The Daily Challenges Of Learning To Be A Widow According to a report by the Loomba Foundation, at least 245 million women worldwide have been widowed, and almost half are living in poverty. In addition to processing their grief from losing their husbands, they must also sort out their social lives, finances and everyday routines.
NPR logo

The Daily Challenges Of Learning To Be A Widow

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/128646449/128646438" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Daily Challenges Of Learning To Be A Widow

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

First of all, wrote Gwen Romagnoli in the Boston Globe, it's the word itself: widow. It makes me think of a woman in a long, black dress, a length of black shawl trailing across her shoulders, sweeping through the dusty road of a 19th century village. Or she might be looking out to see from her perch on a widow's walk. Certainly, it's a term only for very, very old people. It can't be for me.

Gwen Romagnoli lost her husband, Franco, a little more than a year ago, and also wrote about the tax forms, the magazine subscriptions, Social Security, the estate. She joins us today to talk about widowhood.

If that's your story, too, give us a call. Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, an argument for the decriminalization of cocaine. Author Tom Feiling joins us. But first, widows.

And joining us now from the studios of the Christian Science Monitor in Boston is writer Gwen Romagnoli, who co-wrote a book about food in Italy with her husband, the late Franco Romagnoli, the Italian chef and TV personality. Nice to have you with us on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Ms. GWEN ROMAGNOLI (Author): Thank you, Neal. It's nice to be here.

CONAN: And we were very taken with your piece in the Globe, in part because you wrote about how you were always being reminded of your status.

Ms. ROMAGNOLI: That's true. In fact - well, first of all, it's the kind of thing I would not have been able to write a year ago. It's something that you can do after some time passes.

And I just seemed to be inundated by these forms, and I didn't seem to mind when I had been divorced. Somehow, seeing the box "widow" just didn't sound right to me. It just didn't seem to fit.

So that's why I wrote about, particularly, these pieces of paper that I kept being confronted with. I was the executor of the estate. I had to do taxes. You have to go to the Social Security office. You have to go to the bank. You have to say what your status is, all the time.

CONAN: Executrix is not one of those words we get to use often.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROMAGNOLI: No, it's not. But yes, that's what I was - or executor -so that the first months are actually very painful because you have to keep going through that paperwork, because it has to be done near the beginning. That's the estate taxes. Other things don't hit you quite as much at first.

CONAN: You mentioned your divorce. We should explain: You were married young and then divorced, and then remarried rather late in life.

Ms. ROMAGNOLI: Yes. In fact, I met Franco when I was 63, and one of the things that I do think about is that we just didn't have enough time together. You know, it sort of - it wasn't fair. And I know women who've lost their husbands after 50 years, and I think, oh, they're lucky. They had 50 years. And I wanted more. And then I think, well, it has to be pretty hard to be with somebody for 50 years, also. So I haven't figured out - I think it's pretty difficult for all of us.

CONAN: Do you still get notices from museums and musical associations -that send their notices to the both of you?

Ms. ROMAGNOLI: To Franco and Gwen, yes. In fact, there was one that came today, and I still don't know what to do with them. I also - somebody reminded me that my email address has his name in it, and I know that, but I like to look at it. So I haven't changed it yet.

CONAN: You like to look at it? It's not a painful reminder at this point?

Ms. ROMAGNOLI: It's better. I think it was harder at the beginning, and now I just - maybe it's one of the things that lasts a while, you know, to be able to keep seeing his name, so that maybe he's not totally gone away, something like that.

CONAN: Do you still wear your ring?

Ms. ROMAGNOLI: That's so interesting you said that, because that's one of the things that I don't know what to do about. I'm going to write another article about things like that: clothing, ring. I - he was sick for quite a while before he died, and he was not able to wear his wedding ring because it didn't fit. So I've been wearing his wedding ring, my wedding ring and the engagement ring for more - well, almost two years now.

And I keep wondering: When are you supposed to take it off? I don't know. I haven't decided.

CONAN: You mentioned clothing. You're not wearing black, are you?

Ms. ROMAGNOLI: No, not in that sense, not like the widow that I portray in the piece. Because - I'm thinking about his clothes, because I have a friend whose husband died around the time mine did, and in the first week, she was able to give his clothes away or throw them away. And I cannot do that.

