Dear Jane

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A letter to my husband’s dead first wife

Dear Jane,

There are two things I want to thank you for.

You and I never met, never got to know each other, never talked about books and writing, never shared confidences over a glass of wine, but we have shared the same husband. I know from him and your best friend that you were shy and quiet, that you took a long time to get to know someone well, but I like to think we might have been friends.

It’s obvious, but without you dying I would never have met Tim. He loved you, (still loves you) and would never have gone looking for someone new if you had lived. All that is true, but the first thing I want to thank you for is what you made him promise: that after you’d gone he wouldn’t stay on his own; he would go out and meet someone else. I can’t imagine anything braver.

You and our husband were together for fourteen years. When you were diagnosed with breast cancer the two of you decided to get married. It was a small wedding; I’ve seen the pictures – you in a simple dress and a headscarf, our husband looking uncomfortable in a suit. For two years you fought disease, facing a mastectomy, a gruelling drug regime and many hospital treatments, but when you knew your illness was terminal, you found the strength to prepare our husband for your death. When he didn’t want to face the fact that very soon you would be gone, you insisted the two of you talk about it, and again and again you told him that he must carry on without you; that he must go out and face the world. One of the bravest things you did was to contact the WAY Foundation (an organisation for those who lose a spouse at an early age). You got their leaflets and left them for our husband so that he would have support after you died. And when he was ready, he did as you suggested and through the friendships he made there he was able to start looking outwards again.  Would I have had that kind of courage? I’m not sure, especially knowing the man I would be leaving behind.

We chose our husband well – he is the most generous, kind-hearted and funny man I’ve ever met. You chose your best friend well too, and you would be pleased to hear that she looked after our husband when you died, going with him to register your death, helping to organise your funeral, crying and laughing together at the absurdity that you, at only 36, were gone. And a year and a half ago your best friend was ‘best man’ at our wedding, and she has become my close friend.

You wrote a diary, and so that I could understand a little more about the months before your death, our husband gave it to me to read. Historical diaries are published and read all the time, but I’m still uneasy about the ethics of reading yours. Although I can’t say that now I know what it was like for you, your diary helped me understand more clearly what the two of you were going through. You had stopped working by then, and it took all of your effort just to walk into town each day for a coffee. When you knew life was going to be taken away you noticed everything around you – the sky, the flowers, the couples, the conversations, the children.

And this is the second thing I want to thank you for – for reminding me to live each day to the full, to stop complaining about the petty things, to look at the sky, and the couples and the children and our husband, and to be grateful for what I have.

Thank you.

Claire