The word ‘widow’ implies old. As Heather Harris reports, though, widowhood happens to young women too…
When Kate Boydell’s husband died suddenly on 8 April 1998, leaving her aged 33 with two small daughters, she became a problem.
“I had a diary on my kitchen wall; the months stretched out ahead of me but there was nothing to fill them. My life was empty; the passage of time meaningless, save for the events marked down in my husband’s handwriting,” she explains. “No-one knew how to cope with me. I didn’t fit into any of their categories – single, married, separated, divorced… there isn’t one for young widow.”
Caroline Doughty understands. She was a widow at 34, after her husband, Nick, died of cancer, leaving her with a one year old and a three year old.
“People just don’t know what to say or do, so often they avoid you altogether. Only a couple of married friends have continued to invite me for dinner. It’s a cliché, but it’s true that you don’t get invited any more when you’re suddenly single.”
To ease the loneliness – and fill the empty hours – both these women took to writing. In October 2002, Kate launched merrywidow.me.uk a site originally designed as a standalone survival guide for young widows, containing both practical and emotional advice. Seven years and one award-winning book later (Death and How to Survive It, commended by the British Medical Association), the website attracts over 97,000 hits a month.
“It is overwhelming. It began to take over my life as I was deluged with questions and comments not only from young widows but also friends and families, who were all desperate for advice on what to say and behave.”
The site also includes extracts from Kate’s very funny diary detailing some of the unique situations which, as a young widow, she continues to deal with (such as telling an extremely rude story at a posh dinner party out of sheer nervousness, and without her husband to kick her under the table!).
There’s also a popular discussion board – “something that is a lifeline as no-one else can possibly understand what it is like,” said Kate.
Caroline couldn’t agree more. Six months after her husband died she decided to go along to a Christmas lunch run by the WAY Foundation (Widowed and Young).
“Before I left home I was in a real state – wondering what on earth these people would be like. As soon as I walked in, someone whisked my kids away to look at the Christmas lights and gave me a glass of wine. Needless to say, I burst into tears!” she recalls. “For the first time, I was with people who really did understand how I was feeling. They didn’t judge me or try to help or even cheer me up. They just let me be me and there wasn’t any awkwardness because I was feeling so low. Other friends often find the grief so difficult to watch that they shy away from it.”
Such was the impact of this support that Caroline is now the national chairwoman of the charity, which has some 1600 members in 60 groups all over the UK. It runs regular get-togethers for young widows and widowers and hosts family activities. Not all members are parents though. “And we don’t all sit around and talk about our dead partners! We have a lot of laughs but there is always an underlying bond. My children also have their special WAY friends which is great for them, as all their other friends have Dads at home, so they can feel the odd ones out.”
Caroline has written a best-selling book, too. It’s titled – ironically – If There’s Anything I Can Do... after hearing many well meaning people utter these words after Nick’s death. The book aims to help friends and family find a practical way to support someone who is grieving for their partner.
“The biggest piece of advice I can give to family and friends is ‘don’t make empty promises, just do something to help’.”
Kathy Rance was one of the few young widows to whom I spoke who had nothing but praise for the help she received – and, even more unusually, it was from her late husband’s friends.
“Alan suffered a massive heart attack on Bonfire Night in 2002 and was in a coma until 15th December when he finally died of brain damage,” she explains. “He was a cricket mad 39 year old and all his sports friends, school and workmates straight away offered really practical help”.
And Kathy really was desperate for support as she was faced with some unthinkable decisions. As Alan’s condition was unexplained (it was later diagnosed as viral myocarditis) Kathy had to decide to switch off his life support machine. She then had to plan for his future care if he continued to live in a vegetative state, and also choose what to tell her four year old twin boys, one of whom has a disability.
“While my female friends offered emotional support, the men were hands on. They did, and still do, take the twins to sporting events, come with me to parents’ evenings, even discipline them when I am at the end of my tether.”
Because she had such enviable support, she didn’t feel the need to join WAY but did find useful tips on merrywidow.me.uk, particularly about parenting – a challenge that all the women I spoke to found particularly testing, whatever the age of their children.
Anne Jones lives with the horror of knowing that it was her 14 year old son who found his father dead.
