Challenging 'happily ever after' narratives this Valentine's Day

February 2022

Valentine's Day graphic

This Valentine’s Day, WAY Widowed and Young members want to challenge the external perceptions of the ‘happily ever after’ narrative that news and films often focus on when it comes to widowhood.

Media stories often focus on widows and widowers finding new relationships and living happily ever after. But what if Chapter Two and happily ever after isn't about finding new romantic love?

To mark Valentine’s Day this year, we want to share the stories of WAYers who are rebuilding their lives and finding happiness and new paths through friendships, travel, new work pursuits, new passions and much more…

Sarah shares: ‘I want to find love, not with someone else, but with myself. I want to work out how to love myself again and be kind to myself and work out who I am.’

Rebecca shares: ‘I have had other relationships and they have added to this new life and taught me more about myself, our capacity for love, and what I really need in my widowed life. But I realise now that relationships aren't the only new chapter or necessarily the final chapter. I don't really know what life chapter I am on now, but I do know that it's an ongoing and exciting story, and so very many things are part of it. Making new friends who understood this new life felt like a priority, and for that, joining WAY was the biggest blessing.’

Hannah shares: ‘I’m rediscovering me again. The me that lives within this new life. I know I am widowed but I don’t want that and grief to define me. I have started back at dance classes that I did years ago that fills me with so much joy but I’d given up long ago. I’ve also reconnected with friends where I’ve previously let the friendships drift.

I’ve also gotten into the habit of sending little things to friends to raise a smile; boxes of brownies, flowers, cards etc. I’m just trying to keep spreading joy and making sure those in my life – friends and family – always know how much they mean to me as we know too easily how quickly they can be taken from your life. The last words I know my husband heard me say were I’ll always love you. I want others to make sure they know that too.’

Rob shares: ‘My next chapter involves having a wider circle of friends than before, rather than focusing all my attention on one person. After a false start, I realised there's a lot of self-work to do before I can get into a relationship. I have also started an OU degree course with a view to changing careers, and starting to get my house sorted out.’

Valentine's Day graphic

Lisa shares: ‘I’ve learned proper self-care and mental health care. I’ve learned to listen to my body and its needs. I’ve done many crafts and learned a couple of new things and built myself a friendship circle, which is something my life was lacking for many years.’

Diánne shares: ‘I'm tired of the assumption that moving forward means finding another relationship... and of the heteronormative assumption that only monogamous romantic love is valid.’

Helen shares: ‘How about renaming it “The Next Chapter”? I lived a life before my husband, I travelled, worked, and made many friends, living in different places. Now he’s gone I will also live my life with new and exciting times.’

Lisa shares: ‘My chapter involved buying my first house (courtesy of Paul), which enabled me to find my feet and carry on. My house became my base, my refuge, and finally my home. With a space to fully call my own, I was able to rebuild my life without Paul and take a whole new path.’

Suzanne shares: ‘I’m a science writer but I went back to university and did an MA in writing for performance, paid for by selling my late partner’s business. This was my first foray into arts academia. It was hard work but I did it!’

Emma shares: ‘I went back to performing, I did a tonne of stuff online over lockdown and then a couple of live shows once the world opened up. That alongside my silly doodles helped me rebuild & find ‘me' again.’

Julie shares: ‘Chapter 2 in my life seems to be all about trying to discover what will make me happy just being me now. Clive and I did everything together (which we loved) but as a result I had few friends and maybe lost sight of what made me tick as an individual, it was all about compromise and what worked for us together. So as much as I loved the last 23 years and would happily do it all over again, that part of my life has gone and I now want to concentrate on just me, not another person. That means trying lots of different experiences, saying yes to as much as possible, stepping out of my comfort zone and putting myself out there to meet new people and make lots of new friends (you can never have too many, right?).

I don’t feel that I need to have a purpose in life. I am trying to see this next phase as a gift. After all Clive only got 52 years so I owe it to him to make the most of the life I have and not waste it. I want to travel, see as many wonderful places in the UK to start with (taking my pooch with me) and then venture abroad when I’m ready. I want to try new things, eat new foods, see new sights. Find what makes me smile (in time). That will hopefully be my Chapter 2. I’m not completely discounting the possibility of meeting someone in the future, but I don’t want that to be my goal for the future.’