I spend a lot of time just holding his shirts or smelling them, you know, and I'm sure it'll come at some point. It feels like different things happen on different days, that you can let go of, and different people do it in different ways.

CONAN: It would be interesting to hear another view. Let's bring in a voice from New York now, Anne Roiphe, the author of a book called "Epilogue: A Memoir," about her own experience of widowhood. She lost her husband, Herman, after - her husband of 39 years after a heart attack. And Anne Roiphe, nice to have you back with us.

Ms. ANNE ROIPHE (Author): Thank you, Neal. I was listening to all this, and I could feel my heart beginning to pound again. It's just so difficult for everyone, and for everyone in a different way.

And all these little reminders, you know: the name on an envelope, the name - the shirt in the closet. Everybody has to come to some kind of willingness to let go in their own time, in their own way.

And, you know, I now have been a widow for four and a half years, and there's still things I hold onto, and there are still moments when I'm, you know, struck through the heart.

I don't think there's - I wish there was a formula, you know, like you -the way you can feed a baby and burp the baby, and you know what to do. This is something none of us know what to do, and everybody fumbles.

That's - you know, I did manage to get my ring off my finger within the first month because I didn't want to fool myself. I wanted to be able to look down at my hands and say, yes. That's what's happened.

CONAN: In your book, you wrote: Grief is in two parts. This first is loss. The second is the remaking of life. When you were with us after your book came out - what, I guess about a year and a half ago or so -you were talking about, yes, it was still difficult but yes, you were also going on with the remaking of your life. How's that going?

Ms. ROIPHE: Well, it's going. You can tell by the fact that I'm breathing. And not only am I breathing, but I'm writing - which is, for me, a very big part of living. And one of my daughters had just had a second child, who is now almost 2 weeks old. And I look at that baby and I think, you know, I am so sad that Herman didn't get to see this little boy, and I am so happy that I got to see him. And there's something about the force of life that moves forward that just so impresses me and saves me.

CONAN: And saves you. Gwen Romagnoli, I wonder if that gives you any heart.

Ms. ROMAGNOLI: Yes. I do think about - I - because it was a late-in-life marriage, both of us, I have four stepchildren and four step-grandchildren. And some of them are too young - one of them, at least, too young - to even remember if we called him Babo - because, you know, Franco was from Rome, and he was called Babo.

And so I do think about that, and I think about my son's two children, my own grandchildren, and thinking they don't have their grandfather.

So it definitely is something that comes up quite a bit. But I also am finding that, as Anne said, that starting to do more writing is helping me, like this first piece that I wrote.

I think of so many things that I'm writing about now, and it does help me. I had mostly done travel writing before, or writing together with Franco about Italy. I'm working on a book called "Gray Love" for a long time, and that's about meeting someone later in life, falling in love with somebody when you're older. I'd stopped after he died because it was hard to continue, but maybe soon I'll be able to pick that up again.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Amy is with us from Cincinnati.

AMY (Caller): Hi. I became widowed 10 years ago, almost exactly, July 12. I was 51 years old, and my husband was 56. Are you guys there?

CONAN: Yeah.

AMY: Okay. And when I heard your theme, I had to call because I did a lot of writing and recovery and similar things to the people on your show were talking about. And a few months after he died, I coined a term called widow in the backseat.

And it had very little to do with cars. It had to do with being 51 years old and suddenly sort of having no place in the world. I had always worked. I was very - seen as very competent and independent, but suddenly, the whole shape of my life changed. And over the years, through writing and traveling and exercising and friends and family and therapy, I really was able to rebuild my life.

And - but that widow, the changing role of becoming a widow is just remarkably stunning, and I don't think anyone who hasn't experienced can quite understand what that's like. And...

CONAN: Is part of that shock and - Amy?

AMY: Yes?

CONAN: Is part of that shock the widow in the backseat?

AMY: Yeah. It's the shock that whether it's an important decision, you know, you're out and people are deciding what movie to see or where to eat, and you just feel grateful that you've got somebody to spend time with, so you don't care what you do. It's like losing your place in the world and...

CONAN: I wonder - I just wanted to ask Gwen Romagnoli: Is that - does that metaphor resound with you?

Ms. ROMAGNOLI: Yes, it does. In fact, I spent, after he died, I spent most of my time with my son and his family in Ohio because I wasn't able to stay in our apartment where we lived. Something like Anne said, about opening the door. I kept thinking he was going to come in through the door. And it was hard to stay there.

