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The Experiences Of Widowers Through Stories And Photos

September 11, 2013 1:40 p.m.

GUEST

Judith Fox, author, "One Foot Forward: Stories and Faces of Widows and Widowers"

Related Story: The Experiences Of Widowers Through Stories And Photos

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: The young wife of a camp Pendleton marine was watching TV in 2003, and inadvertently saw the story of a helicopter crash that killed her husband in Iraq. That's how she became a widow at age 27. Her story is just one in a new book that presents the stories and the faces of a variety of men and women who have lost their spouses. The book is called One Foot Forward, written by my guest, Judith Fox.

FOX: Good to see you again.

CAVANAUGH: Why did you want to to tell the stories of people whose spouses have died?

FOX: My first husband died when he was 53. Jerry died very, very general of a very aggressive cancer. And he died literally a month after he was diagnosed. I didn't know any other widows. And I found myself in the middle of a world I knew nothing about. I didn't know how to navigate it. I didn't have even the questions, let alone the answers. So I turned to books because I didn't know any other widows. And they were helpful, but they were limited. They were basically all the stories of women of a certain age and a certain background, and certain education level who wrote about their own experiences. Even at the time, I knew that something else would have been more helpful to me. So now I'm going through anticipatory grief with my second husband, Ed, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's more than 15 years ago. Knowing that I'm going to be facing this again, it's been very much on my mind. And knowing a lot of women who had been widowed, so I decided to write the book that would have helped me when Jerry died.

CAVANAUGH: It tells the story of such a broad range of people! It's not just women who have been married for a very very long time who have lost their husbands, but a whole range of men and women who have gone through widowhood in very different ways. I wonder if you would tell us a couple of the people who we'll meet in this book.

FOX: Oh, I'd be happy to do that. Their losses and experiences are both universal and very specific. And also very inspirational. I think one good example is Margaret. Her husband died of cancer after 59 years of marriage. And after he died, her joy in life all but disappeared until her children, who knew that she loved to dance, gave her a gift certificate to authorure Murray's. Now she says, and I want to quote her because what she said was so great. "While my kids are trying to reach me at home to see if I'm dead or alive, I'm at authorure Murray's dancing the waltz with a 16-year-old boy."

[ LAUGHTER ]

FOX: And she still cry when is she talks about her husband. But she also laughs a lot, and she's found passion again in her life, and a reason for getting up today. And she is very inspirational to me. A lot of the people -- not a lot, but a couple of the people that I wrote about cared for spouses with Alzheimer's. Sue spent her life building her schedule around her husband's needs and routines. When he died, friends said to her now you can do whatever you want to do! At that point she said "I no longer knew what that was." So she had built many years around the needs of her husband, and suddenly she had time that she didn't know how to fill. And she was a career woman, and a professional woman before she became a caregiver. And a year after her husband's death, she moved across the country, and she's built a remarkable and very satisfying new future for herself.

CAVANAUGH: One of the things about this book, you don't shy away from from some of the harder stories. You write about within woman who found out something very surprising about her husband once he died or while he was dying.

FOX: Okay. This was Kate's story. Kate and her husband were a very attractive couple with an 8 and 10-year-old daughter. And life wasn't always easy. They had their issues as most couples do. But they were working through them. And Kate thought she understood their life. And she was traveling for two weeks when she got a phone call from her husband, Patrice, who called to tell her that he had suffered a heart attack and was being driven to the hospital by a friend. And I'll read from the book.

CAVANAUGH: Sure.

FOX: "The next time they spoke, Patrice had undergone triple bypass surgery. I can fly home immediately, Kate offered, but both her husband and his doctor assured her that there was no need. When she later called the hospital for an update, Kate was refused information about her husband's condition. Patrice had authorized the delivery of particulars about his health to only one person, and that person was his girlfriend. And that was when and how Kate learned that there was another woman in her husband's life."

CAVANAUGH: What a complication! To be going through the loss of your husband, and have that also confront you. These stories that you render in this book are complex and you wonder how people are going to come out at the end. Although they're just little vignettes from people's lives. The one other thing that you add is photographs.

FOX: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: Why the photographers? Why did you decide to put the pictures of the people whose stories you tell in the book?

FOX: Well, be for one thing, I'm a photographer's wife.

[ LAUGHTER ]

FOX: But I really believe that both the words and images reach us in different ways. Human beings are story tellers. We tell stories verbally, in writing, but we were telling stories on the sides of caves and rocks! So the visual images reach a different part of our brain, and we respond, I think to photographs very viscerally. And I wanted candid photographs, I wanted to take them, and I did take them, in the middle of the conversations I was having with the people I've written about, so that they showed the very raw and emotional and human aspects of our conversation and I think bring another aspect to the story.

