Courtesy of | By Guardian Readers and Sarah Marsh | Originally Published 12.06.2016 | Posted 01.08.2018

The death of an 89-year-old war veteran’s wife led him to find a new purpose in life. Here, others talk about how they coped with the loss of their other half.

For one 89-year-old war veteran, losing his wife led him to pursue a new purpose in life. Last week it was reported that Joe Bartley had posted an advert asking for a job to help combat his loneliness. He is now working for a local cafe.

We asked readers how they coped with the grief of losing a partner. Where did they turn for support? Did they focus on work or look for new passions? And were there words of support from friends and loved ones that genuinely helped? Here, four people tell their stories.

Gary Marson, 48, from Kingston upon Thames: I hope to learn to live again after my wife’s suicide

Gary Marson and Louise
 Gary and Louise on their wedding day.

My wife Louise, a talented and much-loved doctor, died by suicide in January 2015. It happened after a period of mental illness. I returned home from work to discover her body. She was 40, and I was 46. Both of us had spent so long trying to find love, and we had been together just four and a half years, married for three and a half. When you have so little time together the halves really count.

I knew immediately that nothing would ever be the same again. I experienced almost every possible emotion: grief, shock, bewilderment, guilt – especially guilt – anger, but above all love. It was like falling in love with Louise for the first time all over again, but this time without the possibility of her returning that love. I cried every single day for six months. I cried in a way that I never knew was possible, with my whole body convulsing.

But while my emotions were so heightened there was also a sense of numbness and disbelief. I could tell the story of how I found her to family and friends without it having any effect. I was on auto-pilot. People mistake that numbness for strength, but I call it nature’s anaesthetic. It was the only way I could continue to function.

Writing has helped me cope. I spent most of the first days pouring out my heart in my diary and then began to blog about my experiences. Whenever the waves of grief rolled over me I reached for the laptop. It was therapeutic and the process of writing focused and calmed me.

Two years on, things have become easier. The rawness of grief has faded and I’m trying (unsuccessfully so far) to date again in the hope of finding love once more. I can function at work, though still not quite at the same levels as before. Sometimes I seem to be able to break through the glass wall that has separated me from the rest of “normal” society and feel part of it once again.

But my loss is never more than seconds from the forefront of my mind. It’s a long, hard and lonely journey.

The human spirit is resilient, however. We can absorb and cope with even the most crushing loss. The way it is after two months is not the way it is after six months, let alone 12 or 24. You never forget, you never lose your love, but you learn to function again. One day I hope to learn that it’s possible to live again.

Isobel Rufus-Henry, 68, from Derbyshire: The pain never lessens but you just think about it less

Isobel’s husband Jack
 Isobel’s husband Jack.

My husband died in 2007 from skin cancer. At just 60, he was fit and strong. Six months after his initial diagnosis and treatment he developed secondary tumours in his brain and as a result he went on strong steroids that completely altered his character. He lost all self-awareness, becoming dangerous, mostly to himself but also, unintentionally, to others, he had no real understanding that he was ill and expected everything to remain the same. He couldn’t understand why he was not allowed to drive and I had to hide his car keys. Always an equable and reasonable man, sweet tempered and kind, his personality suddenly changed.

My employers were good and let me have compassionate leave to look after him, as although he was not ill enough to be in hospital, he couldn’t be alone. The doctors expected him to die in three months, but because he was so fit and strong it took nearly nine months. Over this time, he grew more bewildered and frustrated.

I rose to the occasion, as one does, and lived on adrenaline and little sleep. Towards the last two weeks, while he was in hospital floating in and out of consciousness, I was in pieces. I wanted his suffering to end but also didn’t want to lose him.

After his death, I found it difficult. The nine months of his illness had created an almost insurmountable barrier between me and the man I married. Although I knew that we had been happy I found it difficult to feel any of that happiness. I used to make myself remember happy times but it was as though I was an observer, not a participant. It took a while for that to change.

Loss hits people in different ways, and you know best how you feel. Other people’s expectations of your grief can be distressing, and I don’t think the pain of loss ever lessens. You don’t get over it, you just think about it less. When you do think about it, it can be as dreadful as ever. I feel so angry about what happened to him. I can accept his death but not the manner of it; it was not fair, although I don’t know why I expect life to be fair. It is hard to let go of the anger, because I feel I would be letting him down.

Alex, 55, from London: Our bond was so strong that, even with the terminal cancer diagnosis, we felt invincible

Birgül and Alex
 Birgül with Alex before she died

We treated the nine months between my partner’s cancer diagnosis and death as a time to grow and learn and to become ever closer. Birgül died 10 years ago on 1 November, aged 35.

We were fortunate our bond was so strong and so close that we felt, even with the terminal cancer diagnosis, that we were invincible. That is an amazing feeling which gave me enormous strength. But it is hard work caring for somebody so ill. It took a lot out of me at times but you just have to keep doing the best you can. Knowing that I had the love of such an extraordinary woman, and what she would have done for me had the roles been reversed, was another motivation.

Your life changes as you realise how fragile existence is and you suddenly appreciate your own mortality. Birgül was healthy as an ox, never smoked or drank, she exercised and ate amazingly well. Yet she still died.

The 10th anniversary of Birgül’s death was a month ago. I spent the day on my own visiting the crematorium where our son Marley, who was stillborn 11 months before Birgül died, was cremated. I felt very emotional. Her death changed me and I carry Birgül with me wherever I go. I give thanks that I met this amazing woman who made me a better man.

When it comes to grief my only advice is: do it your way. Also, don’t be afraid of who you are. Everybody will react differently and there is no right or wrong way. That doesn’t mean it will be easy but it doesn’t have to be a completely dark period. I know that the “be strong” remarks were meant helpfully but I found them fatuous and sought out people who didn’t make such remarks.

Chloe, 38, from Cardiff: I didn’t allow myself enough chances to just howl at the moon. Express your pain loud and clear

My boyfriend, then 22, died of sudden heart failure when we were both at university together. We had been together for 18 months and were head over heels in love. I was with him at the time of his death. Ambulance staff and then doctors at the hospital worked to save his life, but couldn’t. There was no outward sign, previously, of him being ill and the reason he died was probably genetic. We learned later that other family members had also died young.

My instant reaction was one of shock and disbelief. I had next to no experience of death at that age. I also felt weirdly numb and disconnected from what had happened.

I thought such a huge loss would make me collapse in a heap, but in reality it was more mundane. You end up dealing with your feelings in the moments everyday life leaves you to reflect. Unfortunately this was maybe not the right strategy and perhaps I didn’t engage enough with my emotions. I ended up dealing with crippling anxiety years later, which is now thankfully under control.

Fortunately I had a very good support system of friends and family. However, my time at university was coming to an end, so a large chunk of our friends dispersed. I could have gone home to my parents for a while but I felt like staying in a place that was familiar to us. I wanted to be with at least a few people who knew him well – his family, some of our friends. There were cherished moments when as friends we managed to grieve together. But as a group of young people we were at a loss when it came to dealing with our complex feelings.

In hindsight, of course, we were completely ill-equipped to deal with such an event. I was offered grief counselling, which consisted of six sessions. As a half-formed person with a lack of emotional maturity, I told the counsellor nothing of importance and unsurprisingly didn’t get much out of it. It has made me very aware of how little mental health support people are afforded in modern society.

I got on with life because there is only so much crying you can do before you have to go out and buy some milk. But I feel like maybe I didn’t allow myself enough chances to just howl at the moon. I would tell anyone in my situation to express their pain loud and clear without fearing other people’s reactions.