Grief is a process of finding comfort. It doesn’t have to be painful all the time.
An incredibly poignant and resilient book, Becky Aikman’s “Saturday Night Widows” is elegiac, gallant and affecting, reverberating with anyone in grief. Unlike Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking”, this book celebrates camaraderie between six strangers, all widows, who in a matter of twelve solid meetings spanning an entire year form a support system which not only heals them of their grievances but also addresses their individual concerns, assisting them in getting past the pain and moving on with their lives.
There were plenty of complications to go around. All of us—Denise, Dawn, Marcia, Lesley, Tara, me—had set out on a path to reinvent our lives with no idea of the scope and variety of the complications that awaited us
The alliances formed with this odd gathering of six women does not conform to the typical support group systems found in the US. Becky Aikman lost her husband Bernie to cancer after which she resolved to join a support group for widows. She was kicked out for her ‘normalcy’ when compared to other widows in the group. This is when Becky proposes to draw up her own support group but with differing principles. She welcomes five other women, who all seem sceptical at first, but gradually warm towards the companionship. These six women plan to meet once every month on Saturdays for a year, indulging not in mourning what they lost (husbands, families, trust in relationships) but immersing in experiences which would revitalize them and bring about closure.
My life was so stripped of interest and significance that I hungered for the ideal rather than the real, the abstract rather then the actual, when I wanted to see the world filtered through someone else’s interpretation, trusting it more than my own
They quickly build a rapport with one another, discussing elements of widowhood which have alienated them from society, the checklists to which they must adhere to, collective insecurities which plagues them every day – from losing a loved one to mistrusting themselves with another partner, from taboo subjects like sex to entire lifetimes dedicated to lamenting the dead. They unite in their woes only to emerge on the other side as happy and successful women who have bright futures ahead of them.
Any grief is layered with regrets, remorse, and contradictions
There are stark realizations associated with death of a loved one which are brilliantly portrayed in this book. Firstly, the guilt of not having done enough to save a life despite the matter of death being far beyond one’s control. For women whose spouses died of protracted illnesses, this was a common sentiment voiced.
Everyone at the table stiffened. Recognition. And triggers, those simple, familiar sights and sounds and tastes and smells that spark feelings sharper than any in the sensory world. For Marcia, they included an Italian restaurant that she passed almost every day. For me, there was the briny tang of freshly shucked oysters.
Secondly, regret of not feeling guilty enough haunts widows and widowers so much so that their actions become too internalised to make them fully-functional members of society. Eventually they lose their sense of responsibility and reality which can lead to devastating consequences for family members. This is epitomised through hesitancy of becoming involved in another relationship – a reluctance which is rooted in societal expectations as well as sentiments of ‘letting go’ of previous partner. After all, no period of time is lengthy enough after which one can readily accept another human being’s affections.
Never again, I vowed, would I view attachment as essential to my well-being. It became vitally important to subscribe to a definition of happiness rooted in remaining alone
Determined to insulate myself from pain, I vowed never again to become close enough to anyone to risk the anguish if that person were lost. Anything—loneliness, lack of popularity, solitary confinement—would be preferable to going through that again
Thirdly, remorse over having lost not just a human but a person with which one shared the longest, most immaculate of memories with. Age is an obvious concern here, with all the women above forty, set in their ways and lifestyles – yet not too young to radically alter their lives, nor too old to completely submit to fate. This insight brings about profound changes in their lives, especially in their love lives. Remarriage, romantic involvement or simply allowing men to re-enter their lives speaks volumes of how drastically positive group dynamics enforces readjustment of these strangers in their society.
Anyone who has ever been married knows that among the many perks—companionship, affection, reliable dinner conversation—one of the least appreciated is a well-curated stock of memories, the ability to turn to a longtime partner and say, “Remember the time …”
Unlike Didion’s book which mourned loss of her husband through an intensely personal lens, Becky Aikman goes to lengths to highlight the importance of companionship during periods of intense misery. In this book, closure is granted not due to tacky discussions of remembering the painful moments of life but the realisation of recalling happy times and cherishing them for a lifetime. All six women can relate to each other’s individual experiences through collective familiarity and provide one another with an understanding which has roots in pure kindness and not sympathy for its sake. This sort of acceptance brings about new levels of finality to the process of sorrow, each allowing new and unfamiliar experiences to refurbish their lives from scratch.
