"You’re so young – you’ll find someone again."
My grief over the death of my partner has been met with the same statement so many times over the last 15 months that I’ve lost count. "Thank goodness you weren’t married," people have said to me, as if it somehow makes it easier. But you see, in my mind and my heart we were very much married and then some. We just hadn’t got round to having a wedding yet.
Ben was my life partner, my fiancé, my husband-to-be, the father of my future children – or so I’d thought. I knew he was special the moment I met him on the August bank holiday in 2014, just a few months after I turned 24 years old. Although I was young, our relationship moved quickly because when you know, you know.
We declared our love for each other in the early hours of one Sunday morning that autumn, on a hot, sticky dance floor at a warehouse party in east London. We moved in with each other just two months later and spent six incredible years together until I lost him not long after I turned 30 in 2020.
The years I spent with Ben were the most formative years of my life. During our relationship we lived in six different houses, explored a dozen countries, danced on hundreds of dance floors and ventured around countless festivals. We navigated long distances, negotiated career changes, celebrated promotions and made investments. We welcomed little ones, confronted serious illness, said goodbye to siblings for the final time, buried parents. As we grew older we called each other husband and wife because to us, we were exactly that: husband and wife. We would often say that we had packed enough life experience into those six short years to match a 60-year relationship. The last 15 months brought us closer than either of us could have ever anticipated.
We’d hoped we might be lucky enough to have another 54 years together but in July 2019 Ben was diagnosed with a rare type of soft tissue cancer: a malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumour (MPNST). It was the beginning of the end and just eight months after the first diagnosis, it was deemed terminal.
Shortly before he died we were told that there was nothing left that the NHS could do to slow the spread of the disease. Ben had already completed two unsuccessful rounds of the most aggressive chemotherapy regimen available but the metastases continued to grow like wildfire. His oncologist suggested that he write a bucket list of all the things he wanted to do before 'making arrangements' – and to go do them as a matter of urgency.
Even though we were staring death squarely in the eye, we refused to give in to fear and get married just for the sake of it. Despite the unrelenting anxiety I felt from morning until night, I needed to believe that Ben would be one of the exceptions to the rule – that he would overcome his sarcoma (the type of cancer that starts in tissue such as bones and muscle), we would have our dream wedding in Ibiza and life would return to normal, like it had for so many of the terminal cancer survivors we’d read about. It would just take a little longer to get there than we’d originally planned.
But things didn’t go to plan, and we didn’t get to have our dream wedding.
On 14th November 2020 my worst nightmare came true. It was the day that Ben lost his life to severe COVID-19 complications after 24 days on life support in an intensive care unit. From that day forward I declared myself a widow.
Allow me to explain why.
There is no official word assigned to those of us who are left behind before marriage. We aren’t entitled to the same rights or benefits as those who are acknowledged as surviving spouses by the government and, from my personal experience, our grief isn’t taken as seriously because of it. Instead it is met with platitudes. You’re so young – you’ll find someone again. Thank goodness you weren’t married. But when I compare my relationship to those who are married, it is much of a muchness. The only difference I see is that they got a piece of paper and we didn’t.
When you think of the word widow, you might think of elderly ladies and the colour black. But when I think of the word widow, I think of the sacred weight it carries for those of us navigating this uncharted landscape without our partners. For me, it acknowledges the significance of my relationship, the importance of the role Ben played and continues to play in my life, and the depth of pain I feel as a result of his passing. It also reminds others of what I have lost. If I didn’t call myself a widow, there is a good chance that my loss would be diminished by people on the outside looking in.
Ben was my life partner, my fiancé, my husband-to-be, the father of my future children. We’d navigated our youth together and all that came with it: the countless highs and lows and twists and turns and successes and failures and births and deaths. We didn’t need a document to validate our relationship or our love for one another.
The bottom line is this: married or not married, each loss deserves the same acknowledgement and compassion. Regardless of their official status, a partner is inextricably woven into our moment-to-moment, day-to-day experience. Their presence touches every corner of our life; our identity, for better or for worse, becomes entangled with theirs over time.
In 2015 actress Michelle Dockery lost her fiancé, John Dineen, to cancer. In an interview with The Guardian she described them as engaged and "married at heart", declaring herself a widow for the first time in public.
"Oh, I refer to myself as a widow, yes. We were engaged, and married at heart, and so I do consider myself a widow," Dockery said. She added that it was a "relief" to say so.
It is essential that we grant grieving people the permission to navigate their grief and to redefine their relationship to the one they have lost however they see fit. For me, Michelle and many others, using the word widow has allowed me to redefine my relationship with my late fiancé on my own terms and to take ownership of my story.
I hoped I’d never be associated with the word but it is one of my life’s greatest honours to have loved Ben, and to be his widow.