widow-1010

WIDOWHOOD 101

My husband died this year. I buried him after watching him waste away with lung cancer.

It was only eight months after he was diagnosed. Eight months in a fifteen year relationship, a relationship that brought two children into the world, a shared house we loved, a kitchen renovation, and plenty of arguments about the colour of the paint on the walls, and just who was in charge of cleaning the toilet.

And now, here I am, raising two girls, nine and 12, watching one get ready for high school and the other struggling with her six times tables, and it’s me in charge of cleaning the toilet, and the colour of the walls don’t seem quite so important as they once did.

In days gone past, ‘the olden days’, as my nine year old calls anything before her birth, I would have worn black for a year. I would have been taken in by some charitable institution, and made to sew. I guess.

That’s the widow image I live with – rather Dickensian, certainly unpleasant, and certainly with gruel as a major ingredient.

But I have a job and (thankfully) a controllable mortgage. In many respects, I’m lucky – he left no debts, no inescapable death duties remain to be paid, no mountain of medical bills.

There are many, many single mothers doing it tougher than I am.

And yet, the black widow’s weeds and the gruel call to me, mocking my economic independence and my social freedom. There is such a sadness in all of this, that a black crepe veil makes sense, and such a vulnerability, that a widow’s handkerchief seems vital.

There once was a template for this.

But I have no black dress, no arm bands, no uniform.

How do you do widowhood? I don’t even know how to be single anymore, after so many years of coupledom. People respond to me differently now. Sometimes I feel like a vessel of broken hopes and dreams, and I know that people stop and think for a moment ‘thank God it’s not me.’ I know this because I’ve thought the same thing of others.

Sometimes people ask me how I am. ‘How are you?’ That emphasis gives it away – it’s not a polite conversation starter. They also ask how I’m doing, usually with a shoulder rub.

There are days I tell them that I’m doing well, and I see a slight disappointment flicker across their face – they have prepared themselves for a widow talk, and I have refused to participate. And I feel like shrugging my shoulders and telling them that I have no tears left today. Come back tomorrow.

And there are other days when my friends ask after me in a casual way, and get on with conversation about their kids, my kids, school lunches, whatever, and I feel one step behind them, and I want to scream ‘we can’t talk about this, because he’s gone.’

If this sounds selfish, it’s because it is. There’s something terribly self-centred about grief, and I mean that literally – you focus on the very centre of yourself, or the centre that was there before he died.

You’re forever looking for it, because it doesn’t seem possible that it crumbled before your very eyes. You seem to miss what’s happening in the rest of the world because you’re out of kilter with it. You miss the kindness people want to give you, and you miss how difficult life gets for other people because nothing seems as big as this.

And quite possibly, nothing is this big, but you’ve lost your perspective, so it’s very hard to tell.

Since he died, I’ve been looking for my place in the world. First thing, I’m a mother. I love them more than anything – these scarred and scared little girls, with their sense of humour and sense of self mostly intact.

They exhaust me, but what children don’t exhaust their parent(s)? I know I can’t get them through this completely unscathed, but every day, I try to keep them safe and happy. And they’re doing well, most of the time.

I don’t know how you get over such sadness without the school run every morning. For me, they are everything. I try to hold them tight, but not too tight.

I‘m also a single woman, and navigating that is difficult. I used to be a lot more flirtatious than I am now, because I don’t want to send off the wrong signals, and I know that the men in my life – friends, work colleagues, don’t want to send them either. It’s exhausting.

It’s also lonely going to bed alone every night and then waking up alone. Sometimes I take one of the kids to bed, or one of our cats, but it’s obviously not quite the same.

I work for a living, and I worry about money, mainly because I’ve never been the breadwinner before. My head knows we’re alright, but our potential poverty often keeps me up at night.

I once thought that if something this bad ever happened to me, I’d take to my bed for six months, but it turns out that I’ve never worked so hard in my life. Before this, I didn’t understand how grief can propel you forward – chasing you, pushing you. I’ve achieved more in my career since he died than I ever have before. I’m obsessed by work, finding it hard to stop late into the night. Maybe this is repression, but I think it’s been good for me – ticking things off my to-do list, the achievements, the growing CV.

