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Widowhood as portrayed in film and television


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After many months of forced solitude due to COVID, I'm sure most of us have spent a lot more of our time in front of the TV.  And though there are countless other activities I try to or should pursue, I suppose this post is just my way of justifying at least some of the time I spend watching TV (which includes steaming media, as well).  While I'm inclined to watch sports ahead of anything else, I admit to having a couple other guilty pleasures:  travel shows, and those movies or TV shows depicting loss and widowhood.

 

Before listing any specific shows or movies I have watched recently, here are a few thoughts about the subject matter I find I am drawn to, and what things I find helpful or irritating about how loss and widowhood before the age of 50 is depicted...

 

1.)  Travel

 

I lost my wife, Rhonda, in December, 2016, when we were both 49.  We had no children, and were together for 23 years (married for 19).  I am forever grateful for the experiences we had travelling together prior to her cancer diagnosis 8 months before she died.  She was the more adventurous of the two of us, and in her life she was able to visit many more places than I have.  In my reluctance, and in my stead, she was usually able to convince her sister or a friend to join her to the "exotic" places I had no interest in myself.  But we did our share of travel together, mostly to Europe, and we always had ongoing discussions about where we should go next.  This obviously explains my predilection for travel shows, particularly those about cities or countries we had visited together - Scotland (where we had been 5 times), England, Sweden, Latvia, and Italy, most notably.  It was not always understood by me, but I know full well now why Rhonda loved to travel.  Away from the stresses of work and life at home, nothing replaces the experiences shared and the discoveries afforded by visiting somewhere so different from what you know.  And it's the "shared" part that is so bittersweet now... and the reason I seek out shows or YouTube channels about places we had been.  It helps keep those memories vivid in my mind since the ability to relive them with my wife isn't possible.  And let's be honest, no one else will ever be able to fully appreciate what Rhonda and I experienced together - it's a fact of life when you lose your best friend and the person you are most intimate with.  Besides, we lived these experiences together for ourselves, not for anyone else.  I can't have it both ways, nor would I have wanted to.  It's what helped us define "us"...

 

2.)  Widowhood

 

There are a few different reasons why I have been watching (or re-watching) shows that are about losing a wife and/or living life now as a widower.  Some come from the fact I don't have anyone in my immediate family, or among my peer group of friends and former co-workers, who has lost a spouse and can talk on a personal level about their experience.  Again, it's something only understood by someone who has been there.  I suppose there is also some deep-seated need for me to know that what I'm facing isn't a singular experience.  The isolation and loss of social interaction forced on all of us because of COVID probably hasn't helped, either!  Still, seeing representations on screen of others who are going through, or have survived, the experience of losing a wife has helped me to measure how real or unreal my expectations are for what my life as a widower can, should, or shouldn't be like.

 

To generalize, I have found that while many shows attempt honest depictions, many others are just stupid.  It's a difficult subject to begin with, so I can understand why many shows dance around the reality of loss, and far fewer try to depict a more realistic balance of all the emotions of love, pain, hopefulness and grief.  And I get it.  We all want a happy ending, or at the very least a hopeful one (i.e. every Hallmark Christmas movie about the young widow/er who finds love again during the holidays).  The problem is that grief and loss and loneliness and sorrow aren't typically subjects that sell advertising or ticket sales.  But I am inspired by those who write and produce shows that try to portray this reality, regardless.  I do wonder who else, other than the widowed, that the producers have targeted as their audience.  I recently watched an episode of a Netflix show with my Dad that I thought really captured some of what I have experienced in loss, and his only reaction was to ask me why I would want to watch this.  Again, it's lost on someone who hasn't had the same experience...

 

3.)  The Shows

 

I won't go into detail about each show, other than to say in a few words what I appreciate about each one (if anything).  This isn't a comprehensive list, just a sampling of what I've watched myself.

 

"After Life" (Netflix) - probably the show that has hit me the hardest.  The couple has no children and were each other's lives completely.  My experience exactly.  This excellent compilation of scenes never fails to get to me (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uYe9RsR0WIM).  If you can get past Ricky Gervais' sarcasm and crudeness, there are many moments of sentimentality and genuine pain that are as real as anything else I've seen.

 

"Shadowlands" (1993 movie starring Anthony Hopkins & Debra Winger, based on the life of author C.S. Lewis who lost his new wife to cancer at age 45) - Lewis' memoir about his experiences, "A Grief Observed", is probably very familiar to many of you.

