Life as a Widower

A young widowed father opening up about living with loss

old people

I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t look at strangers in the street and wonder, ‘What are you all about? Anything could have happened to you. You could have had a really difficult life for all I know’. I can picture myself as a young boy with thoughts like that racing round my head and these musings have become even more acute in recent months.

These days I often look at people and ponder whether they can imagine what’s happened in my life from the expression on my face or the bags around my dark and heavy eyes. I look back at them and wonder if, by any chance, they are in the same sad boat.

Nowadays, however, I mostly find myself gawping at old people in the street. It feels likely that they too have felt pain. Age suggests that it’s more probable that they have lost and grieved. Their faces may have dropped not only from the inevitable decrease in natural collagen in their skin and bone density in their skulls but also from the emotions and traumas that have touched their lives.

But then I look at the old people who have apparently lived the dream. They have beaten the statistics of separation, death and divorce and grown old together. They still hold hands in the street and they tell people at the bus shelter that they’ve been married for 50 years, when nobody even asked.

It’s the ultimate measure of relationship success. To me, if they have managed to be mostly happy for all that time, it’s the ultimate measure of success in life. Not necessarily the whole marriage thing and not necessarily the whole boy girl thing either, just maintaining happy relationships that last a lifetime.

But then I can’t help but wonder if these lifers even appreciate what they have. If Joni Mitchell was right and you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone (see Janet Jackson if you’re young and have no idea who the hippy with the guitar is), then do they even know what they’ve got? Am I wrong to look at them and assume that they’ve had it tough just because of their age? Perhaps the lines are all from laughter. Perhaps they haven’t had chance to know what they’ve got because it hasn’t yet gone.

And so then I wonder if they’ve allowed themselves to be truly happy and fulfilled in life. They’ve done it, they’ve grown old together, they’re still holding hands. But is it enough? Without loss have they learned to appreciate what they have? Or do they still pine for more? Does the goal of togetherness change shape when they have had so many years together to take it for granted? And if it does, then what does success and happiness then become? A cruise? A place in the sun? More possessions? More grandchildren?

I suppose it’s a symptom of our age to always want more, perhaps it’s even human nature. But lying here young and already alone, I realise that I’d shed all of the material trappings of financial success and live under that bus shelter with my wife if I were able to tell people, who hadn’t even asked, that we’d been happily married for 50 years.

13 comments on “old people

  1. Debbie
    March 23, 2013

    Well mum and dad have been together 61 years , whereas my husband and I managed just 17 before he died . I do believe that in between little niggly day to day arguments they are well aware if how lucky they are . This was made more evident earlier this year when mum
    Nearly died, I’ve never seen emotion out of him like it before . Luckily
    Mum pulled through but given that they are both 85 Ill probably see that side to my dad again soon .

  2. Sarah Pointer
    March 23, 2013

    I too, through my life, have often thought that you don’t fully appreciate life unless you have encountered some form of tragedy, illness or hardship. However, on reflection and being struck by said tragedy, I would have been more than happy just trudging along not knowing what i’ve got and it not going.

  3. Cath Barnes
    March 23, 2013

    My husband and me managed 13 amazing married years together and 20 as a couple but at 37 I have to admit I am jealous of my parents and their 61 years of marriage. But then I look at them again and see the pain of loosing their own daughter at 21 and they pain they have now in grieving for my husband a man the considered their son. Many of their lifelong friends are also gone so now I look and think how strong and amazing they are to go on living through all that grief xxx

  4. Naomii
    March 23, 2013

    Sarah Pointer! Yes. Just yes!

    I always find myself looking at those in bliss with an almost protective eye … Praying they can stay in their cotton wool for as long as possible, even if they are taking it for granted.