Conversely, ever since he died, I haven’t been able to make a cake. Forgotten ingredients; misread temperatures; incorrect tin sizes: I’ve done it all. I’ve cried over apple crumbles and banana cakes and chocolate logs, and I’ve given up.

But I have friends who bake so beautifully, and when you’re a widow, there’s always someone offering you brownies.

I may not like it, but I am a widow. It’s not the only thing that I am, but right now it’s the main thing. Without the gruel, without the mourning dress, I don’t know quite how to do it. But I’m doing it anyway.

 

*Mourning woman drawing on page one by Vincent Van Gogh.
*Front page image oil on canvas by Marcello Ferrada-Noli. 

 

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*Sophie Townsend’s first novel, Misconceptions, was published by Random House in 2007. She has also made a number of radio features for ABC Radio National, including the Walkley nominated ‘Cancer as a Battleground.’ Sophie lives in the Sydney suburb of Glebe with her two daughters and their two mad cats.

 

 

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34 Comments

  • Reply November 30, 2012

    ally

    My sympathy on your loss. grief is very hard and individual for each person.

    Having recently lost a couple of family members I have experienced lots of waves of grief – I thought at the time we should have a national colour to wear when you are having a bad day (doesn’t have to be black) so that when you are out in public or even at home if you are wearing the colour every one knows you are having a bad day and can respond accordingly. Kind of like they use to wear black when mourning.

  • Reply November 30, 2012

    monica attard

    Sophie, you are a beautiful writer. My love to you – hope to see you soon. M xx

  • Reply November 30, 2012

    bigwords

    You write so gorgeously. Much love x

  • Reply November 30, 2012

    Kerryn

    What a beautiful article. Thank you.

  • Reply November 30, 2012

    Jenny

    Hang in there Sophie! You will survive this, and be a stronger person in the end. You will never forget the bad times, but they will make the good times seem even sweeter. It seems impossible at this time, but life goes on around us and eventually we are able to flow with it. When someone close to us dies, it seems that the whole world should stop doesn’t it? There are many of us out here who empathise with your grief.

  • Reply November 30, 2012

    JenMal

    Thank you for sharing, a very touching article.

  • Reply November 30, 2012

    Margot

    My sympathies, Sophie. Can I recommend a book called How to Talk to a Widower, by Jonathan Tropper? It’s brilliant.

  • Reply November 30, 2012

    Valerie Parv

    I share your grief, after losing my beloved husband and soul mate of 38 years to cancer. As I was told by the amazing Solace group (for widowed men and women), you don’t get over it, you get through it. They also said that in time, the lows don’t take you down as far and they don’t last as long. I didn’t believe them then; four years on, I do. Words are my living, yet I couldn’t find another word for “widow”, which I loathe. I tend to say I’m “solo” instead because I don’t feel single and I’m not “looking”. My condolences to you and your children. Hang in there.

    • Reply November 30, 2012

      Louise

      My husband of 33 years died last year after a 3 year battle with Motor Neurone disease. Horrible.
      I have found a lot of people act differently around me and a lot totally ignored that he was sick or that died. They didn;t mention it because they didn’t know what to say. It makes me so mad because it is not about them,it is about being kind to another person and acknowledging their loss.
      He was a wonderful person and his life mattered. When people ignore his death it makes me feel they have forgotten him.
      I also hate the word widow and so I am going to use the tern solo instead. I am single an NOT looking.

  • Reply November 30, 2012

    Susanna

    Beautiful expression of your grief. Just beautiful.

  • Reply November 30, 2012

    Coco

    Sophie – very, very hard being on a train that few if any of your contemporaries have been on and which must people have a visceral terror of. I hope the cliches about time and healing are real for you even though I realise it cannot be so for all. A\I support a return of the black arm bands BTW.

  • Reply November 30, 2012

    the*sparrow

    Beautiful. I still have tears in my eyes.

