Three weeks ago my Mum lost her husband. That makes her a widow. She’s joined the universal club of the widows. The thing about widows, once you notice, is that they’re everywhere. They surround us but we hardly see them. Join any queue at the post office or ride on the lower deck of a daytime bus, though, and you’ll be among them. We ignore them because if we didn’t they’d break our hearts.
These widows are a kind of global storehouse of grief. They keep it for us so we don’t have to. Mum spent 50 years (minus two weeks) married to my Dad. Her job now, now that he’s gone, is to not have him, to be without him. She’s quietly inherited the melancholy role of the millions who preceded her. She articulates and embodies loss for the rest of us.
She’s a clever and independent person, my Mum – not a cipher or a shadow or a proxy for a dead man – but the implacable logic of widowhood has her. She’ll move now through a world where she’s grudgingly cared for but quietly resented for surviving. Our societies hate widows because of everything their existence says about our mortality and about the foreshortened vitality of the men they survive.
Women live longer but only so that we can despise their longevity, make jokes about them, patronise and ignore them. We’re mean and miserable about widows. We waste their wisdom and their insight. We falsely categorise them as dotty or wicked: little old ladies. We should love and respect widows but we can’t because they remind us of where we’re going. And for that we can’t forgive them.