The Widow or Widower Next Door

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The rest of the world can learn from Irish funeral traditions

Mary Kenny


I encountered a young Irishwoman not long ago, who talked to me about having spent some time working in Germany. It was very rewarding and fulfilling, and she was glad to get away from Ireland, where, she felt, there were still some puritanical and inhibited attitudes to sexuality. In Germany, by contrast, she found people were much more open and natural in their attitudes to relationships and she thought that much better.


But then, her father died: and she was disappointed by how stilted and tight-lipped her German friends were about death. They couldn't talk about it. Sometimes they couldn't even express their condolences and feelings. When she returned to Ireland for the funeral, she felt so grateful for the Irish attitude to death - so graceful, so natural, so open.

And this isn't a unique experience: I've known many other Irish people across the diaspora who have said this - that when they came home for a funeral, or to attend to a dying relative, they hugely appreciated the Irish approach to death, including the practice of the "open coffin", which is an old Irish custom which has had quite a revival. Two of my oldest friends, June Levine and Mary Holland, were both waked in their Dublin homes with an "open coffin", and the dear departed lying in it, while we visited, paid our respects, talked and took refreshments.

This, I think, would be regarded with horror in England - except among certain ethnic minorities who have funeral rituals that do not conform to the norm. The English also avoid confronting death by keeping it private and formal: in England, you don't attend a funeral unless invited. "Oh, I didn't go to her funeral because I wasn't invited." As though it were a cocktail reception.

But a death is a public event in that it's on the public record, and the public nature of a funeral should be part of an open society, not only so that individuals can be mourned as part of the community, but to ensure that foul play is not in question (or the worst nightmare of all - being mistakenly buried alive: it has happened).

So I'm a great champion of the Irish way of death, which I regard as comforting and civilised; and I'm somewhat surprised by a recent survey which found that people in Ireland today feel that attitudes to death aren't honest and open enough. An increasing number of people - now at 57pc, previously at 51pc - say we don't discuss death and dying candidly. We should talk about it more. We should talk about how we want to die - we don't want to die alone (which makes Hold My Hand, I'm Dying a great title) and we'd really like to die at home, surrounded by those we love.

Maybe when people become more sexually liberated, they become correspondingly more inhibited about discussing death?

One of the biggest changes over the period of the last, say, 60 years, is that many people do not actually witness a death until they are well into adulthood: maybe not until their 40s. When life expectancy was shorter, even children were introduced to death at an early age. But as life expectancy increased - for which we are all glad, especially those of us who are edging nearer to the departure lounge - it also became, like everything else, more medicalised, and dying people were whisked away to the curtained corner of a hospital ward.

I was once in a London hospital ward - with a bout of pneumonia - when a patient died. A conjuring trick was performed with nurses and medics quickly drawing curtains, and with amazing speed and efficiency they somehow magicked the body out of the ward and into the morgue. As though death were, somehow, obscene.

The death survey which disclosed how we would like to die was all fine and dandy, and why shouldn't we specify just how we would like to leave this world? We're given "choice" in everything else now, so why not "choice" in death? Oh grand. But I'm not that confident that such wishes can always be realised. I still think that line from the New Testament is true and wise: "You know not the day nor the hour".

You can plan as much as you like (and yes, plan your funeral, otherwise your heirs and successors will be furious to be lumbered with the cost), but you don't know from one day to the next what might occur. I have too much experience of losing friends and family to death to take any other view: what happens, happens. Life takes us by surprise, and so, sometimes does death. A tremor in the hand heralds the onset of MS, an annoying back pain turns out to be spinal cancer, or a sepsis occurs during a wisdom tooth extraction - all cases I have known - and our "choices" are neither here nor there.

People have prayed for a happy death for aeons, so there's nothing new in hoping to have an easy passage, or even, probably, speeding up the final curtain. But I think it's tempting fate to announce that you are going to control the ending of your life. The wisest utterance that any politician ever made was Harold Macmillan's explanation of how big changes occur to human experience: "Events, dear boy, events". It's what we don't plan that socks us in the jaw.

