“Here, read this.”
“Mr A” is a 56-year-old real estate agent. What did his wife of 25 years want him to read?
She handed him a recent issue of the women’s weekly Josei 7. What was this, now? “How women come to terms with their husbands’ death.” Complacently, Mr A ran his eyes over the copy. He knew in advance, of course, what the bereaved would say. The usual thing – how sad they were, how they lost all zest for life how hard it was to manage alone. His preconceptions hardly prepared him for the truth. Most of the widows in the magazine’s survey – 62%, to be precise – were happy. Marriage was a prison; widowhood was escape, freedom, a new life.
Mr A frowned. Why was his wife showing him this? It was hard not to get the point. The article reflected her feelings. He’d better wake up, before it was too late.
The story appears in Shukan Post (March 7), which follows up Josei 7’s research with some interviews of its own. Sure enough, bereavement turns out to be far from synonymous with grief.
“There was a couple in our neighborhood,” a Tokyo woman in her 60s tells the magazine. “Getting on toward 70, I’d say, and yet they seemed like a couple of lovebirds, always together. Then he died, and no sooner was the official mourning over than she opened a snack bar. ‘Now,’ she’d chortle to her customers, ‘I can do what I want.’ Turns out she’d been saving secretly all the years of her marriage. She had her plans ready. She and the customers laugh over the joys of widowhood.”
“Yumi,” 50, was widowed early, her husband dying of a brain hemorrhage several years ago. He was an “elite salaryman,” totally absorbed in his work. She was a typical housewife – cooking, cleaning, raising the kids. They lived in company housing, which meant being surrounded constantly by company personnel and their spouses. The company hierarchy was as much in force in the apartment building as at the office. The first thing Yumi did after her husband’s death was move out – with what relief can easily be imagined. And then? She dyed her hair, went in for nail art, bought herself a miniskirt, thinking to herself all the while, “This is life. This is what I missed all those years.”
“All the widows I know,” writer Ryoko Ozawa, 76, tells Shukan Post, “perked up when their husbands died. I don’t know any sad widows.”
The Josei 7 article that pierced Mr A’s blinders asked its survey respondents what was hardest to bear about widowhood. It wasn’t, in fact, all fun and games. But the problems cited were mostly economic. Not loneliness, not lost love, just lost income and the attendant struggles and hardships.
A rude awakening for men. They hardly know how their wives are smoldering inside, the resentment that builds up over the years beneath the placid exterior. There’s worse to come. One thing husbands typically fear as they age and face death, Shukan Post says, is the advent of other men in their wives’ lives.
“Until my husband died 10 years ago, he was the only man I’d ever known,” says a woman in her early 60s. “Well, he died, and I started keeping company with a man 10 years younger than me. For the first time in my life, I actually enjoyed sex. We’re still together. Sometimes we go off to secluded hot springs and enjoy mixed bathing.”
“Many women,” says Ozawa, “sacrifice their lives to housework, child-rearing, caring for aged parents and in-laws. Their husbands’ death comes like a liberation. Free at last. They travel, go to the theater, play golf.”
The marriages sketched here, being those of older people, are in the traditional mold. The younger, less traditional generation may have arranged things more happily for themselves. Thirty years from now, will a husband’s death still feel to the majority of women like a breath of fresh air?