When your partner dies

Nancy’s husband, Al, had been in hospital for two weeks with heart trouble. The
day after he was discharged, he spent some time chortling with a neighbor as he
sat in the back yard in the sun. Later, she left Al watching football on the telly, while she went to grab something from the local shopping centre.

“I started down the escalator and I got the most awful feeling,” she recalls. “It was horrible. I thought for a minute I was going to faint, and I hung on to the banisters and went down. I went home as quickly as I could. I was only away about half an hour.

“I opened the back door and said, ‘I wasn’t long, was I?’ There wasn’t a sound. You get the most awful feeling. There’s just still air.

I went into the bedroom. Al was just lying back on the bed in his pyjamas and dressing gown and he had just gone. He had some bits of pill, white pill, on his tongue, just on his lip. He had evidently had a pain, taken his pills and gone to lie down and that was it.” They had been married for nearly 50 years.

It was stories like this that prompted Sydney journalist Richard Stanton to begin researching what life is like for widows. He had two friends in long-standing marriages lose husbands in quick succession, and the two women had very different reactions to the event: one was devastated, the other relieved to be rid of a man she no longer even liked. It made him curious about women’s responses to widowhood: how do they cope – emotionally, financially and practically – after they lose the partner around whom they had built their lives? What keeps them going? How does the rest of the world regard them?

In his new book, When Your Partner Dies, Stanton interviews 10 widows about their experiences. Some, such as Nancy, are older women for whom widowhood might have been traumatic, but for whom it is more expected. Others, such as Michele, lost their husbands young.

Michele’s husband, Denis, was diagnosed with cancer when she was four months pregnant with what became their only child. He had six months of chemotherapy: “Denis finished his treatment a couple of weeks before I was due to have the baby. He was terribly ill. In fact, he was hospitalised and the doctor said later his blood was at such a dangerously low level they were going to lose him that week.

I hadn’t known that. At the same time, my own father was dying and I was doing the shuttle between hospitals. My doctor was getting angry with me because my blood pressure was going through the roof.”

Her husband went into remission, but the cancer returned and he died when their daughter was three. Michele spent the last two years of his life frantically photographing and videoing his times with his daughter. She contained her weeping, and the begging on her knees to God, to the times Denis was out of the house. After his death, she concentrated on raising her daughter and re-training so that she could teach at night school.

Stanton says that what struck him most about the women he spoke to was their strength and resilience; their ability to survive loss and get on with life alone.

Men who lose their wives tend to re-partner much more quickly because they cannot bear to be on their own, he says: “Very few of these women said they were looking at a new relationship,” he says.

The perception that they would be trawling the remarriage market was an issue for many of the younger widows, who felt they were excluded from social functions because other women feared they would poach husbands. Not so, says Stanton: “They are seen as a threat at the dinner table in the same way as divorcees. But widowhood is very different. They didn’t leave a relationship to go and look for someone else. The last thing they want is someone’s else’s husband. They want their own husband back.”

While it is true that Stanton’s interviewees display strength, their stories also expose their vulnerabilities. Several talk of feeling lost when their husband died because he had made all the big decisions, or chosen all the major purchases. They remark that they only began to mature into independent personalities when they lost the marriage they had sheltered in.

One spent the two years after her husband’s death largely closeted in her house, frightened even at the prospect of facing the local shopping centre. Another so feared strangers learning that she lived alone with her daughter, that she kept all the household mail in her husband’s name.

Stanton believes another difference between men and women who lose spouses is that women, because they are less likely to be the primary breadwinner, are more likely to be left financially vulnerable. Some of the women in his book, such as Annabelle , found themselves struggling to work out which friends were providing trustworthy financial advice and which were trying to rip them off.

Michele was one of those who felt that being forced to provide for herself by returning to part-time work and study helped her recover from the loss: “I would recommend that anybody in this situation should try and hold on to their independence. It provides a feeling of satisfaction and (re-training) gave me something to aim for, something to focus on, a new career and a feeling of achievement. While I had a good part of myself focused on my daughter, it wasn’t a healthy thing to be 100 per cent focused on her.”

For many, their husbands are dead, but not gone. They still dream about them, hold conversations in their minds with them, and try to imagine what their husband would have wanted in significant matters such as dealings with their children.

Says Nancy, “I remember Al lost a pruning knife that he used and I found it years after he died. I dug it up in the garden. I stood up ready to go inside and say, ‘Al, look what I found’. You know, for a moment, he was back again. You never sort of lose them, in a way.”

· When Your Partner Dies:
Stories of women who have lost their husbands, by Richard Stanton, Allen and Unwin, AN EDITED EXTRACT FROM ANNABELLE’S STORY:

“I think of him every day of my life. I dream of him a lot. Less and less, but the dreams are now becoming very strange. When I make a decision I still think, ‘Gee, I wonder what Alex would have thought’. It has been very hard to get used to making any sort of decision on my own, but I think after seven years I am getting better at it. Never needing to consider remarrying is one of the hardest things to explain. You’ve had a good marriage for 15 years and if you never marry again it doesn’t matter. No one can live up to Alex. No one could be as caring for us.”

· Annabelle’s husband, Alex, was aged 40 when he had a massive heart attack. He died three doors from home, leaving Annabelle to raise their two children alone.

First published in The Age.