Grappling with loneliness and misunderstanding


UK – Women make up 11 million of the 13 million bereaved spouses in the US, forced to cope with major life decisions when they are at their most vulnerable. Meanwhile, it can be nearly impossible to find a truly understanding friend.

When my mother lay dying in 1999, she looked up at me and said, “I don’t care where you put my ashes. I really don’t. Just promise me you won’t let anyone take them to Ellenville.”

“Ellenville” is shorthand for the cemetery outside Ellenville, NY, where my father is buried. There’s plenty of room for a few more urns, but Mom’s message was clear: she had not forgiven my father for leaving her.

Without warning, he had died one morning in 1984 and left her alone.

He was only 73 and she was 61; they had thought they would grow old together. But he died without leaving her so much as a hand-scrawled will. All she found in his office were a bill-cluttered desk next to a filing cabinet filled with moldy Halloween candy.

Mom survived the loss. But she never forgave him for leaving her.

Statistically, women are far more likely to be widowed and far less likely to remarry than men. Of the approximately 13 million bereaved spouses in America today, 11 million are women.

Many women are blindsided by it because couples rarely talk about the inevitable.

New Yorker Beatrice “Bea” Schwartz, a healthcare professional widowed in 2012, believes that no one can prepare a woman for what she will face. “The world is not sympathetic to what you’re going through. They don’t give you any time to grieve properly.”

Bea’s husband died suddenly at age 67. “He always told me he’d die before me, and he explained all the financial arrangements to me. There were no secrets,” Bea says. “He said, ‘Listen, you’ll go on living, and you need to know what’s what.”

Even so, when David collapsed one morning in his building foyer and died an hour later, the weight of what was to come hit Bea with brute force.

“The landlord is at your door asking for your wedding certificate because the place is in his name, so they want you to prove you have the right to live there,” she said. “Your life is suddenly in probate. You can’t take even a few days to process what’s just happened to you because the business demands taking care of, and the business is not simple.”

The moment a woman is at her most vulnerable, she must make choices that will have an enduring impact on her wellbeing. Should the body be cremated or preserved or buried quickly but intact? Will the funeral service take place in a house of worship, a funeral hall, or at home? What kind of casket is required? Depending on the choices she makes, even a simple funeral can cost between $5,000 and $10,000.

‘Suddenly I was alone’

For Benilda Pacheco, who lives in France largely because she cannot afford to come back to the US now that she is a widow, there is no such word as “enough” when it comes to talking about the subject. But her husband Paolo, even in the final stages of a years-long battle with lung cancer, was unwilling to talk about arrangements of any kind.

“He left me penniless, stranded,” she says. “I loved him, but he was hard. You couldn’t get him to talk about dying. It just wasn’t going to happen.”

Benilda met Paolo online in 1998 – he was in the Netherlands, working as a maritime insurance adjuster, and she was an administrative assistant in Michigan. After a brief long-distance courtship, Paolo emigrated from the Netherlands and moved in with her; they were married in 1999.

Later, the couple returned to Europe. Benilda went back to university. They were living happily until calamity struck. Bennie’s son, living in Arizona, was diagnosed with aggressive MS. She felt compelled to return stateside to care for the young man. The couple resumed a long-distance relationship.

But in 2012, she got a call from a hospital in Amsterdam informing her that Paolo was very ill; doctors had discovered a large tumor in his stomach, and they were about to operate. She immediately flew to his side.

After the surgery and a full round of treatments, Paolo’s cancer seemed to be in full remission. Benilda and Paolo then found a place in the south of France. For a while, he seemed to recuperate, but his recovery was transient. The cancer metastasized on his lung, and, after suffering terribly, Paolo died in early 2015.

“Suddenly I was alone. In a foreign country. I couldn’t live at home on my meager social security, and in France my rent and healthcare are subsidized by the state. So I stayed. I love it here now, but it took a while. Any budgeting I had done was inadequate, as Paolo left me nothing but bills. He just didn’t want to face up to what was happening, and he expected his illness to obey him just like the people in his life did.”

