It is a sad fact that as part of a marriage, or any relationship, one of you will die before the other, and it is something that neither party is very keen on acknowledging, let alone plan for, before it's too late. Widowhood at any age is difficult for a whole host of reasons, but for those who are retired, it presents a unique set of issues. The phrase 'We had so many plans…' seems to crop up in every conversation you have. Travelling together, downsizing, taking care of the grandchildren, taking up new hobbies – all of a sudden, you are left with your plans in tatters, and no real feel for what the future holds.
Pat, 69, lost her husband, Peter, 64, four years ago to cancer, and although she has come through the raw grief that follows the passing of a loved one, is still coming to terms with having to create a new future for herself. “Peter had not yet retired but was planning to do so within the next year or two. His illness came as a complete shock – you never think it's going to happen to you, and we spent a long time just coming to terms with dealing with all that cancer entailed. I never gave much thought to what life would be like once he had gone. Maybe I didn't want to.”
Pat had retired from a career in nursing, but decided to continue caring for people by taking a course in Counselling, qualifying and beginning working part-time in a youth outreach centre a few years before Peter passed. I asked her some questions about how she had coped with forging a future after her husband’s death.
Did you find having a post-retirement career a help or a burden in coming to terms with your husband's death?
“Initially, it was hard, particularly given what I do. It was my job to hear people talk about subjects such as death, and I admit I was worried with how I would cope with that aspect. Equally I worried about the days that maybe I didn't want to get out of bed. Maybe it was my training, but I was able to recognise the signs of depression and sought help quickly from my G.P. before it got out of hand. Having the responsibility of having to go in and help people, usually children, who were at the very start of their lives and suffering tremendously was a big spur in helping me get through the days. It gave me a purpose. Having colleagues who cared about me was also tremendously helpful.”
You say you sought help from your GP – can you tell us a bit more about that?
“Initially, as anyone who loses someone they cared for deeply and had spent many years with, it was very hard getting through the day. Although my children were there for me as much as they could be, there were still things that I just had to do myself, including finding the desire to carry on. Some days that was easier than others. I knew fairly quickly that I might need help to get through the initial period, mainly as I wasn't sleeping well. My GP was fantastic and gave me some light sleeping pills, and saw me regularly to keep an eye in how I was doing. I found quite quickly that once I had gotten a chance to sleep, and rest properly, I was gradually more able to cope without the medication. I think I might have found it harder if I hadn't have sought help more quickly. I would advise anyone not to leave things until they are too much to cope with.”
How did you start looking to the future?
“Well, life has this nasty habit of carrying on, doesn't it? I lost my own father when I was 16. It was a different time – nonetheless, my mother became 'The Widow' almost immediately, and was only 45 when he died. I had always said that, if that were to happen to me, I would not just give up the way she did. Besides, Peter would have been furious if I squandered the life he had worked so hard to build for us. I had to live up to my own promise to myself and b) to Peter’s memory. So I have made the effort to go on holiday, but with my children instead, and have kept working, kept going to the gym, and not turned down every invitation, even though at times I have wanted to. I'm still selective about what I attend, but at first the inclination was to hide away from the world and it took effort not to do that. It’s not always been easy, but I have to say I have not lived in misery either. You will laugh again, even if you think you never will.”
Do you think about meeting anyone else?
“Peter was the love of my life. I met him when I was 24, a year before we married, and we were married for 40 years – that’s a long time to be with someone. I cannot imagine wanting to be with anyone else at the moment – I still love Peter. But at the same time, I know he is not coming back, and that’s ok. Equally, I rather suspect that had the shoe been on the other foot, I'm not sure he would have remained single! I don't discount it, but I am wary. Peter left me well cared for financially and I am protective of that. But if I met someone and the time was right, and I felt strongly enough, I wouldn't rule it out; it’s just not top priority right now. But I would absolutely encourage anyone who finds themselves on their own at my stage in life to date again if it’s right for you.”
Dating ettiquette is very different these days – how do you think you might go about it?
“This is where keeping busy, to use the cliché, has come in handy, because I am continuing to meet new people. You never know who might walk through the door! But also, I wouldn't discount some of the dating websites aimed at my age group, or Match.com and eHarmony – I believe you can set age parameters. I think they are a great idea! I sometimes wish they had been around when I was younger – would have saved going through a few frogs before I found my prince!”
What have you found hardest?
“The usual things like holidays, learning to cook for one, taking on running the household finances (though I did a lot of it there were still some things to get used to). Probably having to do things for myself, with no-one to answer to – after 40 years of asking someone else’s opinion, it’s rather strange having to make decisions purely on my own. Sharing the little, boring things is tough too. But I added two new kittens to my cat family last year, and they are very good at listening to me ramble on or shout at the telly! I've found the reaction of some people strange. I would have thought at my time in life, you wouldn't experience the kind of discrimination younger singletons apparently suffer – not being invited to dinner parties in case you make a move on the hostess' husband – it’s surprising how many women think you are husband-hunting! I have found my social circle has become my single and widowed female friends just to avoid those situations. But it’s not all bad being a widow, either!”
“No! Peter hated me reading into the wee small hours at night – now I don't have to worry! I also hated fish, but used to have to cook it for him because he loved it. He was a huge barbershop fan, which I hated, and was in a chorus and a quartet. He sang at least twice a week. Now I don't have to go to barbershop events to give him moral support – believe me, that’s a huge plus! I suppose it's about accentuating the positive. Would I rather go to a barbershop event and have him back? Of course I would. But that’s not going to happen, and I am not about to give up on life. I have a teenage grand-daughter who is about to have her prom and a brand new grandson – imagine if I had given up and never seen my grandson? That would have been two grandparents he had never have known. I feel I owe it to Peter too. Seeing my children and grandchildren live their lives makes me so happy – I see Peter in each of them every day.”