Angharad shares: ‘I'm starting my Mental Health Nursing course in March and if I was determined before I sure as hell am even more determined now! I want to help others.

Mental health has been such a big love of mine for a very long time. I'm currently a Care Assistant at an adult's mental health nursing home and I've always wanted to be a nurse and when I found out about being a Mental Health Nurse I jumped at the opportunity!! I really love helping others and having the opportunity to have more of a voice and being able to advocate for people gives me so much happiness. Luke said once that he was glad that he had me to talk to about his mental health because I listened and didn't judge him.’

Valentine's Day graphic

Orla, who hosts a WAY yoga Zoom for our members, shares: ‘I was utterly shattered and traumatised when my husband died, and for some time, I couldn't see any way forward – especially after walking away from a job I had held for a long time as I couldn’t cope with that sort of pressure anymore and because I was expected to “hit the ground running” on my return.

My chapter 2 started off organically as a coping mechanism, something to focus on. Practising yoga became a very healing and nurturing way of coping. It helped me to be more aware of my thoughts and it grew my confidence in myself and that I could do more than I ever realised. It gave me strength, self-belief and bravery (to stand on my head in particular!).

Out of that love of following yoga classes, I took a very trepidatious decision to do a yoga teacher training course. Never one for public speaking before, I am still gobsmacked that I now not only speak and teach in front of classes of people, but I do it in tight lycra! I had been a member of WAY for about 6 months (it took me a year after losing my husband to join as I didn't think it would be for me – how wrong was I!) when I realised, I would like to share what has helped me with the community that has really helped me.

So as well as teaching yoga to everyday folk, I now do a class on Saturday mornings for WAY members online – I love it. I have since gone on to have mindset mentoring – again, this has made such an incredible change in how I look at the world now, it has opened me up to hope and optimism and is now a service that I provide to widows who are stuck, lost, no idea how to move forward but knowing that they need/want to.

Losing my husband threw me into a very dark, awful place. I am so glad I was able to take that pain and loss and turn it into something so positive that's given me such an incredible purpose. It is tricky trying to do everything whilst parenting a young child too, but so rewarding. My husband would be so gobsmacked at who I am and what I am doing now.’

Jannine shares: ‘Our new chapter has been found through WAY. We started the camping group around 3 years ago with our shared love of camping with dogs and a cat. The friendships we have discovered in this group no one wants to join has literally saved us.

We live in different areas of the country and get together as often as we can. Our WhatsApp chats are daily and we all know we are there to chat and listen to and support each other through the trials of our new unwanted lives. Sometimes for us it is just knowing one of us can come home from our days and offload in the way we would have done to our late loves. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the care love and constant support, we trust that these new friendships are for the rest of our lives.’

Phyl shares: ‘At the age of 50 my second husband died. I was alone, traumatised and felt life, at that age, was well and truly over. However, I since went on to create my own business as a Grief Recovery Specialist, helping others recover their lives after loss. I've spoken at national mental health events and sit on local wellbeing boards. I've been successful with NHS and local authority grants to help local people bereaved during covid. What I do is very rewarding and something I could not have envisioned at the time of my loss.’

Rebecca shares: ‘I’m hoping to have a baby... a sibling for my son. Losing my husband made me realise what is most important to me. Turns out its people, love, my little family. I do hope to one day meet a romantic partner I can build a future with, but I’m building part of that future myself. Hoping to platonic co-parent with someone. I’ve discovered it’s an area that’s poorly catered for in blogs, articles and books, so I hope I may get to offer experience that will also help others.’

Victoria shares: ‘It has taken me a long time but I'm trying to appreciate the simpler things in life more. My Dad and husband dying had a much bigger impact than I realised. I've travelled and done different jobs but I am still trying and struggling to figure out things many years later. A work in progress probably.’

