What It Is Like To Be A Widow At 25

illustrated by Assa Ariyoshi; illustrated by Assa Ariyoshi.
Twenty-five and a widow.
It's something I never thought I’d have in common with my mum; being a widow, that is. In less than two years, I lost the two most important men in my life; my dad, and then my husband. How do you even try to wrap your head around that?
Just after my 23rd birthday, in 2016, my partner Samuel and I decided to move from Australia to Los Angeles for my work. We sold everything and got all our plane tickets, including one for Sneaky Bon Beakie, our cat. By April, we were settled in our place on Franklin Avenue and married. At our wedding it was just the two of us, our witness and photographer. I knew my dad wouldn’t be able to walk me down the aisle because the brain tumour he’d had for 17 years had affected his mobility, and if he couldn’t then no one else would.
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In June, Dad’s health took a turn for the worse and we decided to move home to Australia, so I could be with the family. I knew it was coming and I knew it was selfish to be begging him in my mind not to go, but just like that, I got the call and everything changed. I knew it was going to happen, but it hit me harder than I thought it would.
Here's one of my old journal entries from 2nd December 2016, less than a week after Dad died:
"I miss him. I have his T-shirts to smell but they feel so much more empty than they literally are. I don’t understand where he is. I feel like he’s out there somewhere but I don’t know where. I don’t get to see him, touch him, talk to him, get emails, texts or calls from him. I fear the day it doesn’t hurt. I don’t want to not be in pain from my dad, and best friend, dying. Where are you? And when do I get to see you again?"
For months, I did nothing at home in Australia. I’d move from the bed to the couch. You’d be lucky if I showered or brushed my teeth. Mid-cry one day, probably after I’d called Samuel to come home and bring me doughnuts (which he always did without fail), I sobbed that all I needed was a dog to cuddle. So we got Pockets, a rescue greyhound. I loved her so much; she was the sweetest dog and would just lie next to me all day. She’d even been swimming in the lake where our holiday house in countryside Australia was, which I had taken as a sign from Dad that she was his spirit in a dog (I was holding onto Dad, however I could).
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Pockets died after an accident on Christmas Eve, a week after we got her. I couldn’t believe it but was numb to the sadness. We searched everywhere to find another cat-friendly greyhound. After all, Sneaky was due to fly home to us soon. We found Monkey and then, of course, we had to get another dog… so we adopted Mavis too. Monkey was very cheeky and naughty. Mavis was a sweet, dainty, elegant old lady. Much like my Nana Ber Ber, who passed away a couple of months after my dad. It was inevitable and expected, but still so heartbreaking to say goodbye to a grandparent. Nana believed that Dad was up in the sky, hanging off a star and looking down on us all. And now she’s up there too.
Photo By Dane Peterson.
Siobhan O'Keefe
Life was starting to feel good again. I was leaving the house, showered and teeth brushed, but things at home weren’t feeling good. Sneaky wasn’t allowed back into Australia because of her breed, which made the parents in us feel like failures that we had abandoned her. The direction Samuel and I saw our lives going in changed. I really wanted to go back to the States and work again, and make the most of what opportunities I’d been given. I realised that when Dad died, a part of me did as well. I had stopped doing things simply because I didn’t have him to tell. I had told myself that he was the reason I did everything; I travelled and worked all over the place so that we’d have more stories to share and every time I visited him in hospital a nurse would always say, "Ooooh I’ve heard all about you and your travels and stories!" After seeing a psychologist, I realised that he could still be my purpose for doing things, I just wouldn’t have him to tell anymore.
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So after about nine months of doing nothing, and with Samuel’s support, I went back to LA by myself and worked while trying to figure out what the hell life is. To get myself on a plane, I convinced myself that Dad might be up in the sky wandering around, and maybe I’d see him up there.
On the phone one day, Samuel and I decided that it was best for both of us to separate and do our own things for a while. Christmas can be a shitty time for anyone, but I found that one especially hard. It had been a year since Dad died and my husband and I were now getting a divorce – we still spoke almost every day but it had reached a point where there was really no other option. It was devastating and heartbreaking, and one of the hardest things I’ve had to navigate. I remember trying to do all the paperwork and sitting there crying, about to give up, thinking it would just be easier to stay in an unhappy marriage.
Despite it all – the high highs and the low lows – we remained friends. We signed the papers together, kissed and hugged and said "I love you". If I close my eyes, I can still feel our lips trembling with sadness and his warm hands around my face when we kissed. That was the last time I saw Sammy.
There are many symptoms of shock; rapid low blood pressure, uncontrollable shakes, nausea, lightheadedness… I experienced all of them one afternoon, in February 2018, sitting on a front doorstep in West Hollywood. Once again, I got a call and just like that, everything changed. I almost convinced myself that because of the time difference it hadn’t happened yet and that Samuel must still be alive. It hurt so much to realise it had actually happened; I felt physically sick and for the next month would shake whenever I tried to talk about it. It felt like someone was stabbing me in the gut. I knew every single inch of his body, and it was gone. I just wanted to protect him and keep him warm. That thought – of him being cold and alone – would bring me to my knees in a teary, painful mess. The worst thing was that he was the only person I wanted and needed with me, to bring me a box of doughnuts when I couldn’t shower or brush my teeth or leave the house.
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Samuel, who struggled with addiction for years, used to tell me that grief comes in waves. Some days, the waves aren’t that bad and you can leave the house. Other days, the waves are a fucking tsunami; I learned to sit there and take the hit. And that’s okay. It’s okay to sit there and be sad and feel it. It’s okay to sit on the couch all day, eat doughnuts, probably smelling really, really bad. It’s okay to talk about it, to write, draw or sing about it. Otherwise, it’s going to sit in your gut like a rotting apple and come out somewhere wacky. Like when you're standing in the kitchen one morning, sobbing over a bowl of Coco Pops.
Some of us – many of us – are in this club that nobody wants to be in, or even knows exists. When you meet someone in this club, you feel less alone. For me, it’s really helped knowing other people are here going through the same thing and can talk about it, because if you haven’t experienced death, you can’t grasp it and probably don’t want to listen to someone talk about it. And that’s not a bad thing.