Here in this place out of space and time, I realized that it was possible to love two men at once, one who was present and one who lived only in memory
They share their Saturdays by touring museums, going lingerie shopping, joining a cooking class, going away for a weekend at a spa resort, relaxing on a beach or taking a ten-day vacation to Morocco. The women start to break their shells eventually, allowing space for prospective new partners, redesigning houses or relocating, welcoming career changes and accepting new professional positions. Introspection coupled with advice, guidance and exemplary lifestyles of each other provides each women with mettle to take a stand in a world where societal norms coerce widows to conform to archetypical roles of mourning, clad in black from head to toe. This mere audacity is inspiring as they draw from one another the strength to live and love again.
The desert is the perfect place to disconnect from the past and be in the present.
By the end, each of the six women have found wholesome lives once again to embrace. They rejoice in each other’s companionship and emanate life-affirming values. The reader is encouraged to not let solitariness following intense grief overpower them, and that sharing has incredible restorative powers.
Whether I had the bee dream because I was beginning to remember this already or whether I could remember this because I had the dream—who could say? But it all started to come back to me—my bedrock of optimism, my dormant ambition, the incurable curiosity
The narrative style of Aikman is tender and full of beauty, inviting the reader into personal lives of these six women without compromising any detail too personal which might unnerve the reader as it might border on intrusion. Her narration is controlled and graceful, handling delicate subjects like that of sex with poise and reflection. From heartrending admissions of denial and personal confessions to describing boisterous days out, Becky Aikman never outpaces the reader. Whilst reading this book, I felt a ghostly inclusion in their group activities as if the six women invited me to witness their marvellous process of healing from the inside and out.
Breathless, we perched at the lip of the towering wave, clasping each other for balance, although if we had tumbled no harm would come to us as we sank into the most forgiving of landings.
Overall, out of all books I’ve read on the process of bereavement, Becky Aikman’s “Saturday Night Widows” seems most confident in getting its message across – that life must be lived forward, that time aids in healing all woes, and it wouldn’t hurt to share a social life even if one is violently bereft of it on purpose.
ON BEING A WIDOW
No, it was all the rest of it that I needed to tackle now. The part about what to do next. The part about who to become next.
I was failing the stages of grief. I didn’t even understand them. I was a misfit widow.
We were cramming our personalities into the boxes on Jonathan’s checklists. Anger, check. Depression, check.
The defeatist vibe at that widows’ support group, perhaps a low point in the annals of social services for the bereaved
My long-married friends were thrilled, frothing for details. I would be their entertainment, relief from marital monotony
For our generation, in our culture, in our lives, death was the one unmentionable.
Death has become unmentionable, and therefore unimaginable, and if unimaginable, therefore unmanageable. It should be impossible to recover from, we think, a mortal psychic blow.
It was surreal to contemplate that my entire future happiness might rest on the contours of my behind.
Humor, Bonanno said, is one of the strongest predictors of an eventual return to emotional equilibrium.
When I had visited George Bonanno’s emotions lab, the researchers analyzed my expressions, looking for what is called a Duchenne smile, named after a French anatomist who discovered that true, happy smiles always involve contracting the muscles around the eyes. It’s an involuntary crinkling absent from polite, deliberate smiles
Denise radiated thoughtful stillness. Whereas I radiated a sort of toxic anxiety
Nothing about Dawn indicated that anything was amiss in her life. If this was a mask, she wore it with flair.
She laughed, a big, frothy laugh, as free as spun sugar.
I often wondered about the definition of home. Is it the place where you live, or is it the place where the people you love reside?
I took off after those fish, tapping some lunatic strength to churn across the surface of the sea, punching into the choppy waves
I heard them before I saw them. And that’s saying something, since the ladies clustered around a crater-shaped fire pit out by the lake, faces like carnival masks lit by leaping flames.
You know how you can tell when a couple is clicking—you see that they admire, not so much the beauty or the intelligence or the wit of each other, but the everyday quirks that make someone real and distinct, that might even annoy someone not in love
The camels, tethered end to end, swayed silently beneath us into the dunes, and we patted them with unexpected affection. They were male, but their demeanor had a subversive feminine side, thanks to tender lips, big dreamy eyes, and long lashes, not to mention soft camel toes padding gently forward