The Saturday Night Widows

  • Becky Aikman
  • Crown
  • 352 pp.

A raw account of grieving and loss, this nonfiction work on becoming a widow, and the pursuit of happiness thereafter, may serve as a guidebook for those coping with the death of a spouse.

Reviewed by Robin Talbert

Journalist Becky Aikman, having failed to fit in with a traditional support group for widows, decided to start her own. Or, more to the point, she decided that writing about the experiences of other young widows would be the best way to process the range of emotions and challenges of adapting she experienced after the death of her husband. She disavows the traditional five stages of grief, opting for new theories that promote the pursuit of happy and new experiences, and provides readers with more current thinking from psycho-social research. With some guidance from a psychologist she interviews, Aikman realized that the “forced sharing of unpleasant memories with other wretched people can make somebody even more wretched. Good old-fashioned repression, it seems, is underrated.”

The author finds five other widows ranging in age from 39 to 57 and creates a monthly Saturday night ritual. They pursue new experiences that range from a cooking class to a trip to Morocco. The group members are to be commended for bringing to print their very private loss, their fears and doubts, as they move towards rebuilding their lives. Each of their stories is interesting and inspirational for readers who appreciate a window into life’s passages and relish learning from those who handle tremendous challenge with grace and courage. Touches of humor break up the litany of wrenching, sad and sometimes tragic situations. All of us who have experienced awkward conversations when expressing (or receiving) sympathy can appreciate that telling a new widow that her “ass looks amazing in those jeans” is probably not the best way to express confidence that a new love life is waiting around the corner.

The book is mostly well-crafted, but readers may struggle with two obstacles that reduced my enjoyment — a confusing trajectory and an over abundance of clichés. First, the book flips back and forth from the story of the group, created  by the author after she had found a new love and remarried, to her own very poignant story of grief, loss and renewal. This results in a jumble of personal experience, accounts of the group’s activities, their individual stories both before and after joining the group, along with some sidebars on the psychology and sociology of loss and widowhood. All of it interesting, just oddly organized. Titles or subject headings for the chapters would have been helpful.

Second, perhaps in an attempt to lighten things up, the author diminishes the good writing with too frequent cuteness, such as describing a painting of lotus blossoms as “virgin white or red like the lipstick of a whore.” Or this: “Venus would never deign to wink at someone on” I was moved by a description of her husband in a visitation dream only to cringe when she ended the touching account with this: “I wept like a teenybopper at a Beatles concert.”

The most interesting part of the book is when this group of upper-middle-class white women from New York meets a group of widows in Morocco, and learns how different geography, class and culture can make widowhood. The Moroccan women had experienced much more serious financial consequences and loss of social standing, even rejection and abuse, following widowhood. One widow, however, was relieved to have been freed from a violent husband, a circumstance the group realized completely upended the typical perspective of loss. Despite significant cultural differences, both groups had experienced first-hand the bonds that came from having friendships with other women who support each other in good times and bad.

Aikman’s approach to the book is to differentiate the group from “normal” support groups, recognizing in the process that there is no normal when it comes to widowhood.    I’m not sure she offers any truly new messages. There are an abundance of books about the power of friendships and plenty of writing has been done on searching and finding romance after life-long monogamy. Still, Aiken has tackled a very tough subject with no holds barred.

I imagine Aikman’s book may be too raw for recent widows — but could also see it becoming a recommended guidebook. Certainly it could be beneficial for those in the counseling professions or students. And for those who have friends or loved ones who are young widows (or widowers), reading Aiken’s book could facilitate an understanding that there are no easy answers, and no one path to building a new life.

Robin Talbert grew up in a cotton mill town in the foothills of western North Carolina. She is a nonprofit executive, attorney, and consultant whose career has focused on economic and social justice, consumer advocacy, and gender equity.

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