How to find joy after losing a loved one
Three women share their stories about being widowed young’and how they handled their grief
Get some structure back in your life
Regina-based lawyer Denise Batters met her husband, Dave, crossing a Saskatoon street while at a Progressive Conservative convention in 1989, when she was 19. She had no idea the two political junkies would become friends, let alone fall in love and, eight years later, get married. But she fell hard for the funny, energetic sports-lover, and he fell hard for her. Their future appeared bright.
But, in early 2008, everything changed. Dave Batters, who was by then a Member of Parliament for the riding of Regina Palliser, developed anxiety, which led to depression and a subsequent dependency on tranquilizing drugs. He was determined to detox from home, and started a program that had him taking less and less of the drugs, with the hope that he would eventually be able to completely eliminate them. But it didn’t work fast enough, and the talk therapy he pursued was too little, too late. “That’s when he lost hope and had a very tough time,” says Denise.
In the summer, he took a medical leave from Parliament, explaining to colleagues, and in a press release to the public later that fall, that he was struggling with mental illness and would not be running in the next election. Less than a year later, in June 2009, he committed suicide. He was just 39 years old.
“When you are dealing with mental health issues, you know it [suicide] is possible, but you are never prepared,” explains Denise. “It was a huge shock when Dave died.”
Dave’s life as an MP meant his illness and death were very public, which added a complicating but also surprisingly comforting dimension to Denise’s grief. “There is nothing that brightens my day more than hearing a story about Dave from his former friends and colleagues. He deserves to be remembered often for all his great qualities,” she says. By association, it also allowed Denise a wider scope to spread the word about mental health. This past spring, she made a presentation to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health in support of a private member’s bill about suicide prevention, and has spearheaded a commercial for television (check out “Dave Batters CMHA [Canadian Mental Health Association] Commercial” on YouTube). “I am taking a cue from Dave’s openness.”
After Dave died, Denise quickly went back to work. She also got support from friends and family, started riding her bike on weekends and watching her diet (which had been on the back burner during Dave’s illness), and attended therapy and grief groups. But it remains hard; the lead-up to special dates, such as their wedding anniversary, is particularly difficult and can trigger profound upset for her. But Denise doesn’t back away from her emotions. “I need to allow myself to weep,” she says.
One emotion she doesn’t feel is guilt. She did all that she could to help Dave; the illness was simply too powerful. She encourages anyone with a mental illness, or whose loved one is suffering, to seek help. “With depression, the stigma is starting to lift,” Denise says. “But talking about suicide is the final frontier.”
As a new year approaches, Denise is feeling better. Time does help, and she still marvels at the support she continues to receive from her community. “I am learning to smell the roses,” she says. “I’m living life again and I’m grateful for that.”
An expert’s advice
Going back to work quickly is helpful for many people, says Bill Webster, Toronto-based counsellor and executive director of The Centre for the Grief Journey, a company dedicated to support resources and services. “Structure is an antidote for chaos.” But timing is also very personal. He suggests young widows who are employed engage their company’s human resources department to help with reasonable back-to-work plans. With suicide, in particular, colleagues may not know what to say or do when the spouse returns to work; a “Lunch and Learn” seminar at the workplace, organized by the company’s HR department, could provide helpful strategies.
Deal with your feelings
Planning your husband’s funeral at the age of 30, with an infant daughter and a three-year-old son by your side, seems nothing short of surreal. But that was the experience of Marny Williams-Balodis, when her husband of four years, Keith Williams, who was a salesman for Calgary Fasteners and 15 years her senior, died of esophageal cancer in 2002. It was only six weeks between diagnosis and death-and the aftermath was just as shocking.
“The first year was pure survival,” says Marny, who says she was motivated to get out of bed each day by her children. Friends and family helped with errands and child care; she found grief groups at Calgary’s Rockyview General Hospital helpful. “I got what participants were saying. They’d lived it and were managing. I knew I could, too.”
