In the moment that my husband Jeremy took his last breath, my identity changed from being his wife to being his widow...
I’m Shalini Bhalla-Lucas and in July 2016 my beautiful, kind husband Jeremy died from a rare form of renal cancer. It was the most devastating thing to have happened to me in my life. During the first two years of grieving him, I recoiled from the term widow. In my heart and mind I was still his wife and I still referred to myself as such.
But, in a perverse way, outwardly I was showing the signs of being a widow by adopting many traditional Hindu aspects of widowhood. Hinduism, even though it is not a religion I follow, still informs me in many ways, especially through its cultural roots.
When Jeremy was diagnosed with cancer, he insisted we marry, even though we had been together for 17½ years without being married. He explained that I wouldn’t be considered next of kin or be entitled to any support if he died. This persuaded me, and on the day of our small, intimate civil ceremony I became a traditional Hindu bride dressed in red, wearing bangles on my wrists and a bindi on my forehead. Whilst he was alive I wore colourful clothes, a bindi and bangles every day.
But, the day he died, I once again turned to my Hindu roots, and this time as a Hindu widow I wore white to his funeral, and still do to this day. Gone too were the bindi on the forehead and the bangles on my wrists. I also cut my waist-long hair short. Here I was an independent, empowered, educated woman living in England and yet I was adopting the rituals and symbolic gestures deeply rooted in a patriarchal society where when a husband dies the woman is no longer a wife, but a widow – her identity, her status, her very being which are all tied up in her husband are threatened upon his death.
So, not only was I struggling with the unimaginable pain of the loss of my husband, the dreams and plans we had shared and life as I knew it, I was also struggling with a loss of identity and at a fundamental level the loss of knowing who I was at my core.
It’s hard to explain what the motivations of some of our actions are when we are grieving. Grief is so universal and yet so very personal. Grief is a merciless master. It holds you in a vice like grip, pulling you down to the very depths of despair. And in that dark place, we make choices that we may not necessarily have made in happier times.
But, over time the grip of grief does loosen. I think of the pain that grief causes as a large stone that you carry. At first the stone is heavy and has very jagged edges. Those jagged edges keep piercing you in your heart causing unbearable pain. But, over time, those jagged edges smooth away and you are left with a dull, heavy ache. That ache, that heaviness never quite goes away. And nor should it. Because that ache – which is sometimes very strong, and sometimes weak – but always there – reminds you that you loved this person you have lost and that you were once loved by them. It reminds you that your love is eternal.
As my grief slowly began to lift, I started looking outwardly to other Asian women here in the UK who had also become widows. Were they too adopting these symbols of widowhood? How were they leading their lives? Were they moving forward and able to leave this label of widow behind them?
And yes, I came across many heartening stories of women who were moving forward with their lives. Women who were re-inventing themselves, owning their self-identity and growing in confidence in their new lives. But, I was equally struck by how many Asian women here in England were being discriminated against by friends and family. Stories of widows not being allowed to go to religious ceremonies or festivities because they were considered cursed or not being allowed to move on with their lives by their families were numerous. One woman told me that her in-laws considered her the widow of their son, the mother of their grandchildren and their daughter-in-law. In none of that was her self-identity as a woman considered. Her own needs and dreams and aspirations did not matter.
As I wrote my memoir “Always With You – a true story of love, loss...and hope”, charting our love story, the devastating diagnosis of cancer and Jeremy’s death and finally the journey of grief, self-discovery and spiritual and physical renewal, I realised that I was lucky. I was financially independent, had no children and no in-laws and my own family knew better than to tell me what to do or how to live my life. In spite of untold loss I had come out the other side fighting and stronger than ever before.
Loss is perhaps the biggest teacher in your life. When you lose someone or something, the lessons you learn are invaluable. It is such a humbling experience. But then, with time and healing, you realise that it isn’t the end of the world and somehow you find a way to move forward.
I am reminded of a wonderful Kenyan proverb:
Keata Nkishon Larin
Life Consists of Seasons
Life is not one long season, one smooth journey. Rather, it is a series of chopping and changing times, both happy and sad, serene and tumultuous. Each of these seasons brings with it experiences – good and bad, and through these experiences of success and failure we learn the lessons we need to in this lifetime. And so, as the seasons change, so do we. Over time we learn to be true to ourselves, we learn to speak our truth and we have the courage and desire to show up when we need to.
This is what life is – you fall, you rise; you cry, you laugh; you fail, you learn; you love, you live.
And so, how have I reconciled with this label of widow? What now is my identity?
Loving Jeremy, and to be loved by him, was not only my good fortune, it was my destiny. For that I will be forever grateful. In my heart I will always be Jeremy’s wife, in society and legally, I will be his widow, but my identity, my status and my very being are not just about the life we led together, and by no means will be dictated by his death. I will continue to pay tribute to the man I loved by wearing the symbols that showed that I was his wife – my wedding rings – and to tie his surname to mine – Lucas, and I will continue to wear white and not wear a bindi or bangles – to signify the great loss that I have endured the day Jeremy died.
But, one day, when I am ready, I will choose to leave this label of widow behind me, I will grow into a new identity of my own making. When I look at the plight of other widows and the stigma they face I realise that the fact that I have the freedom as an empowered and independent woman to make that choice is in itself a privilege and a blessing.
It is a choice that only I have the right to make for myself.
Shalini Bhalla-Lucas is the author of Always With You – a memoir written after the death of her husband Jeremy to cancer. Shalini is the Director of Just Jhoom! a dance and wellbeing company. She teaches mindfulness to people who are bereaved and blogs and speaks about loss, grief and bereavement as a way of opening up dialogue and helping people to come to terms with the death of their loved ones as well as their own mortality.
Instagram and Facebook @justjhoom