Christine Webber

Last Thursday, was the fifth anniversary of my husband’s death. As you do, on those sorts of days, I found myself thinking about what I’ve done since then, and what I’ve learned. 

Over decades, as a therapist and health journalist, I’d often been asked to write about bereavement.

And I did. Mostly majoring on the recognised stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

But I now realise that though I lost friends and parents – and had seen many patients through deep sorrow of this kind – I had little idea of the visceral pain that accompanies the death of your own partner.  

In his final weeks, my husband would often say, ‘Darling, you will be all right, won’t you? Afterwards…’

And I’d reply that I would, and that he would be forever in my heart, and I would sustain myself with our happy memories and the support of family and good friends. 

I now realise I hadn’t a clue about “afterwards”. 

If I gave it any thought, it was about what I would do. Never about how I would feel.

I’m sure this will resonate with many of you. When you’re caring for someone approaching the end of life, you go into a kind of “capability mode” and focus on making them as comfortable as possible and trying to ensure they have the sort of death they hope for. 

Then, once they’ve gone, you become seriously busy with arrangements, phone calls to everyone who needs to know, and all the form filling.

You may weep, but for the most part, you just get on, even though everything seems a bit of a blur. In fact, you’re often quite numb though you may not recognise this at the time.   

However, I think that almost all of us have a “bombshell” moment at some point when it strikes us that death really is for ever and that our partner’s absence isn’t temporary. 

This came as a monumental shock when it happened to me. Of course, intellectually I knew what death meant, but emotionally I was unprepared.  

In truth, despite my training, I was embarrassingly ignorant.

I hadn’t taken on board that sleep patterns are disrupted for months on end. Or that you feel the cold more than you used to and tend to need a hot water bottle – or two – for much of the year because the marital bed no longer offers the warmth and comfort it once did.

I didn’t foresee that Six Nations matches would be far less fun than they were when I watched them with my spouse. Or that it’s unwise to view gory TV dramas, or read psychological thrillers, late at night when you have no one to give you a cuddle and remind you “It’s just a story”.  

On the plus side, I quickly discovered that there are far more widowed individuals around than I had ever noticed, and that we instinctively offer support and solace to each other and feel a sense of togetherness and community, both in real life and on social media.

I value this more than I can say. 

Quite apart from everything else, you can express some of the weird thoughts you have and gain reassurance that you’re not alone in thinking them.  

For example, I now know that vast numbers of us live with a vague sense of disconnectedness and unreality.

And that our perception of what is important, and also of time and space, is markedly different compared with when our loved ones were alive. 

In the lead up to this anniversary I felt confused – one minute it seemed as if David had died yesterday, while in other moments, my years with him felt so distant they were like a dream.

This kind of distortion is common, and no one who has lost a partner thinks it’s crazy. It’s just how it is. 

But widowhood isn’t all gloom. We find we have time to spare – time that in the past was devoted to our coupledom.

And we can use that time to go on holiday with friends, take up new hobbies, or see grandchildren more frequently.

We might even launch a business; there’s quite a trend for people over 50 to start independent bookshops.

And we go to dance classes and join choirs where we have fun and make new pals. This is an unexpected bonus. 

Also, heaven help us, we get talked into joining committees, which lead to us developing fresh skills, meeting different people and shouldering important responsibilities.  

None of this makes up for our loss. But it does enrich the life we have left and gives us purpose. 

When I worked as a psychotherapist in London, I saw masses of broken-hearted people in their 30s who came to me when they had been rejected by the person they had planned to marry and make babies with.

This was utterly devastating, and they would cry, ‘Nothing will ever be the same again.’ 

I used to respond, ‘No it won’t. It’s going to be different. But it can still be good.’

And I know now, the same applies to those of us who are widowed.