Allison shares: ‘My dog, who came into my life 4 weeks after Tony died. I’m a first time dog owner so I had to juggle a demanding puppy as well as grieving. He is my best friend, a great listener, keeps all my secrets and gives the best cuddles!’

Furzana shares: ‘My Chapter 2 started when I finally found the courage to sell our home and move back to the area and flat that I love, near my family and my dearest old friends who I don’t see much of. I know it sounds mad but I feel safe and I don’t feel alone most of the time. I’m lucky there is a WAYer near me who I totally trust and love who I can rely on. I have made wonderful kind WAYer friends, which has helped me develop over the last 6 years. I can say my happy ever after, while it is still progressing, wouldn’t have begun without the WAYers without children subgroup. Just picking up on encouragement and listening to other people making changes inspired me to find courage. Having support is the main thing and accepting help when I’ve needed it.’

Rebecca shares: ‘The life that I had and loved was irreparably destroyed when Keith died. I had to remake it – and for me, it was hugely important to re-form myself. I no longer had that identity as his wife. And at the risk of sounding Victorian – and I am a feminist, honest – that was an identify I felt very strongly. (It was matched by Keith's sense of identity as my husband.) I felt that I very much needed to learn to stand alone and grow strong, independent bones rather than just flopping like a jellyfish onto the first potential relationship that came along. Making new friends who understood this new life felt like much more of a priority, and for that, joining WAY was the biggest blessing.

Travel had also been a really important part of our lives together, and when he died, I believed that I would never travel again. So, part of learning who I was in this new life was learning to be a person who travelled without my husband. And once I got past the stage where all I could do was compare how different it would be if he were still with me, I learnt to truly love all the new experiences for their own sake. Resuming travelling is a priority for me over the coming months.’

Katy shares: ‘I was widowed in June 2020. Since then I have been unable to return to work as a civil servant for a variety of reasons. So I resigned, took the life insurance, ignored paying off the mortgage and bought a very rotten holiday chalet by my local surfing beach. It is about to be demolished and a shiny new chalet built that I have designed. I will be renting it as my new business. 

I feel my old life was happily bound by the normal rules and expectations of society. I now live my life by my own rules. My 2 boys and I are devoted to each other and now i hope to support them by being as close and local to them as possible. To give them enough confidence to overcome anxieties just by me always being around if and when they need me. I see this as an absolute privilege.’

Emma shares: ‘I’ve always been a very independent person and struggle to ask for help or tell people how I feel. Consequently, I spent most of the first year on my own distracting myself. This was exacerbated by being in lockdown at the start and not being able to see people. I grew used to it. I have grown dissatisfied with my job, my outlook on life has changed.

For Christmas this year I bought myself a digital die-cutting machine, just to make my own clothes, as I could never find exactly what I wanted. I used some of Allan’s pension money, to make it a gift from him.

This has given me a purpose; I have found myself making my own clothes and have started a project to make my niece’s first baby lots of funny and personalised baby grows and sleep suits and have already made some things on request from friends.

I didn’t realise how down and depressed I was until I found something I truly enjoyed and feel like I am actually good at. It’s showing me that there are other options out there.’

Emma shares: ‘I’ve discovered a love of writing. I didn’t do it before, wouldn’t even write in birthday cards as I always said he had a better way with words than me but have started writing & even managed to launch my own blog!’

Sarah shares: ‘As far as I’m concerned Chris wasn’t my chapter 1… I’d had a whole lot of life before him. He was an incredibly important chapter, the best, and I’d never minimise that but we are more than the sum of our romantic relationships. I have no idea what chapter I’m on now but I’m rebuilding my life with new friends, new hobbies, new passions, a new home and hopefully a new job sometime soon. This book is far from over and I’m planning on it having dozens of chapters.’

Debbie shares: ‘I’ve retrained as a counsellor. It helped me heal and learn about myself and I try to facilitate conversations that help my clients.’

Natalie shares: ‘My personal project is being a role model for my daughters. In terms of being healthy, strong and loving life (sometimes!) playing tennis… Not needing anyone else (even though my heart wants Jonathan always), so going to gym and playing tennis and not just working all the time!’