  5. Bill Wright
    March 23, 2013

    I wonder if for the prematurely bereaved, it is a common phenomena to contemplate, empathise with and dissect the lot of the OAP?
    This beautifully, contemplative written piece really struck a nerve with me and my experience.
    At 37, there is no doubt that I feel I have drastically aged, mentally, in the two and half months since my beautiful little 2yo girl unexpectedly died (and the with the newly acquired beard probably, physically as well).
    My childless friends feel like a an entirely different species of people to me, utterly unable to grasp what is really important in life and to treat life’s trivialities with a the reduced priority status they deserve.
    For the first month of our bereavement, my wife and I were painfully, acutely aware of the grief driven, rapid ageing syndrome we seemed to be afflicted with. Physically we seemed to have shrunk, shoulders hunched, shuffling along like a pair of old biddys, straining to get nothing much done. To paraphrase Dexter, one of the most enjoyably macabre, dark TV characters of recent times, our grief and sense of shock and loss made us feel we were permanently in the presence of a dark passenger on our backs.
    We could not bring ourselves to listen to anything other than the soothing, Classic FM and found ourselves drawn to vacuous, gentle day time TV that would normally have been as welcome as an enema.
    I too, found myself self exploring the lines in old people’s faces, searching for recognition of a shared sadness that only, the silent, normally old, minority could ever, truly understand. I felt as if I had been granted unwanted membership to their ranks and wondered if they could recognise that in me, like some unwitting blind date, unknowingly wearing an invisible sign, an out of place garish garment to stand out from the crowd.
    Thanks again Ben for unwittingly speaking to my experience with yours and igniting my brain, providing me the room to indulge in articulating thoughts that, these days are mostly internally processed, through fear of making others feel uncomfortable.

      March 23, 2013

      You should write a guest post for the blog, Bill. Let me know if you’d like to. I look forward to your comments and I think others do too.

      • Bill Wright
        March 23, 2013

        Thanks Ben, it’s very kind of you to say that. I’d be honoured to guest write, I’ll give it some thought and mail you soon.

  6. Paul R
    March 23, 2013

    Laura and I realized that our marriage was a very happy one, especially when compared to some of our friends who had struggles and some divorces. We were married for 28 years and looking forward to retirement in another 3 to 5 years. We hoped to surpass that 50 year milestone, we just didn’t know where on this earth we would be, as we both have itchy feet and tended not to stay in the same place more than six years.

    With Laura’s death I don’t know what I’ll do. I may go back to school and start a late career to take me into my 60s and maybe 70s? Or I may retire early and pursue hobbies with a small income. All our possibilities destroyed on a pleasant afternoon of motorcycle riding.

  7. Judy
    March 23, 2013

    My mother died when she and my dad were just 55. They had taken both early retirement because of ill health, but my dad felt grateful they had because she died less than two years later. She and I had opened a little quilt shop together, more her dream than mine, but I look back on those months with such gratitude that we had done so. My brothers and I have always felt like my dad was robbed of years of joy. Still their love was so strong, it carried my dad through the rest of my dad’s life- which was 31 years later. He found peace and joy in his life through his children and grandchildren, but like you I suspect he would have given away all of his personal possession just to hold my mom’s hand once again. We are not a religious family at all. My dad used to say he did not believe in heaven and seeing my mom again, but that he hoped more than anything that he would be proved wrong…I always considered my dad a very happy person to the end, one who dealt with loss, illness and pain with dignity and no complaints- still there was always a hole in his heart he could never quite fill again…

  8. Sarah.
    March 24, 2013

    Perfectly said. You’ve expressed what I think perfectly. We take it all for granted. The everyday, the mundane is all missed when that person is no longer there to share it with you. We should all take a little bit of time to stop and appreciate how good we’ve got it. This post made me think of my husband. And of my mum. Thanks Ben. Xx

  9. Dee Cane
    March 25, 2013

    Beautifully written, you are so articulate.
    I only had 16 short years and it has taken me a long time to stop being so very angry at any elderly couple I happen to see in this very situation, how dare they flaunt how lucky they are, how many year’s they have had & are indeed, still having!
    Sadly my Mum has full blown dementia & not so long ago I felt my Dad was complaining about how hard it is to look after her. All of my anger bubbled up from nowhere I had to suppress the urge to just grab him by his collar and scream “but you haven’t lost her, she’s here, she’s alive. I’d give anything to be as lucky as you are right now. Kiss her, touch her, smell her, enjoy her” … I don’t think anyone can understand the total devastation of losing the love of their life, of understanding how it affects every moment, decision and action in your life, until, sadly it happens to them.

  10. Marieke
    March 29, 2013

    Dear Ben, even though I am so blissfull not to be directly affected by bereavement, your blog is so sincere and articulate that it serves as an every day reminder to consider the essence of life and importance of relations (husband, children). In that sense you contribute to deepen the sentiment of happiness of blessed persons like myself (25 years in a relationship, 2 children, parents and parents-in-law alive). Having said that, you realise I can only but try to imagine what direct loss is about… though your descriptions are almost ‘tangible’.
    Thanks for the energy you spend on sharing (it is picked up on by others) and wishing you all the courage needed!

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