As widows we're not allowed to be angry by wider society. Weeping? Yes. Screaming obscenities into the void while punching things? Apparently, no.
I wasn't brought up to be angry. I was brought up not to raise my voice. To be gentle and softspoken. As the memes all say, to be kind. I find raised voices uncomfortable, and I will do everything I can to avoid confrontation. This is a combination of my specific upbringing, and of growing up in a world where women are supposed to be sugar and spice and all things nice, rather than slugs and snails and puppy-dogs' tails.
But when my husband died, I was angry, in a way that I hadn't ever been angry before. Angry at him for dying and leaving me. For not having managed his diabetes better. For not having told me he was feeling ill. For dying without a will. For being on the border of being a collector and a hoarder (and it's not such a fine line) and leaving me with So Much Stuff to clear. I was angry every time I thought I was done and I unearthed another box of magazines or pile of kits or stack of paperwork and uncashed cheques. I resented him. And then I felt like I was betraying him, so I didn't feel that I could show that face of anger to anyone.
I was angry at other people for having a partner during lockdown when all I had was a house of clutter and a pile of grief. I was angry because he was supposed to be my happy ever after and he wasn't. And I was angry with myself for not having seen the signs of him being ill. For not having done better. For not saving him.
Showing the face of anger
So many of the models of grief include a reference to anger. Anger, however, isn't something we always feel that we can show to the outside world. We may feel that people 'out there' may believe that widows whose partners have died by suicide, through violence or accident, or because of any kind of misadventure or risky behaviour, have every reason to be angry. However - I believe that all widows have the right to be angry with the situation that they are in. There are so many reasons to be angry – being left alone to cope with a difficult situation, families or in-laws that make your life hard, losing access to stepchildren, people you thought were close just disappearing, having to leave a place you adore or a job you love because it's just not tenable to stay, or simply, losing the life you thought you were going to have. Being angry at yourself, your god, the person who died, the universe. The list goes on.
For someone with my upbringing, showing the face of anger was really hard. I felt like the slugs and snails were under the surface where the sugar and spice was supposed to be, and that they were going to break out and I would scream and scream and never stop. Living out in the middle of nowhere in lockdown had its bonuses. I could go and shout in a field and only the sheep heard what I said (poor sheep…)
Living with the anger
Its important that we acknowledge that we are allowed to be angry, and that anger is a normal human emotion. Our anger, especially when it's towards the person who died, can be tied in with unresolved hurts or resentments that can never now be sorted out. This includes anything from a silly disagreement about who should have taken the bins out, through risky behaviour that contributed towards their death, to something that comes out after death that shows they were not the person we thought they were.
We can also be angry with people who have an actual or a perceived link with the death of our partner, from the drunk driver or the doctor to the person who lent them a bike on the day of the death, or delayed them so they missed the bus and had to drive to work.
Bottling up anger isn't a good thing – we need to let it out – but yelling at friends and family, breaking things, hurting other people or hurting ourselves (either physically or mentally) isn't a good way to deal with it.
If you feel that you are going to explode with anger:
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.
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. I could put my big girl pants on and be 'brave' for a birthday or an anniversary, but I couldn't prepare myself for opening a box and finding the piece of paper and yellow roses that he left on my desk to celebrate the anniversary of our first kiss. Or the realisation that the washing contained only my clothes, not both of ours. Or finding the half-made Airfix model or the half-read book.
Grief attacks can be triggered by the biggest and the smallest 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 helping me to 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. It can also leave your temper out of kilter - I snapped at people and got very angry at myslef. 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. Grief 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.
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.