Friday, 3 July 2015
My husband died a year ago today.
I will not refer to it as an anniversary. To me, Anniversaries are happy occasions and to remember the worst day of my life and the end of his as an anniversary, does not sit comfortably with me.
Today marks the day that I entered my new normal. Today I ask myself who am I now?
It has been a year like no other.
The four weeks prior to my husband’s death had been such a whirlwind. We had experienced the diagnosis, the homecoming, our engagement, our wedding day and complete upheaval of our home as it effectively turned into a hospice.
Our home was filled with visitors, family and friends. And medical professionals.
I worked with love for 22 hours a day. I was a host, a carer, a pharmacist, a PA, a counsellor, a travel agent and a press officer.
I was a loving wife and best friend.
I don’t recall being frightened. I was organised, precise and focused. And I found patience within me that I had never knew existed. I felt such a tremendous surge of energy and capacity to do whatever was needed of me in any way that was necessary.
I understood my roles, my tasks, my timetables and my future. I didn’t know how long my future was to be in these roles – but I didn’t have the time to consider this.
The revolving door continued. The doctor, the care team, the cancer nurse and the overnight hospice carer. And finally the undertaker.
When all of my roles ceased to exist on July 3rd, just before midday, I was terrified.
My future had been obliterated.
Nothingness. A vacuum. Not even a landscape.
My cataclysmic plunge from the platform of a world that I knew to a world that I knew nothing about.
My mother and her partner had both been widowed. They understood my pain.
They cried for me and all that I had lost. And they cried for their own loss all over again.
‘You will get through this because you have to. And then you will get through it because you want to. You won’t believe us now and why should you? But I PROMISE your pain won’t always feel this raw’ said my Mother.
Of course I did not believe her.
One year on. I am not a better person. I don’t think I was too bad before to be honest, but one thing is for certain – I am forever changed.
I understand the uniqueness of grief. I no longer view it as a life sentence or something that I think might hinder my ability to live a happy and fulfilled existence.
I am not frightened by grief because I understand that it is borne from love. It is a gift that I treasure as evidence that the love we had truly existed. This is important because memories may fade in time but grief can live with me. It can ironically live ‘happily’ within me.
Before last June, I thought my life was sorted. My life was full of middle class ‘decisions’ like which hotel had the best spa for a romantic weekend away or wondering whether I should finally get around to learning how to speak Spanish.
I remember agonising over whether to purchase a beautiful dress in a posh boutique and after weighing up the pros and cons, I duly went ahead with it. Never in a million sunsets would I have imagined it would be the dress that I would wear to my husband’s funeral just a couple of months later.
My innocence has gone but it has been replaced with an acute sense and value of time that I have never had before. I try really hard not to waste my time. This doesn’t mean to say I live an action packed life but I am always busy in my waking hours – physically or mentally.
I go to work cheerfully on weekdays. I never realised just how much other people moan about their work and/or lives but grief seems to have awakened my senses and I tune in to the negativity of others. I don’t join in with the gossip and the complaining anymore. I am ashamed to say that I used to moan a fair bit about the politics and the red tape but now I just focus on the solution and let the rest of the crowd sweat the small stuff.
Strangely enough, the change in my attitude has brought about opportunity. I have been through the worst and this has totally recalibrated my idea of what a ‘bad day at the office’ really is.
Equally, my senses are tuned in to the pain and the suffering of others. Listening and empathy had never really been my strength but I feel a tangible awareness of my compassion and patience towards others who are struggling. I listen more attentively and with less distraction to those who share their troubled thoughts and I try not jump to judgement or conclusion as often as I used to.
I understand that sometimes I just need to listen and they need to talk. It’s okay if I cannot ‘fix’ things.
I don’t always get this right but I try and give more time to consider the evidence before I offer my perspective.
And sometimes I do not offer my perspective at all – I am understanding that so much of what happens around me is none of my business.
My address book has been rewritten. Contacts have been erased and new ones have been added. I have taken real joy from connecting with the new friends in my life and truly appreciated reconnecting with people that I had lost touch with or that I never previously ‘had the time’ to see or talk to.
There is a fundamental difference between ‘having’ time and ‘making’ time.
I still have work to do, but I have made the decision that I will not be ‘making’ time for people who have been mostly absent for the worst year of my life.
