When Husbands Die

Soon after my husband’s death I read When Husbands Die by Shirley Reeser McNally. The author who was a widow herself surveyed a group of women who had been widowed within the previous ten or more years, and organized their responses into a book. 

It was what I needed to read at the time, a sort of controlled support group, where I didn’t have to interact in real time with anyone, but could glean comfort from hearing from women who were in the same situation and who knew what I was going through. It’s strange, when I think about it, that an experience that is so common to humanity, the death of one’s spouse, can be so outrageous and solitary and impossible to prepare for.

One reason for the solitary aspect is the uniqueness of every relationship, and of each griever. This collection of women’s stories was interesting in that the women were all educated and able to write articulate and thoughtful responses to the questions, whether they were in their first months of grieving or years down the road. Most of them did not have to struggle financially, even if their husbands had died fairly young.

Shortly after reading the book I told people that it was something like reading a sociology textbook, and a little dry, but now I think, wasn’t that what I needed? I certainly didn’t want to read anything dramatic about someone else’s trauma. C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed was not as helpful, partly because it was only one person’s story, and that of a man, one who hadn’t been married very long. I am a woman who had been married a long time.

I especially liked hearing from women who were at a later stage of grief, about how their lives had changed over the years since their husbands had died, and the ways in which they had built new lives that were good. I went back this week and reviewed the passages I’d highlighted on my Kindle. Here are a few of those favorites:

“…the shared stories indicate that women must work through three to five years of grief and change before they feel well on their way to a recovered, reinvented life. The hard work of grieving must be accomplished before healing takes place.”

“…disorientation, fatigue, loss of self-confidence, feelings of abandonment, shock, and bone-deep sadness.”

“…our culture…is not open to the commonality of death, and how important it is that we come to terms with it in our lifetime.”

“I think women are better able to cope. We are greater realists and more skilled at accepting change as part of life because of our biological natures: monthly changes, pregnancy, childbirth, etc. Widowers tend to remarry sooner. They don’t know how to nurture themselves.”

“Is it ever possible to have no regrets; to have accomplished all you wanted to do; to have said everything, done everything? No. Omissions you recall later may bring sadness, sometimes guilt, until you understand that it was important for you and your husband to do things in your own way. That’s the only way you and he had.”

“…dying is something each of us has to do alone, at least in a human sense? The moment must come when, in dying, we move beyond our surroundings into another space.”

“…it is a sudden time, when things must be left unsaid and undone.”

14 thoughts on “When Husbands Die

  1. Interesting. 6 days ago marked the one year mark of my husband’s death. I had hoped for a dramatic change, for a surge of energy. Yes, I have changed from a year ago, the anguish has changed. Still in grief mode with all the symptoms. On to the next 2-3 yrs. with God’s help.

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  2. Very interesting to read these quotes. It will be two years for me in November. I’ve never really wanted to be part of a support group, but I’m beginning to feel more open to the idea of having some friends who share this experience. As much as I love my solitude, I think I need to be careful not to over-do it. I need to learn to enjoy the fellowship of other women. That’s just where I am. I am so at peace about my husband. It’s my kids that I miss, and find myself sobbing over. Only one lives nearby. I think in Biblical times a widow would be taken in to live with her children and would help with the household chores and the grandchildren. Nowadays we live alone and support ourselves and that can be very lonely at times. My children would gladly take care of me, but I don’t want to put that burden on them…just yet. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

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  3. Did you ever read Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking about the year following her husband’s death? I remember finding it interesting because I was fascinated by the context of married writers, but I lack the experience to know whether as a memoir of grieving it gives comfort or insight.

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    1. Emily, I did not read that book, but I must have read reviews of it on Amazon and not been attracted to it. But as my grieving soul goes through its stages, I might do well to give it another look. Thank you for the mention.

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  4. Thank you for this. Just this past year I find myself watching my widow friends — you, Lisa, Sandra, Rainey. I see widowhood as something that until recently was not even on my horizon, no matter how hard I’d squint. But because my friends are in it, and writing about it, it’s now distantly on that horizon and I find myself studying it. I hope this will keep it from being so terrifying when it comes. “Outrageous, solitary, impossible” — those words are certainly accurate. I can’t imagine.

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  5. Thank you for sharing. Although this is meant for a widow, I think the quotes still apply to the other family members who are grieving the loss of a loved one. ♥ Very nicely written!

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    1. Martha, I know you are still grieving the loss of your father. As it happened in my family, when my daughter gave birth so soon after my husband’s funeral, your coming baby will be such a comfort and joy to everyone!

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  6. This sounds like a very helpful book. The quote about “…our culture…is not open to the commonality of death, and how important it is that we come to terms with it in our lifetime” especially caught my eye. I recently read Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, and that’s one of the points he makes.

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  7. Dear Gretchen, It’s been a long time since I’ve scanned posts from my blogging friends. I’m sorry I did not know about your loss. Since I last visited here my son has joined the Orthodox Church so I find your site more interesting than even before. Thank you for sharing your heart.

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  8. Dear Gretchen ~ First of all thank you for your kind comment on my blog. I followed your link and ended up here and have now signed up to get emails about your new posts.

    This post was so good. My eyes are filling with tears as we are both widows, and what you write from your heart really speaks to mine.

    I’m into my 4th year, and while the grief isn’t as raw, it is still there. I miss my husband every single day for so many different reasons. There are ‘triggers’ that pop up out of nowhere and set the next round of sadness in motion. Today it was hearing an electric saw in the neighborhood. My property is quiet without the workings of my dear husband going on day in and day out.

    The quotes that really spoke to me were these: bone-deep sadness and this one ~ “Is it ever possible to have no regrets; to have accomplished all you wanted to do; to have said everything, done everything? No. Omissions you recall later may bring sadness, sometimes guilt, until you understand that it was important for you and your husband to do things in your own way. That’s the only way you and he had.”

    I look forward to reading more of your thoughts, to be strengthened and encouraged by your words. Tears are streaming, because you understand.

    Love, hugs & prayers, Rainey ~ a.k.a. FlowerLady

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