We all hope to leave the stage gracefully, and like my young friend who worked abroad, "bas in Éireann" is, surely, a blessing to be wished, though it cannot always be chosen. November, month of memorials, is the time to reflect on it all.


Irish Independent


Watch Mary Lee's TV Interview About "Set an Extra Plate", Grief Diaries Books, and "Project Little Elf"



Watch Mary Lee's interview on TV at HTC's River Talk, as she explains "Set an Extra Plate", "Project Little Elf" and the concept behind Grief Diaries. Click on the link below to view.




"Project Little Elf" or How to Make a Sad Person's Christmas a Joyful Christmas, in 12 Easy Steps!


Want to make someone sad be glad for Christmas? Know someone who has recently lost a loved one? Project Little Elf shows you how in 12 easy steps. Become a Secret Santa and teach your kids compassion. 


INSTRUCTIONS : Project Little Elf is a fun family experience that teaches kids to be givers of kindness by pairing them with the perfect recipient: the newly bereaved. Leaving a small gift every night for 12 nights on the porch of someone with a heavy heart offers a delightful lesson in compassion, and leaves both giver and receiver with memories they’ll treasure for life.



To learn more, and get free printables, click on this link:



Listen to the "Set an Extra Plate" Initiative Described in Detail on the Radio on WRNN Hot Talk Radio


Listen to Mary Lee Robinson talk about the "Set an Extra Plate" Initiative to reach out to grieving spouses and families during difficult holidays.  The interview lasts about 7 1/2 minutes. To listen, just click on this link, then click on the "play" arrow.…/MARY%20LEE%20NOV%2014%20(4).mp3…





"My Interview With Oprah" by my friend and publisher, Lynda Cheldelin Fell. Why is Grief More Taboo Than Sex?

