An open letter to Mariella Frostrup

I have alway quite enjoyed Mariella Frostrup's no nonsense relationship advice in her Observer column, but today for the second time I have read a reply about grief that has completely missed the mark. I saw the previous response in a blog from my friend who writes under the name nameless pain. In this earlier piece, Mariella suggested that someone who hadn't been with their partner very long when they were widowed should find it easier to cope, forget and move on. In the piece in today's Observer Mariella encourages the writer to meditate on how lucky they were to have had the relationship, and then encourages her to savour the new beginnings.

For me, this is unhelpful and destructive advice. Perhaps Mariella should stick to relationships rather than grief, as it can be hard to write about the things we haven't experienced. Perhaps before being widowed I would have appreciated her message of hope and new beginnings. But two and a half years into my plan B life, I know so much more and my heart breaks to see more widows being subjected to being told to put on a brave face for the world because nobody wants to be reminded of their (or their partner's) mortality, or to see your pain. We want to see widows thriving, starting a second life, carpe dieming all over the place, and of course the holy grail of meeting someone new who will absolutely definitely replace your love so that you're not a widow any more (spoiler: it doesn't work like that and you don't need a new relationship to be your goal unless you want it to be).

I decided that rather than stewing on this at home, I would write to Mariella with some suggestions on alternative advice she could have given. If she responds I will let you know!

Dear Mariella

I have just read your response to a lady widowed after 31 years in which you started by advising that she should meditate on the good fortune she had to have been soulmates with someone for so long. As though this should somehow bring comfort to her when her soulmate has gone and will never, ever return. When her life is shot into a million pieces and the only person who could ever comfort her is the person she is grieving.

Maybe nobody has ever told you this, but the words “at least” (or a variation on them such as “you should be grateful”) are like an arrow through the heart of a grieving widow. They are one of the cruellest phrases tossed thoughtlessly at widows by well meaning people who are afraid of the raw pain of a situation that we know will come to us all but for which there are no answers. They diminish our grief and shame us for our pain. They tell us we have no right to be sad because we had something great and we should be glad we had that even if it’s gone and can never be replaced. If you lost an arm would you feel better if I told you to meditate on that you had two arms for 30 years and lots of people don’t have that good fortune?

So what could you have said? You could have acknowledged that not only has she lost her husband but she has also lost the future they dreamed of together. As she contemplates selling their house in France it is a secondary loss, a reality that those dreams with her husband will not be lived out. That she now has to plan an entirely different future that will always feel like plan B because it is. And even if it is the most fantastic life, it will never feel quite as good as Plan A.

You could have validated her pain that in a society that already has few enough rituals to help us transition through loss, the addition of COVID restrictions makes grief even harder to bear. That the isolation that comes from no longer being half of a couple is increased by the complexities of bubbles and tiers.

You could have told her that right now, looking more than a few hours ahead is overwhelming, the sense of emptiness and the expanse of nothing where before there were hopes and plans and dreams will repeatedly knock the air out of her and leave her winded - but that in time she will be able to walk without only looking at her feet, but looking slightly more up, slightly further ahead, that it will come. You could have reassured her that there is no rush to start selling the house or sorting possessions, that she should do it only when she is ready. Most importantly you should have told her that there is no getting over a loss like this, she will carry it in her heart even as she begins a journey of rediscovering who she is without him.

Yes, as you suggest, she will learn to coexist with her grief, although even years down the line a song, a smell or an object might trigger another overwhelming wave of sadness or panic that leaves her floundering for a moment. You should have told her that that’s ok, it’s normal.

You could have told her that if she wasn’t ashamed of her love then she shouldn’t be ashamed of her grief.

From a 48 year old widow, 2.5 years along the road

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