When journalist Becky Aikman was widowed in her 40s, she felt unmoored. But she couldn’t find the kind of help that she needed, so she dug into the data and eventually created her own unique support system. Her book, The Saturday Night Widows, details the trials and triumphs following tragedy — and new research about what really helps the bereaved.
How did you manage to get thrown out of a widows’ support group?
It was such a strange, alienating experience. I think the person who ran the group had a very set idea about how we should all talk about how sad we were and he encouraged that. He made everyone share their most traumatic and sad memories. It was such a gloomy group and when I said wanted to be more forward-looking, he said he didn’t think that I belonged in the group.
I thought that was against therapeutic ethics — I mean, unless you were doing something like taking drugs in a recovery group.
I thought it was strange, but I think he really bought into all of these outdated ideas about what it was supposed to be like to grieve.
What are some of those outdated ideas and why are they no longer valid?
[For example] the idea that you are supposed to sort of wallow in your traumatic feelings because that’s the way to get past them.
It’s only very recently that researchers started studying actual grieving people. [Most of the prior work was based on theories about what it was supposed to be like]. And those who study actual people find that most people are naturally very resilient and it’s good to focus on positive things and look forward and it’s actually harmful to dwell extensively on painful memories.
What about the five stages of grief?
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross developed that theory, but she was studying people who were dying, not grieving. You might go through [those stages] if you are confronting your own death, but it never made any sense to me as someone who was grieving. I wasn’t in denial [the first stage]. Bargaining [the second]: that really made no sense to me. I always felt I was a misfit widow because I was not following through them.
In fact, studies of actual grieving people show that they don’t follow those stages. They tend to oscillate between feeling fairly normal and fairly sad and those oscillations are pretty intense at first and over time they get farther apart and less extreme.
When I learned that, it made so much sense. I never understood why I could be so terribly sad one moment and be laughing the next. It felt improper somehow. With grief, you can be feeling pretty good for a while and then 2 years later have a crushing moment of grief and that is normal. But you can also have happy moments and people need to accept that is normal too and not feel guilty about it.
So why did you decide to start your own widow’s group five years after your husband’s death?
I’d been doing this research about grief and it still haunted me that I felt there wasn’t a good model out there for me to follow. I wanted to try out ideas from what I was learning and see if it actually was better.
How did you find the other widows?
It was totally random. I asked everybody I knew if they knew anybody until I cobbled together five people who said they’d do it.
One of things we [started with] was the idea that it’s helpful to people to have new experiences and friendships and humor. Humor is very helpful. My goal in starting the group was to say it’s not supposed to be a group where we sit around and talk about being sad. Instead, we get together and do new things, have fun experiences and see what comes out of that.
What kinds of things did you do?
We took a cooking class, we did a tour of the Metropolitan Museum, that was towards the beginning when I was coming up with ‘worthwhile’ things to do. As the group took over, it became more sybaritic. We went to a spa and to a lingerie store when some of the women were ready to start dating again.
We also invited a group of widowers to meet us and volunteered at a camp for children who have lost someone and ultimately went on a trip to where none of us had been before.
We get together a lot now and talk about what engaged us the most. It’s all over the place. Some people say the trip; some say volunteering at the camp; some say trying on lingerie. We liked it all and I think part of what l learned was that it didn’t matter what we did, whatever we did, it was good to be together and share new experiences with people and develop the closeness that comes out of that.
What were the things you learned not to do?
One of the things I learned from the research is that it’s not a good idea to force people to talk about something that’s painful, so we didn’t do that. As we were together, the painful things came up, but it was naturally in conversation.
And how can other people help widows? I know lots of people have a hard time dealing with death so they don’t say anything because they are afraid to say the wrong thing.
They shouldn’t back away. They should say something. I would advise that they ask caring questions and not make assumptions. Whatever that person seems to be wanting to talk about, let them do it. What’s funny is that some things people would say would bother me at some times and later wouldn’t. People have to accept that they might say the wrong thing, but it’s not your fault. It’s better to try than to disappear.
But do try not to say judgmental things, like ‘What, you’re clearing out his closet already?’ Some people are ready right away for that; for some it takes a really long time and it’s really hard. It’s natural that people are different—let them do it at their own pace.
What about dating again?
That is a very difficult question and there all kinds of pressures on widows and widowers to conform to what other people think. The research shows that people should do what they want when they are ready to do it. Many people feel guilty that if they are ready to start dating, it means they didn’t really love their husband much in the first place and that’s simply not true.
The research found that couples who are very close and loving, when one dies, the other person is well situated to find a new partner and be happy again because that’s what they are accustomed to. People shouldn’t be made to feel guilt if that’s what they want.
Did you have situations where people were jealous of the previous husband or worried about having his things around?
A number of us went on to forge new relationships and for those that worked, we found that the men were very comfortable with the idea that we had loved these people before. My husband now often says he would have felt fond of my previous husband and he is grateful to him that he looked out for me before we met and he’s looking out for me now so he has a fond and affectionate feeling towards him.
There has been controversy over the fact that in the new edition of the DSM [psychiatric disorders manual], you could be given antidepressants if you are recently bereaved…
I would say if someone already suffers from depression, it should be treated and if someone is grieving, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re depressed. I did find in the research that people tend to be traumatized by the death of a loved one more than depressed by it.
That’s why a lot of thinking about how to handle grief relates more to how to handle trauma.
Should people get talk therapy?
[One of the leading experts says that] people have natural resiliency and something like therapy isn’t really necessary [in most cases]. In our culture, we tend to say grief is such an abnormal experience that people should get professional help. In fact, it’s a normal part of life. Our group was partly based on the idea that we’re amateurs and that’s just fine.
What role does humor play?
Humor is extremely important. There are studies that actually show that people who smile and laugh more in the initial months of grief had better mental health 2-3 years out. Part of our group was based on the idea, ‘Let’s be funny— it’s good for us.’
You didn’t have children when you were widowed, but some of the other women in your group did.
Yes, we had a real mix of people, with and without children. We talked about that. Some things were easier and some were harder. What was easier was that they had people close to them who were sharing the experience. But what was harder was that especially with little children, you’re responsible for them and it’s hard to think of yourself [and your own needs].
What would you say to someone who is newly widowed?
I think if you can find other people in your situation and do what we did, it would be great. We don’t get together to be sad, we get together and do new things. Having new experiences helps you build confidence. If you can’t find people like you, find someone else and get out and try something new and push yourself a bit once you’re past the worst of it.
Of course, the worst of it is just the worst. That’s why with our group, we didn’t want anyone in the first few months [after being widowed].
But I do think that at a certain point, when you feel the itch to get life moving again, that’s a good moment to try to do things that are pleasurable and be with people you like and who understand you and not feel guilty about it.