My Conversation with Oprah
Publishing a book series isn't for the faint of heart, especially for a woman editor-in-chief tackling sensitive subjects. Sometimes when I fall into bed at the end of a long day, I’m utterly exhausted. But full of unfinished tasks, my mind refuses to shut down. Before I know it, the overactive and overtired voice in my head is having imaginary conversations with notable figures. Last night’s conversation went something like this.
OPRAH: I understand you’ve written over 18 books about life-changing experiences including grief. Why in the world would you write about such a topic?
ME: No child ever says they want to grow up to write about grief. But I've always been fascinated with true stories. They're just so no-holds-barred. Some of them, well, you just can't make this stuff up. They're actually very inspiring and I knew that if I didn’t put them into a book series, the stories would be left unwritten. And that is a tragedy.
OPRAH: So you wrote a book series about tragedies to prevent a tragedy?
ME: Yeah, something like that. But why should it not be okay to tell our tales? Everyone has a story about grief. Everyone. Even you.
OPRAH: Because the world is full of sad stories. Why make the world sadder?
ME: Sharing our stories actually does the opposite, and also challenges the paradigm about how we view taboo topics. By sharing stories, we heal people. We validate their pain. When we validate their pain, they can begin to heal. When they begin to heal, they’re less sad. So talking about grief and other stigmatized subjects in this generation will help future generations. So you see, storytelling is actually an ancient healing modality.
OPRAH: I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Exactly how does storytelling help?
ME: If you go out for a jog and suddenly break an ankle, you become sidelined with pain. Every little step is agony. In order to heal your broken foot, you must nurse it back to health. If you ignore the pain and continue to jog, you only make your injury worse, not better. Doctors prescribe rest, ice, cast and elevation for a minimum of six to eight weeks for good reason. A broken heart is ten times worse, so you need sixty weeks, or the equivalent of five years before you can go jogging again.
PASTOR JOEL OSTEEN: If you still feel sorry for yourself after six months, you clearly thrive on your own self pity, or relish the attention it brings.
ME: With all due respect, Pastor Osteen, helping someone nurse a broken heart is all about compassion, and listening. Ahem . . . without judgment.
PASTOR JOEL OSTEEN: Writing books about grief only perpetuates one’s sorrow.
ME: Incorrect. Sharing our stories is about finding hope. For without grief, there would be no need for hope.
BILL O’REILLY: Today’s headlines are filled with tragedies. Why add to that?
ME: Today’s headlines are filled with scandal, shame and embarrassment, none of which have to do with compassion.
BILL O’REILLY: So you’re saying Grief Diaries isn’t about grief?
ME: It’s true stories about real people finding healing and hope in the face of grief.
PASTOR JOEL OSTEEN: Grief has been around since the beginning of mankind. It is too heavy to deal with, and deserves to stay under the rug.
ME: If we don’t work together to remove the stigma of taboo experiences, then future generations will be no better off. If we don’t make a difference, who will?
BILL O’REILLY: Politics are far more interesting. Grief is boring. Nobody will read your books.
ME: Grief Diaries isn’t for everyone. It’s written for those who share our path but feel alone because they weren’t allowed to talk about their experience in the first place. Validating their own grief by reading our stories gives them the voice they were robbed of. And that is the first step toward healing.
OPRAH: How does Grief Diaries give them a voice?
ME: When readers who share our path find commonality in the stories, they feel less alone. And it also gives them hope that such a challenging experience is survivable. The crux is that Grief Diaries represents: a village of over 450 writers who light a candle of hope for those who share the same path, and raise awareness at the same time. It’s about removing the stigma from these experiences. It’s about making it okay to take care of those who are hurt, not leaving them with a broken ankle on the side of the road, left to their own devices because we couldn’t handle their agony. If a person suffered third-degree burns over their entire body, should they be left to their own devices, to heal alone on their own? Of course not. Our generation is challenging the paradigm about how we view experiences involving grief. We're making it okay to talk about it. That is the very first step toward healing, not sweeping it under the rug because others are afraid the sorrow is contagious. Burns aren’t contagious. Broken ankles aren’t contagious. And neither is grief. If we don’t make a difference in this generation, the next generation will inherit the same lack of compassion.
BILL O’REILLY: I still don’t get it.
PASTOR JOEL OSTEEN: You’re all just wallowing in your own self pity. Get over it.
OPRAH: I get it. Thank you for challenging the paradigm about grief. That takes a lot of guts.
ME: Thank you, but the writers are the true heroes. It takes tremendous courage to share life’s intimate experiences with the world. But they’re doing so to help others who share the path, and help change how society views grief in the first place. If we don’t challenge the stigmas, future generations inherit the same mess.
OPRAH: That’s an amazing way to look at it. I will add Grief Diaries to my book club immediately. [Big hug].
ME: Thank you. Our writers will appreciate that very much. Now, where’s your nearest Starbucks? I have 20 more books to publish before morning.
Lynda Cheldelin Fell is the award-winning publisher of Grief Diaries, a 5-star book series featuring the heartfelt stories of 500 writers from 11 countries. Learn more at


THE WIDOW OR WIDOWER NEXT DOOR is a powerful, yet easy read!

If you are new to this page, or Pinterest board, you may not know about how this whole thing started.

Not long after my husband died, I formed a club for widows and widowers. It grew quickly, and I was enlightened about how few resources are available for grieving spouses.  That lead to gathering widowed folk I knew to write what turned out to be the first of several books for those of us who walk the widowed path.


I invite you to read what others are saying. Here are just a few of the reviews:



"If you, or anyone that you know has lost their Heart! PLEASE buy this book for them! Mary Lee Robinson and all of the wonderful people who shared their pain deserve awards for teaching others how to deal with the earth shattering pain that is the loss of your loved one! No one teaches you in your life how to prepare for the eventuality we will all endure in our lifetime. This book should be a MUST READ for everyone! From Middle school age, every year! People are terrified to talk about death, then when it is thrust upon them.........they disintegrate into microscopic pieces. Sometimes, we are able, slowly, oh so very slowly, to attempt to put those pieces back together again. We are never the same! This amazing book, by Mary Lee Robinson, helps to understand that you really aren't alone!"


