves, we can think we get back control.
What can we do?
The death of a spouse or partner is different than other losses, in the sense that it literally changes every single thing in your world going forward. When your spouse dies, the way you eat changes. The way you watch TV changes. Your friend circle changes or disappears entirely. Your family dynamic/life changes or disappears entirely. Your financial status changes. Your job situation changes. It effects your self-worth. Your self-esteem. Your confidence. Your rhythms. The way you breathe. Your mentality. Your brain function. (Ever heard the term 'widow brain'? If you don't know what that is, count yourself as very lucky.) Your physical body. Your hobbies and interests. Your sense of security. Your sense of humor. Your sense of womanhood or manhood. EVERY. SINGLE. THING. CHANGES. You are handed a new life that you never asked for and that you don't particularly want. It is the hardest, most gut-wrenching, horrific, life-altering of things to live with. Kelley Lynn
Losing our partner is one of the most shattering losses we can go through. But alongside that are all the secondary losses, many of which are unexpected
One of the first things I was told about being widowed is that we lose our past, our present and our future. That hadn't even occurred to me. I just thought of what I had lost in the 'now', and the grief and pain that was overwhelming. I then started to find out about the extra losses. I was fortunate in that I had the house, that I could manage on my salary, and that my business was mine, not ours. But some people have to leave the house they shared because they can't afford the rent or mortgage alone, or because they weren't married and it goes to their partner's family.
Some widows lose their jobs because they are not able to return to work through grief, or they worked in their partner's business and are unable to run it alone. These issues may also mean that they have to move away from the area, losing their network of friends and/or family, and their feeling of being part of a community. Bereavement can lead to a loss of faith or belief, and this in turn leads to a loss of a community. Some people lose family, and friends too, because they can't cope with grief, or because of rifts over the cause of death or over money.
Losing the role of caregiver can lead to a loss of purpose and feeling that a role is gone. On the flip side, the lost partner may have been the caregiver, leaving the widow both alone and without practical or emotional support.
Tim had a phenomenal memory, and though we were only together around a decade, we had known each other since our early twenties. So I have lost so many memories, so much shared language and all our shared stories. I also lost our shared future. All those things we planned to do together. I chose not to have children. But for many widows, losing a partner loses the cherished dream of children together.
We lose our emotional supporter, our biggest cheerleader when we lose a partner. But for some widows this is made harder by discovering difficult things after their death, which will be forever unresolved.
Dealing with secondary loss is hard, as they often emerge just as we are starting to come to terms with our initial loss and regain our routines. For me, it was a case of going back to my early coping strategies of one breath, one step and one moment at a time, and accepting that I was forever changed by my loss. I also had to understand that these secondary losses were real – just as real as the primary loss. Secondary losses still appear, even four years on. And I catch my breath, and grieve again.
"The pain of grief never really goes away. You just learn to wear it. But it's so raw for so long. And the awful year of firsts. And not being able to move things because they were the last person to touch it. And the more things that you move, the fewer things you have that they've touched last, and you feel like you're inadvertently erasing them. Hoping their clothes will retain their smell but they don't. Grief is so so complicated."
The time after they die is so full of firsts. That first time you go to bed and there's an empty space next to you. The first time you wake up in a world where they are no longer. The first time you do a load of washing that only contains your own clothes. The first meal for one. The first time that you change the bedding, and the bed no longer smells of them. The first shop that doesn't contain that little extra something that you always picked up.
Moving past the milestones
The milestone dates – your birthday, their birthday, Christmas – are tough. These are things that should be full of joy, but instead they trigger memories of what we have lost, and they remind us that our people aren't here. There are also the anniversaries of their diagnosis, admission to hospital and death.
When I came up to the day before the first anniversary of his death, I honestly didn't know how I was going to get through the next 24 hours. A friend from Widowed and Young told me that I had survived the day of his death, and that no anniversary could ever be worse than that. That helped me a lot.
For me, the first New Year was tough. This was partly because we had been going to the same New Year's Eve party, dating back to years before we were married. But most of all, it was because it heralded a year that Tim would never see.
The firsts don't necessarily end after a year. There will be others – the first wedding, the first time a friend or relative has a baby, the first death of someone close.
