Coping with the loss of a partner: after you've gone
There are no quick fixes when your partners dies. But you can emerge a positive and even better person, say those who've been through it. We speak to seven people who lost their partners, how did they cope? Were they able to find love again?
The early days
Nicola Campbell, 38, from Edinburgh. Her husband Colin died two years ago, also aged 38. She is a freelance writer and mum to Evie, three, and Isla, two.
Nicola Campbell with husband Colin and daughter Evie
“Colin died totally unexpectedly of sudden adult death syndrome. It couldn’t have been more shocking. They tell you not to make any big decisions for the first year: but on the very day he died I decided we were going back to Edinburgh, where I’m from. I knew it would be too painful to stay in our very family-orientated corner of London, seeing all the daddies with their children when my daughters didn’t have that any more.”
Louise Smith, 43, runs an IT business from her home near Banbury. She lost her husband Richard to cancer in April 2011. She has two daughters: India, six, and Jasmine, three.
“On the day of his funeral, I had to look my very best. I wore a cornflower blue dress with chiffon sleeves and a hat and high heels. I had my hair done and my make-up was done professionally. I looked at myself in the mirror and thought: Richard would have approved, big time. That was so important to me.”
Louise Smith with daughters Jasmine and India
Laurence Warner, 44, is from Darlington. Her husband Mick died of cancer in 2007, aged 60.
“It’s a tough road and you have to give yourself treats along the way. A bath with your favourite bath oil; a bar of really good chocolate; a new dress. I saved up for a weekend away in a Welsh hotel suite. It was exactly the sort of place I’d have gone with Mick. I was lonely, but I didn’t mind. It meant a lot to me.”
Maureen Greaves’s 68-year-old husband Alan was murdered in a random attack on his way to a Christmas Eve service in 2012. She’s 64 and from Sheffield.
“Alan and I loved to go on walks together and after he died I carried on doing them alone. It brought back the memory of us walking together, and I liked that. But it was also a place where I could cry.”
Coping with the people around you
Louise Smith: “You find out who your friends are—and it can be a surprise. People you expect to be there for you melt away and do nothing to help at all. Others you hardly knew are invaluable. A woman I’d have called my friend said she couldn’t look after my children so I could go to Richard in the hospice; I hardly talk to her now. Another woman, who I would only say ‘hello’ to before, came over with a shepherd’s pie on the day he died; she was brilliant. It’s not about the relationship you had with someone before, it’s about how empathetic they are now.”
Stuart McKay, 40, lost his 35-year-old wife Vicky to cancer almost three years ago. Stuart is a computer analyst and lives in Northampton.
Stuart McKay and Vicky
“People assume the first year will be the worst—that you’ll struggle to get through all the ‘first’ anniversaries. The first birthdays without her; the first wedding anniversary; the first Christmas… So you get through that year, you look OK, you’re back at work (actually, I was back at work a week after Vicky’s funeral) and people think you’re moving on. But you’re not even off the starting blocks. The first year was a total blur for me; I barely remember anything about it. I was numb with grief; too numb to begin to learn how to live again, and too numb to feel the pain. So the second anniversaries were far harder, and that was hard for the people around me to grasp.”
Maureen Greaves: “Part of my journey of healing has been realising I’m not the only person who’s grieving—others are too. Maybe their feelings aren’t as obvious, maybe they aren’t as great, but maybe they are—or were. After Alan died, a woman stopped her car in the street, got out of it and came to hug me. She said she’d lost her husband, and that ‘You’re the one person I wanted to talk to.’ Your grief can be a bond, not something isolating.”
Family life after loss
Stuart McKay: “In a sense, the biggest grief isn’t about losing Vicky, it’s grief for the family we never had. I’m 40 years old and I think to myself: in another universe she and I would have a couple of children by now. Instead, I live on my own with three cats: sometimes I think that’s the only patter of tiny feet I’ll ever hear.”
Michael Adams, 35, lives in Trowbridge in Wiltshire and is an IT manager. His wife Helen died in March 2013 of cancer. He has two children, five-year-old Olivia and four-year-old Marley.
