Six women spend a weekend together at a spa. After fitness classes, massages and body polishes, they gather by the fire at the end of the day to talk and laugh. Watching this lively group, another spa client becomes curious. “ How do you know each other?” she asks. The six women respond in unison , “ You don’t want to know.”
These are the Saturday Night Widows, members of an unusual support group organized by Becky Aikman after she had been rejected by the first support group she tried to join. Aikman became a widow while still in her 40s, after 20 years of a happy marriage to a fellow writer named Bernie. She and her husband had been “partners and collaborators, personally and professionally.” Bernie’s death from cancer left her devastated, but after a while she began to wonder what to do next. She didn’t seem to be following the much-publicized “five stages of grief”: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.The widows in her first group, some of them 20 years older, seemed hostile toward her. When she spoke to the group leader about this, he suggested she leave; her presence was “disruptive.”
Expelled from widows’ grief support, failing the five stages, Aikman decided to form her own group of renegade younger widows, women who would have a good time together and try to help one another. The author’s tongue-in-cheek descriptions of herself as a “misfit widow” trying to follow the grief literature and dutifully hoping to “Move Forward After Loss” are wickedly funny. But Aikman is also thoroughly familiar with the special anguish of younger widows, and her hard-earned understanding, piercing humor and superb writing skill make this book about grief and recovery an unexpected delight, rich with wisdom and laughter.
Aikman planned to bring together half a dozen selected widows once a month for a year to “provide each other with traveling companions past the milestones of this common but profound transition: the first holidays without a mate, the first time taking off the ring, the first time daring to flirt.” She found women in their 40s and 50s: a corporate lawyer, an Italian American entrepreneur from New Jersey with a “Barbie-doll figure,” a petite homemaker, an editor, a woman whose background was in advertising and philanthropy, and a woman who had recently remarried.
Unlike the first gloomy and abstemious group, which Aikman called “Whine without cheese,” the Saturday Night Widows shared sauteed Brussels sprouts, lemon-rosemary chicken and Malbec while revealing the circumstances of their husbands’ deaths: cancer, a sports accident, a suicide, an alcohol-related heart attack and a mysterious collapse in the shower.
Over time, these women learned a great deal about themselves and the grieving process. Aikman learned that Kubler-Ross’s five-stages theory is out of favor in scientific circles and, in any case, was about dying, not grieving. Three members of the group embarked on new relationships; one woman bought a new apartment. Together, the six widows shared a cooking class and a spa weekend; enjoyed a private tour of the Metropolitan Museum; shopped for lingerie; and took a trip to Morocco, where they camped in the desert, rode camels, and had a frank encounter with a group of Moroccan widows whose lives were different from theirs but whose affectionate support for one another was completely familiar.
Along the way, they considered widows’ quandaries: What to do about a house that was perfect for a married couple but too large and expensive for one person? What to do about the grief of one’s children? What about dating? What about sex?
This is more than a warmhearted and entertaining book on a difficult subject. The spirit of “Saturday Night Widows” bursts the stereotype of glum, mournful widowhood with the energy of a pent-up thirst for life. It carries the real sorrow and pain of a terrible human experience, but it also moves relentlessly and joyfully into the current of ongoing adventure.
Lindbergh has written a number of books for children and adults, including “Forward From Here: Leaving Middle Age — and Other Unexpected Adventures.”
SATURDAY NIGHT WIDOWS:
The Adventures of Six Friends Remaking Their Lives
By Becky Aikman
Crown. 337 pp. $26