Jane Thynne: Harsh truths only widows know

It’s not just losing a husband. It’s losing a shared secret language, a lifetime together and even your own identity. Jane Thynne knows all too well the lonely place she and the Queen inhabit – ‘widowland’

One day, a few months after my husband of 27 years (the author Philip Kerr) died, I was having lunch with an old friend. After commiserating with me about Philip’s death, he said, ‘We’d love to have you to dinner.’ I was about to accept enthusiastically when he added, ‘But I’m afraid we only have couples to dinner.’

Alone with her grief, the Queen at St George’s Chapel for the funeral of Prince Philip, her husband of more than seven decades. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/Pool via AP

I can’t deny that it was a shock. Could it be that at the age of 56 I had stepped into a new category in life? It seemed being widowed had not only filled me with grief but changed the very essence of me. Walking back from lunch, I remember thinking: ‘I’m living in Widowland now.’ I had known my husband for 30 years when he died at the age of 62 in 2018. We met when I was a journalist on a national newspaper and he was employed at an advertising agency, spending as much time as possible sloping off to public libraries to write his novel. I had been working on a story about the IRA, and the day after we met I received a phone call at my desk from a mysterious man with an Irish accent. He purported to be an anonymous informer, setting up a meeting, to which I avidly agreed. When I arrived at the appointed venue, however, it turned out to be Philip who, as well as having a dry sense of humour, was also an excellent mimic.

In 2017, the nagging back pain that Philip had been downplaying became dramatically worse. He had refused to discuss his fatigue, and for too long had ignored symptoms. Eventually the long succession of doctors who assured him that there was nothing wrong were outflanked by the cold, monochrome truth of an MRI. In July of that year, in the inappropriately sunny office of a London cancer clinic, an oncologist told us that he had stage 4 metastatic cancer and it was incurable. With characteristic courage, Phil asked the doctor how long he had. Between one and two years, she suggested. In the event, he had eight months.

I was an outlier among my friends in suffering an early bereavement but the pandemic plunged thousands more women into unexpected widowhood. As I’ve watched the TV footage, I’ve counted myself blessed that together with my three children and Philip’s sister, we were able to nurse my husband at home. Because surely the worst aspect of this trauma has been to see so many barred from their spouse’s deathbed.

That lunch with my friend was the first time I had properly considered the word ‘widow.’ I had never thought of myself as one. The term sounds old-fashioned to 21st-century ears, conjuring images of Queen Victoria, who dressed in black for the rest of her long life after her husband, Prince Albert, died aged 42. Yet every time I had to tick a box or fill out a form requiring marital status, up the word would pop, eventually prompting me to explore its etymology. I discovered that ‘widow’ comes from the Old English widewe which itself stems from an Indo-European root meaning to ‘be empty’. Another root is the Sanskrit vindh meaning to be ‘destitute’. The Latin viduus means ‘bereft’. All these terms, in their different ways, suggest something missing. In the world of printing, a ‘widow’ is a single, unsightly word on its own in a line, to be expunged if at all possible.

None of this fits our contemporary idea of grieving, in which the remaining partner should be joining a choir or internet dating as soon as possible and doing their best to get over it. Yet the origin of the word contains a deep truth. People who lose long-term partners do have something missing. The journalist Katharine Whitehorn described the uncertain terrain of widowhood as ‘another country, where you’re an unwilling refugee’. The feeling that she expressed – of the stubborn inability to believe that the dead person is really gone – is commonplace.

The vicar and presenter Richard Coles, who lost his husband in 2019, wrote a book, The Madness of Grief, about the strange insanity that accompanies intense loss. For me at this time, the madness was lightened by dark humour, especially in the sitcom-like world of the funeral parlour, with its lavish coffins accessorised like showroom cars.

How long does this unreality last? For the American writer Joan Didion, the time after her husband’s sudden death generated a state close to derangement that she labelled The Year Of Magical Thinking. She refused to give away her husband’s shoes because she insisted that he would need them. Three years on, when I receive a piece of news, my fingers still instinctively reach to text him. It took me two years to part with his suits. For a year I would not have been at all surprised if he had walked casually back into the room.