 

"Wit" (2001 movie starring Emma Thompson about an English Professor who at age 48 is diagnosed with cancer and undergoes 8 months of treatments before dying) - a movie that is told solely from the perspective of Emma Thompson's character, it gives incredible insight into what learning you are dying is like.  My wife was also 48 when she was diagnosed with cancer, and the woman's reluctance to share her fears and emotions with anyone was eerily similar to how my wife struggled to do the same in her final weeks.  It's a tough watch.

 

"I Still Believe" (2020 movie about musician Jeremy Camp who lost his first wife to cancer in 2001)

 

"The Unicorn" (a CBS sitcom that debuted in 2019) - Wikipedia explains the plot as follows (definitely NOT my experience):  "A recently widowed father with two daughters is encouraged by his friends to re-enter the dating scene. To his surprise he becomes highly sought after due to his status as both an eligible widower and as a devoted father."

 

"Kevin Can Wait" (a CBS sitcom that ran from 2016-2018) - another sitcom about a young widower with 3 children.  I know it's a sitcom, but I think I could probably count on one hand the number of times the subject of loss was even mentioned.

 

 

That's it...  sorry for the long post.  I'd love to hear about other shows or movies that have reflected your experiences back at you from your screens.

 

Steve

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

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Minny9,

It will be 10 years this week since my husband died and I still find some comfort in watching shows about widows and widowers.  I guess part of it is seeing how the experience is portrayed and whether or not I can relate. Sometimes I watch and think they are so far off of depicting reality and other times it really resonates with me.  I too watch the Unicorn.  When it first came out I watched it hoping for comfort and something to relate to.  There are a few things that come up on that show that I can relate to but not many.  I am now watching Dead to Me on Netflix.  While it is pretty far fetched in most areas, there are some things that I can relate to and find funny.  Probably more so in the fact that she gets angry at her husband after he's dead when she finds out he had been cheating and how she zones out sometimes when she is stuck in a memory, which I think I still do on occasion.  And I have probably watched every Hallmark movie out there and like to think that there is a happy ending like that for everyone! 

 

There were others I've watched over the years but can't think of them at the moment!  

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Nice write up. Thanks for that.  9 years here.  How?  So, I have watched a few here and there. 

 

Unicorn - sitcom comedy.   Seems the jest of it is to get him laid first and then recoupled and all will be right in the world.  Hmmm.....

 

Return to Me  - Sappy sweet and nice fairytale.  I enjoyed it but knew what it was.

PS I Love You - Again, great book BEFORE I became a widow.  It had some good parts.  But still very syrupy.

 

Never have been a hallmark movie watcher.

Seems the world thinks if you couple up, then all is right in the world. I really wanted that, and reality hit me head on.  Happy for those who do find that, but life is full of twists and turns.  So.....

 

"This is Us" is my new crybaby show.  It is gut wrenching. I do think it portrays some of the realities of widowhood. But since the story focusses on so much of the 3 kids and how their life is impacted when their dad dies when they are 17 and continued angst, that makes me feel sad and hopeless for my son.  I truly hope my son is not "emotionally damaged" and struggles with all his life decisions because of his father's death. I don't see that in him, truly.

Been a Grey's Anatomy fan off and on.  I think the character Meredith Grey actually portrays the longevity of the loss better than expected. The show is on the extreme end of most things, but I see her working through it over years, and it makes sense. 

 

My cousin wrote her first fictional book, "The Widow's Season".  Her mother/my aunt became widowed in her 40s, my uncle dying in a drowning accident. Read it before I was a widow, and it was "okay" and a bit intriguing.  Liked she used family names in it.  She wrote her dissertation on widows in English literature and is a college prof. The book is quite fictional. 

 

Thanks for your lists. Shadowlands looks appealing as I am a CS Lewis fan.  I'll check some of them out. 

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Ditto on the sappy Hallmark movies, widowed subject or not. They can give you a toothache.

When I was newly widowed Hallmark did screen some worthwhile movies on the topic. This predates Crown Media's homebrew movies shown today. I can't watch anything on that channel with the exception of When Calls the Heart. That's getting boring too.

 

Some westerns have interesting episodes on widow(ers). Usually it's a one shot deal. The town helps the widowed person and they are never seen again. At least it's not the creepy recouping topic.

