Warning – contains swearing
Gluttony, often mistaken for greed (part 1 and part 2), is an excess in eating or drinking (hunting for definitions brought me to crapulous, a brilliant word).
Being bereaved is rough, and sometimes we need that extra bit of comfort. I know that I took to comfort eating, comfort drinking and comfort shopping as coping mechanisms when Tim died.
This piece isn't about shaming or guilting people for their choices. Being bereaved is hard enough, without a blogger telling you what to do. It's just here if this is something that you are thinking you want to consider, or to change.
Comfort eating, emotional eating or stress eating
Food is my go to when I'm grieving, depressed or stressed. And it's generally not classy food – it's cheese straight out of the fridge, toffee popcorn in handfuls, or crisps in huge bags. In these situations, I also don't really notice what I'm eating, I just notice when I reach for the next handful and it's gone. I have ADHD, and impulse control is not one of my strong points – if I see food in the cupboard, I want it and I don't want to wait.
Comfort eating when we are low feels like a form of self-care, because it triggers the reward systems in our brains, and makes us feel better, at least for a moment. And in the early days of grief, when I had no appetite at all, getting calories in any form was a good thing.
Not eating properly, if it lasts long term, can have an impact on our mental and physical health. Guilt, shame and regret can be part of our feelings of grief anyway, and if we are feeling guilty about what we eat, that could just pile on top.
If you want to make a change
Cooking and eating after loss is hard, whether it's the challenge of cooking for one rather than two, the additional costs of food shopping for one rather than buying in bulk, or simply a loss of appetite or missing what used to be a shared pleasure.
Meal kits for one, or even just a new cookery book can help with getting back into the habit of cooking, and batch cooking helps to fill the freezer for those days that you just can't face the chopping board.
Signing up for a healthy eating and exercise program (I'm doing PUSH! PT's The Academy) is helping me to structure my eating better, and the peer support works to keep me on track. But it's whatever works for you and makes you feel better.
A glass of wine, a gin and tonic or a really good single malt is my treat to myself, and I love how it tastes and how it makes me feel. There were times after Tim died, or when I've been coping with depression, that I drank a lot to relax, to numb how I felt, or to be able to fall asleep. Like comfort food, alcohol releases the feel-good chemicals in our brains. It calms anxiety and slows down overthinking. It takes the edge off. But too much of a good thing isn't always a good thing, and too much alcohol impairs judgement, and can cause health problems and problems at work or with friends and family.
If you want to make a change
If you want to reduce what you drink, there are apps to help you work out how much you actually drink, and help you cut down or stop drinking, such as Try Dry from Alcohol Change UK, MyDrinkaware, or the Drink Free Days app from the NHS. Some people find reducing what they drink is too hard and it's simpler to stop drinking altogether, and apps like these can help too.
If you feel that you are dependent on alcohol, or that alcohol is harming you, talk to your GP or contact an organisation like UK SMART Recovery, Alcohol Change UK or FRANK.
Comfort shopping or retail therapy
I've talked to other widows about 'pressing the fuck-it button', which describes moments of retail therapy that make us feel good, from gorgeous boots during lockdown when there was nowhere to go (yes, that was me), to a new car or campervan. You can even buy the button. Buying things can help us to reclaim what were shared spaces as our own. Tim died next to me in bed, so one of my first purchases was a new bed and new bedding. But retail therapy can also leave us with a stack of things we will never use or wear.
Being widowed can leave people with a reduced income, or push them into poverty, and when emotional spending gets to be too regular, it can make a huge economic impact.
If you want to make a change
Monitoring spending highlights how much often we are splashing the cash. Taking shopping apps off your phone, delaying purchases by 48 hours to give you thinking time, and sticking to a budget so that you can shop, just not too much, can slow the spending down. Another option is to pledge to buy only second hand, and to sell what you aren't using, either to put in your slush fund or to raise money for charity.
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.
Joanna Sedley-Burke is a Trustee of Widowed & Young and became the chair in July 2021. She talked to The Widow's Handbook about her wife Paula, and about being an LGBTQ+ widow.
You and Paula were part of the campaign for same-sex marriages in the UK
Yes. We collaborated with the Stonewall campaign for civil partnerships, and then for same sex marriages. We were lucky enough to be the first civil partnership at The Ritz in London, and we where then invited to be one of the first five same-sex marriages at Westminster. Whilst we were married for 11 years, we were together for 20 years.
I am lucky to be able to say that her family have been nothing other than supportive; in fact, they call me their fourth daughter.
Tell me about Paula's illness
Paula had autoimmune conditions, including Crohn's disease and ankylosing spondylitis, and she had a number of flare ups over the years we were together. She wasn't well, but she wasn't seriously ill by any means. Back in February 2017 she was having chest problems, and we went to A&E, where she was X rayed and they told us that there was nothing wrong. We went home.