Michael Adams with wife Helen
“You’re suddenly very aware of your own mortality, both because you’ve been close to death and because your children will be orphans now if anything happens to you. There’s no back-up person any more, and you know your children need you, they need at least one parent.”
In the longer term
Stuart McKay: “It’s been years, but I’m still Stuart who’s half of ‘Vicky and Stuart’, I’m not just Stuart yet. I continue to wear my wedding ring, even though I’m in a new relationship. I honestly don’t know when, or even whether, I’ll take it off or do as many widows and widowers do and move it to my right hand. All I can tell you is my left hand is still where my wedding ring belongs.”
Kate Boydell, 49, lives in Plymouth. Her husband Charlie died of heart problems 14 years ago. She runs a TV post-production company, and wrote a book, Death and How to Survive It, on losing a spouse.
Kate Boydell and daughter Alice
“You and your partner were like two Jenga towers that had been built together. They were so interrelated it was impossible to know where one tower started and the other stopped. When your partner died, his tower collapsed—taking yours down with it. You have to reassemble yourself from scratch. But the important thing to know is that you can never be the same person again. Your new tower will be different; it has to be because some of the blocks are gone.”
Nicola Campbell: “My doctor said, ‘you’ll never be fixed’ and I felt like punching him. I desperately wanted to be fixed. But I know now he was right. I can learn from it, though: I’ve become a stronger, better person. Losing Colin made me realise what really matters in life. I used to think it was the kind of house we had, the kind of neighbourhood it was in. Now I know it’s about the time you spend with the people you love, about laying down memories and living in the moment.”
Laurence Warner: “When you lose your partner it’s as though you enter a tunnel. It’s a long, dark tunnel and you sometimes have no idea whether you’ll ever see daylight again. But you have to keep walking, putting one foot in front of another, because eventually you will see the first tiny shard of light, I promise.”
Heading in a new direction
Louise Smith: “In the months after Richard died, I made all sorts of wild, emotional purchases I’d never have made before. I bought dresses I knew he’d have liked; I bought the eternity ring he’d promised me but had been too ill to get. And then I even bought a Range Rover, Richard’s aspirational car. I didn’t keep it; I think I needed that buzz of instant gratification, reassurance that I could feel excited again. It was like getting a glimpse of happiness, a foundation I could build on so I knew I could one day be happy once more.”
Laurence Warner: “There’s a phenomenon called ‘widow’s brain’ and it really does exist: your short-term memory is shot to pieces. So I couldn’t do my old job as an event coordinator any more. Instead, I decided to make a new life for myself volunteering as a singer in old people’s homes. I’ve learned all the old Vera Lynn songs, I wear a 40s-style outfit, and the residents love it!”
Michael Adams: “A year ago I’d never have believed I’d be telling you this, but next week I’ll be performing on stage in a musical. A few months after Helen died I joined a local theatre group, having never done anything like it before, and I’m about to make my debut. I knew that despite my life being so full with a job and two young children, I had to do something for me.”
Finding love again
Kate Boydell: “Finding someone else has been more difficult than I thought. I’ve had other relationships, but I’ve never found that synchronicity of wit and outlook on life that I had with Charlie—it’s what makes someone your soulmate. Maybe I never will. The truth is that my life since he died has been about our daughters [Rosie, 19, and Alice, 17], and about raising them to be happy. That’s what they deserve; that’s what Charlie would have wanted me to do. And if that means not having a relationship, then I’m happy with that.”
Stuart McKay: “My new partner is a widow whose husband died a month before Vicky. It’s a double-edged sword. We certainly understand what the other one is going through. But there’s a lot of grief in our hearts and in our relationship; and if we’re both having a bad day, it can be really hard.”
Laurence Warner: “I’m remarried now, but I’ll always be Mick’s wife as well as my new husband Phil’s. He too is a widower, so he understands. Ever heard of a ménage à trois? Phil, Mick, Phil’s late wife Helen and I are in a ménage a quatre. I’ve got two husbands, and Phil has got two wives: one on earth, and one in heaven.”
When you do feel ready to move on and think about finding a new companion, Reader's Digest Dating can provide you a safe and secure environment to find like-minded people who share the same interests as you.
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