    My husband had a near drowning some years ago, thankfully he recovered, although for a while the doctors thought he was brain dead. Staring widowhood in the face for a few days was a very sobering experience.

    After he recovered I remember a friend mentioning she owed me $100 – I just laughed and said it didn’t matter at all, nothing was important compared with the fact that my husband was alive!

  • Reply November 30, 2012

    cate

    I don’t know how you should be. I don’t think it matters. I’ve always been scared of talking to widows and widowers because I don’t know how to act or what to say to them. And the more subjective – the more I personalise – it the more I feel wrong about making it about me. I don’t think that matters either. I once had a breakthrough when I actually confessed to a widower that I didn’t know what to say and that seemed to break the ice of uncertainty. All grief is ok however it’s expressed.

  • Reply November 30, 2012

    nellae

    Thankyou for writing this article. Death happens to all of us but most people find it so hard to talk about. Once again, thankyou.

  • Reply November 30, 2012

    Annie Also

    So sad for your loss.
    My husband has been three times on the ‘edge’ of being ‘gone’. Three times I have felt the weight of uncertaintly and emptiness weigh on my shoulders. The first time my three children were tiny. The next time they were in high school. This last time was in January. I am exhausted by it. It has been 20 years of uncertainty.
    The things I have learnt are;
    1 People don’t ‘get’ it ( what you are going through)
    2 Family is not necessarilly interested.
    3 Only YOU can go through it
    4 It NEVER makes you stronger. It makes you more aware, more vulnerable to the ‘slings and arrows’ of life and more sensitive to the pain of others.

    All the best of wishes to you and your children. They will be your strength in time. It is amazing, but they will be.

  • Reply November 30, 2012

    Ona Winter-Irving

    Dear Sophie

    Thank you for writing this – it is moving and expresses so much about the situation.

    Last year I found my adored husband of 30 years dead in the paddocks after some hours of searching on my own. I don’t know which is harder – the agony of watching someone you love so much wasting away in front of you or the sheer suddenness of someone with whom you’ve been laughing and making plans hours before, being wrenched away.

    For me it has been the extraordinary kindness and generosity of my family, friends and neighbours (which still continues) which helps me through, particularly as I live nearly an hour from town.

    Work also helps – there’s nothing like a few hundred cows relying on you to get you out of bed.

    I dislike the word ‘widow’ and prefer to still describe myself as his wife.

    Thank you so much for writing this and I wish you the very best for the future and for your girls. I wish there was more I could do to help.

  • Reply November 30, 2012

    jill

    Sophie is my friend. And I couldn’t be more proud to tell you all that. Before her husband died, naturally Sophie was worried she wouldn’t know how to cope without him. I know Sophie lives with the pain of loss every day but she has an inner strength and courage that I deeply admire and a sharp sense of humour that lightens the moments when we all need it. Keep writing these beautiful words Sophie. I know they help you but they help us too lovely friend.

  • Reply November 30, 2012

    widowsweeds

    So sorry for your loss.
    I have been a widow now for 9 years, I lost my husband of 31years to motor neurone disease after caring for him for 8 years.
    Considered too old then to go back into the workforce and there had been a big change in procedures with technology having changed so much in those years. But managed to find a little job totally different than what I’d ever done before and one that as a white collar worker previously never thought I would do…… loved the fact that it had no pressure…. didn’t need that.
    I have lost touch with every friend we had as a couple but happy to say the friends that I have now are friends that I have made on my own and they are much closer to me than previous (so called) friends.
    I found the female friends were wary of me and the males just thought I needed a good “……” well I’ll let you figure that one out. Also hated being the odd person out when every one else was partnered.
    I used to tear up if I saw a couple out walking along holding hands, especially if they were an older couple ….. would just think that’s gone those dreams we had to retire and travel and do all those things have gone.
    But life does go on…. it has got easier…. I do look to the future now and who knows maybe I’lI find someone to take me on the rest of my journey.
    I feel for you Sophie with young children…. my children were older so we helped each other through those difficult times.
    Hang in there as you find your own path through the labyrinth of the mourning process.

    Everyone deals with it differently there is no right way or wrong way…. it’s just your way.