“My husband, Bob, was fit and healthy and a real personality in the village who everybody knew. He came home from work one day and went upstairs to lie down. When my son went to tell him there was a delivery for him, he couldn’t wake him,” she says.
“He phoned me and I thought he was saying the ‘dog’ was dead, but of course he was actually saying ‘Dad’. I was home from work in minutes but it was too late…”
Bob had died from a massive heart attack. It was on 2 September last year, and their son cried throughout that day – but has never done so since.
“He talks about his Dad but very positively. I worry he is bottling things up. He has a terrible temper and I never know whether to blame his father dying, or whether it is just him being a teenager,” she said.
Like many of the ladies I spoke to, Anne did not take up the offer of children’s counselling on her son’s behalf. It is almost as if the bond between parent and child is suddenly so strong that neither party wants to let anyone else in…
“My twins were so young when Alan died; it is only now that they get upset, especially at times like when the school celebrates Fathers Day. They miss having a Daddy, not Alan himself,” said Kathy, adding, however, that one of her twins has recently, at the age of 11, spoken to a bereavement specialist, as she felt he was “becoming the man of the house too quickly – feeling responsible for me and his brother (born with hydrocephalus or water on the brain).”
“People do forget how tough it is being a lone parent,” Kathy continues. “I get cross when I hear people moaning about their husbands. The worse moment for me is getting back from holiday when you have two tired, fractious children and a whole car to unpack.”
Kate Boydell found that the constant noise from her young girls was a problem, as she craved peace to grieve. “It was there when I got up and would continue until I put them to bed at night. It was just the sound of two active little girls trying twice as hard to attract the attention of a single parent, but for me it was torture… they smiled and I snapped; they laughed and I growled. And then one day, after a major outburst, Rosie looked at me with her big, blue eyes and said, ‘I know it’s hard for you, Mummy, but it’s hard for us too, you know.’”
Caroline admits that she, too, goes through tricky times with her daughters. “There’s also no-one to play bad cop, good cop with,” she says. “There’s no-one to compare notes with or laugh with at the end of a tough day with the kids. With my elder daughter we do tend to lash out at each other, but all three of us are incredibly close.”
Despite this naturally heightened closeness between widows and their children, Caroline believes passionately that mothers should not feel guilty about forming new relationships. “At WAY, this subject often comes up. My WAY friends were the ones who understood why I was so devastated when a relationship I had some years after Nick died didn’t work out. It was the fact I was being left all over again – and they ‘got’ that instinctively.”
Kathy’s boys are constantly nagging her to meet a new man. “They want to have an adult male around. But I don’t see myself ever marrying again. It is not like being divorced. There isn’t that feeling that you almost have to prove that you can succeed at a relationship. I certainly would never join a dating website for widows and widowers! I can’t think of anything worse.”
Interestingly, it was through mutual bereavement that Anne Jones has recently found happiness – not from dating agencies, but from a chance meeting with Geoff, a local man who had recently lost his wife after a lengthy illness.
“He turned up on my doorstep and what started out as cups of tea and mopping up tears has now developed into something deeper,” she said, admitting that she is still keeping it very quiet, and has told only close friends and Bob’s mother, “who was upset but very encouraging, and told me I had to live my life.”
Her son, too, has been surprisingly supportive, and shows his acceptance by doing practical things with Geoff, “like messing about with their bikes”.
“I do worry that people will think it’s too soon but when you are widowed young, you do realise the importance of seizing the moment and taking each day as it comes,” Anne adds.
Kathy agrees. “Before Alan died I never thought I’d be running a charity, launching a cricket academy and roping in top England cricket coaches to take part,” she says. But this is exactly what she has done. The Alan Rance Memorial Fund has now raised over £35,000 and helped over 210 disadvantaged cricket-mad girls and boys.
Think of a widow, and you think of a weeping woman, sitting at home alone. A tragedy. That image was dispelled by all these women. From the horror of bereavement has come a huge inner strength and an enviable sense of humour. They have all been driven to achieve far more than many of us who enjoy the social norm of a two partner relationship.
All admit to having ‘terrible dark days’, though, even after years have passed. As Kathy explains, “You never get over it, just live with it. You survive by finding something positive out of the negative. The worst has happened, so now I’m not scared of anything.”
So surely it’s time that society stopped being scared of them…
www.merrywidow.me.uk • www.wayfoundation.org.uk