At the Heart of a Loss

Coming to grips with the sudden, simple tragedy of widowhood

BETTY JANE WYLIE February 1 1974

At the Heart of a Loss

Coming to grips with the sudden, simple tragedy of widowhood

BETTY JANE WYLIE February 1 1974

At the Heart of a Loss

Coming to grips with the sudden, simple tragedy of widowhood


A year ago I thought that all I needed to make my happiness complete was (a) to have more time to write and (b) to be thinner. Both desires were granted to me in a way I never wished. My husband died suddenly in April of a freak asphyxiation that still astonishes me. Now, suddenly, I have all the time in the world, for husbands are very time-consuming creatures, bless them. Suddenly there is no one to make me stray, to make me drop everything and sit down for coffee, a drink, a chat. I have not only time but need, so I am writing a lot.

As for the unwanted weight, no problem. For weeks my throat constricted at the thought of food and I could only swallow liquids. This was more effective than any diet I had ever tried and the pounds fell away. “How frighteningly few are the persons whose death would spoil our appetite and make the world seem empty,” says the San Francisco philosopher Eric Hoffer, and it’s a good thing. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.

“Oh, you’re getting so much thinner,” a friend said a month or so after my husband died. “I envy you ” Don’t.

“Divorce and widowhood are very similar,” said a friend who has been separated from her husband for five years, “but widowhood is more respectable than divorce or separation.” Maybe, but who is going to weigh the pain? At least with divorce, further communication is still theoretically possible, be it only recriminations. Widowhood reduces one to monologue. Hence I turn to paper. Paper is my friend.

“Ah, but you’re strong,” people say. “You’ll survive.” If I’m ever reincarnated, I’m going to come back pure marshmallow. In the meantime, they’re right. I am strong. One of the clichés that happens to be true. Because I have this other friend called God without Whom I am nothing. The harder I lean on Him, the more I pray, the more I am open, so in direct proportion do I gain support, comfort, and strength. A friend of mine was in the hospital for a cracked vertebra and she was suffering muscle spasms. She was told not to fight them, to ride with them instead, and let the spasm run its course. So with this pain of parting; I must open my heart and let the pain come all the way in — and keep on going until it comes out the other side. Then I’ll be — not whole again, but healed. I do not rage, I do not question. I praise God and thank Him and ask for help. And I get it.

The sympathy mail caused some laughter, more

like borderline hysteria, but one welcomed the release. The children made up a composite letter summarizing the well-meaning phrases that people offered like poultices to staunch our wounds.

“Words are inadequate to convey to you my feelings. Your memories/children/faith will be a great source of comfort. You/your family/your faith will be a tower of strength. Time will heal the pain. Please accept my condolences/sympathy/prayers.”

I do. I do. I’ll take anything you have to offer. I soak it up like a sponge. All the clichés are staggeringly true. One of my daughters looked at the heap of sympathy cards and commented that it was just like Christmas, that we should get velvet ribbons to pin them to and hang them on the wall in bright banners. And then visitors would say, “My, aren’t your sympathy cards pretty?” Hysteria.

No one ever says die, dead, death. My husband was taken, is gone, passed away. Somehow it makes him sound like a traveling salesman, or a crapshooter. Death is such a taboo in our society, the last obscenity. The commonest euphemism of all is that of loss. I have lost my husband. What can I have been thinking of, to let him slip away from me like that? Actually, I was thinking we had at least another 20 years together. But I never saw it in writing; it was not guaranteed. Nothing is.

In the Goon shows as well as in theatre of the absurd some character is always declaring, “I’ll never leave you, never!” and then he drops out of sight through a trapdoor in the stage. Once he is gone, a lot of people prefer not to talk about him. Bad form. Fill up the ranks. Like the nail being pulled out of a self-healing tire: the hole fills in and you wouldn’t know the nail had been there, now, would you? Some people look distinctly uncomfortable when I talk about Bill. Bill who?

Others, trying to comfort, tell me all the hard-luck stories they can think of. I think they save them up. The idea is, you’re not the only one who’s suffering. I know that. I don’t have a corner on pain, nor do I want it. I’m having enough trouble handling the small option I have.

It’s as if I were sick, as if I were recuperating from a long illness. People kept asking me, “How are you?” and giving me penetrating looks. They were right, of course. I was sick. What it was was an amputation. I still had this gaping wound I was walking around with and they were quite right to ask me how

I was. Truth was, I was

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incompetent. I made all the right responses, I think, but my mind was a quicksand.

Then, as it became a bog with solid clumps to put a foot on but still dotted with treacherous marshy places and hung about with mists and fogs, people began to say, “You’re looking well” with some surprise. Me too. I was still living through a nonexistent terminal illness in retrospect. Constantly astonished that Bill was dead. I imagine that no one was more astonished than he when he woke up on The Other Side. I believe in The Other Side. We still have a conversation to finish.

