Tales of underwear and men ahead!
Yes, you! I’m talking directly to you, the woman whose life is so shattered she begs to die rather than go on living without her husband.
Or you, who stood in the shower this morning, so shell-shocked you walked out and got dressed in dirty clothes that hang off you, a cloud of shampoo still in your hair.
And to the lady who stands in the park screaming at the sky, “Where are you? Give me a sign to say you’re OK! Anything! Please!” before crumpling in a heap on a memorial bench and sobbing until you vomit, step away from your computer screen now, I beg you.
Because all of those women above were me, and during those terrible raw times I didn’t want to read a post about relationships, and nor do some of you, if the vicious war of words that broke out last Friday night on one of the Facebook forums I belong to is anything to go by.
A regular contributor whose deep grief I have witnessed through her anguished posts, began a thread about internet dating. It was light-hearted, poking fun at the plonkers she was encountering, and there was plenty of good-natured banter, something I badly needed. A miserable Friday afternoon had turned into a very miserable sofa-slumped Merlot-sloshed Friday evening, the sort where I not only looked around my living room and thought, “JS, where are you?” but noticed the cobwebs and the paintwork and the leak in the conservatory roof and felt overwhelmed.
But then, in amongst the light-hearted and supportive comments came darker posts dripping with distaste, the general gist of which was that a grief forum was not the place to mention new relationships. Like porn on the top shelf in a newsagent’s, such discussions should be taken out of the gaze of those who wear the veil of widowhood and have no intention of ever lifting it, not even for a peck on the cheek let alone a snog. Those who had joined in the fun were admonished for encouraging such posts, slapped down for ‘revelling’ in the details of dating.
The atmosphere on the board changed as the charges were set out against those who had the temerity to think about forming a new relationship: We were hiding from our grief; settling for second best; ‘crowing’ about finding a new partner (‘Look at me! I’m so in love!’), ramming new relationships down others’ throats. It transpired that some widows had pulled out of attending a recent meet-up when they discovered they would see something undignified and distasteful: widowed couples newly in love.
The blue touch paper was lit and everything exploded with a bang, the aftershocks of which were still rumbling on the board days later. Words can wound, and people cornered (or perhaps plastered) lashed out. I was watching the fight unfold on my iPad and might have joined in if I could have sat up to type, but it meant moving The Hound who was lying across me, legs akimbo, plums on display, snoring contentedly. Also, I was a bit squiffy and in danger of lobbing a nuclear bomb into an already flaming forum.
Wise and experienced widows tried to calm the situation, but the newbies, still raw and with the self-righteousness of the recently bereaved, carried on scorning the life-choices of long-standing members.
Self-righteous? I know that in the early days I had a very ‘holier than thou’ attitude. Clearly, my grief was greater than anyone else’s: I had no time to say goodbye to my husband or ask him what the password for the Virgin Media account was; I’d seen him drown in front of me, on a beach, on holiday, thousands of miles away whilst wearing a bikini. I had no children to get up for and pull me through. I’d worked for JS so I lost my job and my husband. I couldn’t just go to work and sit and do my job and be surrounded by others who would make me tea and jolly me along. I had a financial and business minefield to unravel. My parents let me down. I couldn’t join a counselling group because JS didn’t die in a local hospice or hospital, yadda yadda yadda.
It was a load of bollocks, but at the time I believed those things just as I believed I would never again be happy, be able to put the bins out without sobbing, or read the Sunday papers. If we can’t imagine ever doing something as simple as laughing again, how could we possibly imagine a new relationship? And if one comes along when we are least expecting it, when not only are we not looking for one, but we don’t want one, when we are still banging the drum of life-long marriage, even if our partner is now in a box on a shelf rather than on the sofa beside us, what then?
Through Facebook and the aforementioned grief forums including WAY, I had been corresponding with widows and widowers since before JS’s (much delayed) funeral. These people were supportive and warm and often bleakly funny. Some fell by the wayside as their lives moved forward and they distanced themselves from grief, but there remained a core group who dragged each other through significant dates: anniversaries and birthdays, social events attempted alone and so on.