So it does get different and change over time. For me, it's been a year and a half. And the other thing that happened was Franco's book that he wrote about growing up during fascism in Rome as a child, called "The Bicycle Runner," that got published after he died. And I was asked to go around to bookstores and talk about it. That was a very bittersweet experience.

CONAN: Amy, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

AMY: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. More with Anne Roiphe and Gwen Romagnoli when we come back. We're talking about the experience of widowhood. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

We're talking about what it's like to be a widow this hour, and though it's different for everyone, it is a global experience. According to research commissioned by the Loomba Foundation, at least 245 million women worldwide have been widowed. Almost half, about 115 million, live in poverty.

Many of them are cheated out of their husbands' assets and property, even banished from the family home. Some suffer from discrimination and abuse. If you'd like to look at some of that research, there's a link on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

While widows around the world may suffer from financial problems like lack of income and opportunities, there are also just daily struggles to adjust to life without a spouse.

Gwen Romagnoli describes it as learning to be a widow. She's with us today. So is Anne Roiphe, the author of a memoir about learning to live without her husband. It's called "Epilogue."

Of course, we want to hear from you, as well. If this is your story, tell us, 800-989-8255. Email, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And I wonder for either of you, has this been a financial nightmare at all, Gwen Romagnoli?

Ms. ROMAGNOLI: Well, I was thinking about that when you were talking about the Loomba Foundation, which I really just found out about recently. I think that I'm lucky. I think probably many women in this country are luckier than a lot of other women in the rest of the world.

I actually had a career. I was working as a lawyer. So I had a career that I could fall back on, and I was able to be okay financially. I'm sure I don't know how true that is for a lot of other women.

CONAN: Well, Anne Roiphe, "Epilogue" is just one of your many books. You've been a writer a long time.

Ms. ROIPHE: Yes, I am a writer, but writers are not the most financially secure people in the world. And...

CONAN: Or emotionally secure, either.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROIPHE: Or emotionally secure, but that may be true of everybody. What I found was that there was a long period where I had to adjust to the idea of taking care of myself. I'm a 1950s-raised girl. I expected to be protected even when I was earning my own money, and I actually did very little about taxes or bills - or paid very little attention to it.

And it was a shock to realize I had to take over, I had to be responsible. It was one of the harder things that I had to do. However, it's doable. What's much worse is the emotional devastation. And I, you know, I feel so much better now that I can say to you clearly that this experience of loss is so devastating and so terrible, it's a wonder that so many of us actually do remake our lives and regain our sense of selves and move out again into the world.

You know, we are we widows are extremely impressive people.

CONAN: Let's get somebody else in on the conversation. Jenny's(ph) calling from Kensington in California.

JENNY (Caller): Hi, I'm 41 and just lost my husband a couple of months ago. He was a day shy of 58. He died of cancer. And in a way, it's a relief because his last six months were so uncomfortable for him, and even though I'm a nurse, it was hard, hard to take care of him, even though we had lots of doctors' appointments, plus take care of our two kids, age 4 and 5.

CONAN: With small children, that must be very difficult.

JENNY: Yeah, yeah, that was when he was and now that he's gone, I don't have as much work in the house, you know, as although I'm taking care of everything myself, I feel like the other things, housework is not so pressing as people care.

CONAN: And do you find that being as busy as you are with the children, that helps?

JENNY: Oh, yeah, I'm sure because with kids, you have a schedule. You have regular meals. You have ways to help kids learn. You read books. You do fun things. You do puzzles. So that's stuff that helps me. You go to parks.

CONAN: And even if you start to drift off, they will not be ignored.

JENNY: Yeah, I'm doing well. I see a counselor, and I take antidepressant medicines, but I had that before, well before my husband died.

My brother died of suicide, and that was much harder. And I learned from that that you really don't control what another person does or what happens to another person.

So learning that hard lesson of maturity about life is something I think is probably an honor; I can call it that now. And knowing, even, Dave(ph) -it was an honor to be with him toward the last few weeks of you know, the last - I lived with him throughout, throughout the diagnosis of cancer, and stayed with him in the hospital until he died. I'm sure it's an honor that many of us would love to do for our partner, and we can't.

