I’d like to speak to the non-widowed for a moment if I may, but you, part of my widowed tribe, might like to stand beside me or behind me or wherever you feel most comfortable and add your own pithy comments. The thing is, there are a great many misconceptions about what happens when you lose a spouse, some of which I’d like to start to clear up.
Firstly, being widowed does not automatically mean that as your loved one ascends (at varying speeds) the stairway to heaven, someone is coming down with a suitcase stuffed with money, a hefty life-insurance payout or paperwork to clear the mortgage. Why is it that so many assume that widowhood is a fast-track to a life of financial comfort in excess of the level of wealth you enjoyed or endured when you were married? When I moved to Hertfordshire, over and over again I was told of a neighbour, “She’s well off, because of course her husband died.” I suspect that they say the same thing about me, though in my case they would be missing out the word ‘less’. But still, the perception is that we are all rolling in cash, that holidays which would have been taken with our husbands without comment are now seen as “living it up,” a new car greeted with, “Gosh, well, I suppose after all you’ve been through you deserve it,” or most damning of all, those who see any expenditure beyond the council tax and utility bills as “spending your husband’s money…”
Next, sex. Standing next to a coffin containing the body of your husband undoubtedly messes with your head, sometimes for years, but it does not give you Grief Goggles, the bereavement equivalent of Beer Goggles whereby anyone with a pulse appears the sexiest human specimen ever to have crossed your path. And yet widows – me included – will tell you of wives who assume that their sweaty beer-bellied balding husband is cat-nip to a widow. Perhaps I’m being unfair; perhaps wifey isn’t worried about the widow pouncing on her husband and ripping his shirt off, but worried that he will make a pass at the widow, because of course we are all rich, lonely, sex-starved and up for it, aren’t we? There are two male friends of decades standing who I never see without their wives being present, even though I count neither wife as a friend. They gate-crash our get-togethers, proprietorially clutching their partner’s arm like a teenage girl with her first boyfriend. A widow once told me that the wife of a male friend warned her that despite what he had said, her husband would not be coming round to cut her grass, and that this warning was delivered in a tone of voice which clearly meant she wasn’t talking about garden maintenance.
Another inaccuracy is that being widowed turns us into lovely people who float through life without a bad word to say about anyone, because having seen death first-hand, we know what’s worth getting worked up over and what’s not. Just as putting a tea towel on my head does not make me Mother Theresa, losing my husband has not turned me from the sort of woman who says in a voice dripping with sarcasm to the queue jumper in Morrisons, “Go ahead, your need is obviously greater than mine,” to someone who says the same thing, but with a gentle smile and soft voice. I’m just as likely – if not more so – to stand there fantasising about stuffing the selfish shopper into a wire trolley and beating her about the head with a loaf of Mighty White. The fact is, if you were a jealous, bitter, attention-seeking, trouble-making, angry wife, you will be all of those things as a widow, but with bells on, and Facebook gives you a vast new public platform on which to behave badly.
And finally, there is the perception that some good must come out of the death of your spouse.
Earlier this month, there was a wonderful article by Marian Keyes in The Sunday Times‘ Style magazine. I love Marian. I’m sure Marian and I would be instant besties if we met, although it would be just my luck for her to have noticed that out of her 95,900 Twitter followers, I’ve had to un-follow her: I just couldn’t keep up with all her Tweets and was getting Tweet Fatigue. Anyway, Marian’s article began with this:
“When life throws me lemons, I’m told I should hop to it and make lemonade. But when life throws me lemons, making lemonade is the last thing I want to do – I just want to curl up on the couch, nursing my bloodshot eye and sore knee, where a couple of the lemons hit me, and think dark thoughts about all citrus fruits. However, that’s regarded as very poor form these days. The tyranny of positive thinking insists that I must instantly reconfigure every negative into a good thing and be able to name at least one life lesson learnt.”
Can you see why Marian and I should be friends? Anyway, she goes on to say that in modern life there is no room for self-pity, but that her view is: “Sometimes a horrible experience isn’t an opportunity for growth: sometimes a horrible experience is simply that – a horrible experience.”
I read the article and thought how right she is. From the moment JS drowned I have been bombarded with advice to take something positive out of it. Despite appearances to the contrary, I am a positive person: I look for the good in people, in situations, and I always, always count my blessings. But can I take anything positive out of JS’s death and learn from it? Have I suddenly seen the light and understood the meaning of life? Do I no longer sweat the small stuff? Hell, no! I can and do feel positive about my new life and be happy in ways I never thought possible, but JS’s death was not, for me, an opportunity for personal growth. Change, yes. Growth, no. Far from teaching me the value of life, death has made me fearful of how quickly life can change. At this point I feel like a wizened lemon in the bottom of a fruit bowl, battered, not blooming, long past my best, not even good enough to stick up a chicken’s bottom prior to roasting, let alone fresh enough to make lemonade.
Let me give you an example: Gorgeous Grey-Haired Widower and I were on holiday in Portugal last week. We had a lovely time, but on the last day, we were walking along the coast when I was suddenly hit by a wave of panic and fear that my happiness could be taken away from me in an instant, just as it was in February 2011. I tried to dismiss my rising hysteria, but as we passed a cafe where couples were sitting in the sun and chatting, the thought of one day being unable to sit in the sun and chat to GGHW was too much. I started sobbing and felt knee-bucklingly desperate. Decades of holidays saw me sobbing over skeletal donkeys tied up in sun-drenched fields or cats with three legs begging at the breakfast table, but never the feeling that life was being lived on a tight-rope. Lovely times and simple pleasures just pottering around are often punctuated by the thought, “What if…?” The afternoon before JS died when I was stressing over whether to buy gold or silver flip-flops I wasn’t thinking, “What if something awful happens in a moment?” I didn’t sit at The Lone Star in Barbados on the 26th February 2011 thinking, “What if it all ends tomorrow?” It did, and now, I do. There is this constant internal battle between being frightened that it could all end in an instant, to telling myself to buck up and enjoy life because it could all end in an instant, to being frightened that I am wasting so much of my life being frightened that it could all end in an instant. Can’t follow this? Confused? Me too. Deep down, I don’t really think it will all end in an instant – a blog post on intuition for another time – but still, the fear of further loss is there, eating away at me like mould on a lemon.
Fresh lemons make lemonade, but what can you do with saggy rotting ones?
Answers on a postcard or in the comments box, please.