Sitting in the packed crematorium, I’m holding my best friend’s hand. In my other hand, I’m holding what’s left of the tissue I’ve been wiping my eyes with (why did I not bring more tissues?) I’ve made an effort to wear a brightly coloured dress I know John* would have liked. There are an awful lot of people in dull, drab colours. Didn’t they know him at all?
It’s September 2017 and the chapel feels warm and oppressive. My husband John was a popular man. He’d helped a lot of people in his job, where he worked to rehabilitate persistent offenders with drink and drug problems. He’d changed people’s lives and there are some grateful, if stunned, faces in the crowd. I hardly know most of them and I’m grateful for the familiar faces I recognise.
I’m sitting in the family area, and it’s standing room only at the back. His family are all comforting each other; there are a lot of tears. The order of service features the picture he’d used on the dating site we met on six and a half years earlier, and the other images were pictures I’d taken of him in happier times, too. The moment I was dreading arrives, and, “Only the Good Die Young” by Queen starts playing as the coffin is carried past me.
So many people are crying now, including me, but I feel like a fraud. The truth is that John and I were almost divorced. On the day he died, I had the envelope with my application for a decree absolute in my handbag. I was five days away from being totally irrelevant to him, and here I am, not sure of my place, or how I should feel.
The wake is awkward. I feel like a spare part as it seems to divide naturally into friends and family groups. I am neither and it hurts. There’s a sense of not quite knowing what to say to anyone. I genuinely liked most of John’s family and they have absolutely no idea why our marriage has broken down. That was how he’d wanted it — he’d begged me to keep his problems quiet, and told me that he wanted to ‘sort himself out’ without worrying his family. I’d become his enabler as he sank back into addictions that had almost killed him ten years earlier, years before we met.
John and I met in 2011. Both in our forties, we connected immediately on a dating site and I was swept off my feet by this charming, witty man with a love for life that perhaps only the newly sober have. He didn’t drink any more, he said, he ‘got high on life’. He was fun, and he was besotted with me. After my previous failed marriage and three years of singledom he was just what I needed. Within five months I’d moved into his flat and things were great. My family loved him, especially my late father, and they’d trade daft jokes and try to outdo each other at family get togethers.
I loved his family too. I don’t have children of my own, so when I got on extremely well with his then teenage son it made me happy. As time went on, John would say ruefully that his son confided in me more than he did his father. I knew he didn’t really mind.
We were engaged after 18 months and married in early 2014. It was a small register office wedding, we couldn’t afford much and we wanted to get married while my father was still alive, as he’d been diagnosed with end stage heart failure in 2013.
Being married didn’t change much; I carried on as a freelance writer and he switched jobs in 2014 after a change of management led to some problems for him. Most of the time, it was great, he wasn’t much of a social animal but we’d do the usual things; films, family and occasional holidays.
Throughout the marriage we were mostly happy, but even before we married, John could be unpredictable at times; stress, and problems at work sometimes made it harder for John to stay high on life and he’d relapse temporarily. We’d argue, he’d tell me it was just a blip, I’d forgive him, and we’d carry on as usual.
I think that being settled eventually started to bore him. John craved excitement and was convinced there was more to life than the everyday mundanities of work and family. He started to look for the answers in all the wrong places. In a job that involved mixing with addicts, there was no shortage of temptations, and he was also fascinated with what were then known as legal highs.
He was a terrible liar and hopeless at hiding anything. He’d wait until I was away staying with my family, which happened more often as my dad’s health deteriorated, and I’d usually catch him out when I returned. Sometimes, he’d confess to slipping up before I even discovered anything. He was still only doing it very occasionally, so although I worried about things escalating, he assured me they wouldn’t and I tried to ignore it. After my father died in 2015 though, John’s old addictive habits crept back and by early 2016 he’d given up trying to hide his drinking from me anymore.
In summer 2016 I told him that he was on his last warning. He’d had a particularly bad episode, and I’d had to cover for him with his work and family again. He decided he’d had enough too and wanted to live a sober life. This happy state of affairs lasted for two weeks. The last carrier bag full of badly hidden empties was the final tipping point and I told him that I was leaving. He told me that he didn’t have a problem, when I confronted him, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do with that.
I walked away in September 2016. I moved back to my home town. I was helped by two very good friends who were incredibly relieved that I’d finally made the break and were probably determined not to let me give John another ‘just one more chance’. John and I hugged goodbye, tears in our eyes. He went out for a drive before I left the flat for the last time, saying that he couldn’t face watching me go.
John had asked if we couldn’t ‘just muddle along like we always have done?’ I said we’d always be friends and I meant it. I still loved him — he was daft and funny and had a kind heart. I worried about what would happen to him when I left, but I had to leave before it made me ill. I’d hurriedly sorted out a flat to rent, but I felt scared, sad and empty.
I struggled at first in the damp, small flat but friends and family rallied round. I was getting a lot of freelance work and had a great social life again, so I felt as if I was getting back on my feet.
The last time I saw John was Christmas 2016. He’d re-joined Alcoholics Anonymous and was back to his old, cheery, sober self. There was still a lot of affection between us, and at one point I went to hug him as he did the washing up for me, like I used to, and had to stop myself. I remember my mother looking concerned when I told her we’d been getting along so well.
John started dating again in early 2017 (he actually texted me to tell me he had a new girlfriend, because he didn’t want me to hear from anyone else). His first relationship was short-lived, and soon he was seeing a second woman who insisted on plastering pictures of herself kissing him all over social media. It stung that he’d moved on so quickly, and I didn’t want to see it, so I unfriended him. I felt that needed to draw a line under everything, although we were still on good terms. I decided that the way forward was to file for divorce.