In my experience, the run up to the milestones are worse than the days themselves. For me, the length of day, the temperature, the weather, the emerging of the snowdrops, all remind me of the time of year and the anniversary of his death. People reminisce about the Beast from the East, and that was around the time he died. The milestone day dawns with a small sense of relief.
Coping with the firsts
This isn't a post about widowhood. It's a post about the time before.
Tim died so suddenly that we weren't able to put any plans in place. Over the almost four years since Tim died I have seen two beloved friends die of cancer, and have talked through plans with them. Plans make a hard time easier for the people that we leave behind.
Make a will
Tim didn't and it just added to all the things I needed to do at a time when I was falling apart. So make a will. Make sure that people know if you're going to name them as executors and make sure they know where to find it. Include a statement that you're revoking all previous wills. Get legal advice if you need to. This may be available free from a charity if you include a bequest, or via your union.
Wills can be about actions as well as assets, and you can include things that you want people to change, or not to change. These can be quirky if you are in the mood and you think the recipient will appreciate it - for example, "I'll come back and haunt you if.... you dig up the red rose bush, or you don't use those concert tickets we've got."
Make an additional list of any things that you want to go to particular people, where they aren't big enough to go in a will. Your favourite pen, for example. Also, think about what needs to happen to pets.
Power of attorney
A power of attorney will make life easier for the people around you if you think you might become so incapacitated that you can’t make decisions. You will need one for health and welfare, and one for finances and property. These need to be registered with the Office of the Public Guardian to make them legally effective. This requires a fee and can take several weeks to be put in place.
Make a list of important information:
Consider simplifying finances, for example consolidating everything into one bank account and one credit card. Having some form of joint account, even if you also have separate accounts, means that someone left behind can access money in those first few weeks of 'afterwards'. Check that anything that has a named beneficiary on it, such as a pension, goes to the right person.
Practical things and medical requests
If you are likely to be ill for while, check out benefits that might be available for you and your carers, and contact social services for help with things like hoists and commodes.
You can put into writing your feelings about treatment, do not resucitate (DNR) orders, withdrawing feeding and drinking, pain relief and organ donation. You can change or revoke these as your feelings change.
Set up a password manager like LastPass and get all your critical passwords and other things into it, and give the overarching password to your partner, a member of your family, a close friend or the executor of your will. This should include not only passwords, but where you need to give memorable dates or other pieces of information.
Think about your digital legacy – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, photos, music playlists, mobile phones, laptopts, iPads and tablets, cloud storage, backups etc – and make sure people know what you have, what the passwords are, and what you want doing with them. Let people know if you want these closed or memorialised (where allowed). Go through social media accounts if you think that there is anything that you think might make people unhappy to see after you are gone.
Tell someone where all the instruction manuals are.
Consider your funeral plans and write them down.
Do you want:
Finding a funeral director that you can lodge your plans with can be good. You can always revisit these plans – they are not set in stone.
Funerals can be expensive. The average funeral costs just under £5,000. It really doesn't have to, but people will try to get you to spend money on gold plated coffin handles and fancy printed orders of service when you're in no fit state to argue. A graveside funeral is likely to be the cheapest option if cost is an issue. Stick with what you want - plain or fancy.
Start decluttering if you can. Perhaps starting with the random crap that one (okay, me) has on their desk. I found going through Tim's desk achingly hard. If you just leave the meaningful things it can be easier on your family. Create piles for bin, save, sell and donate - you can sell stuff on eBay and donate 10-100% to charity.
Don't get rid of everything though. There will be things of yours, even little tiny silly things, that people will want to remember you by. And you need to carry on in a lovely, comfortable place that's you, not a sterile room.
Give your family and friends permission to throw things away, too. I still feel guilty when I get rid of something of Tim's.
Make a bucket list
Create a bucket list of things you want to do, people you want to talk to, places you want to go, things you want to buy, films, plays and bands you want to see, and get on with making it happen. This is your bucket list, and it can be as big or small as you want it to be. The list can be tailored to how well you are and what you can afford - travelling can be real or virtual, gigs can be in person or live streamed.
Use your time wisely. Don't spend so long sorting practicalities that you don't spend time with the people you love.
In Case you get Hit by a Bus
What to do after a death