Love Life After Death

The Guardian - 2000

I am a widow. Now, be honest. What does that conjure up? Grey hair? Bus pass? Evenings in front of the telly with a cup of cocoa? Certainly not sex. You don't get a booklet on that, you see. There's one on claiming your pension, another on bereavement counselling, but where's the one on suddenly being single after 30 years with the same bloke who you fancied to the end?

My husband died at the end of July. He had been ill with leukaemia for three years. I love him. I miss him. So do my three children. But he had been ill for so long that his death came as a release for both of us. Now I need to move on. And part of moving on - inevitably, terrifyingly - is thinking about relationships with other men.

While he was ill, I didn't have time to look in the mirror. Then suddenly he wasn't there and when I looked at my reflection, I saw someone I didn't recognise. The trouble is, grief is great for the figure. Want to lose weight? Ask me how! I've lost pounds. Someone dies, there's loads to do. You race around. You don't eat. Drink like a fish. Drink like a widow.

And what about this grieving business? How do you do it properly? For how long? When are you allowed to giggle again? To think about other men? You're not divorced. You're not single. You're a widow and you're meant to be a saint, a goddess, an object of grief and pity. But after the sheer hard work of dragging my family through years of chemotherapy, bone marrow transplants and late-night hospital dashes, death was a blessed relief. You've done your job. You did it well and everyone says so, constantly reminding you of the weeping martyr role you are expected to fulfil while you have this disgraceful itch to get your hands on a healthy male body.

It's hard on the kids if you're ricocheting round the house like a pinball, gleefully clearing out binbags full of syringes, drugs and dressings. For them, there is no relief, just a huge gap and a mother who has overnight turned back into a woman.

Oh, you think you've got it sussed, this grieving and dealing, and then you find a note he's written saying goodbye and to not hurt for too long and it's Crumble City. You throw away the spicy pickles only he ate because they are past their use-by date. You don't buy white wine any more. The fridge never empties, it rots, and still post arrives addressed to him, offering accidental death insurance. You take photos of the kids on their first day at senior school and catch yourself thinking: "I must take them to the hospital to show him." Wrong.

Plus there is this terrifying sense of vulnerability. A long-term partner provides boundaries, however flexible, and without them I flail around, my anchor up, crazily searching for something, someone, to hold me down, keep me in check, under control.

I have joined a new gang and I don't know the rules. I've been booted out of Happy Families, smack bang into Blind Date. Suddenly you look at your women friends and wonder which one would be the least likely to put off the blokes and the most likely to want to talk about sex all night. You go Christmas shopping for the kids and come back with a catsuit for yourself. Last year, parties were avoided to spare other guests' embarrassment. Cancer's not fun, it makes people uneasy, and baldness is only attractive when you still have your eyebrows and your face isn't blown out with steroids. Now every invitation is accepted with brazen enquiries about probable single men quotas.

It's not that I want to move a bloke in, you understand. I don't want "a new Daddy for my children". While I, from the very first gut- wrenching, hand-clenching moment of his

diagnosis, knew his leukaemia was terminal, incurable and unlikely to respond to treatment (they had a booklet on that one), my children saw every subsequent day as confirmation of success and a possible return to normality. For me, the person I fell in love with gradually faded away as I watched our roles metamorphose from ones of equality and delight into fragile, terrified patient and supposedly strong, optimistic carer.

But for my children his death was a total surprise, a deceit, a denial, a promise unfulfilled. I have had three years to try to get my head around this; they've only just begun. They are raw and ragged, trusting nothing and no one. Watching my every move. Urging me to eat properly but worrying when it's liver and broccoli in case I've got something wrong with my blood. They want life back as it was, while I couldn't bear that.

But as I venture back into the world of dating, I find myself confused. I'm not used to playing emotional games. When you've been with someone for a long time, it's straightforward. You do something together, you enjoy it, you do it again, whether it's tree pruning or anal sex - but with a new bloke? You're back to being 15 and hanging round by the phone in the hall. Will he? Won't he?

It's all very well 30-year-olds moaning on about wanting to meet the right man, settle down and have kids. At least that's socially acceptable. Try talking about rediscovering your desire when you are 50 and your husband's just died.

So what do you do? Macramé? Embroidery? No. You go and buy a load of new underwear, just in case, and if you want to learn a new skill, buy a vibrator. Happy New Year!