CAVANAUGH: And the photographs themselves are beautiful as well.

FOX: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Were your subject, if you may call them that, eager to tell their stories or was it difficult?

FOX: They were really eager to tell their stories. And I think that's part of what we all want to learn. Because we're uncomfortable talking about death in this culture. And we need a way to frame it for ourselves. And I think it's helpful for people who love somebody who's mourning and grieving to understand that the process is like. And one of the reasons -- well, there were two primary reasons why they were so eager to talk. One, they really believed it would help other people. And they knew how they needed help when they were going through the deep grieving. And the other thing is they wanted to talk about their experience and the person that they loved! And we all want to tell our stories. And I think that very often when it comes to grief and loss, our loved ones are so uncomfortable that they think they will spare us if they don't ask us about what happened. And they don't encourage us to talk about the person that we lost. Somehow we'll forget about it if we don't say anything.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, I think there's this hesitation to bring it up. You just don't want the person to have to confront it if it looks like they're having a good day.

FOX: Right!

[ LAUGHTER ]
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CAVANAUGH: And a book like this lets you know that people do want to tell their stories.

FOX: And they're great stories. One of the amaze things to me is when I was thinking about the kinds of stories they wanted to tell, I thought I was going to have to find people all over the country in order to get people who would tell these stories. Instead, all but one story, the person lives right here. They're our neighbors, literally, as well as figuratively. And it reenforced for me the thing that I know, and which we all know, is that everybody's got a story. And we usually don't hear these stories. And they're -- I hesitate to use the term ordinary people, but that's the term that's always used. They're ordinary and extraordinary at the same time.

CAVANAUGH: One of the things that intrigued me about going through the people that you profile is some of the widows and widowers you interviewed were really ready to start a new relationship device soon after their spouse died. And some don't want know if they're ever going to have another relationship again with another human being. What do you think causes that kind of reaction?

FOX: Well, we're all really different. And again, I think everything -- there are so many individual differences. There are certain things that are uncommon, but there are certain things we share in common. Then other things really vary as we do as individuals. So it may depend on how comfortable they feel being alone or how uncomfortable you feel.

CAVANAUGH: That's what it's seen to be from reading the stories. It's people who didn't want to go home to an empty house.

FOX: Yes.

CAVANAUGH:

CAVANAUGH: Or people felt very strange about just experiencing life as a single person.

FOX: That's right. And there's a lot of that. I don't think it really bears any relationship though to what their previous relationships were necessarily like. Even if cases where their prior relationship was complicated, some of these people have chosen to have new relationships.

CAVANAUGH: Did you find that the way people grieved was linked in any way to the way their loved one died?

FOX: Again, the differences were across the board, and it wasn't obvious. So I'd have to say no. I'm not a psychologist.

CAVANAUGH: Sure.

FOX: But my guess would be that it's more about how they generally deal with change, how fast they bounce back or not, the depth of their grief. There can be all sorts of other reasons that aren't apparent on the surface that might make someone better able to make the next step sooner rather than later. One thing I want to say in that regard though is that there is no norm. And sometimes friends and relatives may say, well, it's been a year now. You know, they kind of look at their watch, it's time for you to get over it and move on. And I just don't think that's the case at all. Some people are able to think about a future and be comfortable with the fact that when their spouse died, the time was right, and their suffering has ended. So they appear, and probably really are, doing okay very quickly after the death of someone they've loved very deeply.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, you did this book after your first husband died. In a sense, it's an anticipatory grief that you're going through because your husband now is in the later stages of Alzheimer's disease.

FOX: Right.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering what you might have learned from listening to these stories, taking these pictures, hearing what other people went through.

FOX: I don't know if it's having learned new things, particularly since I was widowed before, as much as the fact that it's something that I think a lot about and talk a lot about with my friends. So it -- helps provide a structure and a framework for me to think about these things. It's not necessarily that there was an epiphany. Gee, I never knew that. But just reenforcement of how how you can't anticipate, you can't protect. But that I will, and most of the people listening to this, will go on. Because human beings do. We want to survive, we want to thrive, we want a future for ourselves. And recognizing that that is usually there, even though the future is different from the one you anticipated.

FOX: And it seems to me from the fact you wrote this book, you really do think people should be thinking and perhaps even talking more about this.

FOX: Oh, yes. With people books, with I Still Do, and with One Foot Forward, part of my reason for wanting to write about this is encouraging conversation about subjects that we typically shy away from and are uncomfortable with. And the hand in the sand just doesn't work.

CAVANAUGH: Judith Fox will be reading and signing copies of her book at war wicks next Monday September 16th at 7:00 PM. Thank you very much.

FOX: Thank you, Maureen. Good to see you.