Sue shares: ‘I have really struggled with the concept that the recovery goal is to couple up again when I’m really not sure that’s what I want to do. I now understand that it would be a massive step to risk loving again and open up the risk of losing that person but even so! Even if I do meet someone, I don’t see that as the ultimate goal.

I think back to the early days when all I could think was “how am I going to do this (this basically being living, parenting, working) without you”?

For me, chapter 2 of my life (although Chris and our marriage probably wasn’t really chapter 1 so I’m another vote for next chapter) has been and is about learning to feel safe and comfortable on my own and being independent. Doing it all without him and knowing that I can. A massive step for me was moving from Berkshire to Somerset to live my dream of living by a beach. It was huge to move away from friends and family, luckily through WAY I’ve made friends and found support, and I’m really glad that I did it!’

Susan shares: ‘I used to think that Chapter 2, meant finding another partner.  But now I know Chapter 2 can be anything 'new'. My whole world crumbled when Nik died. I received a telephone call, asking if I would consider taking my great niece (who had been in care from birth). I jumped at the chance. She came to me at 7 months. Little legs is my chapter 2 (not what I expected). She really has given more meaning to my life, she is hard work (terrible twos). Being a 49 year old single mum is not easy, but I would not change a thing.’

Inspired by Suzanne's words, Leo shares: 'Whether people go on to find new love or not, we all carry grief and love with us wherever we go, moving forwards.

‘All the 'happy widow stories' that I read in the media end up with a relationship. It is problematic even if you do go on to find new love as it's always portrayed as 'the fix' and that has been consumed so much that people end up assuming you're no longer grieving or you've somehow 'overcome' it if you’re in a new relationship. It really distorts what the reality of living with grief is. You can be in love again but your grief and your love for your late partner is something you will always carry with you.’

It is inspirational to have simply survived and be trying to carve your way out in this new life, in whatever form that takes for you.'

Lisa share: 'People sometimes talk about endings in relation to death and I cannot make this feel 'right' for me. Richard's death and my new 'widowed' status does not feel like it signifies an end to anything. His death was the life that he lost. No longer having Richard as someone actively involved in my life and finding a way to live life in that reality is the challenge. Whilst my Richard's life ended I know and feel that there could never be a true ending between us.

Falling in love in the first place had seemed like it an accident, simply because it happened to me. There was no searching for love, no plan and therefore no achievement by design. It was immediate lifelong gain to the both of us. I have always felt that partners become more than themselves as an individual through living as a part of a pairing in love. That had already changed and added to me as a person. As a pair, we became more independent minded people than before. We found that we had 'duplicated' bits of ourselves into the other and eventually "I love you" led us to questioning if we meant those 'added bits' of ourselves.

For those who view love in the same way that I do, I know that some have found that love becomes confused with compatibility when, as compatible as they might be, it does not grow or last. Life gets in the way and it tears the connection between them. Those are the sad endings that hopefully propel new searches for romantic happiness because it is worse to live with the loss of a belief in love than it is to die or be widowed. As a teenager, I had repeated the saying to a friend that it would be "better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all". Today, I wonder if that refers to those sad endings and what it signifies to those more than that of loss through death. Because I know that it is entirely possible that romantic love does not happen twice, simply because it does not need to.

The reality of my widowed life is that it alternates between being fine and becoming an absolute wreck. In the four years that I've been oscillating between the shifts and slides of the grief spectrum, I've relocated three times (between Essex and Scotland), completed a course of salsa classes, gained three professional training qualifications, moved into two different job roles in my career, spent three months assisting a litter of puppies (and a dog breeder), got back on a motorbike for the first time in a decade and then returned to the job role that I had when Richard died. I feel changed by us having faced incurable cancer enough to wonder if I need to find a new place in the world. Somewhere that closer reflects something in the very different life we lived towards the end of his life when what mattered to us was all that we could focus on. I might be searching for that but I know that it does not require the involvement of an additional romantic love. Happiness starts and ends with ourselves just like our first and last breath for life.'