Saturday, 21 February 2015

The Sandwich Filler

In the beginning, all I wanted was for time to be behind me. I read with such envy, the accounts of other widows who were 3,6 or 12 months down the line. I was desperate for time to pass and for me to somehow emerge through the pain and enter into the light of the other side of the tunnel I was in.

I am ashamed to say that I was envious - after all, these people whom I had met in the new normal, all had their own heartbreaking and tragic stories of loss but I couldn't help but be jealous that they had survived and gotten to a place where I could not imagine.

That early grief was so intensely raw for me, that every minute - literally every minute, passed by so very slowly that I honestly do not know how I got to the place where I am today.

I wanted to believe others when they offered the advice to take one moment at a time, but the moments brought such extreme emotional pain that I feared I could not take it anymore.

My grief also manifested itself with hideous symptoms of anxiety that came with physical pain and frightening sensations. I actually convinced myself that I was unable to swallow and could not raise myself to stand up because my legs were numb and the more I thought about it, the worse it got.

And nearly always, this would happen in the middle of the night when the rest of the world was asleep and I was in the depth of despair, all alone. It is difficult to explain to the uninitiated, just what that level of terror can do to your psyche but I learned that grieving is as hard physically as it is emotionally.

During those earliest days and weeks, I had an overwhelming fear that I would be feeling this depth of pain - in my heart and my body - for eternity. I voiced my fears to those to whom I was closest, that Bebe's pain had ceased but I now lived in a world where my pain would last forever. It is no wonder that so many people - catapulted into this frightening early stages of the new world, consider wanting to end their life. Suicidal thoughts are common amongst new widows it seems and I was no exception.

I explored the idea that I may be depressed. I read up on it and sought advice from 'google'. The information on grief and the link with depression threw back more than a million pages for me to ponder, all with a hefty dose of inconsistency.

From the highest order of academic dissertations on the subject to the gutter press accounts of 'How I nearly topped myself', I wasn't short of information to self diagnose. Google may not always be the most helpful of friends when you are wracked with anxiety but is is however, a friend that is available at 4am when the rest of the world is sleeping.

I was living on a diet of prawn mayonnaise sandwich fillers at the time. It is funny the things that you remember looking back but as I scooped out the pot with a teaspoon, wondering how to end it all, I suddenly had a streak of black humour that this couldn't surely be all there was to my 'last supper'.

I had consulted my doctor already about my mental state. He was sensitive and showed great empathy fortunately and primarily because he had followed my journey at close quarters from Bebe's diagnosis, last days at home and in the aftermath of his passing. He had attended our house on several occasions and was first on the scene to confirm the finality of death.

He listened to me. He carried out basic blood tests. He took my blood pressure and also tested my reflexes. His diagnosis was anxiety caused by grief. And he refused to prescribe me anything but asked me to return everyday to give him an update.

I asked him for a cure. I pleaded that surely there was something he could do to take my pain away. 'I can't swallow',  I told him. 'I can't feel my hands!'

Yet I trusted what he said. 'The only cure for grief, is grieving', he said. Now I know that he was right.

I turned again to the stories of those virtual friends from my new normal world. The widows that were further down the line from me. The people that I had envied.

Some of them really had experienced depression. They spoke openly about what their depression felt like and how they had taken medication. For some people, medication was the only way that they had got through their journey to date and I was grateful to hear their honesty.

Others had been on medication and had stopped taking it because it either had not worked or for some reason, it hadn't agreed with them.

And then there were other widows who had, for their own personal reasons and circumstances, decided that they were not going to accept any pharmaceutical help.

I realised that it didn't matter what other people had done or chosen. It soon became apparent that like the Google search, the experiences returned to me were potentially a million fold and all relative to the individual situation.  I had to make a choice about my situation.

I am not playing things down here. I wanted to die. I had told my mother this - much to her distress. You see, with Bebe gone and no children to care for, I thought in the drowsy depths of despair that I 'may as well go out on a high'.

I told my Dad 'if this was a film, then now would be an ideal time for an ice-cream and an interval'. What I meant was, 'I'm done with it - and to make this a happy ending then I will go with Bebe'.

I am sorry if this sounds tough to hear. But this is where I was.

I am not there now. Thankfully.