On top of missing Keith terribly, she felt the burden of being responsible for everything. “I call it the ‘I am it’ factor. I had to walk the dog, change the oil in the car. Everything Keith did, I now had to do. Plus, there is no sounding board for small or large decisions, for parenting. It was completely overwhelming.” And because widows are typically much older, society is also bewildered. “When you tell people, they don’t know what to do with you. It’s alienating.”
Her advice to other people in her situation is take a breath; condense the long list of responsibilities; and reward yourself, with a good book or a relaxing bath, for what you do accomplish each day. And ask for help.
In 2004, Marny moved to Waterdown, Ont., to be closer to extended family. The next year, she met her new husband, Dave, a resident of Waterloo who works in IT; they married in 2007. She now lives in Waterloo and is the proud parent of a young son with Dave. She and a friend have started The Hummingbird Centre for Hope, a non-profit organization designed to help widows and widowers with the process of rebuilding their grieving family.
Marny has found that grief doesn’t end, but it does change. “After 10 years,” she says, “the details of Keith’s illness and death are beginning to fade.” Losing him was devastating, she admits. “But I am stronger now. And life is good.”
An expert’s advice
Admitting to feelings of confusion and chaos is an important part of grieving, says Patrick Keelan, a Calgary psychologist. If you recognize these feelings as normal, they are not so terrifying. If you try to ignore them, they’ll surface even more strongly. Get them out on the table and find ways to cope with them. “Cut yourself some slack. Don’t expect to perform at your usual level at home, work or socially for a while; reduce your expectations.”
Ask for help
Calgarian Terry Saunders has had a busy, healthy life, by anyone’s standards. She worked as an account executive for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines for 10 years, golfed, exercised daily at a health club, volunteered at her church, enjoyed a bevy of friends and family, and travelled the world with her daughter and her husband, John, a vice-president of finance for an investment company. This busy lifestyle would be her salvation when John, whom she met on a blind date at an Italian restaurant in 1991 when she was 32, succumbed to peripheral T-cell lymphoma in 2007. He’d been sick for 16 months, and was 56.
“You don’t expect this is in the cards for you,” she says. “It is completely numbing.”
After John died, the number of phone calls from friends and family offering condolences was appreciated, yet overwhelming. She recruited her sister, herself a breast cancer survivor, to screen the calls. Terry would return the ones she could when her daughter Tori, then almost 13, was at school, or in the evening once Tori had gone to bed. “I didn’t want to be preoccupied whenever she came into the house during the day,” says Terry. “I didn’t want to get too upset in front of her; I wanted to shield her from much of it.” She was also disappointed by people whom she expected to hear from but didn’t, and heartwarmed by unexpected gestures, such as when the principal from Tori’s school attended John’s funeral.
Although on “overdrive and autopilot” after John died, she respected her emotions, crying when she needed to and even joking at times, berating John for leaving her with a normal, but hormonal, teenager. She refused to take medication to help her sleep. “I didn’t want to take anything to mask my grief.” For her, grief groups were not helpful. She found the participants in so much distress, she says, that she wanted to help them herself.
It became hard for Terry to socialize with couples. She bypassed invitations when she was simply not strong enough to cope. For the first few years after John’s death, the idea of dating was also off-putting. But with Tori’s encouragement, she recently got back into the swing of things. She has met someone special and is open to seeing where the relationship goes. She suggests other young widows take a leap of faith when they are ready. “I didn’t expect to get butterflies again, like I had with John,” she says. “But I’ve got them now.”
An expert’s advice
Terry has a supportive network, says Keelan, so she didn’t need to rely on grief groups. “If groups are not well managed, they can go off the rails,” he adds. “If you have a good network, you may not need external support.”
Despite the tremendous support that is generally received at times like these, the impact of friends or colleagues not stepping up to attend the funeral or offer condolences can be enormous. “I hear this all the time,” says Webster. “This is a reflection on people’s fear of death, not on how they feel about what you are going through. Realize that as a widow you represent their biggest nightmare and they are avoiding it.” Webster says in most cases people just don’t know what to say or do. “They don’t want to make a mistake. But the biggest mistake people can make is thinking that the grieving person just needs to forget, because they can’t. They need to talk, and all the other person needs to do is learn how to listen.”