Message to a heartbroken widow: embrace your grief

The house where my mother lived became a shell where she protected herself after her husband died

Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell

Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell


I was in a hotel just before Christmas and a woman came up to me in the resident’s lounge and we got chatting on a huge big sofa.

She was younger than me. Maybe she was in her 40s. She wore a black silk dress and her gaunt face was without expression, like someone stunned by a bomb.

“I hope you don’t mind me sitting here,” she said, as she looked across the room, avoiding eye contact.

“I’m a widow,” she began as if she was confessing something ugly.

She said, “I’m fine most of the time but I dread Christmas.”

“What was his name?” I wondered.

She spoke it, and I felt his presence well up inside her as she began to weep.

And then we shared so much detail about her life in 20 minutes that I couldn’t stop thinking of her all through Christmas. And I couldn’t stop thinking of all the others who can’t enjoy New Year celebrations because they lost a husband or a wife, a mother or a child during the year.

“It’s like an amputation,” she said.

If I knew her address I would write to her. I’d say, “I was thinking of you over the Christmas. I was thinking of all the years you spent with your beloved. And all the drama at the end of his life. And how familiar you were with his body and with all its curves and edges and the smell of the sheets. And now all you have left is the emptiness in the bathroom when you walk into it, as you go from room to room, as if walking from one empty shell to another.”

Embrace memories
The house where my mother lived became a shell where she protected herself after her husband died.

So I’d also like to say something very shocking to you. Please don’t protect yourself from loneliness like my mother did. Embrace all those memories that you told me about. The way he left things in the bathroom when he had finished washing, the sight of his clothes on the floor, the texture of his damp discarded towel, the way you used to lock the door and get into the water he had just left, and soak there, listening to the distant football match downstairs on the television as he dried himself by the fire.

Plan your future
Don’t hide from the terror of that absence. Don’t be afraid to wonder how it might have been if you had grown old together.

And when the grief has fully surfaced, make a mug of tea in the kitchen. Don’t be afraid of that ritual you always did with him; that collaboration of boiling a kettle, of laughing through the soap operas, and asking, “Do you want a cup of tea?” and hearing him reply, “I don’t know.”

And go for a walk in the garden. Examine the dead plants and the frosty clay that was so full of flower last August.

Consider the resilience of cherry trees, the tight lawn’s endurance and the understated dignity of sharp hedge lines that he trimmed for decades.

Walk along the avenue where in funereal solemnity he made his final journey away from you, out the gate on his son’s shoulders before they put his coffin in the hearse.

You always worried about him leaving you, but you never thought he’d leave like that.

Walk back up the avenue and plan your future. The flower-beds will still need attention in January. Promise yourself to begin again.

If he were standing beside you he would suggest shopping on New Year’s Day. He would ask you where you’d like to go next summer. Answer him. And take him with you. Go shopping with his ghost.

If there are stale flowers in the vases from before Christmas throw them out on New Years Eve, and get new ones. Say they are for him when you leave them on the kitchen table.

Don’t lie in bed like a walrus waiting for someone to make you breakfast. It won’t happen again. Clean the bath when you’re finished. Pick up wine glasses from the night before. Never open the whiskey when you’ve already had wine. It’s

And enjoy the night. Sit where the two of you used to lounge on every other New Year’s Eve, just the two of you, watching Jools. And make New Year resolutions. He is gone now. 2013 will be on his gravestone. This is 2014. Commit to it. Commit to now, even if now is empty.

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