I want to ensure that I am in the best position to support those friends who have shown up should they need me to do the same. We live life in the balance. I knew this in theory but now I have lived the reality of the balance tipping so catastrophically and irreversibly in favour of tragedy I am fully aware that any one of us can have our imagined future destroyed in a moment.
We all live a life where unbeknown, we are dodging the invisible boulders that are being hurled at us. If one of my nearest and dearest gets hit then I want to be there for them and I am pretty sure now that I know who they are.
I am polite to people. Mostly.
By this, I mean that I am even more intent on treating others as I would like to be treated. I have tried exceptionally hard this year to lead by example but there have been (rare) occasions when this has been challenging.
So by the same token, I politely speak my mind where possible.
And occasionally I just speak my mind.
I have the confidence to choose which approach is necessary.
I take more care of myself. I value my life. I eat a healthy diet, take more exercise and consume less alcohol.
I need to organise my sleeping patterns and I need to stop smoking cigarettes. These will be the last of my demons to exorcise and I am increasingly confident that I will win the battle.
I have realised that there are some things in life that you cannot escape. When I have suffered tragedy or loss, or had a spell of restlessness in my life, I have had an overwhelming desire to cut and run.
I considered doing that just after losing my husband. I was teetering on the edge of booking a trip to Australia but in the same sentiment as ‘same shit, different day’ I concluded that this would just mean ‘same pain, different continent’.
I realised that I can’t run from myself. I needed to sit this mess out and stick close to home. For me, this was the best choice.
I am building my new life at home and have forced myself to feel the intensity of living alone with no escape plans. I am ready now however, to think about booking a proper holiday.
I have spent more time with my family. I am lucky to have good relationships with them all but I have rediscovered the value of investing in these. I have made time. I know this time is precious and will mean that I have no regrets if I suffer another loss.
I have battled with the idea of having another relationship. I know I have the capacity to love again and I believe that I am capable and worthy of giving and experiencing unconditional and all-consuming love. But I am wary about how this may manifest. I may already know this person or it maybe someone I have yet to meet.
I firmly believe however, that I will know when the time feels right. And most importantly, I will know that it is worth taking the risk of losing them and feeling this kind of pain all over again.
I certainly know that I brought much joy, fulfilment and happiness into my husband’s life as he did mine.
I am not bitter or possessive and I know what love should look and feel like.
I am grateful for that because it means that I remain optimistic about relationships. I do not believe that we only have one chance to get it right and I hope that another chance may come my way.
I am a grounded, loyal, supportive and loving woman.
I was not hurt by love. I was hurt by death.
I have always worried a little too much about what other people think of me. This has been an additional struggle in a very difficult year because my grief has played out publically and at times I have had limited control in how I have managed the depth of my despair.
I wonder if people in the office secretly pity me for example, or if they talk about me behind my back. I expect that people may talk behind my back if they don’t like a work decision I have made but I am okay with that.
But it’s a horrible feeling wondering how I have been perceived in terms of ‘the woman whose husband died of cancer’.
This feels particularly difficult if I have found myself sharing a joke over lunch or laughing at some random observation about life. Do they think it is acceptable? Should I be more subdued? Should I feel happy, even for a brief moment?
But lately I care less about what other people may think or what they may say. It isn’t my job to second guess their thoughts or try to understand them. I am done with trying to grieve and behave according to anybody’s expectations.
Their business is none of mine – and my business is none of theirs.
I am still angry about what has happened. I don’t take my anger out on others like I did in the early stages of my loss – and I am certainly not angry with myself. But suffice to say, I am still very much pissed right off with the fact that just as we were really starting to gather speed in the next part of our life together – at a point where I can pretty much say we had reached momentary perfection – it all came crashing down.
I have aged. My hair is greying, my skin is wrinkled and I doubt much if the dark circles under my eyes will ever really subside. My relationship with Clarins, Yves Saint Laurent and L’Oreal is as solid as a rock these days.
But you know what? When I look in that mirror, I like who I see.
I have laughed this year. I never thought my humour would get out of this hole ‘alive’ but it has. As a matter of fact, it was the saviour that clung on and insisted that I wasn’t actually dead. I have realised that laughing is as powerfully cathartic as crying. Laughter was commonplace in my old world and I am delighted to report that it has survived the move.
