MEET THE WIDOWS LAUGHING THEIR WAY BACK FROM GRIEF AND DETERMINED TO HELP OTHERS DO THE SAME…
As the waitress put down the huge rack of ribs in front of my bibbed husband, I picked up my camera. This was too good a shot to miss.
‘Smile!’ I said, as Kenny took his first bite, his head thrown back in comedy ecstasy and barbecue sauce running down his chin.
That was Kenny all over. A real cheeky, chappie, he oozed mischief and loved to make people feel good. I often joked to my friends that when I met him, it was love at first laugh. Little wonder then that we married when I was just 18, and him 20. Over the years, we’d laughed our way through many a good time – and bad. It was just the way we coped with things.
So now, while we were on holiday in Florida, he was typically acting the fool.
‘Tuck in then!’ I said, as I picked up my cutlery.
Only, after just a few pieces he wiped his mouth and put down his napkin.
‘Right, that’s me done,’ he said.
I was surprised. Kenny wasn’t an adventurous eater, more a meat and potatoes man. But he loved ribs.
Only recently, Kenny had been doing a few things that were a bit out of character. I noticed that the man everyone called the ‘Duracell bunny’ was less active than usual and his appetite had definitely decreased, too.
‘I feel shattered,’ he’d said more than once. He looked it, too.
Still, I put it down to a combination of the sweltering Florida heat and the fact neither of us were getting any younger.
Only, once home the tiredness continued and I couldn’t help noticing how his wedding ring, once a snug fit, now slid past his knuckle.
It worried me. Kenny’s father had died at the age of 29 from gastric cancer and it was always in the back of my mind that one day, Kenny might be affected too.
‘I think you should go and see the GP,’ I said eventually. I’d scared myself silly searching symptoms on Google. We needed to see a specialist, if only to put my mind at rest. But deep down, I had the unsettling feeling that something wasn’t right. Kenny seemed exhausted.
Our doctor GP ordered blood tests, and then an urgent endoscopy the following week.
I waited anxiously until he came out.
‘How did it go?’ I asked.
‘Everything’s just fine,’ he said, smiling. ‘Just a gastric ulcer. There’s life in the old dog yet. Come on, let’s get home.’
But back home, over a cup of tea, he admitted he hadn’t been quite truthful.
‘I couldn’t tell you at the hospital, love,’ he said. I wanted our family to be here to support you. ‘But actually, it’s gastric cancer.’
I couldn’t believe it. Not my Kenny. He was only 56, he couldn’t leave me. Not yet. There was still so much we wanted to do.
I ran out of the room, thinking if I wasn’t there, didn’t have to see Kenny’s smile-less face, I could somehow convince myself this wasn’t happening.
But, of course, it was.
Kenny was referred to Christie’s who proposed to shrink the tumour with chemotherapy and then remove the stomach with a ‘curative intent’.
We hung onto those words as he underwent three months of chemo which he tolerated well. We even managed a short break in Cornwall as he started to get better.
‘Look at me, the picture of health,’ he joked as stopped at a country pub for lunch.
‘You might look better after I’ve had a shandy or two,’ I quipped.
But I had to admit, he did seem more like his old self again.
So were stunned just a few weeks later to be told that the chemo hadn’t worked and the cancer was now invading his pancreas, rendering it inoperable.
‘Be straight with me, doctor,’ Kenny asked as I squeezed his hand. ‘How long have I got?
Six months. It was too much to take in.
‘Surely there’s something you can do?’ I begged.
Kenny was offered another round of chemo to buy us more time, but the treatment was brutal. I wept as I watched my husband’s smile fade as he endured yet more unimaginable pain and sickness.
Still, I refused to believe this was it. I made cannabis oil in my kitchen hoping that the claims that it could cure even the most advanced cancers were true. They weren’t.
Then I learned that Wilco Johnson, of Dr. Feel Good fame, had undergone surgery at Addenbrooks Hospital in Cambridge to remove his stomach and pancreas as the result of a cancer that had previously been deemed inoperable.
My hopes raised, I located the surgeon who had treated him. After looking at his notes he agreed to assess Kenny. Soon we were off to Cambridge with renewed hope.
