Zibby Mag

The Webby Award-winning literary lifestyle destination.

How Victorian Rituals Helped Me Through Widowhood

Thursday, December 15, 2022

By Amy Carol Reeves

I became a 40-year-old widow when Shawn died in the summer of 2020. The grief felt overwhelming, and I had to put boundaries around it, to keep it in its place.

At the same time, I realized I still liked laughing with my sisters. I still fantasized about my next overseas trip. My wicked sense of humor still sparked up with a vengeance. And I still remembered how I loved coffee, wine, garden boxes, plum-colored lipsticks, and Colin Firth. But I felt guilty taking joy in these things. I was trapped in the tale-as-old-as-time widow’s conundrum: What will others think if they see me happy so soon after losing my husband? I didn’t know how to walk appropriately at ease in my post-Shawn world.

With a PhD in English, I’ve taught 19th-century British literature for years, and novels skew much of my understanding of the world. The Victorians made grieving performance art. If I were Victorian, I would be in full mourning for a year: black crinoline petticoats, long black dress, and gloves. And the crepe! I would be draped in crepe from head to toe like a gothic wedding cake topper. I’d tie crepe sash around vases and doorknobs, signifying my house mourned with me. I’d wear remnants of Shawn around my neck—hair in a brooch or locket. I wouldn’t move on from his death—at least not quickly. Courtship and remarriage would be approached with extreme caution. I’d be judged for any whiff of impropriety with a man; I couldn’t be frequently seen out and about having fun.

Though I never fitted myself for black petticoats, some of these “rules” eventually felt appealing. As a new widow I got into trinkets—hair, jewelry, and keepsake urns.

At the funeral home, I sat in the depressingly pristine conference room between my sisters, my mind mushy as Dickensian bread pudding. I couldn’t make decisions about what to do with Shawn’s ashes. But what happened to Shawn’s ashes seemed important. Like the Egyptians, the Victorians knew the body could be not only embalmed or simply buried, but taken apart. They knew a person’s organs and ashes could give honor and meaning to places. The remains comforted the living and, when buried near a beloved, signified eternal intimacy.

Shawn wanted his ashes poured in the Edisto River. Raised in the South Carolina Lowcountry, he camped and played around the river as a boy, finding black fossilized shark teeth in the muddy shores. But memories of us wandering the paths around the tombs of Highgate Cemetery made me want a properly engraved niche with my name alongside his in our church columbarium.

The funeral director flipped through slides on a large screen of different urns. “You should get the keepsake bird urn,” my sister Susan said, breaking into my thoughts. “It will give you comfort to hold it.”

I stared at the slide. “He’d think that’s so dumb. He’d haunt me.”

It was a known world for me to wander when the strange, lonely one I found myself in was too daunting. In the same way Shawn and I walked around the Victorians’ mossy tombs, I could metaphorically walk their paths and borrow their rituals when I floundered to know what my next step should be.

But I knew I wanted the bird urn. Besides, it wouldn’t be so bad if Shawn haunted me. I could be the dramatic survivor: Heathcliff, in the windswept moors raging for Cathy to haunt him because separation was unbearable in Wuthering Heights. Or the haunting could be cuter, like The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. We could flirt and bicker; he could continue to mock my housekeeping skills. He could scare the crap out of my dates.

In the end, Shawn ended up in three places: I spread the majority of his ashes in the Edisto River. I bought a churchyard niche with both our names engraved upon it, placing a small cube urn within. And I bought the silly bird. The bird still sits on my nightstand. My sister was right. In my darkest moments, holding the urn of his ashes comforts me. Like a good Victorian widow, I often hold the bird while reading his journals when I can’t sleep.

I decided V-neck black dresses were “too sexy” for a widow, so I picked out a high-crew neck black dress for the funeral and other days. When I ventured back to work, I found myself ordering gray and black dresses and ruffled sleeve black blouses. I pushed my brighter colored or patterned dresses and blouses to the back of my closet. I wore a customized fingerprint necklace with Shawn’s signature engraved on the back. I felt frivolous purchasing things other than food and medicine or widowhood memorabilia. I asked my siblings, friends, and relatives if a new dress or the larger house I planned to buy seemed “extravagant.” Although not imposed on me, the Victorian mourning rituals organically made sense.

A year after Shawn’s death I began easing out of my Victorian-ish widowhood. I think my first year rituals were beneficial. It wasn’t necessary, and at times I was too hard on myself, but I had to do what worked for me. For many years, I’ve used prayer beads to give myself a tangible structure to hold onto while contemplating intangible mysteries. Victorian-ish widowhood similarly helped me. It was a known world for me to wander when the strange, lonely one I found myself in was too daunting. In the same way Shawn and I walked around the Victorians’ mossy tombs, I could metaphorically walk their paths and borrow their rituals when I floundered to know what my next step should be.

This past year taught me that if there is a permanence to grieving practices, there is a permanence to love. The very fact that I needed to ritualize my grief responded to my fear that joy and ordinary living meant our love had faded. Shawn’s favorite poet was T.S. Eliot, and he wrote The Four Quartets quote in his journal: “Love is itself unmoving.” The rituals and outward signs of grief, rather than constricting me, assured me that this was indeed true.


Amy Carol Reeves has a PhD in nineteenth-century British literature and finds joy in teaching college classes and writing. She’s published several academic articles as well as a young adult book trilogy about the Jack the Ripper murders in Victorian London. She lives in a quirky old house in Indianapolis with her three children.