‘When I Lost My Husband, My Friendships Transformed The Space He Left Behind’

When Kat Lister’s 41-year-old husband, Pat Long, died three years ago after battling a brain tumour, her friendships taught her to love again.

Kat Lister

by Kat Lister |
Updated on

I wasn’t alone in the rowboat on the day that I scattered my husband’s ashes, three years ago. As I cradled the willow urn tightly between my knees, my best friend Andy rotated the oars, slicing the water back and forth. A silent presence on the river bend that gave me comfort and reassurance as I dipped my hand into the wicker and released handfuls of sparkling stardust trails on to the surface below.

We’re often told that our friendships will inevitably loosen and drift as we get older, nudged to the outer periphery of bimonthly catch-ups and hurried WhatsApp messages. But for me, my closest friendships have become as deep-rooted and intimately explored as any romantic relationship I’ve ever been in. They’ve become a way of gathering all the pieces in a world that has often overwhelmed me. And when my husband died of a brain tumour, leaving me a widow at the age of 35, those pieces were scattered so far and wide that it was only through these friendships that I was able to reconstruct myself, and my surroundings, fragment by fragment, bit by bit.

I call my three closest friends my chosen family because that’s what they are. A trio of dazzling individuals who are so woven into the fabric of my life that to even call them friends seems to downplay this kinship in some way. I’m constantly looking for alternative ways to describe our connection, for words that will do it justice. Recently, I stumbled across The New Yorker’s Hua Hsu who wrote that ‘stories about love offer models for how you might commit your life to another person. Stories about friendship are usually about how you might commit to life itself.’ I scribbled these words down as soon as I read them. Because when I think about the ways in which my relationships have grown and intensified since my husband died, this philosophy comes incredibly close to encapsulating just how expansive they’ve dared to be.

It’s easier for me to list the seismic events of the last few years than to condense the hundreds of tiny, beautiful moments that have occurred between them. Glimmers of companionship that have kept me moving at times when I questioned whether I could. Ask me about any particular period in my grief and my three friends will never be far away from the subsequent narrative. Read my grief memoir and you’ll see this as you flick from page to page. It’s a devotion that is never usually discussed when we talk about platonic love. We rarely refer to tenderness or intimacy, either. On the day that I opened my husband’s wardrobe and gathered his trousers and shirts, it was Andy who was sitting on my bed, ready to bag and fold. On my sixth wedding anniversary, our first one apart, it was Jon who met me at Paddington station, who later took my hand as we meandered through the bluebells in Bisham Woods. And on the evening that my husband was dying, it was Zoë who was waiting for me outside the hospice, who let our footsteps do the talking as she slowly walked me home.

In Ancient Greece, the word philia, meaning ‘the highest form of love’, was attributed to the bonds of close friendship. These days, it too often plays second fiddle to the cult of eros, the god of sex and desire. Over the last year that I’ve spent writing a book about grief and widowhood, I’ve come to question what anthropologistscall ‘the hierarchy of love’, the limiting and reductive pecking order that still insists on positioning parental and romantic connections above all others. In favouring these top two tiers of the triangle and diminishing the rest, I can’t help but feel that we’re missing out on the enormous potentiality of love in all its alternative forms.

When my husband died, my friendships didn’t just fill a void as if they were a temporary and transitional substitute for what had been lost. These relationships have become far more radical than that. Over the last three years, my friendships have transformed the space he left behind into something so light-filled it has reminded me of the love that I’m capable of giving. Glittering trails that are as abundant and multitudinous as the ashes I scattered on the water in those early days of my widowhood. Rippling and swirling, showing me the way.

‘The Elements: A Widowhood’ by Kat Lister (£14.99, Icon) is out now

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us