When widowhood is a battleground

Few of us react to bereavement the way we thought we would. More surprising is how it affects the people around us. If it has brought out the worst in your nearest and dearest, you are not alone.


In Issue 9 we interviewed Karen Holford of the Association of Family Therapy about whether it is ever best to cut ties with family. She put the question to some of her colleagues to get a range of views. One comment that stood out was the person who said: “If the family or parts of it enact their inner Rottweiler, then the widow or widower will feel up against it in the face of ancient family baggage.”


If you had any doubts about overestimating the size of the problem or being the only widowed person facing this kind of thing, those words say you are not blowing things out of proportion and there are whole professions of people that help people in your situation, every day.


But what to do? As a rule for just about everything over the next few years: put yourself and your children first and always give yourself a few options.


In the following pages we’ll look at some basics for dealing with family, in-laws, step-family, friends, and colleagues and bosses.



Where there are long-term conflicts with your parents or siblings, a bereavement might cause a temporary ceasefire but don’t expect it to last. Get support before you get bogged down.


A counsellor can help you set boundaries and identify repeating patterns of behaviour so you can feel more equipped to deal with the situation. This is the case if you’re being asked for money; drawn into feuds or blamed for anything that is not your problem. It is also the case if you’re just unhappy or uncomfortable or furious, anxious, bewildered or kinda numb and you’re not exactly sure why. Some of this will be grief but family problems can aggravate the symptoms, make them last longer and risk them developing into more complex physical or mental health problems.


If you are being seen as a person with space to take in a poorly relative, or the problem is a resident relative, talk to a carer’s charity. They can tell you your options.


If there is any kind of substance abuse or mental health problems in your family, there are many organisations around for people just like you. Google. Check credentials. Take it slowly. If you find an online forum, be careful to protect your identity and online security.


If drug or alcohol abuse played a role in the death of your spouse, Cruse has a new project called BEAD, just for you https://www.beadproject.org.uk


If you are reliant on your family for money and that’s the source of the conflict, a debt charity might help and provide the support you need to take control of your own finances. Have a look at moneysavingexpert.com and in the forums section you’ll find groups of people encouraging each other to be money savers in all sorts of circumstances.


And of course there are lots of good old fashioned books – free from your local library, if you are lucky enough to still have a local library. For family problems, look in the health or psychology section.



The good news is that they are not your in-laws anymore. You can stay friends with the ones you like and ditch the ones you don’t like, without hurting your spouse’s feelings or landing them in trouble.


If you’ve got into the habit of trying to keep the peace while under fire, you might benefit from enlisting friends, fellow widowed people or a therapist to help you stand up for yourself.


If there is not a support group for widowed people near you, look for online ones run by reputable organisations. Protect your online identity and security, don’t say anything that could get you sued, but mention in-laws and chances are you will get at least a few people lining up to tell you that you do not need to stand for any nonsense.


If you are being blamed for a suicide, talk to Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide http://uk-sobs.org.uk


Where children are involved, you might want to maintain a link with your spouse’s family for their sake. In this case a family therapist might well be your best bet. As Karen Holford told us: “A slammed door might be hard to open later on”, but a family therapist can help you negotiate, even when the other party doesn’t want to talk. You’ll find the Association for Family Therapy at http://www.aft.org.uk/


There are quite a few books about in-laws, all of which assume your husband or wife is still alive but if you can get used to stepping over those bits, you’ll find lots of practical advice. If your in-laws are difficult but underneath it all, basically reasonable, try Terri Apter’s What Do You Want From Me? If your in-laws are unreasonable the point of criminality, Susan Forward’s Toxic In-Laws is a good place to start.



If you didn’t formally adopt your step-children, then legally you are not related. And if you weren’t married to their parent and their parent didn’t leave a will, under British law, they have inheritance rights and you don’t, unless you can find a lawyer to prove otherwise.


If you helped your spouse run their business but weren’t an official partner or lived in their house but weren’t named on the mortgage, and even if you were, just to be on the safe side, get legal advice. If money is tight, Shelter can give housing advice and your local Citizen’s Advice or Law Centre are good places to start for everything else.


There are many ways the people you thought of as step children can land you in destitution so the sooner you know your rights the better.


If we’re talking about kids who have no rights over your stuff then the watchword is patience. If you want to maintain a relationship, make that clear to them and their surviving parent, more than once. Be nice. Expect kids to be more interested in their friends. Unless you were friends with the surviving parent, expect them to be hoping they no longer have to deal with you. Keep in touch. Be positive. Don’t be a stalker. Give them time.



I don’t think I’ve read a memoir by a widowed person where they haven’t found at east one lifelong confidante, abandon them soon after the funeral, if not before. A lot of widowed people find that five years in, many if not most of their friends are different to the ones they had when they were married.


People have their own reasons. And then they feel guilty for making themselves scarce. Don’t take it personally. You learned something new about your friend, that’s all. Apparently they can’t do this. Okay. It doesn’t cancel out the good times you had before. There are probably one or two bereaved people in your past that you didn’t keep in touch with too. None of us are perfect. Move on and make new friends.


If your friends are sticking by you but failing to understand or be sensitive to your needs, move on and make new friends. No need for drama, just an acceptance of change. You need your energy for bigger things.


Colleagues and bosses

Bereavement leave is not statutory in the UK. Large employers are likely to have a staff handbook explaining their various Human Resources policies towards their employees. Smaller employers are much more likely to wing it. If you think your boss would benefit from some guidance, have a look on the ACAS website at their bereavement section http://www.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=4977


If you’re worried about returning after some time off, the Health and Safety Executive has guides for employees and employers http://www.hse.gov.uk/sicknessabsence/


And while grief is not a mental illness, you might find useful information on Mind’s website under their section on work and mental health. https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/work/work-and-mental-health/?o=6855#.WSbjNxRAXww


If you’re feeling fragile and worried about discrimination because of it, definitely have a look on Mind.


If it’s more your colleagues that are likely to be the problem, some of these documents will show you how to enlist your boss’s help.


To give you a boost to your confidence, try reading Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. And if your workplace is a bit more cutthroat, Oliver James’s Office Politics. How to thrive in a world of lying, backstabbing and dirty tricks, is packed full of survival strategies.


If you decide to take James’s advice to move on, then we interviewed career coach, Corinne Mills a few issues back and you’ll find lots of free advice on her company’s website Personal Career Management https://www.personalcareermanagement.com


Whatever battles you are facing, the main thing to remember is, as Karen Holford put it: “When grieving, self-protection is important. Create a safe space around yourself.”


First published in Widows and Widowers magazine, Issue 15


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