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I’m not normal any more

December 15, 2015

As soon as the funeral was over, it started – what I call the ‘W’ question. ‘Have you gone back to work yet?’ anxious friends would quiz me. ‘Have you thought of going back to work yet?’.’Have you set a date for going back to work yet?’. At a social event I attended in the spring, two different people asked me the same tiresome thing in as many minutes. If there’d been a third, I think they would have got a slap.

I went back to work two months after my husband died. I would have gone back sooner if my elderly father – ironically, the ‘work-urger-in-chief’ – had not fallen ill in mid-March and needed me to take care of him. I went back not because I really wanted to, or because I felt ready to; I went back to shut everyone up. When your life partner is seriously ill – and then dies – you spend hours of your time trying to keep other people happy. Most of them are far less affected by what’s happened than you are. No one warns you it’s going to be like this.

The Greek Chorus of Everyone, who seemed to be running my life now, told me work would do me good. ‘You’re back at work!’ they’d enthuse. ‘That’s great!’. Then they’d launch the killer follow-up: ‘And is it helping?’. If I told the truth, and said it wasn’t, their reaction would range from disappointment to barely-hidden disapproval. So I lied more often than not, and said yeah, it’s helping – course it is. Eventually I came to believe that the whole are-you-back-at-work thing was just a code for a rather different question, one that social conventions wouldn’t permit, which was: ‘are you back to normal yet?’ Because it made things so much easier if I was back to normal.

But it was the normality, the banality, of work I couldn’t cope with. Yes, there was the fact that the hospital where I worked – or tried to – was the same one that had failed my husband in his hour of need. Yes, there was the disillusionment with nursing that followed from that, and the disengagement. And yes, there was the day I broke down in ED because the last time I was there was when he was admitted, and we sat in a cubicle for hours, talking to pass the time, all unaware how precious were those words because three weeks and one day later he’d be dead, and words between us would be finished for ever.

But mostly, it was that returning to work was a public proclamation that the tide had rolled back in to cover up the grief, that spring had sprung after a long hard winter and things were…normal – except they weren’t. Not inside my head. They never would be again.

Colleagues were always kind and understanding. Patients, meanwhile, safe in the knowledge that staff are professionally prevented from telling them where to get off, could be stunningly, jaw-droppingly insensitive.


‘Are you married, love?’

‘Er…I’m a widow’. (Is it OK to lie to patients when it’s about an aspect of yourself that’s of no consequence to them? Could I just say no, and talk about the weather? Just say yes and talk about the weather? Which is closer to the truth?).

‘Oh I’m sorry. When did your husband die?’

‘A few months ago’.

‘Well, you’ve done the right thing coming back to work. Work’s the best medicine there is’.

(Medicine? Am I ill then? Is that what’s wrong with me? Do you know the cure?).


‘Are you married, love?’

‘Er…I’m a widow’.

‘Oh I’m sorry. When did your husband die?’

‘A few months ago’.

‘Well you’ve done right thing coming back to work. What you need to do is lose yourself in work’.

(What? Why? I’ve lost my husband so it doesn’t matter if I lose myself as well? I’m nothing now I don’t have him? Is that what you’re trying to say?).


‘Are you married, love?’

‘Er…I’m a widow’.

‘Oh I’m sorry. Not met anyone else yet?’

(You what? He only died in February! And anyway, what makes you think I’m looking for anyone else?).


I know – of course – that people just want to help. They want to be constructive. They don’t like to think I’m at at home on my own, and they don’t realise they’re pressurising me. But I’ve given work a good go – eight months – and it’s not working out. From the bits of my old life that still remain, I can’t re-create a ‘normality’ that no longer exists. The hole in the middle is too big, too gaping to ignore; to try to do so is simply to join the pretence. So I am going to put it lovingly aside now in a box marked ‘the past’ – where it can be as it was, for always – and look for a new direction. Because I’m not normal any more.


From → Odd and Ends

  1. Sadly, your old normal is no longer and I really feel for you. I imagine that things must be very tough and horrible right now and I hope you have a strong network of friends and family supporting you. They will know that you cannot possibly be the same as you were a year ago. All the very best.

  2. Thanks Barbara. After my father-in-law died some years ago, my husband’s family decided to go away for Christmas and booked into a hotel. This was something they’d never done when my father-in-law was alive, and so I think they missed his presence less. It’s a bit the same with life in general – I don’t want to forget my husband of course, and I never will, but trying to carry on with the same old routine that he always used to be a part of just emphasises that he is a part of it no longer. I also hear his own voice more clearly now. ‘If it’s making you this unhappy’ I absolutely know he’d say ‘why are you doing it?’.

  3. Anne permalink

    So sad to hear that you’ve become a widow and are experiencing all this. I was widowed nealy 6 years ago. You may like to look here ….

  4. Thank you. I read and watched your story and your words convey such wisdom. It’s been nearly ten months now, and I feel I am at a stage where I can start to think about re-building and, as you said, put that part of my life that I shared with my husband, into a bigger context. There may be backward steps along the way, but I am at least on the way.

    • Anne permalink

      In my experience rebuilding can only be done very gradually, taking small steps only as and when you feel able, and sometimes it feels like going backwards, but it’s not, rather going round in a spiral at another level I think, having added experience. You are on the way, and it’s still very early days for you. I hope you can be kind to yourself and have people who are good listeners alongside. Go gently. Do you know about Way Up, an online forum for widows in their 50s and 60s and Way for younger widows?

  5. No I hadn’t heard of it, but I had been wondering if there was something out there for widows in my age group. I will give it a look. Thank you!

  6. Cruse Bereavement Care are Brilliant for ALL aspects of helping grieving processes, “Complicated grief” and ‘Normalising’ bereavement ! I promise.

  7. Thank you Nigel. I have been in contact with Cruse and would certainly recommend them. I have also, at the suggestion of Anne (see comments above) joined Way Up. I’ve not always agreed with everything I’ve seen on their site, but it’s interesting to get other perspectives, and it’s useful to have a ‘safe’ place to offload feelings about grief without constantly burdening friends with them. Many friends have enough problems of their own.

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