Tag Archives: Shirley Reeser McNally

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.”