"The Widow or Widower Next Door is a gentle, yet stark collection of stories shared by twenty-five men and women who have lost a spouse to death. The collection is equally raw and intimate and is compiled in such a way as to offer the newly bereaved opportunity to experience that she is not alone in small, digestible bites while at the same time affording those who have sat with grief a while to absorb growth and healing."

"Mary Lee Robinson has given the world an excellent resource to view the experience and consequences of the loss of a spouse. She unabashedly tackles a social stigma, grief, in our disconnected, postmodern society. The personal revelations of the widows and widowers opens more avenues of thought than many academic works on the subject of death and dying. In my decades of ministry and teaching college sociology, I did not have a text that could convey with clarity the personal process of grief. This book accomplishes that task. Easy to read, yet thought provoking, this book is a "must read" for clergy, counselors, academicians, doctors, nurses and anyone who loves another in marriage, family and life."


"LOVE IT! I cannot believe that a book like this wasn't previously available. I found the book to be for just about everyone, and I love the Q&A format. It's a great resource for a widow, widower, family member or friend. It's a short, honest, easy read about a very serious subject - sometimes funny, sometimes sad. I read it straight through cover to cover in one sitting with my Kleenex box by my side. Thank You!!"


I encourage you to pick up a copy for yourself, a friend, or maybe a family member. One of the biggest helps a griever can have is to learn they are not alone, they are not the only one. The book is available for purchase right here in the store on this website.


True Love Happens to a Fortunate Few

I received a gift of grateful awareness recently.  I had deeply intimate soul sharing conversations, the kind that only best friends can have. One woman is a very good friend, the other a relafriend, a relative I’d have chosen in a heartbeat to be a sister, although that isn’t our family connection. Both ladies are in my age group, mid-sixties to seventyish. Both have been married more than once, or at least in a second serious relationship.


I was a little startled to learn that both women regret their current relationships. One is married, the other was engaged. One is sorry she married after being widowed. The other has broken off her engagement and prefers to go-it-alone again.


Each of them confided that they wonder what it would be like to be in love. Neither of them ever has been in love before. I was reminded of something my grandmother once said to me when I said to her that it was so unfair that she was twice widowed. She replied “Honey, most people never find true love even once. I am lucky, I’ve known it twice”.


I realized she was so right. I am truly blessed. I was in love with my husband and he with me. We had, even if only for a few short years, what most people never have.




For that I am truly grateful.




Do the Next Thing



Random Ruth, my occasional assistant, marvels at my ability to shift gears quickly and rearrange my priorities and my schedule. Comes from years in construction management, where the landscape (materials availability, access, surprises not on the blueprints) was constantly changing. Just like a battle make one and then promptly throw it out.

Lately, however, it's been challenging even for me! Had a conversation with dear friend Ray who is in the midst of his own ever changing landscape lately. It's been all we can do to grab the reins and hold on tight, with moves, hurricanes, very welcome guests, trips out of town.

I'm reminded of those days, standing in the wreckage of a demolished space, pager blowing up with messages, memos coming at me like a postal worker. I'd occasionally feel overwhelmed. I made a rule for myself for times when I didn't know where to start. "Do the next thing". Whatever that was....I'd do the next thing. And then the haze would begin to clear and I could, once again, prioritize with the best of them.

Today? I did about 5 next things...completed the refrigerator inventory for the insurance claim, received some quotes for same, pinned some marketing pins to Pinterest, updated a press release, worked on a proposal to solicit corporate sponsors and reserved my ticket for one of my first sponsor's special event. That's just for starters...I did more "next things".


The haze is starting to clear...and on a clear day? I can see forever. ;)


Set an Extra Plate Initiative

Find out more about my "Set an Extra Plate Initiative". Watch my interview here, just click on the link.






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