Tips from widows – a guide to getting through grief


UK – Jan Robinson collected the advice from a network of widows after her husband died suddenly. The result is a funny, comforting and therapeutic handbook for bereavement. Four years ago, Jan Robinson’s husband died suddenly of a heart attack, making her an instant widow. She had no idea what widowhood entailed. At a celebration for a friend who was remarrying at the age of 70, strangers made small talk. “What have you been doing?” one woman asked. “Actually, I’ve just become a widow,” Robinson replied. The woman had been a widow for five years. Robinson whispered: “Give me a couple of tips. I’ve never been one before.” The woman obliged, and the book Tips from Widows was born.

It is a slim volume – barely 80 pages in all – with tips on subjects ranging from the visit to the registrar to collect the death certificate to children (Robinson has four) and “guilt”. There are practical tips on accountancy and funeral arrangements, emotional tips and tips that are emotionally practical, such as the advice to sleep one week on your side of the bed, the next on your husband’s, because it is comforting and saves on washing sheets.

The book’s charm lies in its slightness. Robinson has an unassuming tone. She never presumes to dispense knowledge, only to share wisdom. The project was pulled together gently. She knew five widows when she decided to write the book, but she asked each of them if they knew others, and her network grew. Their names are listed on the closing pages (from which it is possible to deduce that the most common name for a widow in Robinson’s circle is Mary).

In a funny way, the tips are the least of this book; it is the sharing of experience that weighs more. Under the heading “Other people’s reactions”, for instance, Robinson lists acquaintances’ responses to the news of her husband’s death. These include: “I know just how you feel. My dog died yesterday” and “This is fucking awful for you. When you feel stronger, we’ll go and watch penguins somersault.” The last was said to Robinson by a woman she knew, outside Peter Jones in south-west London. Leaving aside technical questions (can penguins somersault?), the cumulative effect is to entertain and soothe with shared pain and, sometimes, a smile. The tip that summarises all this – “Do not be offended. They do not mean it” – feels like a nod to an old-fashioned etiquette or instruction book, a matter of form that belies the book’s real kindness, which is simply to give widowed readers the chance to spend time in the company of others in the same situation. (My own tip to the non-widowed is not to read the book yet, because it is heartrending to imagine the time of its need.)

Robinson, 69, used to work as a personal trainer, and in some ways the book provides an emotional workout. Nothing too taxing; enough to make you feel good. Was collecting the tips therapeutic?

“Good God, yes,” she says. “You go round rather like a dog in a basket afterwards, unable to settle. To have a little project really helped me, and I learned so much. How marvellous women are.”

Robinson self-published the book in 2013, selling 3,000 copies. Now Bloomsbury is her publisher. And is she still a widow?

“I don’t think I’ll ever get married again,” she says. “I had 46 years with my husband. I loved him and he loved me. I was very lucky.”

Tips from Widows is available from the Amazon website.

Originally published by the Guardian, author Paula Cocozza.