If you aren’t a widow, you might not know that the grief section of a bookstore has very little to offer you. Yes, there’s Sheryl Sandberg’s "Option B," or Megan Devine’s "It’s OK not to be OK."
But Palo Alto resident Patty McGuigan and co-author Tesha McCord Poe needed more. McGuigan, in her 70s, lost her husband, Richard, four years ago. Poe, a mother of two, lost hers more recently and at the age of 49.
The tender, funny book of essays you can pick up anytime is written directly to widows, commiserating about the phrase “Sorry for your loss” and even including a section on what food to have on hand at home in the weeks following a partner’s death.
McGuigan is especially wry at times. As early as page 18, she notes how weird it is that “right on the heels of losing your partner, you are expected to plan a party. I was numb. I did not write an obituary … but I knew I could not escape holding this celebratory event.”
In her case, she turned it into a musical entitled “Hats off to Richard.”
“There is no such thing as a young widow,” Poe titles one of her essays. “Being a widow ages you. I’ve been forced to grow up and face issues that I’d planned to put off for decades. It feels like what’s left of my youth has been snatched away at a time when I need it most in order to have a chance to survive.”
The duo met through McGuigan’s commercial real estate company, Cornish and Carey, where Poe’s husband, Keith, worked until he died. McGuigan had recently collaborated on a children’s book with the other grandmother of her grandchildren and thought that, with all the structure (publisher, illustrator, publicist) in place, the two could begin writing.
They wrote alternating essays, some short, some long, interspersed with charming illustrations in pink, white and brown by Priska Wenger Mage and cartoons by John Klossner.
Poe and McGuigan met for lunch and soon began their work writing about, in McGuigan’s words, “what you are doing to reconstruct your life.”
The two, both professionals in their own careers, have a lot in common but also are different. Poe is in her early 50s and Black. She has young adult children and became a widow in 2021. She is trained as an attorney but is more recently a founder of the nonprofit Joy-Raising, a consultancy that partners with organizations to address their most critical fundraising and diversity inclusion needs.
McGuigan is in her 70s and white and became a widow in 2019.
“Our goal is to share this (experience) with women,” said McGuigan, reached at an airport while she waited to fly across the country to be present for her brother’s open heart surgery.
She pointed to some grim statistics, which Poe wrote about in one essay. The average age of widowhood for American women is 59. Seventy-five percent of all married women become widows. Thus, McGuigan pointed out, women generally spend about 20 years growing up, 20 years raising children, and then 20 years either married or eventually widowed.
She quoted GK Chesterton who said, “An opportunity is an inconvenience well-received.”
The duo’s newly published book, “Beyond Widow: Inspiration from the Trenches,” is on Amazon and also is being offered at small book-launch events such as at the Palo Alto Library. They are also publicizing it through associations of funeral homes.
McGuigan calls it a “dip-in” book, with essays about not being able to unzip a dress, whether to keep wearing a wedding ring, what to do with a partner’s ring, when to play the “widow card.”
“You should know that she needs you, the widow,” Poe writes. “She may be too proud to ask. Or she may not believe that she deserves you at all. But she needs you to remember her.”
Aug. 2 was the fourth anniversary of McGuigan’s husband’s death. She said grief still hits her when she doesn’t expect it. This day she was miserable all day, so she made a reservation to travel to Portugal.
“What I miss the most is my husband would come home first. He would get a glass of wine, tell me to come, and say, ‘Tell me about your day.’ That’s a wonderful gift.”
About six months ago, she herself formed a group of eight widows through her workplace (including Poe) who meet every two months.
She has many stark observations about widowhood including that “people in general, they just ignore you.” And “every decision I make I have to make it alone.”
In the book, she offers an alternative to the phrase, “Sorry for your loss.” Instead, offer a memory of the loved one or ask something like, “How is your life evolving?”
Pages 70 and 71 offer concrete advice for those of us with a widow in our lives, whether a neighbor or a relative or friend. Offer to help with a project. Give her breakfast in a box. Walk her dog.
If she has children, offer to babysit so that she can go out to dinner or a movie. Don’t assume. Remember her birthday. Take on a chore.
McGuigan is particularly grateful to a woman neighbor who asked her husband to take on the job of moving McGuigan’s trash cans back and forth for garbage day, a task her husband used to do.
“He takes this role very seriously, and I appreciate it very much,” McGuigan said.
According to one of McGuigan's essays, there is one thing she has no plans to change. That is the outgoing message on her answering machine. It is her husband’s voice.
“I’m sure I’m not alone in keeping it. I tell myself people who call need to think there’s a man in the house. But, deep down I know it’s because when I miss Richard, I can call the house and hear his voice. It brings me great comfort and pleasure,” she said.