I looked even better, apparently, as the dark circles under my eyes lightened, as my sleeping improved. I always used to joke that one of the reasons I got married was to have someone make me go to bed, double meaning intended. At first, after Bill died, I was afraid to go to bed unless I was certain I would fall asleep before I finished my prayers. Otherwise, I would lie awake and think and the thoughts were mice in a cage that doesn’t bear description. Then, old patterns reasserted themselves and I became once more the night hawk of old (old, meaning university days), swooping down on ideas in the dead of night. My bedroom has become an additional workroom, piled with books and notebooks, a tape recorder, pens and pencils and work in progress.

As for the double entendre, I am still anaesthetized from my amputation. One reads of lusty widows; I’m not one of them. Perhaps in time it will be a problem but it isn’t yet. I have always believed in (a) chastity and (b) fidelity. I’m back to chastity. It was George Bernard Shaw who said that “marriage combines

the maximum of temptation with the maximum of opportunity” and it was great while it lasted. But I have lost more than a sex partner and my adjustment to my loss must be total. I still cry when I watch love scenes in movies but that is self-pity and not to be tolerated.

Self-pity is cheap, self-dramatizing, self-indulgent, and, ultimately, self-destructive. I will permit pain but not selfpity; that must be wiped out. Pain is a withdrawal symptom and eventually, I hope, I am told, will fade. I quit smoking four years ago. There are times when I still want a cigarette.

My biggest problem is I don’t know any widows my age. Yes, one. She just joined the ranks a few weeks ago. Welcome to the club. My mother is a widow; she wasn’t when she was 42. All my friends are wives and these middle years that they are living through are happy and busy ones, as mine were until a few months ago. You can’t blame them if I have disappeared without a ripple from their consciousness. (There are dear exceptions.) This is a coupleoriented society we live in. Sociologists are aware of this and singles clubs are capitalizing on it. But how singular it is to be singular when one still has a married psyche! For weeks I headed for the passenger side of the car.

Suddenly I have a consuming curiosity about widows at an age when I might more naturally be interested in teen-age marriages, college entrances and juvenile hockey teams. I am amassing a collection of facts and assumptions about widows that, being a communicative person, I am willing, even unbearably eager, to share.

Item: widows are people who go around with their dresses zipped half-

way up their backs. It’s either that or whiplash trying to get the darn zipper all the way up by yourself.

Item: widows are people with an empty space beside them. I still almost unconsciously fall into step beside my husband when I go for a walk. In the spring, shortly after he died, I was offered lilacs. “Oh no thank you,” I said, “Bill is allergic to lilacs.” For weeks I heard the newspaper rustling in the living room or heard him snoring gently as he dozed with one eye on the Sunday afternoon football game. I don’t hear those sounds any more. I guess the empty space is moving from beside me to inside me. I have talked to many widows older than myself now, and from what I can gather that empty space is there to stay.

Item: widows are losers.'But not entirely. I was a winner for 20 years. I can’t complain. “Better the 30 years I had with my husband,” said one widow I talked to, “than 60 years with anyone else.” That’s how I feel about my 20.

You can only be grateful for what you had. No regrets. Before he became general manager of the Stratford Festival Theatre, Bill was very active in politics. He helped Dalton Camp run Duff Roblin’s provincial election campaigns in Manitoba and was seconded by the Conservative party to help with the national publicity for the 1963 federal election. When he moved to Ontario, he didn’t know the names so there was not much he could do on a broad scale. He contented himself with helping the local candidates, first-.Monty Monteith, and then his successor, Bill Jarvis.

After the 1972 teeter-totter election there was talk of another election within six months. But Jarvis was successful and he gave each member of his committee a little silver dish engraved with his name and the date.

“What you don’t know,” quipped my Bill, “is that these come in matched sets of three.” He never was one to look back.

Being by nature of an academic turn of mind, I looked up widow in my dictionaries of quotations. Most of the comments about widows are cynical, except those from the Bible. Biblical widows are poor and sorrowing. All other widows described by writers throughout the ages are wealthy and sex-mad and on the whole relieved to be rid of their husbands. I’m more the biblical-type widow myself. As a matter of fact, widowhood is an area that women’s liberationists should turn their attention to. Widows are victims of heartless discrimination. Benjamin Franklin said, “Rich widows are the only secondhand goods that sell at first-class prices” and “Onions can make even heirs and widows weep.” If I’d known he felt that way, I’d have cut his kite string.


Shakespeare’s widows are rich and lusty and apparently willing and eager to be married off to the first man who presents himself. Remarriage, however, no longer seems to be a solution, not for the widows of Canada, anyway, perhaps because they are older than Shakespeare’s widows. Few of the widows I know have remarried though most of the widowers have. I don’t know whether it’s because men still need someone to wash their socks or because men still hold the prerogative, that is, they ask the direct question (Will you marry me?). “So far as is known,” said E. W. Howe, “no widow ever eloped.” Lack of a direct question, no doubt.

As a widow I have a lot to learn. In spite of my sympathy for the women’s lib movement, many jobs in our household seemed to assign themselves in sex stereotypes. For example, Bill served the drinks; I served the coffee. (We both cooked.) So I have had to learn to mix drinks. Fortunately, I knew how he made his martinis: put a bottle of gin in the freezer and leave it until the gin shrinks, about six to eight hours or overnight. When the gin has shrunk, uncap the bottle and pour in enough dry vermouth to make up the shrinkage, about one ounce. Recap and turn the bottle over once or twice to mix the vermouth into the gin. Replace in freezer. Put a twist of lemon, or the desired garnish, into a glass with or without rocks, depending on the taste of the drinker, and fill it with the martini popsicle direct from the freezer. Result: instant martini and no messy cocktail shaker to wash.