Maybe it was the family members on 'suicide watch' or the stories I had read from people further down the line that life did get easier if I just clung on, I don't know.

Maybe it was the thought that Bebe had been determined to live and fight the final curtain despite the odds that he was dealt.

Maybe it was the memory of him fighting for every last breath and his words to me that I must carry on and live the life that he would have appreciated.

In truth, it was most likely a combination of them all that led me to fight for myself and my own life now.

I will be honest, those dark thoughts did not lift over night. It took a while - a couple of months at least before the fog began to clear. I did as I was told. I kept breathing, I kept taking each moment as it arrived and I kept connected with the people who were further on than me.

If you want to survive, then surround yourself with survivors. Believe what they say. 
I don't envy them now. I am so very thankful that they are there.

For Bebe: Your biggest fear for me was that I would lose my spark for life as a result of you leaving. I cannot pretend that in the early days, I did not fear that spark was extinguished and I know that this would have deeply upset you. I will strive to be a credit to you by appreciating that I am living and make an effort to appreciate the world around me, knowing how much you loved life. I have come this far and I resolve to go further in your memory.

Monday, 9 February 2015

The Total Eclipse

I remember the year 1999 very well indeed. There was an overwhelming hype that the new millennium was approaching and plenty of talk about how the world of technology would cope at the strike of midnight as the media had gone into overdrive that the systems would not cope with the change over and we would all be sent into some kind of oblivion as a result.

My mother was sent into her own oblivion that year, when in June, her husband passed away.

My stepfather, whom had been a 'father figure' to me for most of my life, died within a week of going into hospital for an outpatient procedure that went horribly wrong.

I was 29 years old when I stepped into a role that was more adult than I felt capable of, as my mother crumbled into widowhood, just days before she was due to retire. I was so consumed in holding it together for her sake that I barely took stock or allowed myself any time to grieve.

That summer was the total eclipse of the sun. I made the journey down to Cornwall, my childhood home, to spend a few days with my mum. By August, she had already moved to a new home that her and my stepfather had chosen.

It was a cloudy day on the whole. The media had pitched themselves along several coastal vantage points and there were parties in full swing from early that morning. As the time approached, the commentary on the radio remained upbeat but the disappointment was felt by so many as the clouds were insistent on covering the disappearing sun.

My mother couldn't face the crowds that day, so we sat on deckchairs peering up at the sky in hope that we may witness something amazing. Firstly, the birds began to quieten and a stillness and hush filled the air. For a brief moment, that was long enough for us to appreciate, there was a parting of the clouds to reveal the last moments of the 'diamond' ring before the world around us fell into darkness.

'I can feel Daddy around us' my mother said, 'I know he is here with us.'

My mother had never referred to my stepfather as 'Daddy' before and it made me feel uncomfortable.
I had called him 'Dad' for as long as I could remember but mum in her grief had renamed him for me.

I am ashamed to say that I felt uncomfortable talking about someone who had meant so much. I didn't know how to handle the subject of his death and most of the time, I consciously dodged it by offering distractions and cliches. Had it been a friend who was grieving, then I am more ashamed to say that I would have avoided it altogether - except for the customary and polite acknowledgement.

But this was my mother. I had no choice but to listen at close quarters to what she had to say and I witnessed at equally close quarters how she handled herself in the aftermath of his passing.

I remember being shocked that she had cleared out his belongings in the process of the move. All that was there physically to represent that he had once existed was his cardigan and dressing gown. And a couple of pictures of him on the dresser. I also remember being quite horrified that she handed to me a briefcase with all his writing and memoirs in.

'What am I supposed to do with this?' I thought, 'It doesn't belong to me!'

Looking back, I held an opinion or a judgement on everything she did in those early days. I didn't share them with her but I held them all the same. And worst of all, I wished that she would finally stop talking about him or recalling every little thing he had said or done in their 25 years together.

He was dead. He wasn't coming back. And all I wanted her to do was to get over it and move on. It was easier for me of course because I could drive away - back up North to my cosy life and my husband who would console me and listen to me processing my grief.

And now I am where she was.

In my new normal I am fully aware that most people don't understand my needs. I already feel an air of impatience around me, whether real or imagined, that I really need to start talking about something different.