Towards the end of last year, I was walking through the women’s underwear department of M&S when out of the blue, I had a seriously X-rated thought about one of the widowers I corresponded with. I stood amongst the lace-trimmed push-up bras and matching G-strings horrified, shaking my head as if a wasp had flown into my ear, trying to rid my brain of such a disgustingly inappropriate thought.
I walked on.
It happened again.
I was rocked to my core. There had been absolutely no hint of anything remotely racy in our emails. Unlike other widows who found themselves at the end of saucy messages asking what colour underwear they were wearing, and graphical anatomical pictures of male genitalia, our conversations on Facebook Messenger went like this:
Me: Got to go as going to have a bacon sarnie for lunch.
Him: Red or brown sauce?
I rushed out of M&S into Oxford Street, got on a bus and wept. I felt sleazy, guilty and ashamed. My heart said I had been unfaithful, that I had broken my marriage vows. My head told my heart to bog-off and get real, that my vows were until death us do part. I was frightened and bewildered that the part of being a woman I thought had died along with my husband had returned whilst surrounded by mass-market underwear. I was disgusted at Media Man when he pounced on me, but this was far worse: I was disgusted with myself.
Only being an hour up the motorway, The Widower and I had talked about meeting up to walk The Hound, but after the M&S incident, I stalled. We’d meet up before the end of the year. Or not. Maybe never. I encouraged The Widower to start dating whilst hating myself for hoping he wouldn’t. Our correspondence continued, witty messages that I looked forward to receiving. When one morning my first thought was to reach for my phone and smile at a Good Morning text The Widower had sent me, rather than look at the empty pillow beside me and howl for my husband, I plunged into a spiral of despair, confusion and later that day, whisky drinking and loud rock music.
I told my bereavement coach about what had happened in M&S. She was delighted and felt it was a shift in my grief, a new stage in the process. I was freaked and scared and confused. How could I be sobbing over my husband one moment, yet having lustful thoughts over a stranger the next? I looked at photos of JS around the house and my face burned wondering if he knew what my brain was up to.
As it turned out and due to a genuine misunderstanding between us, I met The Widower when I was least expecting to, as demonstrated by my outfit. Instead of the carefully thrown together, glossy-haired understated tons-of-make-up no-make-up look, we first came eye-to-eye when I was wearing shrunken tracksuit bottoms, bare feet, a stripy dressing gown, wet hair and no make-up.
After months of messages it was good to meet him. Very good.
That first meeting and sitting outside a pub, I laid the law down in no uncertain terms. I did not want a relationship. I was not going to be anyone’s girlfriend; the odd date with a lawyer or a rich banker, maybe, but never again would I have a long-term partnership. My advice to The Widower was that he should sow some wild oats and then settle down with a lovely woman. He deserved a lovely woman, but that woman wouldn’t be me because as I had clearly stated, I would be racing around with lawyers and bankers.
It was quite a speech, worthy of Churchill or Martin Luther King.
It was also totally inappropriate as the poor man had only come to walk The Hound with me.
It’s a mark of the man that he didn’t tell me to pull my head out of my own butt and stop being such a stroppy self-centered princess, but instead, listened with calm good humour.
And then told me he was not the slightest bit interested in a relationship either.
Just to ram my point home, after he left I emailed him a copy of my speech.
Was I telling The Widower that I didn’t want a relationship or telling myself? I know that at the time I meant everything I said. I talked again to my bereavement coach. She asked what I liked about The Widower. I reeled off a long list of his qualities. She asked me what I didn’t like. There was nothing about him I didn’t like. What I didn’t like was that he had come into my life now. It was too soon, not part of my plan. She said, “OK, don’t see him for another eighteen months or two years or whatever time scale you think is appropriate. Then look him up and when you find he is happy with someone else, we’ll deal with your tears of regret then.”
