I still can't talk about it

SINGAPORE - "Be strong."

"It will be okay."

Well-meaning people peppered me with those words throughout the wake, and in the days and months after.

It was not okay. My husband had abruptly died. We'd shared our lives for 17 years.

Everything had to be re-learnt. Sleeping. Eating. There was no comforting presence. There were no future plans. There was never going to be a series of soft snores from that side of the bed. And the deep chuckles he'd have at some funny one-liner he'd come up with.

I had to accept that he was never going to come back.

It has been eight months.

I still cry at horribly unexpected times. Some days, I wear a tonne of non-waterproof eyeliner and eyeshadow in the hope that my vanity will win out over the tears.

I think I do a good job at functioning, on the surface. Except I can't seem to talk about "it". I have become a social hermit.

Seeing other people happy makes me feel selfishly sad. Worse, if they are happily married and have children.

I need to thank the people who have reached out and offered their condolences, company and comfort. I apologise if I have appeared cold or have turned away your offers of help. As the cliche goes, it's not you. It's me.

I haven't been able to deal with anyone delving into my life, or trying to help. I just want to be left to be.

There is one exception. One dear friend, who was also The Spouse's best friend, seems to have made it his life mission to make sure I survive and get through this time. We cry together over our loss.

He has encouraged me to laugh again without guilt. He celebrates my small victories and scolds me when I am being silly and self-pitying.

People ask me why I do this to myself. Snap out of it, they say. Stop going back over and over again. Don't chew on it, as it were.

And of course, they wonder - with the best intentions - whether writing this column is good for my sanity.

But I felt it was important to acknowledge that while losing your spouse is one of the worst traumas one can go through, there are places in the world where being a widow is a veritable death sentence.

In these cultures, widows are considered unlucky, and are ostracised and shunned.

According to The Loomba Foundation, which helped created the UN-ratified International Widows Day, many widows become victims of mental, physical and sexual abuse, including rape.

Some cultures think that the husband's death is due directly to the widow, her insufficient care, her witchcraft or bad luck.

Some are subjected to customary 'cleansing' rituals, involving having sex with a member of the deceased husband's family or a stranger.

Many end up living in severe poverty and are vulnerable to exploitation.

On Friday, UN Women acting head and Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri drew attention to the estimated 115 million widows living under the poverty line, and the 81 million who are subjected to physical abuse - often by their own family members.

There are ways to help.

One NGO in India is distributing colourful saris to the women who are often forced to wear only white. Visit www.gfa.org/helpwidows

I think I am lucky to be in Singapore. The only time I ever felt a modicum of unease and superstition around widows was during Chinese New Year, where I politely excused myself from the visiting caucus so that I would not offend anyone who was the slightest bit "pantang" (Malay for superstitious).

Hopefully in time, all the little bits that people are doing all over the world - including publishing today's stories about brave widows who have confronted life's challenges, as well as this commentary - will go to change mindsets.

Widowhood is one of the hardest things anyone has to go through.

We don't need to make it harder.


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