CONAN: Gwen Romagnoli, you said Franco was - it was a lengthy illness. Was there a sense of relief?

Ms. ROMAGNOLI: I was just thinking about that, Neal, because he had been sick for quite a long time. He had kidney failure. Then we got a kidney transplant, and that worked for a while. Then that failed. So it was at least a year of just doctors, doctors, doctors.

And I he had been in the hospital so many times that and each time, he came back home, and I thought, well, each thing he had, it was he was going to get better. So the hard thing for me was the very last time, when he didn't come back. And I was not prepared for it, which was strange because he'd been sick for so long.

But because he had kept coming home again, the time that he died, I still I still have it in my head, that scene. And I find it just - wonder why I wasn't more prepared, in a way.

I do things like, I was thinking about the things that you can do as you go along the way. I've kept his pills all this time because I want to keep looking at them. And finally, one day I said: I can throw these away.

So I see these little steps that happen in this process, as time goes by.

CONAN: Jenny, thank you very much, and we wish you the best of luck.

JENNY: Oh, thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

JENNY: All right, see you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Joan(ph) in San Diego: My husband and business partner of over 15 years passed away suddenly of a massive stroke November 5th, 2005. I'm just starting to come back to Earth. It's visible. My friends and family are all remarking on my new look and energy.

Part of what helped was a counselor who made me relive the day Jerry(ph) died, what happened before, how he looked when I found his body, what I did, said, what happened next. As I relived every second of the terrible event and spoke it out loud, it was wrenching and terrible, but I was finally able to release the emotional charge that came with all the memories.

I was struck by how many women seem to be fine after their husbands died. I was so devastated when Jerry died. Four years later, I still cried when I spoke his name. My counselor said that for some women, it's like a get-out-of-jail-free card. But for me, losing my best friend was the worst thing that has happened in my life so far.

And I wonder, Anne Roiphe, you must have had a lot of response to your book, and a lot of chance to talk with a lot of people over the past couple of years.

Ms. ROIPHE: I have, and I would say that most of them agree, would agree with the email writer that you just quoted: It's the worst thing that ever happened to me. I may never be able to recover. I will recover. I can't recover. I need help.

It is not - it is not something that we can be prepared for. Herman died suddenly but of course, I was he was 82. I was not shocked that he died. I was shocked at the fact of death, and I think that that happens to all of us. It's a confrontation with our own mortality. It's a terrible loss. And it takes a long time to rebalance yourself.

On the other hand, there is that strength we have of being able to go out and look for someone else to love, look for friends to play with, look for courses to take, look for something that brings back puts your feet back on the ground in an ordinary way.

And I would imagine that given half a chance, not being financially devastated, women will make it. You know, we're tough enough. Most people just manage to sift through this terrible experience and move on.

And I get a lot of letters from people who have moved on - who, you know, want to tell me about their new job, their new work, their new love. So I know that it happens.

CONAN: Let's go next to Jules(ph), Jules with us from San Francisco.

JULES (Caller): Yes, I was my situation is different because I was widowed before I was 30. So I don't have any children from that marriage. I was living in Canada, actually, and my status over there was not settled at the time my husband died. So I ended up having to come back to the U.S.

So I kind of envy some of these women because they had years and years with their spouses, and I only had about a year and a half with mine before he passed away. Right before he got a bone marrow transplant, he went into the blastic phase from leukemia, and they weren't able to do anything for him.

CONAN: Hmm. And how did you respond to that? I know it must've been awful.

JULES: Actually, I had a very strange response. I - when I (technical difficulties), I ended up getting married to an ex-boyfriend less than six months later - which I'm not proud of, but I think it was just kind of a knee-jerk reaction to what had happened, and wanting to find some way to kind of deal with it. And I ended up leaving that marriage about two years later because I knew it was the right thing to do. But it took me a very long time to process the death of my husband.

CONAN: And how are you doing now?

JULES: Well, I'm doing better. I've - I mean, I kind of began processing it a few years ago with a therapist. And I'm better now, but I don't think the pain and the loss ever - I mean, it's been almost 13 years now. It'll be 13 years at the end of August. And I'll tell you what, if you're on a date with somebody and he asks you if you've been married before, and when I say, well, yes, twice. And they're like, twice? And I'm like, well, I was widowed the first time. That's a conversation stopper.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JULES: So - but you know, I have good memories of the time that we did have together. But I really wish that I would have had more time, and I really wish that we would've been able to have a child. That's my biggest regret.