I have felt a tangible sense of avoidance from some people who, just like me all those years ago, simply don't know how to handle my soul mate passing. My own next door neighbour has never acknowledged that Bebe has died. She scuttles in and out of her house like it is some sort of covert operation and it has led to me doing the same thing. After more than seven months have passed by, it seems almost ridiculous that I dread to bump into her. But that is what death can do to you.

Death brings about almost complete isolation on a physical and emotional level. People who used to feel at ease in your company, make excuses about not being in contact or worse still, cease contact altogether. For a while, I was pleased that I was left alone but when the fog begins to clear, the social landscape is as dark as the day of that full eclipse.

Other people completely and utterly surprise me in other ways. They reach out and genuinely ask how it feels now Bebe has gone. Often these people are new friends that I have made either virtually or in real life as I moved into the new world that is secret to everybody except the grieving.

But sometimes it has been from the farthest flung territory of social networking where people have taken the time out to offer company through a message or a chat, regardless that they have sat on my friends list with no previous interactions for many years. These people are my unsung heroes. They do not know quite what to say and they know there is nothing much that they can do, but they step up to the plate and appear like figures in the fog of my grief to reach out and just connect.

It has made me wonder would I have done the same for them? I fear that I would not have stepped up. I fear that I would have been exactly the same as many others who, after the news of the 'blow', and the final farewells of the funeral disappear like the sun behind the clouds. Maybe I wouldn't have been like that at all - after all, we never know until moments in life present us with our chance to demonstrate our support and compassion.

As I look out of the window onto the landscape of my new normality, I have learnt that death is a test for the living. Death separates the living from the living - but it can also unite us.

But above all, I understand that there is no blueprint for dealing with the loss of your loved one. My widowed mother dealt with things her way and I will deal with losing my husband in the way that is right for me.

There is no blueprint for the grieving of others. Friends and loved ones of Bebe all have their own unique way of dealing with their loss and I respect this wholeheartedly. It is as unique as their relationship with him. It cannot be predicted or replicated by others.

I am grieving not only the loss of my soul mate, the future we had planned and the joy of our relationship. I am suffering other losses along the way, like friendships I expected more from in my time of need and the stark reality that my social circle itself will never look or feel the same again.

For Bebe: I understand that my relationships with people may change now that you are not here. I know your passing will isolate me from some and unite me with others. I promise that I will do my very best to communicate what this is like for me but also have the compassion to understand that many people feel a great sense of loss now that you have gone. And I will always leave the door open to those who have found this time difficult because one day they may need me to reach out to them.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

The Feedback

Many years ago, I delivered a keynote speech at an education conference in the South of England. There must have been more than 500 people in the room to hear my pearls of wisdom on 'Transition and Coping with Change' and the whole affair filled me with excitement and dread in equal measure.

At the end of the day, everyone who attended was asked to fill in a feedback form and grade the quality of the speakers and their messages to allow the organisers to evaluate the impact and quality of the event.

A week later, the organiser of the conference called to give me feedback on my speech. I am always keen to know how my messages are perceived because it helps me improve my work and adapt it where it may be necessary to do so.

On the whole, the feedback was excellent and I was thrilled to note that some 350 delegates had found my messages useful and inspiring. On a scale of 1 - 10, my speech had scored top marks and people had been very taken with what I had to say.

One person was disenchanted. They had scored me a 7 on the scale with a comment that read 'This speaker did not meet my needs and I didn't learn that much from her.'

I was gutted. It was all I could do to focus on the negative response and totally ignore the other lovely comments and I remember being so affected by it that I actually considered that my work was worthless.

For the first few months of my new normal, I realise that I still had the propensity to focus only on the negative aspects of my old life. And believe me, there were not many negatives.

My old life was truly amazing - it really was. I know that it is easy to look back on the past with rose tinted spectacles but before I took the train to this new normality, I had so much to be grateful for and happy about.  I had the best part of eight years with Bebe and we lived a life of true adventure together.

We were the absolute best of friends for a start, and couple that with shared dreams, a zest for life, the deepest level of trust and the joyful intimacy that comes with such a relationship then it may be difficult for you to imagine why I found myself in a loop of negative thought after my soul mate died.

And you would be right to wonder.

