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How Does It Feel To Be Single After A Lifetime Of Marriage?

Four women – aged 53 to 95 – share their stories of loss, love and how they found happiness again


By Naomi Chrisoulakis

If you’ve woken up next to the same person for 40 years, if you’ve had children and built a home together, if your lives are inextricably entwined, how does it feel to suddenly face a future without them? Yet the majority of married women will outlive their partners, and many of us – even though it might seem very far away now – will find ourselves navigating this difficult emotional terrain.

In Australia, older women are far more likely to die single. In fact, the most recent report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that almost three quarters of women will die alone, while the vast majority of men are survived by their wives.

Of course, part of this trend is due to women’s greater life expectancy, but men are also much more likely to remarry than women. Dr Olga Lavalle, a psychologist and author of The New Normal: A Widow’s Guide to Grief, suggests some women who might have spent the latter part of their life caring for their husbands can experience a new-found sense of freedom, which they may greet with surprise and, sometimes, guilt.

“Men tend to feel lonelier and more lost because their wives have been their source of comfort and support during their marriage, and they only confided in them,” she says. Women of that generation, on the other hand, are more likely to be involved in their children’s and grandchildren’s lives, and to have kept up with social activities and networks of friends. As another expert put it: “Women thrive. They go to shows, they travel, they play cards.”

We asked four inspiring women how they coped with losing the love of their lives – and the way they found happiness again.

 

Shirley Slatyer, 93: “It’s the small things that make me happy these days”

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Shirley at home in Sydney CREDIT: Cybele Malinowski

“I first met my Bob on a double date that his friend had arranged. I thought he was a nice fellow and I liked him very much. He had to go to Queensland to buy a car, but we agreed to go out again when he returned. Weeks went by, but no sign of Bob. When he turned up at my office three months later, I fell into his arms. We were never apart again.

I was 21 when we married in 1947; he was 28. He was a good man: curious, intelligent, generous. He’d been a lieutenant in the Australian Navy during WWII and after the war became an industrial chemist. He would build boats for our three girls to go sailing in — I was never fond of getting on them! — and eventually built our family home from the ground up. Even in his 80s he was always up a ladder fixing something and worrying me.

When he started slowing down, I knew something was wrong. It turned out he had emphysema and cancer. The change that his illness brought about was in some ways harder than losing him. It took a long time for us both to get used to the fact that he didn’t have the same strength that had always kept him going.

I fell into his arms. We were never apart again

When he passed away 11 years ago, I did become depressed. But I knew that I had to accept it. I just had to get on with it. I have a wonderful family and a daughter who lives downstairs, but after everyone left at night, it was lonely. I kept up with some things we had done together, like tai chi, but Bob was always the one to organise social occasions. Now my family has stepped in. Six years ago, I travelled around Germany and to Paris with my daughter and granddaughters, and I had a wonderful time. I was 87 then, but I still knew how to enjoy myself.

The biggest change came when my family presented me with two little rescue dogs, Sally and Paddy. I found a new routine with them, and I always had company. I began walking them with my daughter to a local cafe for a cup of coffee in the morning. Everyone knows me there now! It’s little things like that – and my family – that make me happy these days.”

Olga Lavalle, 53: “I knew it was sink or swim”

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Olga Lavalle CREDIT: Cybele Malinowski

“As a clinical psychologist, I knew about grief — in theory. But nothing could prepare me for the phone call I got while I was at my daughter’s basketball game: my husband Mick had died of a sudden heart attack. I couldn’t understand it at first. He was only 50. It was surreal. I had to pull our daughter off the court and tell her. We sat outside crying for a long time.

Our daughters, Alex and Chloe, were only 14 and 15. As well as grief for my husband, I had so much anxiety for them. Would they be OK? What would it be like for them to grow up without a father? I didn’t sleep well for months, and I’d often find myself sobbing in public. But I didn’t care.

I just kept thinking about what Mick would always say: when your time is up, that’s it — but the world doesn’t stop turning. I knew it was sink or swim time. I cried all the time, but I knew I had to go through those feelings in order to move forward. And I knew Mick would want me to keep going. I held on to the fact that we had 17 years together, and that our daughters were old enough to remember him for the rest of their lives.

I knew Mick would want me to keep going

Three weeks after Mick died, I went back to work. Having that routine really helped — sitting at home with my thoughts was miserable. Family and friends helped out with meals, shopping and helping me out around the house. Eight months after Mick’s death, I sold our big family home and moved into an apartment that was more manageable. Starting afresh like that was a big help for me and the girls.