John was upset. He said that he was struggling financially, working every shift possible and really stressed at work. He said that he wanted to find something else before it broke him. One of the last things he said to me, over text, was “I still think you’re ace.”
On 11 August, I was surveying the mess in my flat and waiting to wave it goodbye forever. My lease was up and I was moving into a small house, which I was really excited about. I remembered my dear old dad — it was two years to the day since he’d died — and smiled to myself, hoping he’d be proud of how I’d got my life back together. My step-dad was helping me move, and as he loaded some more boxes into the car, he took a call from my mum. He looked concerned.
“Everything alright?” I asked.
He said, no, there was a problem but not to worry. Which obviously made me worry. As we drove down the road, Mum called me.
“I’m afraid I have some really bad news,” she said sadly.
She told me that John had been found dead in his flat after not turning up that morning for work. Writing that still makes me catch my breath. The police had been to my new house, looking for me — I was his next of kin.
All the clichés about everything being a blur are true. We arrived to find two sad-faced police officers, and the woman next door with a concerned look on her face. I was numb — Mum insisted I stay the night with her rather than alone.
My first night in my new home was a floodgate moment. I heard “Vienna,” by Ultravox on TV and it took me back to singing along in John’s car, trying to hold the long note as long as possible to make him laugh. I cried for about an hour while downing ‘welcome to your new home’ Prosecco.
At first, I don’t think I accepted he was actually gone, although I was his legal next of kin, so I still had to deal with the formalities. Everything seems so cold after a bereavement; I had to stop the divorce to get the marriage certificate back and prove I was still his wife.
It’s so hard not to feel guilty when something like this happens. Time has healed a lot. Despite knowing there was nothing I could have done, I still tortured myself at first with the thought that maybe I could have saved him from himself. I was angry at him because he’d had a loving family, a lovely son, a good job, a home and a wife but it still wasn’t enough. The coroner eventually ruled his death as being from natural causes but I knew from living with him for years that his chaotic lifestyle had been the reason for his ill health.
The family asked me if they could organise the funeral and I was happy to let them. I was invited, and kept in the loop about the venue and timings but I wasn’t sure whether they really wanted my input, and so I just let them take over. They knew we were divorcing but I hadn’t seen or spoken to any of them since we’d split so I didn’t know how much he’d told them.
The day after John’s funeral, the creditor’s letters started arriving. His family had redirected everything to me, saying “You’re next of kin, we can’t do it.”
The following day I received a letter from his family with a copy of the invoice from the funeral director. Letters from creditors came thick and fast; John’s estate was bankrupt. I was fighting them off on the one hand and trying to get anything due to him on the other, and it was exhausting.
I was torn; I fully intended to give his parents a sum to cover the cost of the funeral plus a bit more, and the majority of what was left was going to go to his son. My family warned me not to give everything away. I was struggling financially after the split, and John had left me in debt. People who cared told me that I should look out for myself. I felt so conflicted about profiting from John’s death.
The legalities were eventually sorted out after about six months. It was tough — every time I called his employer for a progress report I felt like one of those money-grabbing exes people complain about. Even worse, despite legally being his widow, now people knew I was divorcing him. Widows get sympathy, but I didn’t feel like a genuine widow. I was in some kind of grey area — I had all the responsibilities of a bereaved wife, but nobody had the first clue how to deal with me.
It’s a confusing area; I consulted the Citizens Advice Bureau, probate lawyers and even the probate registry to make sure I was doing everything properly. Legally, I was definitely still his next of kin despite the divorce Decree Nisi. His small pension was also given to me. I was the named beneficiary of the death in service policy despite being in the throes of divorce when he’d died. Naming me rather than his ‘next of kin’ made all the difference, much to his family’s disgust, who didn’t think I deserved a penny as I later found out. Legally, however, it was his family that wasn’t entitled to a penny and if I gave them anything it would be a goodwill gesture.
Ever the people-pleaser, I sent cheques worth several thousands to his family members, against my own family’s advice. But the following day fate intervened. As I was on my way out of the door to go to a dear friend’s funeral, a notification pinged on my phone from Facebook.
One of John’s family members had posted a vile rant about me to John’s Facebook page. When I hadn’t responded, they realised I hadn’t seen it and posted it directly to my own. My guts practically hit the floor, I went cold and panicked. Among other things, I was accused of stealing money from John’s (empty) bank account. All of these accusations were there on my social media for my friends, family and even some of my business clients to see.
I cancelled the cheques, blocked everyone from his family and all but a few joint friends on social media, took legal advice and was forced to issue a cease and desist notice against the people who posted the rant. People I barely knew were saying disgusting things about me online — and I was even threatened with physical violence. I still don’t know what I did to trigger it.
There’s been no apology or explanation. I was devastated — none of them seemed to understand that yes, they’d lost their son, brother or father but I’d lost him twice. I’d had to grieve the loss of a marriage and the man I’d loved when we split — and then do it again when he died.
I did eventually give John’s son — now in his twenties — a lump sum, as I believed it was what he would have wanted. He was grateful and said he wanted to keep in touch but I know it would have been hard for him with what happened with the rest of the family. I haven’t had any real contact with him or the rest of the family since.
But the stress of what happened triggered gallstone attacks in December, which led to my being admitted to A&E in 2018 with gallstone pancreatitis. I’ve since had surgery. Everything that happened to John, however, made me realise that you only live once, clichéd as that sounds.
I decided to follow my long-held dream and started a full-time university degree in English in September. I started dating again, and met a lovely new man, and I’m settled into the house I moved into on the day John died. On the anniversary of his death there were tributes posted on his Facebook page, all well-deserved reminders of the man he was — and could have been. I watched quietly from afar, remembering happier times, as the widow that wasn’t quite…
*names have been changed