Of course I am a solo act more than a duo now but even in the depth of despair I have been surprised at my capacity to entertain myself with witty monologue. And believe me, when you have been widowed – there is no shortage of idiot comments that fuel my act.
I take time today to consider what I have actually achieved. My first thought would be not a great deal.
I haven’t gained a qualification or swum the channel. I haven’t moved house or travelled abroad alone. I haven’t learned to scuba dive and I haven’t managed to do any fundraising.
For me, it just hasn’t been that kind of year.
But. I am happy. I am sad and I am happy. Mad as it sounds – I am both.
I have a job that I love, fantastically sensitive and often very funny friends, a crazy but wonderful family, a social calendar that is limited only by affordability at times, a fabulous support network that is focused on creating a positive outlook and a singing, dancing, talking, playful and very mischievous pet parrot.
My goal this year was survival. In reality, I have done much more than this.
So this is it. A year without him.
Do I get a medal? Do I get a lollipop?
People say I have done well and that I have been brave and strong.
When I was a kid at the dentist I was brave and strong. I used to get a sticker then.
I suppose brave and strong are all relative to the situation.
I am not brave for I have felt fear like no other. I have been terrified and tormented with pain.
I am not strong for I have crumbled and collapsed in a piteous heap often, and behind closed doors alone.
I am not super human. I have made plenty of mistakes this year. I have felt anger and bitterness and jealousy. I am graphically aware of my own mortality.
There are days that I have deliberately smoked so many cigarettes in one day just to feel alive. The tightness in my chest and the whistle in my breathing were macabre reminders early on that I did actually have some control in what was happening to me.
I have on occasion, drank so much alcohol alone that I have passed out beyond caring.
I have been drunk publically and probably behaved in an inappropriate way.
But I am here, one year on and still standing.
And I am here to set the record straight.
My husband died of cancer. I had no other choice but to deal with it.
I didn’t select the ‘brave’ card or the ‘strong’ card from the deck.
I didn’t conjure up the ‘joker’ to give me an extra whoosh of invincibility.
Dealing with my loss does not make me amazing. I am just an average Joe that has had to get on with it. There are plenty of us about. Some 60 of my new friends are proof that bad things happen to good people. They have all lost their life partners – many of them under 45 years old. And they have just got on with it too.
So reflecting on the words of my mother, the widow:
I kept going because I had to.
I keep going now because I want to.
I have smoked, drunk, cried, starved, shouted, sobbed, danced, worked, laughed, blogged, swam, bargained, kissed, doubted, screamed, pretended, denied, accepted, connected, frolicked, read, dreamt, panicked, ached, hugged, hoped and bloody well bollocked myself through this year.
It has had less to do with strength and bravery but more to do with a gigantic kick up my own arse to get on with the business of living.
I remember asking 'does this get better?'
The definition of better is: a state that is more desirable, satisfactory or effective.
Compared to one year ago, in those darkest days of rawness and grief? My life is better.
Shit happens. I’m not being flippant, I am being pragmatic.
I have travelled so far away from a life that once was, and yet the life I have now is beginning to feel like mine.
Sometimes it feels that I have slipped into some kind of parallel universe – with new people, new opportunity and untapped potential.
Maybe I have?
Perhaps in another dimension, we are driving home from the hospital and singing along to some indeterminate tune on the radio, his hand reaching over to mine and lovingly squeezing it with a playful relief that it had all been a fuss over nothing.
Life’s a bitch and then you die.
I can’t help but think that Bebe could have used that quote in the most literal sense. But he never did.
And boy do I miss him.
For Philip David Riley: I am acutely aware that the journey of ‘without you’ will never end.
There is no medal or special accolade for getting through this past 12 months but I know that you would be so happy with my progress. You would be so proud that I am trying to be the best I can be, and that I am working really hard at living the best life that I can. And that is powerful motivation for pressing forward.
For Un-named Widow: Today you will create a true and happy anniversary date. We met last year when I was only a few months on this lonely road. Our loss felt similar and we connected in our grief. Today you get married to your new soulmate on this earth. What a joy to know that you have found another special man in your lifetime. Wishing you a wonderful wedding day with a lifetime of happiness together. xxx