If he finds someone else before I’m ready, then that’s fate, I told myself, trying to ignore the fact that I would be devastated if in one of my “You should date lots of women!” conversations The Widower had confessed, “Actually, I’ve found someone I really like…”
There was more dog-walking and deeper talking and at some point we agreed to go out on a date. Traipsing across Hampstead Heath in wellies was one thing, but a proper grown-up date in good clothes was quite another. It ended in tearful angst-ridden disaster, and an acknowledgement by me that it was all too soon.
There were no more funny emails, no witty texts. Life felt even darker than it was already.
I missed him.
After a gap, we went back to uncomplicated dog walking.
One day, it was muddy on the Heath and The Widower got stuck in the mud. I was laughing so much I doubled-up and could hardly breathe. When I straightened up he was still trying to pull his wellies out of the mud and laughing and I thought, I don’t want to lose that man from my life. Which is the moment The Widower became Gorgeous Grey-Haired Widower.
I suspect that those who have been widowed and look on as others make new relationships feel (as I would have done) that a new partner erases grief, but the reality is much more complicated. I don’t want to speak for GGHW, but what I will say is that I doubt there is any widow or widower out there who hasn’t struggled with the idea of a new relationship, and the problems and unexpected feelings it brings.
The first weekend GGHW stayed with me we had a lovely time, walking The Hound, going to the local farmers’ market, reading the Sunday papers. When GGHW drove away that evening I was happy. I was happy as I made something to eat. Then, suddenly, I became convulsed with hysterical sobs. I stood in the kitchen shouting into space, “JS I’m sorry! I’m sorry, but you’re not here! You’re not bloody here!” whilst waving a wooden spoon aggressively in the air. It frightened me and it frightened The Hound.
And then there is the fear of the future. Whichever way you look at things, there will be upheaval and angst. If things don’t work out then it will be heartbreaking. If they do work out and we live happily ever after, the cruel reality is that one of us will be widowed again. When I first thought of this, I burst into tears and wept that I couldn’t do it all over again. Always calm and optimistic, GGHW pointed out the fun we would have in the meantime. But still…
I also firmly believed that if I did ever date again, I would be forever comparing JS to other men and that other men would always fall short and be second best. It has been a shock to find out and painful to admit that in some areas, the tables are turned.
And then there is the most distressing part of the entire dating a widower process, and something I still find incredibly difficult and painful to cope with.
GGHW has two gorgeous sons who have been nothing less than welcoming to me. They are tremendous and I adore them, but in amongst the laughter we have when we are together comes terrible flashes of why I am there: I am there because their mother isn’t. It should be Gorgeous Son No 2’s mum sitting at the kitchen table as he recounts his day. It should be Gorgeous Son No 1’s mum visiting him at university. Sometimes it all becomes so overwhelming, I feel as I did in the early days of grief when I used to sink to my knees and cover my head, waiting for the tidal wave of despair to wash over me.
I remember one night at GGHW’s house sobbing and saying that if I had my car with me I would leave, even though it was the early hours of the morning, such was the overwhelming grief I felt for everyone. GGHW put his arms around me and said that if I really wanted to go home he would drive me. I stayed. The terrible truth is that me not being there won’t bring the boys’ mother back, however much I long it would, but sometimes the practical side of me becomes swamped with emotion and I weep for what should have been for those young lads and their lovely mum.
All these emotions, is it any wonder that some of us simply decide we can’t face any further upheaval and pull-up the drawbridge?
To those who think that finding new love means we no longer have a place on widow forums, the truth is that whilst it is undeniably lovely to have someone who cares whether you’ve got home safely, new love doesn’t erase old loss and neutralise grief. It brings with it new issues and painful reminders. It holds up a magnifying glass to past relationships. It makes you examine how you behaved and uncovers deep hurts and unresolved regrets. After the lows of bereavement, the highs of a new relationship are undeniably heady, but when you come home to an empty house and legal wrangles and a cold side of the bed and a wardrobe still full of your husband’s clothes and wake alone and anxious after yet another terrible dream and you still can’t get the little movie of your husband walking into the sea and all that happened in the moments afterwards out of your head, I promise you, life can feel just as bleak and despairing as ever.