What it’s like to… become a widow in your 40s

One minute, she was happily married with two sons – aged 12 and nine – the next, her husband had died. We speak to Jemima Thomas about the unpredictable nature of grief, losing friends who thought she should move on and how it feels to be a widow, five years on…

Jemima’s husband passed away in September 2011. He was just 41 and although he was an alcoholic, it was a sudden and unexpected death. She talks us through the trauma of losing someone you love…

“My husband was a chronic alcoholic, but his death was very sudden and unexpected. He died on our 14th wedding anniversary, of a massive pulmonary embolism caused by DVT. We had been together for 17 years and have two sons together, who are now teenagers but were 12 and nine when their father died.

On the actual day it happened, I felt helpless; in shock. There was so much to do and so many people to contact that I didn’t really sit down for hours. It felt unreal and dreamlike (nightmare). It wasn’t until later that night that I collapsed screaming that I wanted him back.

I have found grieving to be cyclical in some ways. My grief did not/does not follow any prescribed stages. At the time he died and in the following weeks I felt that I was wondering around in a strange world. I was functioning and doing everything I needed to do in terms of looking after my boys and the house, but I don’t think that I was really thinking of him as gone. Every so often “reality” would hit and I would feel like I had been punched in the gut. I couldn’t catch my breath, I’d double over, I wanted to scream. I still have moments like this.

I can’t really say that I have been angry. I felt that his death was inevitable because of his drinking. I just felt an enormous sadness for him and everything that he was missing with the boys. Any anger I have felt, do feel, is more to do with what he put us through with his drinking. We loved him so much. I now just feel a profoundly deep, sadness.

Planning his funeral was bizarre, but also gave us a laugh as we looked for songs to play

Strange as it may seem, I have some very good memories of laughing and feeling happy in the days following. (Grief is weird!). My good friend came to stay and she had myself and the boys laughing within hours.

Planning his funeral was bizarre, but also gave us a laugh as we looked for songs to play. The song we first danced to after being married was “Smoke gets In Your Eyes,” and I did consider having that played as he was carried in. But, my friend reminded me his funeral was a cremation. We had fun imagining his old aunties’ faces…

His sister and I were actually giggling at his funeral. There was thunder and lightning, and hailstones were bouncing off the huge glass wall in front of us and the minister had to shout to be heard above the storm. My husband loved storms and he would have found it all so funny. People said to me later that they could tell I had been sobbing; I had to tell them I was giggling!

As soon as the first hymn was sung and the minister started talking about my husband the sky cleared, the hail stopped and a rainbow appeared. It was beautiful, but strange.

I do have happiness from time to time, I do laugh and carry on, but there is always the sadness in the background.

After he died, friends and family rallied around. I was rarely without someone visiting or phoning. Over time that trailed off

Becoming a widow

What has been most difficult about my husband dying is the real physical pain of him not being here anymore. The loneliness is worse though. I was once told I couldn’t claim to be lonely because I have children, but it’s not the same. At the moment I am on my day off from work and the house is quiet, apart from the TV, and I am lonely. I don’t mind my own company, but continually being alone is unpleasant.

After he died, friends and family rallied around. I was rarely without someone visiting or phoning. Over time that trailed off. I lost friends, too. They didn’t understand why, after a year or so, I was still grieving.

I used to post on Facebook about how I felt. But I lost friends (people I knew offline, too) and was called “toxic” and “negative.” I was told by several people to “suck it up.” Support dwindles as people move on, they don’t realise that your moving on is slower than theirs.

I sought professional counselling a few weeks after he died. However, I think I went too early. So it wasn’t really helpful.

The logistics

Dealing with the bureaucracy after he died was a nightmare. People were so insensitive and information hadn’t been passed on between departments.

The DWP tried to be helpful, but some of the questions they asked when I applied for bereavement benefits were very hurtful. “Where were you when your husband died?” My answer: “kneeling on the pavement next to him administering CPR.”

He collapsed a few yards from the local GP practice and I ran in there asking for help, only to be waved away by the receptionist and told there were no doctors available – despite me telling her he was not breathing. That helplessness was overwhelming. I complained later, but was basically told she hadn’t said that or waved me away, despite the uproar from witnesses against her after I had to leave without help. That upsets me to this day.

My car insurance company wanted £35 to change my status from “married” to “widowed.”

About six weeks after he died I received a telephone call with an appointment for my husband to attend a medical with regards to his benefits (he was no longer working when he died). I asked the date and time of the medical and assured them I would have him there just as soon as I picked up his ashes from the undertaker. I was so angry that the DWP hadn’t informed them of his death.

What I miss most is his company. His cuddles when I return home from work. His smell. His silliness. His laughter. His cooking…

In the early days, I wanted people to acknowledge what had happened with him. To not be afraid to speak to me about him. People are too frightened that they will upset or hurt you – but don’t realise that you can’t possibly be hurt any more than you already are.

I still want to talk about him, and for people to ask. I loved him; I still love him. He is the father of my children; of course I want to talk about him. I want people to know that I was loved, too. Talking about him still helps.

What I miss most is his company. His cuddles when I return home from work. His smell. His silliness. His laughter. His cooking… His help around the house. Just knowing that he’s there. I miss that. I just miss him.

To someone else going through a major bereavement, I’d say: don’t fight it. You need to go through it and express it in your own way. Not how books say you should, not how therapists or friends or family say it should be. Everyone’s grief experience is different and there is no right or wrong way to grieve.”