One of my favourite parts of the interview with a bereaved spouse is when I ask them the question ‘How did you meet each other?’ and hear about their particular love story. So often the harrowed expression of grief is momentarily cleared as the person goes back to the beginning of the story in their thoughts.
Immediately the years just fall from the face, a smile returns and a sense of youthful spirit animates their words. Just for a moment they are stepping out of the awfulness of the present and given respite from the loss, as the often difficult last years fall away from consciousness and we are bathed in the atmosphere of more innocent times. Everyone present is witness to the most intimate of places – the kindling of a love relationship; the start of something that has drawn us all here so many years later, the fruits of which include families, homes and friendships. Sometimes even the children will not have heard the story – who is comfortable with the idea of parents having sex after all!
In a world where fairy stories end with ‘and they happily ever after’, we are privileged to get to hear just how that ‘ever after’ turned out, how a couple made it work and the nitty gritty of everyday life learning to live with another human being. When we are present at the end of a great love story we get to see how it all turned out.
I have been privy to the most wonderful stories of romantic love, and despite all the psychologists telling us that there is no such thing as ‘love at first sight’, I can say that after hearing thousands of love stories, this is absolutely not true! The most unlikely love has flourished in the most unlikely of circumstances and to share the story with a bereaved spouse is truly one of the loveliest gifts, bringing them back full circle to the start of the adventure.
As it is Valentines day this month I will share with you here some the stories that stayed with me, and they are all completely true.
Jim had all three of his children with him when we met to talk about Sylvia who had died after 67 years of marriage. He was suffering with the onset of dementia and his children were keen to step in at the first sign of any confusion brought on in our group conversation. When I asked him a question it was mostly the eldest daughter who spoke for him to make sure that the facts were correct and help her Dad as he struggled to remember events.
‘What did you like about her when you first met?’ I asked, hoping he would be given the time to recall what happened. Liz answered. ‘You were at the carnival Dad, do you remember? She was with your sister.’
Jim was clearly thinking of something else and this version was not quite right. I encouraged the children to let him get there. We had plenty of time.
Finally he looked up triumphantly, a wicked twinkle in his eye. ‘I saw her knickers!’ He announced with a flourish. ‘She was doing forward rolls on the handrails outside the Three Horseshoes, and I knew she was the one for me! I always loved her.’
This had taken place when Jim and Sylvia were just 13 years old and 6 years before they finally got to meet in person. The children were horrified…that Dad would say such a thing in front of a stranger, and confess to such thoughts about their Mum. Til that day they never knew Dad was such a romantic.
Brena also knew she would marry her husband from their very first meeting. They had been attending a family wedding and she was just 7 years old. Tom was the son of a family friend some distance away and being so small Brena could not see what was happening at the reception. Tom, who was 14 at the time kindly lifted her up and put on the top of the grand piano, and later that afternoon she told her Mum that she would marry ‘that boy at the wedding’ one day. They did not meet again for 15 years and it was a chance encounter that drew them together. Brena did indeed marry Tom 20 years later.
If Alberts trip to Bristol had gone as planned he would never have ended up doing a tour around the Tobacco Factory in Bristol, stepping in at the last minute for a friend who dropped out. He and his colleagues were down from Yorkshire for work, and in those days people thought smoking was good for you. A fun day out at the factory was planned, although Albert really didn’t want to go. Their tour guide was one Joan from Bedminster and being a no nonsense lad from the North, he knew what he liked. And that was Joan. He asked her to marry him three hours later and they were married very happily for over 50 years.
“She didn’t have any faults! She was 100%, my perfect wife, and a great mother to the three boys… we all loved her so much. She was a Goddess. No faults at all”. Derek and Mary had returned home from Spain just in the last few years to be with the grandchildren who had arrived. They were doing up a new house when Mary had ‘unexpectedly died’ at just 58. Derek was distraught and utterly lost without his life partner and best friend. He described her in glowing terms, he adored her and the boys did too. Whatever faults she may have had, Derek never saw them, and just didn’t do ‘another side’. This ‘other side’ to Mary turned out to be rampant alcoholism as the death certificate made clear. For Derek though, Mary was and always would be perfect.
It is not that he was blind, Derek was a deeply accepting man who knew the true meaning of devotion and he was at her side until the end. Love really does ‘conquer all’.