The first time I had to go to an event on my own — my daughter’s Year 10 parent dinner — I struggled. The other mums and dads looked out for me, and made sure I was sitting among friends. But when I was there at the table, I thought, “Wow. So this is what it’s like to not be a couple anymore. This is my life now.” It was very, very hard.

I’ve got a new partner now, Gary. It was weird at first but it’s really nice to have someone. I’ll never get married again, but I’m very happy to have a partner. It’s different, but he’s very understanding — my husband comes up in conversation among the family a lot, and there’s still a picture of him in my lounge room. It will be five years this April, and I do think about the milestones that might come up — weddings, babies, things like that that make me deeply sad. But I’m really relieved that the girls have turned out OK, and I’m proud of the book I’ve written and the business I’ve built. And most importantly, that I’ve kept going. In all honesty, my husband would be really cranky if I didn’t.”

Giuseppina Fusco, 79: “It takes a long time to remember they’re not there”

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Guiseppina at home CREDIT: Cybele Malinowski

“I never had a boyfriend before I married my husband, Nick. I was 20, and I’d just graduated from college in Milan. I didn’t want to get married, not because he wasn’t a nice boy, but I didn’t have that feeling for him. But he fought for me, and my parents liked him, so I said yes. And we built a good life together, 65 years we were married. It was mostly happy, although in the early days in Italy he was very jealous if other men talked to me.

When we came to Australia we didn’t know anyone, so that problem stopped! We had two children together. We would go everywhere together, and he did everything I wanted; he always tried to make me happy. He was very generous. We would have big parties in our backyard — he loved to dance. And he made the most beautiful garden for me, with a big veggie patch and chickens.

He did everything I wanted; he always tried to make me happy

He had his first stroke in 2013 and I cared for him at home — the doctor couldn’t believe how much of my food he was eating. Five months later a second stroke finished him. I felt very sorry, and I cried a lot. It takes a long time to change all your routines, to remember that they are not there.

My kids take me out at and about, and my daughter lives with me now. I find a lot of comfort in my church, and I’m very active in the congregation. I have more time for the things I love: I cook a lot, I sew my own clothes.

My husband used to look after the garden; now that’s my place and I love to be there. I’m not lonely; I have my daughter and my cats and I love to see friends most days. When Nick was sick, I took up tapestry work and that is very soothing. When you have problems, you have to keep your hands busy, your mind busy, and keep going. Otherwise it’s too easy to get stuck and get stressed.”

Ona Leveris, 95: “You have to think forward”

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Ona Leveris at home CREDIT: Cybele Malinowski

“I have been a widow twice. Forty-eight years I was married to Antony. He was from a nice family who lived close to my home in Lithuania; I was 20 and he was 28. We were happy, but it was wartime in our country, and we were invaded by the Communists and then the Nazis. As we tried to escape, my six-month-old baby froze to death. We ended up in a very bad refugee camp, where we hardly had any food. One piece of bread a day, and I had to give half to my two year old. Then, he got measles and he died. It was a terrible time.

When we finally made it to Australia, life was very hard. I only had two dresses; no one wanted to rent a house to the “reffos”. I slept in a tent for a while. But eventually we built a business, we buy a house, we raise four children and we always feel very lucky to be in this country – Australia is beautiful and looks after all the people.

One morning, I was awake before Antony and I thought: “I’ll let him sleep in a little while.” But when I went to wake him, he was cold. I felt it very deep in my heart. I was very sad, but I had to accept it: what can you do? My kids took me everywhere, but I was lonely in the house by myself.

We always feel very lucky to be in this country – Australia is beautiful

I kept going to the local sports club and being with my friends including Vyt, a nice Lithuanian man. He had known my husband, he was a nice man. We go together, he loves me and he becomes my second husband. His family becomes my family, and I’m happy again. His wife had died too, so he understood. He was a very good man who would help everyone. We did everything together for 25 years.

But he passed away from cancer in 2016 at 93. Since then, it’s just me. I became very lonely again. I love people. I don’t like to stay in the house, I like to be with family and friends. I never think of the past, I only dream of what’s in front. The past – never mind. You have to think forward.

My kids help me a lot. My step-granddaughter lives with me and sometimes we have a whisky at night and watch Married At First Sight. My family keeps me happy. I still cook and clean, I never want to go into a nursing home. I have lots of friends who live in my street and close by – some widows, some not – and I have them over for tea. I like to go to the club and sometimes I just get on the community bus and the driver takes me around all day long — you never know who you’ll meet.”

 

 

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BY Naomi Chrisoulakis

Naomi Chrisoulakis is a freelance journalist and post-partum doula based in Sydney

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