Like most of us I have become accustomed to turning to the internet for the answers to problems in life. It can help me fix a broken boiler, find the best savings rates and provide me with directions to pretty much anywhere. It was even the means by which Louise and I met. So, in the early hours of the morning a few days after she died I naturally found myself looking online for assistance with my response to the most shattering event of my life. But this time my expectations were rock bottom. Googling 'help for young widowers' wasn't going to be able to bring Louise back so what could possibly come of it? The answer was WAY, the Widowed and Young Foundation, which describes itself as a peer to peer support group for men and women aged 50 or under when their partner died. I prefer to describe it as my lifeline.
It is not normal to suffer the loss of your partner before you have even fully adjusted to the concept of middle age. Family and friends attempt to offer support but its unlikely that any have even a remotely comparable experience to fall back on. I am the first in my circles to lose my wife. Few amongst my friends, thankfully, have yet even experienced the death of a parent. For many Louise's death was itself the closest they have been touched by personal loss.
People tried to do the right thing, reach for the right words. I am immensely grateful for the support and kindness shown by so many. But they knew as well as I did that they couldn't possibly fully understand. They could not really know how it was for me. I was alone not just in the immensity of my loss but also in the whole experience. I didn't have the words to begin to explain the maelstrom of emotions and the thoughts catapulting around inside my head. I desperately needed to find people who had trodden the same path, who understood. Acutely aware of how exceptional my circumstances were, I felt something of a freak, the object of sympathy, concern, pity and countless conversations.
The first time that I walked into a pub full of widows and widowers, some eight weeks on, I therefore came close to bursting into tears of relief. It still felt odd to be associating myself with the terms 'widow' and 'widower', words which conjure up visions of sour elderly ladies dressed in black and sad old men whiling away their time sitting on park benches. But these members of the local WAY group were remarkable only for their normality, indistinguishable from any other group out for a Friday evening drink. They were the same as me. Evidently being a widower did not have to mark you out.
Even better, I immediately discovered the commonality of experience between us. We may come from all walks of life and we may all respond to grief in different ways, influenced by the many variables derived from our individual characters and the circumstances of our loss, but the basic human emotions in bereavement are universal and the practical challenges faced by young widows often the same. I suddenly found myself surrounded by people who 'got it'. Here I was normal. Here I found myself needing to explain less since understanding came instinctively. Here I could smile and laugh without fear of people misunderstanding how difficult things really were. Here I had nobody telling me I was brave when I knew that all I was doing was trying to get on with my life. Here I heard people voicing my own pain, fears and distress. Here I was surrounded by people who knew exactly how difficult it would be to part at the end of the evening and return home to dark, echoing, empty houses.
I continue to rely on this community to get me through. While there are frequent social events and activities and private real world friendships also develop, much of the support is inevitably virtual. A day never passes without contact with my peers through the online forums. These are places where you can seek advice on everything from procedures at inquests to the perils of navigating new relationships, where you can obtain reassurance that your wild emotions, dark thoughts and irrational coping behaviours are perfectly normal, where those who have children discuss how to cope as single parents, where you learn to count your blessings when you encounter those whose situation is even more difficult than your own and where you can go at the end of the day and express the small injustices, irritations and victories of daily life that previously we would have shared with our partners over the dinner table.
Perhaps most importantly, however, the forums are places where you can cry out in pain in the middle of the night and know that there will be an instant response from those who are on the same journey and where you can draw comfort and hope from the encouragement and example of those further down that road.
It is here that I draw the parallel with the image of those injured soldiers. For every person within this community is struggling with their own grief, loneliness and exhaustion. Yet everybody gives generously of their time, devotes some of their precious reserves of strength to listen, encourage, guide and support others, many of whom they have never met and will never meet. And they do so in the knowledge that when they too need a helping hand it will be quickly offered in return. It is not a world that you want to have to belong to in the first instance, nor is it one in which you wish to have a need to linger in any longer than is necessary to prepare you for a return to something approaching a normal life. But in the moment of need it is practical, uplifting and a source of never ending inspiration.
Louise, who was a passionate believer in the power and virtues of community and constantly sought it in her daily life, would be thrilled to know that it is doing more than anything to help me heal.