Courtesy of The Guardian.com | By Lucy Rock | Originally Published 02.24.2018 | Posted 03.02.2018
What’s the manual when you your partner dies? The Hot Young Widows Club is challenging preconceived notions of mourning.
Writer Nora in Minneapolis, psychotherapist Kim in Los Angeles, and book editor Ben in New York are all members of an exclusive group no one wants to join: the Hot Young Widows Club.
Despite the tongue-in-cheek name, it is not a niche dating site. The Hot Young Widows Club helps members cope with their grief following the early death of their partners.
You don’t have to be either female or considered “hot” to join. Nor do you have to have been married. However, with most members aged 25 to 44, the majority are young to be widowed.
A self described “secret Facebook group”, the HYWC is where members can freely vent, rage, laugh or cry – without judgment. It mostly happens online, with occasional meet-ups arranged if people happen to be in the same area.
Ben Loehnen, 40, joined last year shortly after his husband, Peter Wertheim, died suddenly from heart failure at the age of 39.
He says the support group has given him solace. “What’s so beautiful about it to my reading is that people use it almost like a confessional. There’s some wallowing, there’s tremendous pain on display, but there are also moments of real humor and hilarity and celebration and a reminder that life’s worth living.”
Ben, who met Peter at Harvard, is still “reeling” from his death. But he says that “grief can be very performative because you feel that you need to appear to be sad or somber all the time. The brain doesn’t work that way – you do still laugh and smile, etc – and this group allows for that.”
Ben’s words are pleasing to Nora McInerny – who co-founded the club with Moe Richardson – because her mission is to change the way we grieve.
Nora’s husband Aaron Purmort was 35 when he died in 2014 from brain cancer. She was 31 and their son, Ralph, not quite two. A few weeks earlier her father had died, also of cancer, and she’d had a miscarriage. Her pain was unfathomable.
“I didn’t even realize until a year after Aaron died that I wasn’t functioning in a productive way, because I’d never seen anybody grieve at all,” she says.
That year was the loneliest of her life. “I had a very hard time being close to anybody,” she said. “I didn’t know how to show them what I was going through and they didn’t know how to be there.
“I was so angry. People really want you to be gracious, and you want to be gracious. You want to be the person that at your husband’s funeral, people will go: ‘Oh wow, look at her go, she’s so good at this.’”
Nora, who lives in Minneapolis, began dating Aaron in 2010. Within a year, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor after a seizure at work. As they lay in his hospital bed that night, they decided to get engaged. They married in the art gallery where they had met, a month after his surgery.
During his treatment, Nora, who then worked in digital marketing, wrote a blog called myhusbandstumor.com. It was infused with her and Aaron’s sharp sense of humor and grew to have tens of thousands of followers.
Aaron, an art director, turned everything, even going to the hospital for chemo, into “an event,” she says. “I loved going to the hospital with him, it was so much fun. I would truly forget we were there to get chemo and things were bad. For hospital overnights, he would pack his bag with special movies and we would plan where we would order food in from.
When he died, the unconventional obituary they wrote together blaming his death on a radioactive spider bite went viral.
“I’d been so good at being Aaron’s cancer wife, I wanted to be the best widow the world had ever seen. Forget Jackie Kennedy,” Nora says.
“I don’t have a lot of the same friends I had before. I used to blame everybody else but me for that, but I didn’t make it possible for them to be there for me. A lot of people just stopped asking me out, because I’d always say no, I wasn’t ready.”
Nora wants us to realize that navigating death and mourning is messy and unpredictable.
Since Aaron’s death, she has published a memoir called It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying is Cool Too). She hosts a podcast called Terrible, Thanks for Asking where guests share devastating events in their lives. She has also started Still Kickin – named after the slogan on a favourite t-shirt of Aaron’s – which is a nonprofit that gives financial help to people having a difficult time.
And, of course, there’s the HYWC, which now has hundreds of members around the world, 6% of whom are men.
Nora said: “When it started, it was just me and Moe hanging out. We called ourselves the Hot Young Widows Club. Aaron made up that phrase – he used to make up jokes for me all the time.”
Moe’s husband, Andrew, killed himself two months before Aaron died. The hairdresser and her young son, who live near Minneapolis, met Nora after she posted the GoFundMe page for Moe’s family on her blog.
They recognize the HYWC won’t appeal to everyone.
Nora said: “The combination of those four words: hot, young, widows, club, does make people uncomfortable and I think that’s people who aren’t widowed. That to me is the appeal because it’s, like, now you get to be a little uncomfortable with this. We’re put in uncomfortable situations all the time, for example, you’re filling out a day care form as ‘parent number one’ and the ‘parent number two’ part is required on the digital form.”