  • Reply November 30, 2012

    ro.watson

    Some quote from a buddhist text “Who does not know grief…..”. Cognisant and aware, along with slip,slop, slapping….You are lucky you are in the company of your children…always kids give us something today, and also the from here to theres.

  • Reply November 30, 2012

    Mark

    Beautiful writing, thankyou for sharing your thoughts in such a wonderful way.

  • Reply November 30, 2012

    Rachel

    I’m so so very sorry for your loss Sophie. I have a friend in a similar position to you who’s also now a single mum and widow and she’s still up and down a year and a half-ish on. As you’d expect. Good days and bad days.
    Reading this makes me want to run over to your suburb from Newtown and give you a big old hug. That would probably be weird and creepy, so here’s a virtual one instead. OXO

  • Reply November 30, 2012

    Benison O'Reilly

    Such beautiful words. I hope your grief inspires more novels, when the time is right of course.

  • Reply November 30, 2012

    ro.watson

    I heard a psychologist on life matters radio national ABC~ on the subject of crying today..and science is abit behind…. He said something a long the lines of…. where something is lost, something is gained… and where something is gained… something is lost. The correspondence of opposites…. Meanwhile~we feel trouble~ and a trajectory towards healing~I hope.xx

  • Reply November 30, 2012

    ro.watson

    Or hers or his?

  • Reply November 30, 2012

    ro.watson

    Yes, there is a mourning garb,black,or in oppostion, very colourful~ and yes there are those armbands too. And why not try a tatoo? Some only get a “widow for a while”, but we know your grief,hurt and heart stoppering stuff. Why wouldn’t we? And how long the wrenching goes on, even if expected…Trouble at home it is called. Once the initial wrench~ which takes months, years~ we all know there are other people, here, in big grief too……

  • Reply November 30, 2012

    ro.watson

    As for books~ “The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion…

  • Reply November 30, 2012

    ro.watson

    Meant opposition.

  • Reply December 1, 2012

    ellenni

    you need to take time to mourn for you lost love and life. the buck now stops with you and you have to be both mother and father. try to not get lost in all your new responsibilities. ask for help. if your friends get sick of hearing about it all get new ones.
    friends are supposed to be you rock so lean on them. a grief group will be of great help too. you wont get answers but you will get support.
    best of luck in your new life. it will get easier but it needs time.

  • Reply December 2, 2012

    Still sad

    My husband died last year after being sick for 6 months and dying for 3 weeks. I couldn’t imagine what life was going to be like especially as it seemed in the first few weeks as if there were a myriad of things which he had always handled, and I was in no state to manage them. All the men who seemed to come out of the woodwork thinking of their needs and what an opportunity my widowhood offered them made it harder. I did wear black for a while but stopped because it didn’t help me cope with the grief and like you I had to keep getting up and going for the children who were struggling with their own grief. I did cry every day for a long time but now I just get nostalgic moments every day. What I have learned is that I can manage and that there are new situations which require care but I am alright and so are my kids. While my heart broke there are still things in life that make it good. Good luck.

  • Reply December 3, 2012

    Sarah wayland

    Sophie I was just telling someone today how lovely your book is – how much your words tell such a sad story and now you have your own one. Much love and support and resilience to you and your girls x

  • Reply December 12, 2012

    ro.watson

    Yip. A lot of loss about. For example, lesbian widows. Anyway, I get the need for a cultural marker of grief and I reckon an armband rather than wearing full black in the height of summer is enough.

  • Reply December 19, 2012

    Finnola

    When it seems like fractures and splintered
    is all that is happening,
    the tide will start turning
    and you will come back to you again.

  • […] Widowhood 101 […]

  • Reply January 16, 2013

    RJ

    I lost my husband to lung cancer, he was sick for 2 years, we had been married for 15. I found a black ring and wore it for 1 year to mark my year of mourning, I found that helped. I think for me now, the sad thing is that last 2 years has defined my relationship with him – it’s very hard to see past the pain of illness. Yes, grief is hard work…but it also does some extrordinary things to you.

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