 

I agree with OP's assessment that we are not great subjects for commercial sales. 

 

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Interesting read, thanks for posting. I know some people don't like Hallmark as being too sappy. However, there is a movie from 2014 called "The Color of Rain" and it is based on a true story. I thought it was well done, even the happy ending with a new family of seven all at the altar together.

 

I am at 2 years on February 19th so it has been a sad Valentine's Day for me. Take care everyone!

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This thread recently reminded me of a sitcom in syndication that I can't stand. The Golden Girls. If the tv is on and I hear the first note of the theme song I hit any button on the remote to make it go away.

 

Women share a house. One widow is a dingbat. Very kind but not too bright. The other is a ho. The brains of the outfit is a cynical divorcee who cannot keep her hands off her married ex husband or other people's husbands on occasion.   Her widowed mother lives there too. The elderly widowed mom has good sense.

 

The stereotype is not helpful for new wids. There are actually people IRL who subscribe to this and treat us accordingly. In the early grief I often thought there may be a website somewhere that lists fresh widows. So many creepy men approached. Other people acted as if I was drooling into a cup. The race to recouple me on an ambush basis was aggravating. 

 

 

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Thanks for the feedback, everyone.  As an aside, my late wife earned her Masters in 2014 at age 46 (after 28 years in health care administration) to become a librarian.  Her passion was books and she was hired at our local public library 6 months before her cancer diagnosis.  She wasn't able to have the long and rewarding career as a librarian that she envisioned, but she did ultimately realize her goal of serving her community in this capacity - even if it was only for 6 months.  And she was so intelligent and so well-versed in so many topics.  And on this topic, I can almost hear her now, reminding me that I can't expect to find all the answers "in just one book", or in this case, just a TV show or movie...

 

Anyway, here are another couple of movies to add to my earlier list (my earlier opinion about happy endings notwithstanding):

 

 

a)    "Message In A Bottle"   (1999 movie starring Kevin Costner & Robin Wright) - Kevin Costner's character loses his young wife, Catherine, and types a heartfelt letter to her, places it in a bottle, and puts it out to sea.  A journalist (Robin Wright's character) finds the bottle washed up on a Cape Cod shore, and, upon reading it, is struck by his obvious love and devotion for Catherine, and sets out to find the author.  And so starts the journey...

 

This movie actually confronts some common challenges experienced as a young widower, including struggling to decide what to do with her belongings, dealing with impetuous and self-seeking in-laws, and the mixed emotions and uncertainty that comes from entering into a new relationship.

 

 

b)    "Sleepless In Seattle"  (1993 movie starring Tom Hanks & Meg Ryan) - unlike the other shows & movies I've listed, I had seen this movie before - long, long before - my wife died.  I actually haven't watched it recently, probably because of the "happy" ending, but I digress...

 

"Sleepless In Seattle" shares a similar plot line to "Message In A Bottle" (i.e. a reporter hears a story about a young widower and sets out to find him), and, well, you know the rest...

 

 

Steve  

Edited by Minny9
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An interesting discussion...I haven’t seen some of these shows but I have to be in the mood.

 

I agree about the Hallmark movies that they want widows and widowers to become ultimately recoupled and have a healed heart. I think there was only one I can recall where personal growth and finding Christmas spirit was the actual goal. I sort of liked that one because I understand trying to avoid holidays after losing my husband. I do appreciate the positivity that you can find love again and find a partner who understands you as you are. 
 

Kenan - a new show, selling it as a sitcom with Kenan Thompson as a widower raising his kids and his friend and father in law helping him out a la a modern take on Full House. In the first episode, we learn his wife died and he’s on the morning news show. He goes into work and he wants to do a piece about thanksgiving one way but his coanchor another way and he has an outburst because he doesn’t want to focus on the issue of family and togetherness because he’s broken but trying to gain normalcy through work. It struck a cord with me. I wish they didn’t try to sell this show to be a comedy. I haven’t watched any more of it yet.

 

In Downton Abbey, when the main characters lose their spouses, I felt it was portrayed for both the widows and widowers. 2 of them were young wids. 

Sleepless in Seattle - the part when he’s on the radio show talking about his wife makes me tear up and feel those hurtful pangs. 
 

I’ll have to think about it some more but those are on the top of my head. 

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