Isa King was only 20 when she met Aaron. “Every month we went out Aaron would send me a bunch of flowers and a teddy bear and it all stopped when we got engaged,” she laughs. “Once he got me, that was it. There were no more flowers but there was love.”
When their first of four sons arrived their love flexed, as it does with the transition to parenting. “Life was never perfect – he was awesome but there were still days when I wanted to kill him,” she jokes.
Lisa and Aaron’s second boy, Noah, was born with a life-limiting disability. “The first year after Noah was born was really difficult. Our relationship just became about how we would survive every day and that lasted for the first five years,” King says. She remembers someone telling her couples who have a child with special needs have a high divorce rate: “It made me committed to keeping us together”.
In October 2011 Noah passed away at the age of 10. “It was really hard because Aaron felt very different about the loss than I did. I took the perspective that we had more years with him [Noah] than we expected and I was grateful. But Aaron focused on the years he would miss out on.” Aaron’s grief was palpable explains King. “I thought I’d just give him space – I thought we had the next 50 years to get over it.”
Three and a half months after losing Noah, Aaron died suddenly from heart failure while on the family’s first holiday after their loss. He was just 39 years old. The shock for King and her three remaining boys still lingers, as it does for her family and their Tasmanian community. “I miss just having my best friend to talk to. I have all these thoughts about the boys and work and I just want him to walk through the door so I can tell him,” she says.
Two years on from such a catastrophic loss her ideas about the future and love are tinged by the well intentions of others who suggest she might marry again. “You can’t just turn off your feelings because [a person is] gone. I feel Aaron around at different times – he is gone physically but he is still with me,” she says. “How could I be connected to someone else if I’m still connected to Aaron?”
For Lisa, her version of a happy ending might be about learning to live alone. “I do get scared about the future but I’m always going to love Aaron,” she explains. For King, life isn’t about moving on, it’s about acknowledging what stirs within. “I don’t want to marry someone just because I’m lonely. I’m lonely for Aaron, that’s all”.
Removing the mask
Alison Braun’s face might be instantly recognisable. Having made it to the final two contestants in a popular Australian weight-loss programme she found people felt connected with her as she stepped out of the show and back into the real world. That real world was shattered only six months later, though, when she lost her husband, Bob, after he took his own life following a battle with depression.
She says, “I got the call and from that point on I was a widow.” Braun still finds the word widow difficult to say.
The shock, coupled with the grief, was packed away as Braun tried to keep the family afloat. “We had no insurance, I was basically left with the last pay cheque,” she explains, pushing herself on to the speaking circuit. The trauma of telling her story and the story of Bob’s death too soon came at a cost. “His life became consumed by my story and there was little space to talk about how much he loved his family, how he would do anything for his children.”
Two years after Bob’s death, Braun found herself back in the dating world. When a relationship became serious she was forced to consider how the past and the future would merge. “I had all these silly ideas going through my head like, ‘Am I allowed to have photos of Bob around? Will I offend him [her new partner]?’
“My children needed to see photos of their dad around. They weren’t like divorced kids – they didn’t get to see their dad on weekends,” she explains.
A year later, despite effort from both sides, her new relationship ended. “I really hadn’t dealt with my grief, my new partner was establishing a business and it just meant that we lost everything we had set out to do,” she says.
Braun is philosophical about the future and is unsure if love plays a role anytime soon. “I tell others going through similar losses to try not to put the poker face on. It’s okay to be vulnerable, it’s okay to be sad and to be sad in front of your kids. I had a poker face on for too long because
I thought people wanted to see that I could manage. I couldn’t slip at all but maybe now I let myself do it some of the time.”
Learning to lean in
Tracey Scott was 33 when she lost her husband, Grant, after a short battle with cancer in December 2002. Their child, Fraser, was only 18 months old.
“Before Grant was diagnosed I remember having a conversation with him about the fact there wasn’t just one person in the world for everyone,” she says. Those words swirled in her head in the months after losing him. “Grant had told his dad that I would meet someone else, joking that ‘he’d be good, but he won’t be as good as me’.” She held on to that idea.
Scott had some uncomfortable thoughts in those first few months after Grant’s death. “I rallied against the idea that people were pitying me,” she explains. “That realisation when I had to tick the box that said widow” made Scott feel as if she had lost her identity – that all people saw was that she had been left behind. Four months after Grant’s death Scott began to panic. “I kept thinking, I have to get out there!”
There was a frenzy of speed dating, of signing up for online sites, but she realised she was looking for a replacement for Grant, not a new love. Sitting with the idea of lost love had multiple layers for Scott. “I missed the physicality of someone touching me, I missed my best mate and I missed the fact my son didn’t have a father,” she says.
Scott learned to pack away some of her love in order to move forwards. “I think about love and grief in different boxes now. You can love in different ways – I saw the love I had with Grant as a childhood sweetheart and I provided new space to have a different type of love with my new husband.” Scott met Craig in 2006 – two years after she challenged herself to stop searching and start living. She waited until their second date before she shared the story of Grant – careful to allow herself to not feel judged about being a widow and space enough to allow Craig to see her for who she had become. “Craig doesn’t define me by my loss. There are videos of Grant, of our life before he died, and Craig will sit with me and Fraser, and sometimes he’ll watch from a distance. He knows when it’s something I don’t need him to lean in on.
“I think we have unlimited capacity to love in different ways, at different times in our lives,” explains Scott. That is what losing a love and gaining another has shown her. “It makes us rethink the lives we are meant to live and the lessons we learn because the days do get lighter. I know they do.”
Navigating through grief
Susie Tuckwell, a Sydney-based relationship expert, explains that when a partner passes away those left behind are often on the receiving end of the good intentions of others. Tuckwell reminds people that many are just trying to offer ideas of hope when they suggest re-partnering. “There is no need to argue or be cantankerous, but no need to offer a response either,” she suggests.
Dates like Valentine’s Day can unearth the feelings of anger, sadness or shock that come from losing someone but she suggests that sitting with those feelings can provide the chance to remember the person. “Revisiting old haunts and remembering happier times can be bittersweet. [So can] finding an item of clothing unexpectedly, a handwritten note, a photo – but there is no need to be in a hurry to get rid of reminders if it provides a way of reconnecting with the person who is no longer here.”
Just like every relationship is different, so too is the way we grieve and how long we feel we need to sit with the emotional connection of a lost partner. ‘‘There is no magic formula, time can be a great healer,” says Tuckwell.