Jane with her husband Philip in 2015. Photograph: Steve Burton

The fact that he had been a well-known writer made his death at once worse and better. While I never worry about forgetting what he looked or sounded like because there are numerous videos of him on YouTube, I still haven’t brought myself to watch them. More than anything, in the past few months it was the image of the Queen, sitting alone at Prince Philip’s funeral, that became emblematic of what disappears at the end of a marriage. It’s not just an intimate friend who’s vanished but part of yourself. Your partner is the custodian of memories that only the two of you shared, so their death can feel like losing a chunk of your identity. A deep vault of knowledge is gone. A whole archive of in-jokes. A universe of facts, ranging from the profound to the extremely trivial, from how you like your tea to the ridiculous things your children did, and your private couple-etiquette when bored at parties. Marriage is its own country, whose customs and language are known only to its two inhabitants.

The image of the solitary Queen was also a potent reminder of the scientific truth that wives, more often than husbands, are the ones left standing. This year that fact is exacerbated by Covid, which killed proportionately more males than females, so numerous women are now navigating the twin challenges of single parenting and the tedious yet hugely important probate with all its phone calls and bank statements and certificates.

If these women’s social circle once centred on couples, they are also discovering the invisible forcefield that divides the married from the newly single. Widows have statistically fewer opportunities to remarry – a fact pointed out to me forthrightly by a 93-year-old former Law Lord I met at a party. The judge in question was famously direct, if not slightly rude, but I was still surprised by his jovial response on discovering that my husband had died. ‘Ah, a widow! We know lots of widows. I was a widower once too, but only for a short time. Widowers get snapped up very quickly.’

He’s right. His remarks brought to mind a dinner in Long Island, where I’d been placed next to a businessman who had lost his wife to cancer only months earlier. We had plenty to discuss but as we did, I couldn’t help noticing a blonde lady observing us with hawk-like intensity from the opposite side of the table. ‘That’s my wife’s best friend,’ said the man sorrowfully. ‘She’s been so kind. She comes everywhere with me. She never lets me out of her sight.’ Needless to say, the two of them were shortly afterwards joined in matrimony.

In modern times ‘widow’ is a transitional term. Mostly we prefer the word ‘bereaved’ because it suggests something that happens to a woman, rather than an event which defines her. Traditionally, though, while women have sometimes been liberated by the deaths of their husbands, generally they have had a harsher lot. Contemplating historical attitudes to widowhood reminded me of research I’d done about the treatment of older German women in the final stages of the Second World War, when rations for civilians were cut to the bone. Widows without children were given the nickname Friedhofsfrauen – ‘cemetery women’. They were allocated the meanest rations and the lowest calorie count, because they were useless to society.

The afternoon following that fateful lunch, as the thought went through my head, ‘I’m living in Widowland now’, another idea occurred. How interesting it would be if Widowland was a real place, rather than just a metaphor. What if a place existed where older women, already marginalised by society, were banished?

I began a novel, an alternative history set in 1953. In this dystopia, England has formed an Alliance with Nazi Germany and a female caste system has been implemented. The most savage aspect of this hierarchy concerns widows and childless single women over 50 who are confined to rundown places on the edges of towns called Widowlands. Therein lies the irony. The inhabitants of these Widowlands may be marginalised
by society, but the fact of their loss has unlocked a freedom and fearlessness. They have discovered an independence that they never knew they possessed.

Having written the last chapters of Widowland, a real-life dystopia engulfed the world. For me, the events of 2020 turned out to be yet another example of how lives can be transformed in the blink of an eye, and people can adapt to changes that they had previously found unimaginable.

Widowland by C J Carey (Jane’s pseudonym) will be published by Quercus in hardback on 10 June, priced £14.99. To pre-order a copy for £13.34 until 14 June go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free P&P on orders over £20.