I will talk about anything.
No – seriously.
One of my most useful skills as a youth worker was the ability to chat about a range of subjects without getting embarrassed or tongue-tied. I’ve had conversations and “facilitated informal education sessions” on politics, sex, drugs, not actually rock and roll, but a lot of other things in between.
I think that this makes some other people feel uncomfortable. I remember when I jumped (well, stepped daintily) back into the dating world in 2016…
I didn’t want to have the awkwardness of turning up on a date and having to tell the guy that yes, I was a mum, but yes, I was also a widow. There are two ways that conversation can go. Either you do it at the beginning of the conversation, in which case everything that happens afterwards is coloured by that one fact about you – there is no escaping the assumptions that the other person will bring to the meeting. Or you do it half way through/when it comes up naturally, and then you watch the initial shock in their face followed by the horror as they speedily run through everything they have said up until that point in fear that they have horribly upset or offended you in some way.
Neither is fun, let’s be honest, but I usually opt for the former – lay all my cards out on the table. As I wrote in a previous post I saw no point in spending the time getting to know someone if they couldn’t cope with my son, I also saw no point in putting the effort in if the whole widow thing was going to be impossible for them to get their head around.
I wish I’d taken a photo of my match.com profile, carefully crafted as it was by Susan, Ali, Bekka, myself and a bottle of Rioja. I bit the bullet – the opening sentence mentioned both my widow status, and my 4 year old son. Best case scenario – this weeded out all the time wasters. Worst case scenario, Ethan and I lived happily ever after just the two of us and I never had to share my wardrobe space…win win!
But there is no match.com equivalent for platonic socialising or networking (not sure there’s a “widow” check box on Linked In). Obviously this sort of thing is less likely since bloody Covid, but when I met new people at weddings, or parties, or school gatherings, or in new work environments I would always have to gauge very carefully at what point to drop the “W” bomb. Sometimes it would have to come after I naively said something about my 1st husband, or Ethan’s dad, and explanation for a weird sentence construction or a context that didn’t quite make sense. Sometimes I’d feel the need to explain a particularly strong opinion about the NHS, or mental health funding, or childcare. I am forever saying “That’s ok” to a well-meaning (and blindsided) person’s “I’m so sorry”. I feel a little like Tom Selleck’s character in Friends at his dinner party (cue sympathetic head tilt).
But, whilst I’m not embarrassed to talk about being a widow, and I’m not squeamish talking about Mark’s illness and death, I do worry that bringing it up (at any point in a conversation) implies that I want the rest of that conversation to be all about me. It is focus stealing: a particularly effective form of one-upmanship unlikely to be topped by what someone did on their holidays. Someone could be in the middle of explaining how their husband took their son for a male bonding camping trip on his 5th birthday and innocently ask if Ethan had gone on anything like that with his dad, before expecting to tell a very funny anecdote about forgetting to pack a tin opener and spare pants, when I drop the bombshell of Ethan’s dad dying when he was 2…(delicately or not depending on how much wine was being thrown around). And suddenly the little circle they were enjoying entertaining is now focusing on me and my little tragedy. This isn’t really the best way to win friends and influence people. And (because of my ridiculously independent streak) I hate the idea that someone would pity me, whilst still being quite keen to offer up mitigating factors (e.g. Why I’ve only been married for 2 years, or why Ethan doesn’t like to go upstairs by himself).
It’s a little like that quote attributed to Mark Twain (that Brian Tracy based a whole book on) “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you for the rest of the day”… By saying the worst thing first and getting it out of the way, then it wasn’t hanging over my head for the whole conversation, with me spending most of my brain power on working out the best point in the conversation to butt in with it, rather than on listening to the other person talking to me.
It is quite useful with annoying customer service people and cold callers. “well I’m sorry but my husband died, so you can’t talk to him” has the perversely satisfying result of bursting their annoyingly cheerful bubble. I do usually feel a little sorry for them when I hang up the phone, but only a little. Anyway, if your husband is going to die and leave you to bring up his son alone, then there have to be some perks. If it gets me off with chuggers then I’m going with it.
6 years ago, when Mark died, a lovely friend told me about Widowed and Young, an organisation set up to support those widowed under the age of 51. I went to a few of their local meet ups and spent some time on the forums. It was a wonderful safe space where people could share stories and ask for advice from those who had perhaps gone through similar experiences.
But it sort of felt like that was the only place you could talk about it – in the closed (paid for) forum. Social media wasn’t the place for you to bare your soul, or to highlight to others what grief could mean….
But now on Instagram we have At a Loss, thegriefcase, onefitwidow… Places where individuals can write down what they wish they’d said to their loved one, or what they wish they’d known about grief. There are raw, ragged portrayals of lives ripped apart, deep, bellowing cries of sadness and confusion, and it’s ok. It’s not something to be hidden away.
Now, obviously algorithms make it less likely that those unaffected by these topics will stumble across them on their feeds – there is still a separation – a safety barrier – so that no one has to think about it if they don’t want to.
But I think that might be a mistake. For those of you who have listened to my conversation with Jenni Osborn on her podcast Jenni Talks you’ll know that I think hiding away from the topic of death in the hope that it never affects you is naïve. Bereavement and grief will affect us all at some point in our lives. Not talking about it, or feeling so uncomfortable when someone else talks about it that you’d rather leave the room, is short sighted.
I like to think that as a society we’ve learnt that sweeping things under the rug doesn’t work. The more we talk about something, the more we normalise it, for those who are going through it and for those who may be further down the road. By being open about some people being gay we lighten the load for those who were struggling in silence with their sexuality. By opening up the conversation around mental health, especially amongst men, we neutralise the shame of those who think they’re just not strong enough. And by talking about death we break the taboo. And this taboo cripples… It cripples those who are trying to comfort and support the bereaved.
In my experience it cripples those people trying to make plans with those who are terminally ill. Mark was determined to “fight” his disease (I’ll get into this harmful battle language another time). He was going to be the one who got through it. We were going to buck the trend, astound the doctors and fight through it all. Honourable attitude, you might think, positive mental outlooks obviously affect the march of the illness, right. More power to him. But actually what happened was that any talk of planning for his death felt like mutiny. We couldn’t talk about wills, or funerals, or even plans for Ethan because to do so was to assume that he wouldn’t be here – that he wouldn’t win. It also meant (for me, anyway) that we couldn’t talk about how much we would miss each other, we couldn’t be sad about the prospect of me living the rest of my life without him, we couldn’t talk about how scared of dying he might be (or, later, how much of a relief it would be). Anything that smelt of defeat was shooed out of the hospital room, right up until the very end. We never said goodbye. He never said goodbye to Ethan. And that will haunt me until it’s my time to go. It is my biggest regret – that I didn’t push it, that I didn’t say the hard things that I was feeling, because I wanted to keep up the pretence that one day, we would look back on this and laugh and nod at lessons learnt, together, probably with another child running around with Ethan in the garden.
If I can pass on one single thing for you to learn from my experience, it isn’t that life is short (although it is). It is this:
Have the conversations.
Make the plans.
Don’t think that you’re tempting fate or giving in.
Talking about death doesn’t make it more or less likely to happen – death and taxes – the only certainties we have, you just don’t know when either of them are going to bite you on the arse.