Only it wasn’t to be. An exploratory procedure revealed that the cancer had spread to Kenny’s liver there was nothing else that could be done.
‘C’mon, let’s go home, love,’ he smiled weakly.
He left the hospital with a feeding tube on his 57th birthday, and six weeks later, as we sat listening to his favourite Neil Diamond songs, Kenny gave up his fight.
I was 54, a widow, and devastated beyond words.
Without the man I loved beside me, it seemed pointless to carry on. We’d been a double act since I was 18. I couldn’t bear the thought of being a widow. The word sounded so awful. So withered and sad.
Maybe it was time for the curtain to come down on me, too, I pondered. And the more I thought about it, the more I convinced myself it was the right thing to do. I’d had a good life, hadn’t I? More happiness and laughter than many. Maybe I should call it a day, join Kenny…
Only as I gathered the vodka and pills, for some reason I decided to take one last look at the bereaved spouses’ group I was a member of. I posted something and got some lovely responses… I answered them all and fell asleep at the computer.
The next morning I worried some of comments about not wanting to join ‘the widowed wives club’ might have been taken the wrong way.
But in fact, just they had evoked comic banter from the other unwilling members. And suddenly, I wasn’t quite so sure that I wanted to bow out.
Maybe I should take a visit to Widow World and see what it’s like, I posted.
It got a great response. And I found the more funny posts I wrote and received replies to, the more reason I had to live.
Soon other widows, many of whom had not laughed or felt guilty about laughing since losing their husbands had died were telling me how much my humour was helping them and an idea formed…
Humour had played a big part of mine and Kenny’s relationship. Suddenly, I felt sure that humour was the key to my survival – and others’ too.
Before long I found myself on my way to Harrogate to see some of the other widows and widowers who posted on the forum. I still wasn’t totally convinced about meeting up, but I’d really hit it off with Jayne Benge, 58, who had lost her husband Steve just months after Kenny had passed and had promised her I’d be there.
Jayne had a brilliant sense of humour too and we soon realised how much better it felt to laugh again after so much heartache.
As we sat chatting over coffee, we agreed that to feel alive it was so important that we learned to laugh – really laugh – again.
But laughing was a choice and maybe the widows’ forum that we usually posted in wasn’t the right place… So we decided to create a forum for those looking to find the humour in their new status as ‘widow’ and join us in laughing in the face of death and smiling back to happiness.
‘We need a name,’ Jayne mused.
So I came up with the idea of GOWNS Group; Grieving Overwhelmed Widows Negotiating Stuff. Soon we were designing a website with its own forum and a smiles board for members to upload pictures and comments, a video blog section and GOWNS Group articles. We also set up a closed group on Facebook.
Finding material wasn’t a problem. I found plenty of anecdotes about my newly single daily life that raised a smile, such as the challenges of cooking for one for the first time ever and my hopeless attempts at DIY. There was also my lame attempts at social media and, well, let;s just say Kenny had been in charge of technology in our house…Jayne and I also began making funny films about our solo holidays to make the widow community laugh while also showing them what not to do, too!
We got so many positive comments that the following May, we enrolled on a laughter therapy workshop and learned the real physical and psychological benefits in the act of laughing, even if not as the result of something funny. We are now hoping to offer our own laughter therapy workshops.
Jayne has just organised the first GOWNS meet up in Hull, and I’m in the process of writing ‘The GOWNS’ handbook; which is fairly useless in self-help terms but which will I hope look at what is a traumatic life changing event in a way which uses humour without the need to feel guilty about doing so. A second volume about GOWNS negotiating internet dating sites will follow soon after.
After Kenny died I couldn’t really see a point in carrying on. My life had been so fun and happy with him that I couldn’t imagine how it could ever be again. But that night knowing I had made people laugh and them making me laugh reminded me how good it felt. Widows often feel too guilty to laugh, as if we shouldn’t be laughing, but I found it was the key to my survival and still is and I want to help others too.
There’s only one way to go when you lose your partner in life, and that is forward. If GOWNS can make help others to smile and laugh again then taking those first steps forward alone might just be a bit easier.
Laughter really is the best medicine. It saved me and now, as a laughter therapist, I’m using it to save others too. I like to think it would make my Kenny smile.