CONAN: Jules, thanks very much for sharing that. Appreciate it. Good luck to you. Bye-bye.

Gwen Romagnoli, you're writing a book called "Gray Love." Can you see yourself in another relationship?

Ms. ROMAGNOLI: That's interesting. I was listening to her. I find it very hard to even - still, to get out of the house because I - when I used to work, I had schedule and I had a routine. And now I don't, so that I don't have to go out and work someplace 9 to 5. I can do whatever I want, or try to write at home. And imposing my own self-discipline is - I find much harder. And in a way, I wish that I had to go out.

With "Gray Love," I wrote that shortly after I had met Franco, because I had been divorced for 25 years. I had been on my own. And this -suddenly, I meet the love of my life in my 60s. And I thought we were unusual. And then I would start being invited to dinner parties and things, and find out that everybody else there had gotten married later in life, too. So - and they all had the same happiness, but also the same problems of each having grown children, financial problems and all the various things.

That's how I started writing "Gray Love," which is what my British friends said they call it over there in the UK. So as I say, I have put it on hold, because it was very hard to continue it after he died. But I hope to take it up again.

CONAN: We're talking with Gwen Romagnoli, whose husband passed away in 2008 - Franco Romagnoli, the famous Italian chef, author and TV personality. Also, Anne Roiphe is with us. Her book is "Epilogue: A Memoir."

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And let's see if we can go next to - this is Melissa, Melissa with us from Zimmerman in - is that Minnesota or Montana?

MELISSA (Caller): Minnesota.

CONAN: Minnesota, MN. Okay.

MELISSA: Right. Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

MELISSA: I'm so glad to hear this program today. It'll be 30 years -coming up a week from now - that we lost my dad. And my mother was 34, and I was 8. And he was in Vietnam and had Agent Orange exposure. And I hear so many coincidences. It's interesting. My mother was a nurse and tried to nurse him back to health.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

MELISSA: And I had just - want some advice. My mom - we never dealt with my dad's death. I think, like your guest is saying, my mom needed that schedule, needed to work, got very into her work. But the truth is we kind of lost our father and our mother. And I want her back.

And, you know - and I also want to say that every time you hear about a fellow coming home, or a mother coming home from Afghanistan or Iraq after dying for our country, there's often a widow, a very young widow, and children. And 30 years, and it still hurts so much.

CONAN: I wonder - and Melissa, thank you for that. And I know it's been a long time, but we're sorry for your loss.

MELISSA: Thank you.

CONAN: Anne Roiphe, I wonder, is there any advice you might give Melissa to pass along to her mom?

Ms. ROIPHE: I don't think that I could do such a thing over the radio. But I would like to say this - that something in your family needs to be talked about openly, between you. And I think that I have no doubt your mother loves you enormously, and you love your mother. And there must be some way that a conversation can be had that covers where things have been buried and the hurt has been so bad. And those conversations are very painful, but that's the only way to accomplish a greater closeness. That, I am sure of.

I also want to say - and I think it's important that we recognize - that war is almost a different kind of death. It happens communally. It happens to so many people. It is so outrageous and appalling, and we are so helpless to stop it, to stop our young men from being hurt, mutilated, killed, that it's a frustration and a pain that the whole community shares with you and your family as it goes forward and has - I mean, this has been true of every war that America has ever been in. And there are always widows, and there are children left without fathers, and children who lose their mothers because the mother can't recoup herself and maintain herself. And what we need to do is somehow fight against war.

CONAN: Melissa, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

MELISSA: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And I'd like to thank our guests that you just heard. Anne Roiphe, her book again, "Epilogue: A Memoir." She joined us from our bureau in New York. Thanks very much again for your time.

Ms. ROIPHE: Thank you.

CONAN: And Gwen Romagnoli, who just wrote about the loss of her husband, Franco, in an article in the Boston Globe, "Learning to be a Widow," and she joined us from the studios of the Christian Science Monitor. Thanks to you.

Ms. ROMAGNOLI: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Coming up, we'll be talking with author Tom Feiling about his book "Cocaine Nation," which tells the story of cocaine. And he makes an unlikely argument to legalize it. We'll talk to him about why next. Stay with us for that.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.