Other drinks followed. Bill could pour with his eye but I need a jigger. Men usually offer to help or to do it for you but you must treat that in the same way that you treat women’s offers to help in your kitchen, politely but negatively. I ran out of liquor about the same time that I ran out of money so booze no longer presents a problem.

The humor writer Cornelia Otis Skinner once wrote a piece complaining about the things men wouldn’t let women do, such as read a road map, decipher a train schedule, poke a fire. I discovered something else this past summer: men don’t like to see a woman barbecue. It makes them nervous. To tell the truth, it made me nervous too when I started. The first time I barbecued hamburgers for the kids they complained the meat was raw.

“Obviously,” I said, “I don’t drink as much as your father.” Timing is everything.

Next time I did hamburgers it was for 35 people for a barbecue birthday party for my oldest daughter. I poured a Scotch and talked to that empty space beside me.

“How am I doing?”

“Just fine. Have another sip before

you turn them.”

Item: widows talk to themselves.

One of the girls came up to tell me how good the hamburgers were, and I almost fell on her with gratitude. She passed the word about my lack of confidence and a steady stream of kids came up to compliment me on my hamburgers, and eat more.

I was ready. At a large family party I did hot dogs. Five men gathered around me, ready to help. I made the mistake of leaving them to watch while I carried out some potato salad. I came back to find the knob of the (gas) barbecue broken off. Someone had tried to turn it off but not knowing how, had broken the knob instead. It cost me $ 11.40 to have it repaired. I had learned my lesson. The next time I barbecued (chicken) and helpful men gathered, I was ready for them.

“I am now a single-parent family,” I said, “and I will do my own barbecuing. Keep your cotton-pickin’ hands off my barbecue.”

You just have to be firm, and know what you’re doing. One bonus: whereas women will congregate in a kitchen to keep the hostess company, they never gather around the barbecue; the men do. It’s the only way I have discovered to escape the female ghetto widows are automatically locked into.

Many wives do the accounts and write the cheques for their households. I never did. I was bad at arithmetic and Bill was a whiz. He said it was quick and easy for him to do and gave me more time to write, time I was always searching for. So I faced my first household accounting system after he died. Why not? Total readjustment. I discovered I lack a sense of balance, as in chequebooks. So far I have been unable to make my chequebook balance, short of putting it on my head. But it’s a challenge and keeps me vitally interested in the accounts, not to say curious and apprehensive.

The apprehension has a double edge. My income is considerably reduced, of course, and food costs are going up all the time. The combination of reduced income and rising prices presents a fascinating challenge. Can the Widow

Wylie keep the wolf from the door?

I am not a Home Ec graduate (I think it’s called a Consumer Research Specialist now), but I have been cooking for 20 years and not all of those years were affluent. Again it means a shifting of patterns, a readjustment of living style, a scaling down of menus, but it is possible. I may lack a sense of balance when it comes to columns of figures but I am capable of producing a well-balanced economical meal. I have in addition a very good sense of priorities. Man does not live by bread alone. I still buy books.

A few weekends ago I got so mad at the silent phones in my house I had them all taken out, all but one in the front hall, to phone out on. I realize it’s not the phones’ fault. I never was one for bridge or golf or curling or coffee with the girls. Like everyone else, we were couple-oriented too. On the other hand, I get a lot of mail.

Just because I occasionally miss adult conversation does not mean I lack conversation entirely. I have one distinct advantage over older widows. I have not been left alone. I still have a daughter and two sons at home with me (and a daughter at University who comes home occasionally to eat) and their conversation gets better and better. They really are remarkable people. Tm glad I know them.

The first time I had to find a parking place for myself before going into a theatre alone I had a glimpse of a man’s life that I had never had before. Is this why women live longer? What about those extra minutes of adrenalin pumping through the vessels as the man gets rid of the car and the woman stands placidly in the foyer waiting for him? Two people stole parking places I had my eye on; must I learn to be ruthless? But driving has become sheer pleasure. I begin to understand all the road films of the past few years. At first I was nervous about driving myself different places, not because I’m scared of driving but because I have such a terrible sense of direction. If it’s at all possible to go the wrong way, I will. I am unerringly inaccurate. But aim me in the right direction and I’m fine. Turn on the car radio and go. It’s a heady kind of freedom. And I know all the pop songs.

Years ago an old Ford car of ours died in the middle of Portage and Main in Winnipeg where we lived then. Bill had it towed away and I b'ought a bicycle in order to get the groceries. Finally we bought a vintage Chevrolet (everyone assured us it was a very good year). Bill said: “Just think! We’re the only two-car family that only has the second car!”

He had that kind of indomitable cheer that refused to accept defeat. I keep thinking of that and it helps. I still get a lot of warmth from my empty space. ■