Paula clearly still wasn't well. We went back in and they did more blood tests. We were told at this point that she had an infection, but they weren’t about to specify where, and they sent us home with antibiotics. She got worse during the following week, and they finally diagnosed a chest infection, and gave her different antibiotics. But her breathing got worse, and I called 999. We were blue-lighted into our local hospital and went straight into the resus unit. At this point they did more X-rays, which showed a shadow on her lung, indicating pneumonia. We were relieved as there was a fear she had sepsis.
They put Paula on oxygen, and it must have helped because she demanded a roast chicken dinner. She never lost her sense of humour, all the time that she was ill. The doctor said that she would probably in for a number of weeks because of her compromised immune system.
I went home, and I tried to call her mobile later, but there was no signal. The next morning I called the hospital and they said she'd had a quiet night, and to call back in half an hour. When I did, her speech was slurring a bit, but she was like that when she was hungry. An hour later I received a call asking me to come in and talk to the doctors.
She had developed hypoglycaemia which then triggered sepsis. She was already underweight, and the infection set off a downwards spiral. The nurses had paged the doctor, but sadly no one responded to the call out. Paula died five minutes after the hospital called me.
What were the issues that you had with the hospital?
Three months later my mother-in-law told me that the hospital had called her indicating that the X-ray had shown that there was a problem. I put in a complaint to say that they should not have divulged this to her mother. Not only was she in her late 70s with a heart condition, but more importantly I was Paula's next of kin. In my head this was a breach of confidentiality. The hospital's response was that they could as because Paula had died, it was no longer a data breach.
I requested all of her medical notes and much to my horror I found out that the hospital had put a DNR [do not resuscitate] in place. Paula and I had discussed this, and I could not believe that she would ever have asked for it. She hadn't mentioned it to me.
The hospital had referred itself for a serious incident investigation. This review took months, and when I saw the report, I couldn't believe it. They spelled my name wrong, said that I was the husband, got Paula's date of death wrong, and said that I had put the DNR place. It was as if it was written about a completely different person. This really wasn't a proper investigation, and had 48 major errors in it, despite it having been read and approved by six different senior managers in the Trust.
Going through the report just left me reliving the original trauma, and the way I coped was treating it as if it was a work project. I had to detach myself.
Did they finally get a revised report to you?
I finally managed to get a revised version of the report after four months. I questioned everything that had happened. Finally, the Trust admitted that the doctor had put the DNR in place without discussing it with anyone.
Luckily for me, I had a medical friend look through the information. One thing that was particulally hard was finding out that the X-ray that had been taken in February had shown evidence of a shadow, but that this hadn't been passed on to Paula's GP, so nothing was ever done with the results. However, something that did help was my friend telling me that when the doctor finally saw Paula on the ward as part of the rounds, she was already at a point where she could not have survived. That she was just going to fall asleep and never wake up.
What did you do next?
I wasn't happy with how things had been handled and after months or formal complaints not being dealt with appropriately, I went to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO), and they were amazing. I felt zero discrimination, and I felt that I was working with someone who was doing it for me and for Paula, and doing it to bring about policy change. We made the hospital's life hell, because I felt that if it could happen to Paula, it could happen to anyone, as nothing had changed in the hospital's processes. Eventually the PHSO found in my favour, and I take some consolation that the hospital was forced to change its processes and systems to avoid these errors happening again.
How is being a widow in a same sex marriage different to a heterosexual widow?
It sometimes feels like you are having to come out all over again. And again. But without the excitement of that first coming out.
Perhaps as a response to years of lived experience and of unconscious bias, there were times during Paula's illness and after her death where I started to doubt myself, or ask myself 'would you have done that if I was straight?'
After her death, when I went back to work, the response of one of my colleagues to the news was 'but I didn't know that you were gay', as if that information trumped the news of her death. And that left me feeling that the most important thing about me was that I was gay, not that my wife and partner of 20 years had died.
When I went to register Paula's death, I was asked if I was her daughter or her mother. When I started the admin after her death, on the very first call when I said that I was a widow, the immediate response was 'when did your husband die?' I know that same sex marriage was relatively recent then, but it put another layer on something that was already hard.
Some businesses had it right. John Lewis for one, they train their staff in dealing with people who are grieving. But others were harder. When I cancelled her phone contract, I wanted to be assured that her number wouldn't be handed on to anyone else, and that took almost as long as probate.
How did you find WAY and what were your first impressions?
I found it by accident, through a friend's sister, but I didn't get involved initially, because I thought it was a dating group for straight people! There certainly weren’t any resources for LGBTQ+ widows. I suspect I also didn't want to accept that I was a widow. But I went back and joined a few months later and found my fears completely unfounded. The support and friendship have been a life saver for me. Just having people who ‘get it’ is invaluable. WAY has shown me that I am valued.
I’ve never been one to stand in the shadows and when I looked at the trustees and saw older white men, I contacted the then Chief Executive Rebecca Cooper and talked to her about diversity. She invited me to join the board. Five years' on, WAY has a wonderful LGBTQ+ widows' group that is a safe space, and we are working to improve our diversity.
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.
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.