When Françoise Giguel, a virologist now living in Boston, was widowed, she was well prepared. Married to a brilliant young lawyer named Deb, Françoise had been aware of her wife’s breast cancer from the beginning. Though her cancer was in remission, Deb had warned Françoise early on that “breast cancer recurrences are common and rarely have good prognoses”.

The two fell in love, married and made plans to raise a child. But when Deb went to the doctor complaining of back pain, she learned that her cancer had returned. “When it happened,” Françoise remembers, “she was devastated but began treatments again and responded well to tamoxifen.”

For three years, the cancer was controllable, but it was not cured. A pragmatist, Deb set about preparing her loved ones, including Françoise, for life without her. Deb made all the legal arrangements for the couple’s joint life, put all the financial requisites in place and went so far as to insist that Françoise establish a relationship with a psychologist, so that, says Françoise, “I could take care of myself and have someone to talk to when times got rough.”

Deb’s death happened, as she requested, in the home she shared with Françoise. Assisted by Hospice Care and a coterie of friends and relatives, Françoise tended her wife who, over the course of a month, reached out to friends, family, colleagues, so that “wave after wave of our heartbroken friends” were invited to say their goodbyes. “It was difficult, but I was grateful.”

Francoise was lucky. She felt embraced by her social circle. Smiling, she says, “I got overwhelming support, and that was before our marriage was legal everywhere.”

A sense of exile

The social impediments of being widowed can further complicate any financial morass.

Francie Bonomie, a fellow New York writer, tells the story of her friend Peggy Weinberger, a suburban socialite, who awoke one morning to find her husband dead next to her. “Peggy said she became a ‘member of WOW’, an inhabitant of the World of Widows. She was excluded from the realm of the couples, who had been her best friends, exiled to the netherworld of single ageing women and smarmy men. She felt like as far as the world was concerned, she didn’t exist.”

Benilda points out that being widowed is a singular kind of displacement, entirely different from any other kind of separation. “Unless you talk to another widow, no one really understands you. It’s kind of crippling. When you get a divorce, your family is no longer a family. But you move on. You know you’ll still see that man, the father of your kids, the guy you once loved; but when you’re widowed, he’s just gone. When you’re divorced, you can be angry, call him names, throw things around. But when he’s dead, who’s to be angry at?”

Moving on can be fraught with obstacles. Some women simply cannot be alone and are so afraid of the stigma of being single that they are willing to settle for men who are not loving, validating, or solvent. “These guys have some kind of sixth sense,” Bea says. “They see how you’re hurting, where you’re vulnerable. They can set their talons by making a woman feel loved, wanted, and then, when she’s too far in to easily extricate herself, they pounce.”

Others feel like they’re done with relationships. “I don’t feel like I want to move on to another man,” says Benilda. “I’m done with that. Maybe because I feel too old? Maybe I carry too much guilt? Or maybe because I just can’t find a way to file my feelings away.”

Françoise had a different experience. “When I started dating,” she confides, “I met women online mostly, and I slept with more than I’d like to admit, like I was telling Deb, ‘See? I’m a mess without you. You have to come back.’”

As happens annually, some 800,000 women will lose their spouses this year. They will be cast out into an unkind, unfriendly world of creditors, misunderstanding friends, overbearing relatives. In some countries, widows are forced to marry husbands’ relatives or to live out their lives in seclusion. At least in this country, there is hope for rejuvenation.

Every woman, suggests Françoise, should discuss death and dying with her mate, “before anyone is dying … It ensures that when the time comes, both are able to be fully dedicated to each other and to the moment rather than torn by uncertainty. Having a living will, even if it is impossible to anticipate everything, is important, and I would recommend having a proxy, someone you trust to help with medical decisions.”

Bea Schwartz nods vigorously. “The conversation about death is a gift each member of the marriage makes to the other. People should give that to one another.”