The negative and depressing thoughts that saturated me in the early days, weeks and months, stemmed from the last couple of days we had together. I cannot even begin to describe how traumatic it is to see the man you love most in the world, slip into such heartbreaking decline in physical and mental health.

In our makeshift bedroom that was previously our dining room, he lay sleeping for most of the time. The nurses came a few times a day to give pain relief and the carers came to make him comfortable. Night turned into day and then into night once again - and I did not leave his side for more than a brief moment.

The straw that broke the camel's back and the overriding moment that I have until recently been trapped in, was the decision to administer the anti-anxiety medicine.

When someone is so desperately poorly and the morphine dose is so high, it most likely causes frightening hallucinations, terror and confusion. The medicine at that point comes in the form of a highly powerful sedative and instead of injection, it is administered via a driver that constantly feeds this into their system.

It brings calm to the sufferer immediately. But for those of us left in a state of consciousness it heralds the beginning of a stark realisation that the point of no return has been reached.

When we first returned from the hospital, not really knowing how much time we had ahead of us, we began to talk about and process the news that we had received. We had always done this kind of thing together, through the ups and downs that life had delivered but this time we stopped short in our analysis.

'I never want us to think or talk about what happened at the hospital ever again,' Bebe said 'I just want to live my life and get the best out of it that I can.'

He made a choice that day. The choice to only focus on what he could do. The choice of refusing to go over the trauma of diagnosis again and again in his head or in any discussion with me or anyone else.

 'We are where we are' he said.

After he died, I was indeed where I was. Completely and utterly stuck in the last 24 hours of my life with him. My brain refused to playback the images of our beautiful holidays in the hills of Andalusia, or dancing in the kitchen together every Friday evening. It seemed to have blocked out any memories of my tall, dark, handsome husband curled up with laughter when watching our favourite comedies or proudly announcing that he had been offered an opportunity to work for a great company.

No matter how I tried to conjure them up, my mind would not replay the joy and pride of his dutiful day as a godfather to his niece and neither would it afford me the happy memories of him neck deep in bubbles when he underestimated the power of a jacuzzi and radox at our holiday cottage - the time I had to scoop them out with a saucepan as he sat screeching with laughter because he couldn't work out how to turn it off.

Instead, I was gifted with the memories of the final and difficult 24 hours. They haunted my waking hours and my thoughts were only relieved by sleeping pills, as I lay in the bed that we once shared so cosily.

After a couple of months, the doctor refused to give me any more sleeping pills for fear that they were addictive. No shit Sherlock.

It was at that point that I realised I had to do something about my thinking. If Bebe had given me so much strength and joy in life then began to realise he could bring me the same strength and joy despite our now separate worlds.

As I lay there in bed, unable to sleep, I reached out to his spirit in hope that he may inspire me. I asked myself what might he say to me, if he knew that I was trapped in those final hours. And I could hear his voice. Not literally you understand, but in my head I could recall his deep, matter of fact but gentle tone.

And in the stillness of the room, and the quietness of the night, I stopped crying. I closed my eyes and imagined him looking at me, with his 100 yard stare and deep brown eyes. I visualised him smiling and taking my hands in his hands. And then I heard him speak to me.

This is what he said:

'What on earth are you doing Honey?
Why are you reducing my whole life with you, that was full of so much energy and laughter, to some pathetic moments before I died?
What was the point of me living, if all you will remember is me dying?
You have to stop this now. We promised that we wouldn't go over it again and again. 
I know how much you love me. I know you were there for me.
Honestly, you have to let this go because it breaks my heart to see you reliving it.
If you are going to remember me then for goodness sake choose some decent images - you have plenty to choose from. Most of all, I shudder to think that you are remembering me like that. I was better than that. I am better than that. 
And so are you.'

These words did not come beyond the grave. I do not believe they were sent from heaven or spirited in from some afterlife. I don't believe in such things and they do not bring me comfort. In the new normal, everyone has their own belief of what happens after death. We respect that we all have the right to believe whatever feels right for us.

I do believe however, that these are his words. When Bebe died, part of me went with him. But more importantly, part of him has stayed with me.

And for that, I am thankful.

For Bebe: I refuse to do you a disservice by obsessing over those final hours. I will honour your life by remembering only the best of you. I will share good memories with those who knew you and bring your tales to life with those who did not know you.