As widows, we spend a lot of time saying, 'I'm okay'. 'I'm coping.' 'I'll be fine.' 'No, it's okay, I can manage.'
Sometimes we are putting on a brave face for work, protecting our family because we don't want them to worry, fretting that we are boring our friends with our grief, or avoiding the subject because we just don't want to talk about it.
I believe that we need to think about being honest with people about what we are going through. I don't mean tell everyone that you meet on the bus that you are a grieving widow (though you can if you want), instead being open to those people who care. After all, we can't expect them to be honest with us if we're not honest with them.
Sometimes, we are pretending to ourselves. Pretending to be okay is allowed to give us a break from all that… stuff. Our brains actually can shuttle between okay and not okay to protect us, in what's known as the dual process model.
Pretending long term isn't so good. It can be emotionally and physically exhausting. Being honest to ourselves about our grief, accepting that it's how we feel, and sitting with it, can help us to process our feelings.
It's important to remember that it’s OK not to be OK.
In the early days of grief, I thought I would never laugh again. That my sense of humour had gone forever. I saw that Lee Ridley (Lost Voice Guy) was on locally, and on impulse I booked a ticket. I think it was my first trip to the theatre on my own. I was anxious, and very nearly backed out but I made it. I'd booked an end of row just in case I needed to make a run for it, and sitting in the audience I thought 'why am I here?' Then Lee came on stage. I laughed so much I nearly fell off my seat, and my stomach ached the next day.
Laying in bed that night, I did feel guilty. That I'd forgotten Tim. That I'd forgotten to grieve. But it really is okay to laugh again. Laughing is actually good for us. It improves our intake of oxygen, has an impact on our stress response, stimulates circulation and aids muscle relaxation. It can even improve our immune response. Laughing helps us cope, and helps us to feel human again. My sense of humour is definitely still here. It always was dark, and is perhaps a bit darker now, especially when I'm talking to other widows.
PS – Lee now has a Geordie accent to be closer to his family's voices
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?
A guest blog from Alison Messom
1. What you are feeling is entirely normal. There are no rights or wrongs. What feels right to you is right for you.
2. The marriage vows talk about until death us do part. Your partner’s death was not your choice but you are now released from your vow, if you choose. Some people make an active choice not to have another partner. That is what is right for them.
3. Any new partner will never replace your late partner. They will be different. Some folks refer to them as a chapter 2. Personally I don't like that phrase as my life is defined by so much more than my relationships... but I get the point that it is something new and different.
4. We don't move on, our love for our partners continues. However we do move forward. That new journey can be hard, scary, beautiful and rewarding all at the same time.
5. Make sure you are comfortable in your own skin before embarking on a new relationship. Put in the time and effort to work on your grief, have counselling if you need it etc. That way you'll be in the best place to enjoy any new relationship.
6. Do not use any new partner as a substitute therapist; use a professional for that. Yes they should be empathetic, but they are there to share your life, not to fix you.
7. Remember there is an enormous human need for company and that can be platonic too. You may find you build new circles of friends that go with your new life.
8. Every day is just 24 hours. Use the best ones to build and bank lovely memories to help you through tough times. The worst days will end even if there are times when they feel never-ending.
Finally, you've got this. You deserve happiness. Don't let yourself be judged. Anyone who is judging you is not worth the time and effort. This is your life, make it the best one you can with the cards you've been dealt.
I was diagnosed with ADHD a couple of years ago, while I was studying part time for an MA in Writing for Performance. While I haven't sought treatment, it has allowed me to understand a lot about me, and made me able to begin to forgive myself for the things I haven't done, opportunities I've missed, time I've spent faffing, ridiculous mistakes I've made and some of my more gratuitous social faux pas. It also made me think about the impact that having ADHD (then undiagnosed) had on how I dealt with Tim's death.
I went back to work a few weeks after Tim's death, and ADHD's hyperfocus allowed me to hide in my freelance writing. Being able to switch between grieving and coping gave my brain a break. However, it also meant that I took on too much, and I had to withdraw from a couple of big projects after my mental health crashed. Hyperfocus in grief can also result in an intense focus on the loss, which makes it harder to deal with.
ADHD means a lot of overthinking, and examining how I feel and how I present to the world. I suspect that ADHD is the reason that I have always felt that everyone else has a set of rules on how to react, what to say and how to be in any given situation, and I have either lost my copy (ADHD means I lose a lot of stuff) or never received it in the first place. I would suggest I write a spin-off from the Widow's Handbook called the ADHDers Handbook, but Jessica McCabe has already done it so well at How To ADHD.
But I digress (people with ADHD tend to do that too). This overthinking and the lack of a non-existent rulebook often left me wondering whether I was grieving correctly – perhaps I was grieving too much, grieving too little, grieving too openly, or grieving too privately. Spending time with fellow widows, including fellow ADHDers, means that I understand that there is no 'normal' in grief.
