Grief, like death, is still taboo for many of us. But is that starting to change?

There are often no words for what we endure. Yet after the pandemic, more people are trying to find a language of loss


Widow is an awful word. It conjures up such drab and lonely images; and besides, it defines a woman by what she has lost and what she no longer is. But at least there is a word for having lost your husband. For the other heart-stopping losses that come to many in midlife, and some even earlier – the death of your parents, or of a sibling, or a child, or perhaps a best friend – there isn’t even a word. Yet these are life stages in their own right too, and deserving of closer understanding. For some reason, which may or may not be connected to the raw and unpeeled state of our emotions after a pandemic, a small window now seems to be opening on to an underexplored world.

The writer Clover Stroud’s The Red of My Blood, a memoir about trying to make sense of the death of her 46-year-old sister, Nell, from cancer, was published recently to a chorus of recognition and relief from some bereaved readers. After the funeral and the flurry of condolence letters, and the awkwardness of people just not knowing what to stay, there is still the long haul ahead of reconstructing a good life without someone who used to be central to it. And that’s what this book is about. Clover is a working mother of five: she might be dazed with grief but there is still pasta to be cooked, school runs to be done. In the spaces in between, however, she is constantly puzzling over the seeming impossibility of Nell being gone. How can she simply stop existing? The book revolves around Clover’s constant search for her sister, looking for her in photographs and in places they went as children and in the last things she touched when she was still alive. When you lose someone you love, they are suddenly everywhere but nowhere. Decades on, I still remember that irrational lurch of recognition at the face in the crowd that surely has to be them – except, of course, when you get closer it isn’t, and can’t ever be again.

More pragmatic but no less quietly moving was the interview Harriet Harman gave last week to Sky News’s Beth Rigby about coming to terms with the loss of Jack Dromey, her husband of 47 years. They were one of the most devoted couples at Westminster, and Dromey’s unstinting support for his wife powered her through the most gruelling stages of her career, juggling small children with working in a parliament still deeply hostile to women. But intensely as she will have felt the loss, as she points out she might have decades left to live without him – and she is trying to figure out how widowhood can become a different chapter in life, not the end of it. “People say, ‘Oh now that you’re on your own …’ but – I’m not with Jack any more, but I’m not on my own. I’ve got my children; I’ve got my friends; I’ve got my work colleagues. And I don’t agree with the notion that’s somehow out there that when you’re a widow your life is over and that somehow you’re a lesser person,” she told Rigby.

For all the grief and loss, she said, “people are themselves in widowhood just as they are themselves in the rest of their life”. As women they are very different characters, but both Stroud and Harman are grappling with essentially the same thing: how to find life again in the midst of death, without pushing away or denying the reality of what has happened.

It’s a stage most of us would perhaps rather not think about, even though grief comes to almost everyone who loves someone in the end. But if death itself is the last taboo, then the final frontier to be breached is what comes after; the slow, difficult process of learning to live with that loss, which takes much longer than the impatient outside world is often willing to accept. Time heals, everyone says, and there is a sort of truth in that. The wound doesn’t go away but it does change, slowly solidifying into scar tissue that will always be there. The beauty of Clover’s book is that there is no neat ending, just as in death there so often isn’t. What’s left, however messy, is the search for a different way of living.

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