The tragedy was a total shock to Fox, who wasn’t sure where to turn when she found herself a 50-year-old widow. She didn’t know anyone who had been widowed, let alone anyone her age.
“It was a major struggle, on top of the pain of his death,” she said. “I turned to some books that were available at the time, but they were all basically written by the same person. They were helpful up to a point, but they were only from one perspective.”
Fox said she felt the process of mourning her husband’s death would have been made much easier if she could have had access to similar stories of struggle.
“We need stories to help frame our experiences,” she said. “It’s how we’ve always done it historically.”
Fox, a photographer and writer who published a book about her second husband, Edmund Ackell, and his struggle with Alzheimer’s in 2009, decided that, though she couldn’t help her 50-year-old self deal with widowhood, she could help those struggling now. On Sept. 3, Fox’s newest book, “One Foot Forward: Stories and Faces of Widows and Widowers” was released.
Though she essentially wrote a book that she said would have helped her when dealing with the loss of her first husband, the process of writing “One Foot Forward” was cathartic for other reasons, as well. Ackell, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1998, is now under hospice care, and Fox is once again preparing for the inevitable.
“In great measure I wrote a book that would have helped back then, but Ed is at the end of his life now,” she said. “Since his diagnosis, I’ve been experiencing what’s known as anticipatory grief.”
Fox set forth in finding widows and widowers to interview, and for nearly a year she lived and breathed the project. She wanted as large a cross section as she could find, and find it she did. Young, old, male, female, straight, gay — they’re all covered in the individuals she interviewed. Only one variable stayed relatively consistent: location. That was what shocked her the most, Fox said.
“I thought I would have to travel all over the country to find people who had the experiences I wanted to profile,” she said. “It turned out all but one lived in Southern California, and I found every one either because I knew
them or friends knew them, or friends of friends knew them. And that tells me that there are so many stories around us that we never get to hear or learn from. They are literally all around us.”
Fox’s book tells the story of a young mother who lost her husband suddenly and was left with three young children. It tells of octogenarians who watched their spouses slowly deteriorate before their death. It tells of a military wife whose husband died in Iraq and a young woman whose husband committed suicide. There is the story of a middle-aged gay man who lost his husband and the story of a woman who was contemplating how to help her terminally ill husband die, the way they had both planned years earlier. One woman tells the story about how her husband died in an accident — shortly after she had served him divorce papers. Some experienced the horrors of a violent or painful death, while others were able to plan for a peaceful passing.
Each story is accompanied by candid photographs of the storytellers as they recount their experiences with death. Fox said one of her rules for inclusion in the process was that the subjects be open and honest with their feelings and stories, and she wanted the photographs to reflect that.
“I wanted to have very informal, conversational interviews,” she said. “And I wanted to capture that on film. The photos are very emotional, raw and real. I think they capture the complexity of loss and humanity and dignity. I planned that. It was absolutely what I wanted.”
Like her last book, “I Still Do: Loving and Living with Alzheimer’s,” Fox hopes “One Foot Forward” will help broaden the conversation on a difficult topic. Her own experience as a widow struggling to understand death and loss exposed a society that is patently uncomfortable with end-of-life issues.
“We all know it’s coming, but it’s like we don’t believe it,” she said. “Some of that is understandably protective, but it does us all a disservice. It makes something difficult to begin with much more difficult. These stories are all around us, but we may not know it because it’s not part of our culture to talk about it.”
Apart from contributing to the social dialogue, Fox is using her book to help in other — perhaps more tangible — ways. One hundred percent of the author royalties from “One Foot Forward” will be donated to the National Hospice Foundation, a cause near to her heart. At a book-signing event at Warwick’s on Monday, Sept. 16, a percentage of the proceeds will be donated to local Elizabeth Hospice.
“I find that books can serve as a platform to advocate for things I really care about,” she said. “… With ‘One Foot Forward,’ it gives me the opportunity to encourage a conversation about death, but also about palliative and hospice care … It’s another area people are uncomfortable with, something they think means they will die in the next week. But it’s about much more than that. It’s about comfort and care at the end of life.”
For Fox, the stories in the book — though all very different — should reflect just how much we’re all alike when it comes to death and grief.
“We’re all different in our own way, yet grief and loss touch us all, regardless of where we live or our circumstances,” she said. “I know that for myself, talking to others really helped me understand what I’m going through now. Each loss is specific, but they’re universal also.”
Fox will be at Warwick’s, 7812 Girard Ave., on Sept. 16 at 7:30 p.m. to discuss and sign her book, which is available for $29.95. For more information on her writings and photography, visit judithfox.com.