How to find joy after losing a loved one

Three women share their stories about being widowed young—and how they handled their grief
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Get some structure back in your life

Regina-based lawyer Denise Batters met her husband, Dave, crossing a Saskatoon street while at a Progressive Conservative convention in 1989, when she was 19. She had no idea the two political junkies would become friends, let alone fall in love and, eight years later, get married. But she fell hard for the funny, energetic sports-lover, and he fell hard for her. Their future appeared bright.

But, in early 2008, everything changed. Dave Batters, who was by then a Member of Parliament for the riding of Regina Palliser, developed anxiety, which led to depression and a subsequent dependency on tranquilizing drugs. He was determined to detox from home, and started a program that had him taking less and less of the drugs, with the hope that he would eventually be able to completely eliminate them. But it didn’t work fast enough, and the talk therapy he pursued was too little, too late. “That’s when he lost hope and had a very tough time,” says Denise.

In the summer, he took a medical leave from Parliament, explaining to colleagues, and in a press release to the public later that fall, that he was struggling with mental illness and would not be running in the next election. Less than a year later, in June 2009, he committed suicide. He was just 39 years old.

“When you are dealing with mental health issues, you know it [suicide] is possible, but you are never prepared,” explains Denise. “It was a huge shock when Dave died.”

Dave’s life as an MP meant his illness and death were very public, which added a complicating but also surprisingly comforting dimension to Denise’s grief. “There is nothing that brightens my day more than hearing a story about Dave from his former friends and colleagues. He deserves to be remembered often for all his great qualities,” she says. By association, it also allowed Denise a wider scope to spread the word about mental health. This past spring, she made a presentation to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health in support of a private member’s bill about suicide prevention, and has spearheaded a commercial for television (check out “Dave Batters CMHA [Canadian Mental Health Association] Commercial” on YouTube). “I am taking a cue from Dave’s openness.”

After Dave died, Denise quickly went back to work. She also got support from friends and family, started riding her bike on weekends and watching her diet
(which had been on the back burner during Dave’s illness), and attended therapy and grief groups. But it remains hard; the lead-up to special dates, such as their wedding anniversary, is particularly difficult and can trigger profound upset for her. But Denise doesn’t back away from her emotions. “I need to allow myself to weep,” she says. 

One emotion she doesn’t feel is guilt. She did all that she could to help Dave; the illness was simply too powerful. She encourages anyone with a mental illness, or whose loved one is suffering, to seek help. “With depression, the stigma is starting to lift,” Denise says. “But talking about suicide is the final frontier.”

 

As a new year approaches, Denise is feeling better. Time does help, and she still marvels at the support she continues to receive from her community. “I am learning to smell the roses,” she says. “I’m living life again and I’m grateful for that.”

 

An expert’s advice

 

Going back to work quickly is helpful for many people, says Bill Webster, Toronto-based counsellor and executive director of The Centre for the Grief Journey, a company dedicated to support resources and services. “Structure is an antidote for chaos.” But timing is also very personal. He suggests young widows who are employed engage their company’s human resources department to help with reasonable back-to-work plans. With suicide, in particular, colleagues may not know what to say or do when the spouse returns to work; a “Lunch and Learn” seminar at the workplace, organized by the company’s HR department, could provide helpful strategies.

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