There are HYWC t-shirts, mugs and pins. Nora even has a Hot Young Widows Club tattoo. “We have a lot of tongue-in-cheek days,” she said. “Grace in the UK posts Power Widow Wednesday, when you post one thing you’ve done well, it can be so little. There’s Widow Feel Friday, where people share their funny awkward stories, which I love – there’s a lot of dating stuff.”
Book editor Ben has found it useful to read how others dealt with important milestones, like a wedding anniversary or with questions such as when to take off your wedding ring.
He says: “There are people who are asking do I have to file a tax return for this or about issues around childcare. Then there are people who are saying: ‘I fucking hate my mother-in-law,’ or ‘I had a really good time last night, I went out and drank with some friends and I went home with a boy.’
“Or people start dating and they talk about how awkward it is on the first date to say: ‘I need you to know that I’m 32 but my husband died.’ It’s things they couldn’t say to anybody else because they would be censured and judged.”
He adds: “I’ve felt embraced by it and lifted up and reminded that as horrendous as this year has been, there are people with equal and greater privation. There’s a lot of sadness in the world and a lot of people who are figuring out how to get through it.”
Members like the fact that the group isn’t strictly moderated.
Kim Reddy, 40, has tried other groups since her husband Michael died in 2016 from appendix cancer but she likes the HYWC best.
“In other widow groups, the host has even deleted posts because I might have said ‘fuck’. With Nora’s group you can say what you want and there’s no judgment,” she says. “It’s more modern. The people are different to those on other sites, which is a reflection of Nora somehow. It’s very upbeat too. Some of the other groups make me feel very sad.”
Kim, who lives in Rancho Palos Verdes with her children Tyara, 26, Brent, nine, and Grace, four, said: “I tried one in person, but it was mostly older people who’d lost their partners to cancer in their 70s and 80s. My situation is unusual. I couldn’t really relate.”
Her husband Michael, a firefighter, was 39 when he died, four days after hearing he’d scored 97% in his captain’s exam.
“He was so ill and so determined,” says Kim. “I was so numb. I didn’t even cry at his service. I remember thinking this doesn’t feel right why am I not crying? Everyone was crying around me.”
She said the HYWC had been “amazing”, adding: “That’s when I realized my odd behaviors were normal.”
Kim has met up with other hot young widows on a trip to Minneapolis.
“Sometimes I don’t feel comfortable laughing around people who’ve not experienced this because I wonder if they think I don’t miss my husband or love him. In this group, I can make the funniest comment. I met this guy in a yoga class I was attracted to and I was able to say that. I could never say that to someone outside the group at this point.
“There is this void in the shape of my husband in my life and it can never be filled but I can still love someone else potentially – although I’ve not gotten there yet.”
Nora has. Last year she married Matthew Hart, a commercial interior designer. They have a 15-month old son, Quentin, and live with Ralph, now five, and Matthew’s two children, aged 11 and 16.
They met a year after Aaron died. “I had assumed, oh gosh, Aaron is dead, I’m going to be sad forever. Also, that I will be unlovable because no one will compare to him and I will never not love him and who would sign up to that? I was wrong. What I had with Aaron is such a strong foundation to build from. It’s not an emotional liability. I know what a good marriage is. I know what kind of a person brings out the best in me. I assumed they’d have to be in competition but they [Aaron and Matthew] are not.”
The more she hears about the experiences of the HYWC community, the more Nora has been struck by the way that friends and family react to death.
“You’re in the most fucked up time in your life and people are getting messages from their friends and family with things like: ‘I didn’t hear back about brunch, which is really rude and disappointing. I know you’re going through a hard time, but…’ People have these really specific expectations from a person who’s just gone through something extremely traumatic,” she says.
“Seeing those reminds me that I didn’t make this up, it’s not like just nobody gave a shit about me. Truly nobody’s friends know what they’re doing, it’s so common. I’m so glad people have a place where they can post that and not have people say: ‘Oh everybody’s doing their best.’
So how should you behave if someone close to you loses a partner?
Nora admits: “I’m not perfect at it. This past week I went to the funeral of a high school friend. I saw his widow and his boys and I walked up to her and said: ‘Oh my fucking god. I’m fucking sorry because it’s so shitty, you’re throwing a good party.’ I added her to the hot young widows club because I know it’s going to be more long term than the funeral.
“I try not to assume. I never knew what people were expecting of me. Were they expecting me to be hysterical? Maybe I’d had a really good day and just wanted to hang out and watch TV and eat take out and be a person.
“I think the thing we can do for each other is say: ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’”
Sound advice, and maybe one day as Nora and the hot young widows continue to challenge our preconceived notions of mourning, we’ll all become better at dealing with it.