Now and not now and struggling with reality
People with ADHD can see time as either 'now' or 'not now'. This is most commonly used to describe how ADHDers struggle with not being able to judge how long a task will take and so run out of time, or how we can perform well under pressure and with short deadlines, as that is NOW NOW NOW.
As well as ADHD, I have had the symptoms of depersonalization/derealization disorder since my teens. This episodically makes me feel detached from myself, almost as if I am sitting inside my own head watching the world. This often goes alongside ADHD, and I think it led to me dissociating during grief, as another way for my brain to protect me.
I wonder, though, how both of these affected how I grieved. Are these why my life with Tim feels like it happened in a parallel life, or in a dream? Are these why I have been able to pick myself up and create a new life? If so, I'm not sure how that makes me feel. Does it mean that my neurodiversity has allowed me to file him away, move on, and start something new? That thought actually hurts more than I expected it to. Alternatively, do they mean that my neurodiversity actually looked after me as I grieved?
A wall of coping strategies
Historically, girls are less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than boys, as they are more likely to show inattentive symptoms (tick), forgetfulness (tick), anxiety (tick) and depression (tick). In the 1970s and 1980s, ADHD was something that happened to young hyperactive boys, not dreamy, anxious forgetful and non-confrontational girls. As a result, I built up a lot of coping strategies over the years, and I suspect that these have made me more resilient in a lot of situations, including grief. These coping strategies can bite back though – they mean that I bottle things up and get overwhelmed, ending up with a spectacular meltdown triggered by a very small incident.
The impact of grief on ADHD
Widow brain affects 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. It is also involved in regulating emotions. People with ADHD already have issues with executive function, and so it's hardly surprising that grief exaggerates and intensifies ADHD symptoms. The physical symptoms tied up with grief, such as problems with tiredness, insomnia, pain and loss of appetite can also make ADHD symptoms worse.
Hints and tips
While the idea of creating a blog called The Widows's Handbook had been floating around in my head for a while, I finally took the plunge and posted the very first post on 23 September 2021, one year ago today. Thank you to everyone who takes the time to read the blog - I hope that it helps you, whether you are a widow and part of the club no-one wants to join, or whether you are a supporter of someone who is bereaved.
I've known that I was attracted to both men and women since my 20s. Actually… the crushes on a couple of truly awesome female teachers in my teens might mean I knew it before, but didn't realise what it meant. The first time I came out as bi to a lesbian friend, she told me that bisexuality is just a phase, and I should pick a side. Consequently, I didn't tell anyone else for a long time.
I married Paul at 24, which now seems impossibly young. Over a decade our marriage fell apart. Tim, who I'd known for many years, helped me through depression and a divorce, and we drifted from being very close friends to falling in love. While I spent this period of my life 'straight passing', I was still bisexual. Tim knew about my sexuality and loved me all the same. He died suddenly at 50, after we'd only been married nine years, and my life crumbled.
Some friends had known that I was bi, but I wasn't really out. Even before Tim died I'd been feeling that I was somehow living a lie, and betraying who I was. As I started to build another life, I became more open about what I was. And when I started seeing a woman, I couldn't really hide any more.
The responses to me coming out, as well as 'picking a side', ranged from total acceptance and 'when I met you, my gaydar pinged, but I assumed that I was wrong – I see now', to 'I don't understand – you used to be married to a man but he's dead' and 'does that mean you were sleeping with women when you were married to your husband?'
Now I am married to a woman, I guess I'm 'lesbian passing', and I suspect that many people think I have made a major lifestyle change, finally picked a team, or only just realised I'm gay. This isn't helped by bi erasure, and by the media and entertainment tropes about bisexuals showing them (us) as cheating, confused, greedy, promiscuous, villainous, unable to stay faithful, or just bi-curious. And that's just the women. The bisexual men are much less visible.
However – I am proudly and defiantly queer. I am bisexual, from the pink and purple in my hair down to my awesome Pride Converse. Have a wonderful Celebrate Bisexuality Day!
In my other life, I'm a medical writer, and I sometimes travel to for work. A few months after Tim died I went to Germany to write a report on a meeting. Whenever I went away, I'd always tell Tim that I was heading off to spend time with my people – doctors, scientists, researchers – and going to the conference was a little slice of normality after his death turned my life upside down. I love flying and the excitement of the journey kept me going, but arriving at the hotel brought me back down with a bump, as we'd message when I arrived safely and I'd send him pictures of the hotel room and the view out of the window. The conference went well, and I found moments of happiness talking about the science that I love. The journey home was hard, with a long delay in a late-night European airport, but a fellow widow kept me going by chatting on Messenger, and for that I'm still grateful.
Four and a half years on and I'm going to Grenoble to chair a panel at a medical devices conference, and my journey starts in Hope, at a rural railway station in the dawn light. I am living a whole new life – before I left I kissed my new wife and my new puppy goodbye – but I still carry Tim with me as I head out to see my people.
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.