Monday, September 18, 2023

“How two widows who failed at grief counseling fell into a healing friendship” by Barbara Barash Simmons


Widowhood is not a club one would choose to join – the membership fee is too high. I know, I joined four years ago.

My husband died right in the middle of a CatScan. All the medical professionals surrounding him in the imaging department of the teaching hospital couldn’t save him.

The doctor said: “Sudden heart attack.”

A nurse said: “It was just his time.”

The non-denominational clergy person who rushed in to console me said: “He’s in a better place.”

Really? I thought.

My fury was only outwitted by my disbelief. And then denial set in and stayed.

Acceptance seemed far away.

Continuing grief led me to find a bereavement group of strangers who would be fastened together by our new status. How long could I expect my friends to stay open to my endless stories of 25 years of memories with Will? Friends will never tell you the truth – that they’ve heard enough.

And so, on a dreary day in early April, I sat in my car mentally preparing for the first session, when through my rain-streaked car window, I saw a woman slowly moving through the parking lot as if she were carrying a heavy burden.

She looked like I felt. I just knew she was headed for the same grief counselling group.

We sat in a circle. Four women, two men. Everyone over 65, everyone had recently lost their spouse. I had some doubts about how the next six weeks would turn out as I studied the individuals in my group – everyone looked stunned and the quiet in the small hot room reflected our states of mind.

I almost stood up to apologize and leave; how could these people help me? Or me them, when clearly, we are all in our private hell. I can’t even help myself let alone someone else needy. But our leader had started with an overview of the sessions to help us “move forward,” and I stayed in my aluminum chair with my coat half on.

“Please introduce yourself, and tell us a bit about why you are here – what you want to get out of this group,” our social worker said.

No one spoke.

So, I heard myself start with my name, and then interspersed with weeping, I told them of my adorable husband Will, and that these past months have been caught up in some stagnant space since those awful days in the ICU, watching him disappear, first with his voice that I never heard again after he was intubated, and then, how, during a CatScan on a Tuesday afternoon, his heart gave up, gave out.

“I am not sure why I am here,” I said. “But I am hopeful,” I added. I didn’t want to hurt the feelings of the social worker who was trying so hard to make us feel better with her smile when we had no smiles.

And then, when I thought I couldn’t feel worse, the next person who spoke was the woman I saw in the parking lot – and I could tell she was traumatized.

And so, it went. Each story as sad as the one before.

I knew by the third week that the group was not something in which I wanted to stay, but I did. After each meeting, the parking-lot woman and I would linger and talk at the bottom of the stairs, and those chats were more unguarded than the hour-and-half just spent in group.

After the six sessions blissfully came to an end, Susan, the parking lot woman, and I started meeting occasionally for coffee, then casual lunches, and then one day, one of us suggested we start walking together.

It started with a mile walk once a week.

In the beginning, all we talked about was how our husbands died, in the most brutal of detail.

Our feelings of guilt meshed; we said what we had not shared in group.

During the early walks, our husbands were flawless, we had perfect marriages. Then, bit by bit, we started sharing the now-funny stuff they did that had driven us mad, their foibles. Things such as never putting their used coffee cups into the dishwasher, or strewing newspapers on the floor after reading, or hoarding the TV remote and watching a show on fishing.

Eventually, we revealed that we had indeed worked on our marriages, it was not so seamless as we had deluded ourselves after they passed, a blurred memory of what they were actually like as people. Not perfect, not flawless. But, like us, works in progress, until their progress suddenly stopped.

We added a mile, then two to our weekly walks. Over time we started laughing and talking about topics other than our late husbands and our sadness; we marvelled at our grandkids and shared family issues that we would not tell anyone else.

The grief-counselling sessions worked in the sense that they made two widowed strangers into friends. Both of us were divorced many years before marrying our late husbands. And with our second chances, both of us know we were lucky having found husbands we adored to the core.

On Mondays, we walk and talk. We walk three miles in rain, snow, sleet or sunshine. We have kept in step throughout the pandemic, distanced and masked. We both have loving families and close friends, but we know that we can speak openly to each other, it takes another widow to really understand.

We two widows are not the same women we were four years ago. Before, it was so easy to have someone else make decisions. Now, not only have we both taken on what we had previously left to our husbands – car servicing, home insurance, calling the plumber, investment decisions – we are also comfortable in our new lives. We make our own schedules; we say, “No thank you,” to social offers that do not interest us. We hold the TV remote in our own hands.

One day, we stopped after our walk to sit on the memorial bench I had purchased for Will in a neighbourhood parkette he had loved. Sighing, and looking up at the snow-covered trees surrounding us, I said, “I feel happy again.” Susan nodded and said, “Me too.” And we smiled at each other as if we had climbed Mount Everest.


Barbara Barash Simmons has written for newspapers, magazines and radio. She holds a Master’s degree in Education and spent almost 40 years as a counsellor in elementary, university and adult educational settings. She is the author of the picture book Essie Solves the Mystery Who’s Snoring ‘till Morning? She was a columnist for the Toronto Star for four years and has had several memoirs/personal essays published in the Globe and Mail. She is currently completing her first novel.

“How two widows who failed at grief counseling fell into a healing friendship” was previously published in the Globe and Mail’s First Person column. For information on submitting a First Person essay to The Globe and Mail, {and 21 other places to send your work}, see here.

See Brian Henry’s upcoming weekly writing classes, one-day workshops, and weekend retreats here.

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