I try to get up every day and be happy and do things for myself because, as Samuel would say, "L.T.S. mate, life’s too short"

It’s not that I’m a 'victim' of death, but it has changed my perspective on what I value in life, the people I want around me; I've realised that some things just aren’t worth the stress or a second thought. I don’t get angry over the things I used to. If it’s not going to make me happy, or if it will make me anxious or stressed, I won’t do it. I really try to get up every day and be happy and do things for myself now because, as Samuel would say, "L.T.S. mate, life’s too short".
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I’d always planned to come to London. Dad was a big supporter of all my travels. My nana loved the city and could talk about it for hours. Samuel’s family is British and he lived here when he was 17, so when I got the opportunity to come here myself, it was really emotional. I signed with Models 1, booked my ticket and now I'm here, in my flat in east London, writing this with fairy lights and mellow music on, taking breaks to play with my new watercolour paints.
A lot of people can’t imagine what the last two years have been like for me, and how I actually "stay so strong" but really, life is for the living, and you just gotta do it. I didn’t want to spend this year the way I spent last year, on the couch eating doughnuts. I want to do and see things with people I care about, and tell them I care about them. I want to work my ass off and take chances that probably might not work out. If they don’t, at least I'll have given it a crack.
I no longer grieve what could have been; the moments we could have shared together, the moments in my life they’re not here for. I no longer shake when I talk about them. I no longer feel a stab in the gut at the thought of trying to keep them warm. I no longer wonder where they are or when they’re coming back.
Now, I can think of them and let them be. Wherever they are and wherever I am.
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