As strange as it may sound, there was one good thing about losing my dear husband Simon to a horrible illness when I was 50. I got a glimpse of how extraordinarily kind people can be.
I remain eternally grateful for the many family and friends who put their own lives on hold to offer me around-the-clock emotional comforting and care. Beautifully cooked, nutritious meals were left on my doorstep and sustained me on so many levels. I will never forget the friend who sat silently with me night after night as I tried and failed to find some refuge in sleep. This friend understood that words are meaningless at times like these, but that somebody’s presence means everything in the world.
I loved Simon dearly. His illness was swift and horrendous. He was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, and he died 10 months later. I was left emotionally shattered, disorientated and heartbroken.
I know that 50 may sound ancient to my daughters and other young people. But in the span of the average human’s lifetime, it’s nothing. With the children gone from home or about to leave, Simon and I had started exploring what we might want to do with our newfound freedom. We were looking forward to pulling back a bit and thinking about a possible midlife gap year. Maybe we’d get a house by the sea? At the very least, we were looking forward to trying new hobbies and spending lots more holidays with our close-knit group of family and friends. It was a time full of promises of new horizons and life moving in an excitingly different direction.
And then he got ill and died. It felt so sudden ― like one moment he was here and the next he was gone.
The finality of it shocked me. I could never again ask Simon’s opinion about anything, share a long-established joke with him, or have him hold me and stroke my head after a horrid day at work. I’d not only lost my husband, I’d lost my best friend in the world.
There’s one bad thing about a happy marriage: It’s even more excruciating when you lose your life partner. Aside from never getting to see our dreams about the future come true, what I miss most are the little everyday things we shared: the cups of tea in bed, the quiet suppers, the Sunday afternoon walks with the dog that always ended at the pub, and the way he looked at me when I came through the door. When Simon was in the room, I felt safe and completely cherished.
There is growing research into the physical and emotional effects of losing a life partner, and it makes for grim reading. The surviving partner is significantly more likely than the average person to suffer from both physical and mental illnesses. Isolation and loneliness seem common bedfellows in widowhood and are continually reported as issues that negatively affect one’s quality of life.
Immediately after Simon’s death, I felt numb and didn’t really engage with the world. I’ve read this is nature’s way of protecting a person from the profound grief they’re experiencing. I kept expecting him to come through the door, or I’d think I saw him in a crowd of faces somewhere. I would constantly dream that it had all been a terrible misunderstanding and he hadn’t died at all.
At first, I was buoyed by all of the love and support from my close group of friends. One of the best pieces of advice I received was: “Focus each day on just getting out of bed, getting dressed, and taking one step at a time. Just surviving the day means you’ve done brilliantly.”
As the months passed, people understandably went back to their own lives and I was left to survey the remnants of mine. As the tranquilizing effects of shock started to recede, I found myself spiraling into deep despair. It felt like my husband dying had diminished me in so many ways. I was hollowed out and I didn’t see myself fitting anywhere in the world anymore. I was no longer part of a couple and I was uncertain about who I now was, and this made me feel extraordinarily alone.
I had been warned by others of the “widow’s fate” ― of being cast out of the social groups I had known and loved before Simon’s death. I certainly noticed that widowhood changed my social structure, and fewer invitations dropped through the mail slot or arrived in my inbox. I remain unsure as to exactly why this happens, but I know I wasn’t great company, and I don’t think people really knew what to do with me. Grief can make a person so vulnerable that they’re tempted to see rejection where none is intended, and this just adds to their unhappiness.
“I had been warned by others of the 'widow’s fate' ― of being cast out of the social groups I had known and loved before Simon’s death. I certainly noticed that widowhood changed my social structure, and fewer invitations dropped through the mail slot or arrived in my inbox.”
For a while it was easy to hide under my duvet and sink into a self-pitying belief that I didn’t matter to anyone ― and that this would be my life from now on.
My breakthrough came when I decided to get curious about why I was feeling so dreadful and what I could do about it. I joined some online widow forums and read everything I could about losing a partner. It was such a relief to hear others recounting stories so like mine, and to find many people talking about how painful it was to no longer be invited to places and events with their friends. I love the idea that to live healthily, one must both live and grieve in community. Searching out others who understood what I’d been through was hugely beneficial to my mental health. No matter how difficult of a time a person is having, I now believe we should at all costs avoid isolating ourselves from the world, however tempting it can be at times.
One woman’s story really stood out for me. She said she spent years obsessing over every event she wasn’t invited to. She eventually realized it was like continually “stabbing at a wound” and she felt completely stuck in her grief. It was only when she challenged herself to live in a new and different way that her life opened again.
This really resonated with me, and I started to think about how much energy I was investing in clinging tightly to the life I had before. I wanted ― and thought I needed ― everything to stay the same, because if it did, then Simon wouldn’t be dead. It was the worst kind of magical thinking, and it wasn’t doing me any good.
I finally began to ask myself what needed to change. I found a therapist and started to journal every single day. I quickly realized that by not truly accepting that Simon had died, I was denying myself any kind of future. By fixating on all the things I thought I was missing out on, I was failing to comprehend the power of my own internal resources to create a whole new and different way of life.
None of this work was easy, and I had to go back and revisit what had happened time after time. I did a lot of letting go. This involved lots of hitting pillows, sobbing, running in the countryside and trying to let all the pain I felt from my loss flow through my body and mind. Of course, I would have preferred with every bone in my body that Simon hadn’t died when he did ― but he did, and I was not honoring his memory by staying in bed and feeling sad and bitter. I also wasn’t honoring myself: I still had a life, but I had to find a way to start living again.
It’s been two years since Simon died, and I feel so different now. I still see my therapist, and I will always journal from here on out. It’s such a powerful way to remind myself to be grateful for the life that I have. I no longer feel blocked or depressed ― but I do still miss him terribly. And that is OK.
I also understand that I have a different life than I did when Simon was alive, and that is also OK. His death did not ― and does not ― diminish me in any way. I’m now secretly rather proud of myself. I’ve been through hell and survived, and I’m stronger and more compassionate because of it. I see myself as a warrior woman and a survivor who did and still can love another human at the deepest level. And that feels important.
Through acceptance and proper mourning, a new world and a new me have emerged. I wanted to turn my pain into something that has purpose, so I started to train as a psychotherapist (a lifelong ambition) and I continue to write and coach others to build their well-being after experiencing trauma. It’s become my life’s work. I’m not sure I would have done this if I’d been able to live out my dreams with my husband. I’m also trying lots of things I used to love doing: I’ve joined an acting class, gotten back on a horse and love all kinds of dance. I am making lots more new connections and traveling again in my own way, and my world is opening up in a way I never would have imagined after everything shattered.
I never thought I would be a widow at 52. I never thought I would experience the things I experienced, or feel the way I felt over the past two years. And when I was at my most devastated, I never thought I’d be able to live my life again the way I once had. The truth is, I can’t. But I’m happy to say that every day I feel better and I’m creating a new life I love. I think Simon would be proud of me. I know I am.
Debbie Binner is a well-being writer and author of “Yet Here I Am: One Woman’s Story of Life After Death.” Debbie runs coaching and workshops about living life to the fullest. You can contact her via Rockmyage.com and follow her on Instagram @lifeinthemiddle_lane.