Rediscovering ‘me’: life as a widow

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In this beautiful blog, Rachel shares her experience of losing her husband in her early 20’s. What does it mean to be a widow at such a young age? Who is she now?

The word ‘widow’ is not something many people would associate with a young woman in her early 20’s. Yet here I am. When my husband died, I had barely had time to get used to calling myself a wife, and now I had this new strange label too.

I remember an elderly lady asking my mother-in-law, “how’s Jon’s widow?” a few months after he died – it just felt so old fashioned and funny, that couldn’t be me she meant, surely? Little did I know that that would be the start of a long journey of trying to rediscover who I am. A journey I am most definitely still on, 21 months later.

My story of grief

I lost my husband Jon to leukaemia in May 2020. He was first diagnosed in September 2018 after finding a few lumps in his neck – it was a huge shock, as he hadn’t been feeling poorly at all and was fit and young, only 24. The treatment was brutal but he did recover and was given the all clear in January 2019.

We got to have our beautiful, fantastic wedding day in July that year, as well as some lovely holidays and Jon returned to work feeling better and stronger every day – his hair even grew back curly which he loved. However, the cancer came back a second time in December 2019 and we thought he wouldn’t make Christmas.

It genuinely felt like losing a limb and learning to walk again

He was treated with a bone marrow transplant in February, donated by his sister, which was a very horrific process to watch the person you love the most in the world go through. It seemed to work though and after 2 months of being in hospital, through a pandemic, he came home. But in May, only 6 weeks after coming out of hospital, it came back again. He passed away age 26, just 4 days after finding out.

The unique nature of losing a partner

He was the most brilliant, generous and funny guy and we had been together since we were 16. In those early days after he died, it genuinely felt like losing a limb and learning to walk again; it felt like part of me had been ripped away, which in a way, it had. Losing a partner is such a unique loss, not only do you lose the person you love, but you lose your whole life too.

Everything you know and recognise in your life is gone, including all your future plans and dreams. There have been many, many times over the last almost-2 years that I’ve felt like no-one could possibly understand how I was feeling, even those that loved him as much as me.

Remembering Jon

Jon was the most optimistic, glass-half-full person I’ve ever met. He was always finding a silver lining and tried to enjoy every ounce and inch of life, even in his darkest times. Like most grieving people, I strongly dislike most of the classic clichés you hear when your loved one has died. But I do believe that Jon would want us to be happy and to enjoy our lives despite the pain.

What life looks like now

I try to remind myself that it’s ok to feel joy and that joy and sadness can sit quite comfortably together. It’s complicated, not at all easy and pretty exhausting moving between the two. But I’ve realised that for me, grief is moving unpredictably between moments where life feels so overwhelmingly sad and horrible, to moments where I cry because life can also be the complete opposite: lovely and brilliant and beautiful.

I’ve felt like no-one could possibly understand how I was feeling, even those that loved him as much as me

The smallest things feel so much more impactful now because I know how precious life is: laughing with friends, hearing the birds sing, my favourite song on the radio, a really nice coffee, a clear-blue sky. All those things are still good, even if he’s not here to enjoy them anymore; I try to enjoy them for the both of us. It’s exhausting but reminds me that I’m still here, living and breathing and that there can be moments of light in the darkness.

Rachel Barnett

It’s really hard to share your story of grief, but it can be a cathartic process, and other young grievers will find solace and support in your words. Email us if you’d like to write a blog for our website, we’d love to publish it.