…..Edna sat and listened.

‘I put my head on her knee and cried’: what my 102-year-old friend taught me about grief (Guardian article)

Edna is a 102-year-old widow who married too late to have children.  

Ann is a 103-year-old widow who remained conspicuously single throughout the baby-boomer 1950s, an experience she describes as “painful”; she also never had children.

99-year-old Joyce never had a husband or children.

Centenarian Phyllis’s baby died a few days after birth, when she was 23.

Olive, 102, “miscarried twins alone in a London boarding house” in 1953; she too doesn’t seem to have any surviving children: none is mentioned.

Tessa Dunlop is a successful television presenter and broadcaster, married with a 9-year-old daughter, who interviewed these centenarians for a book she was writing. At the time of the interviews, Dunlop was grieving two miscarriages following IVF cycles at age 41 and 42 – the first miscarriage at eleven weeks and the second at three months due to Listeriosis.

Dunlop has previously said that she delayed trying for a second child following the loss of her job and other personal issues. I do applaud her bravery: it’s not easy telling a hellish miscarriage story like hers when you know you are past the ‘right’, socially-sanctioned age for conceiving (I felt ashamed at 37).

However, all I really took away from this article was the dignity of these childless old ladies, and I wondered what 102-year-old Edna really felt, deep down, when Dunlop (a mother, let’s remember) charged into her house and sobbed at her feet:

I didn’t knock; I went straight in and put my head on her knee, pushing the Zimmer frame out of the way. And I cried, and she was still and kind and said: “I think you will always miss him. You lost your son, dear.”


As Dunlop observes, these gracious elderly women with no offspring of their own had enough self-awareness not to trot out platitudes or tell Dunlop she was lucky to have her nine-year-old girl.  They bear her grief in the nicest possible way; they end up “buffering her pain” and looking after her for the entire duration of the interviews.

I read this article three times to check my reaction to it before concluding that it was OK for me to feel more empathy for the old ladies than for Tess Dunlop.

I’m in their shoes, after all, not Dunlop’s, even though I experienced failed IVF and miscarriage in my 30s.

Whatever people like to think, in terms of life experience there is a chasm of difference between having one child and having no children.

But yes, grief is always grief, whatever the circumstances, and these dignified old ladies acknowledged that it shouldn’t be dismissed, or measured, or compared.

I like what 103-year-old childless widow Ann says about recovering from loss:

I had a friend; we found when life gave us knocks or when disappointment hit us, she restored and sustained herself by learning something new, and I by making something new. Worth a try?

I hope I’ll be as wise, kind and generous in my old age.