When we are widowed, everyone is aware of the biggest loss – the loss of our partner. But there are secondary losses as well, and one of these is the loss of role.
When my mother died, my father never really got over her loss. As well as losing the person he’s known since childhood and he’d been married to for over 60 years, he lost his role as her primary carer, and I believe that this had a huge impact on him. He lost his reason to get up in the morning, his reason to look after himself so that he could look after her. And it broke my heart.
I helped Tim in his business as a bookseller. People in the village would said ‘oh, you’re the bookshop, aren’t you,’ and it surprised me how much of a loss that was for me.
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.
Losing a partner is a huge and catastrophic loss, and with it come a whole battery of secondary losses. This includes a loss of confidence and a loss of who we feel we are.
Losing confidence in yourself
By taking away the person who was closest to us, bereavement can affect our sense of self, our self-esteem and our view of who we are. It takes our past, our present and our future, and leaves us feeling as if the carpet has been pulled out from under our feet.
Losing confidence in your grief
Early on in my grief I lots confidence in my ability to grieve. Was I grieving too much or too little? Later on down the road some days I thought I was getting over him too quickly, and other days I thought I was taking too long to move forward.
Losing confidence in your health
When we lose someone that we are close to, it of course leaves us grieving. It can also remind us of our own health and mortality. This can turn into health anxiety, which is worrying too much about whether you are seriously ill or are going to become seriously ill. It can affect your day-to-day life.
Losing confidence in the world
The death of our partners, especially when it is sudden and unexpected, can erode our confidence in how the world works. If something that catastrophic can happen without warning, what's to stop all manner of other things happening. This can leave us with a loss of hope, depression and
A feeling that life isn't worth living any more.
Dealing with loss of confidence
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.