Monday, 21 January 2019

Home is where the heart is

I learned a new word recently. I am a writer and so I love words, sometimes almost more than people. Words help to make sense of my innermost feelings. The blank page listens when there's no-one else around. Generally speaking, words don't let me down.

I love the precision of language, the way that, as a writer, if I choose the right words I can convey the exact sensation of feathers on skin, or sunlight over the ocean. Less is more, we say. Why use ten words when one will do? 

The English language is vast and intricate and yet still, sometimes, we say 'there are no words'. In grief, I've learned that sometimes this is the best thing to say. Less is more. There are no words of comfort adequate for something as big as the disappearance of a parent or a lover or a child. 'Grief' is not big enough. 'Loss' is not strong enough. 'Sadness' only goes so far.

And sometimes we have to look to another language for the word we need. The Eskimos, some say, have fifty words for snow. The Americans, allegedly, have fifteen words for sandwich. The Greeks, we're told, had six words for love. And the Welsh? The Welsh have one word which, for me, sums up the pervasive, eternal experience of profound loss. Hiraeth. A word which has no precise translation but a word which means a longing for a place to which we cannot return, a yearning for home.

And yet I am home. I am sitting here in my favourite chair by the fire in the house that I share with my two children, my family. I live in Sheffield. I've pretty much always lived in Sheffield. If you ask me where my home is, I don't have to falter. It is here, nestled amongst the green parks and trees, at the confluence of rivers that fed the steel industry, between the seven hills. It is here that I belong. In truth, I'm not sure that I'd live anywhere else. Maybe for love. Only for love. And yet, for the last three years, I've been homesick, filled every day with longing, desperate to return to something, somewhere, to a place that had no name. Hiraeth.

For me, that place is the place where parents and grandparents congregated around Christmas trees and days when my mother's voice was just at the end of the phone. It is the time when I had someone to love who really loved me. Before he died. Before she died. Before anyone died. The place that I long to return to is a place of innocence. It is a place where, sometimes, it could feel that everything was ok. It is a place of completeness, wholeness. It was a time when nothing really awful had yet happened and when I couldn't imagine how awful things could get.

These days I try to live in the moment. I work hard to count my blessings. I focus on the sensation of feathers on skin, of sunlight on the ocean. I strive to find the beauty in the little things, to cherish what remains. But the longing will never leave me. And every time I love someone, it is tinged with the knowledge of the loss that will come. And every time I lose someone, I fall deep down into a well of pre-existing sadness. And I know that it will always be here. This sadness. This longing. This yearning for a place to which I cannot return. At least I have a word for it. And I love words, sometimes more than people. Hiraeth.

Monday, 10 December 2018

The ghost of Christmas Past

The ghost moves in without me noticing at first. Why would I? Ghosts are invisible after all. But still, I feel it, though the children don't. Their heads are full of candy canes and Christmas crafts, packages beneath the tree. They are in the present, or three steps ahead into the future, counting down, opening doors, eating sweets, their excitement palpable, though also invisible.

When I open doors, the ghost comes in. I inhale it like smoke and it seeps through my skin. Funny how invisible things can feel so heavy. I walk around weighed down with it, as if I am carrying it like rocks in my pockets, like I am full to the brim with it. I still don't realise what it is. You'd think I would recognise it by now.

Gradually it reveals itself, though it takes the form of absence not presence. It is in the gaps in the list of gifts to purchase and in the box of decorations for the Christmas tree. It is threaded like tinsel through ferns. It is in the making of plans that someone else used to organise. The Christmas train is a ghost train now and the spectre is there on the stage at the panto. Behind you. The ghost of grief is in the air. The ghost of grief is everywhere.

The ghost sucks up joy like a dementor, demanding to be seen. And then I remember: ghosts don't like to be ignored. I set a place at the table for grief and welcome it in. Only then can the festivities begin.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

The end of grief?

It is two years, eight months and three days since my love, Blacksmith Paul, died. A strange day to note, you may think, but it’s been logged on my calendar for two years, four months and eight days. On that day I was sitting sobbing again in the pale blue room of the hospice, (the one just down the corridor from where my mother had also recently died, the one marked: Counselling, Do not Disturb). I was asking when it would end, when I could hope to feel some semblance of normality return. My bereavement counsellor paused, recognising perhaps that I might not like her answer and told me that, statistically-speaking, two years, eight months and three days is the average time it takes to recover from a major bereavement. I broke off from crying to snort with laughter. It was clearly ridiculous. The date seemed to be impossibly far away. It seemed impossible that I could survive for that long. It was also impossible to think that it could ever be over. I put it in my phone, maybe as a date to work towards, maybe as a black joke or ironic statement. 13th November 2018:  Grief Ends.
               As I sit here on that day, I look back at my journey through grief and reflect again on the twists and turns along the way. Looking back I realise that, although I didn't really expect my path to reflect that of the widowed people I know, in many ways it did. Paul and I had only been together for eight months. It wasn't like I lost a husband who was integrated into every aspect of my life. But I still lost the man I loved, the person I relied upon and my hopes for the future. And, like other people, I lost parts of myself in the blast, lost friends who simply had no idea how to be around my devastation. It was a life-altering experience. 
                It is easy to frame the years by the writing retreats in Wales that I go on every Easter. That first Easter I went three weeks after Paul's death. It was a weird thing to do but the trip was paid for and the children's father was already to booked to have them. It seemed as a good a place to be as any. That week I just wrote one poem and a eulogy and I also began writing a blog in response to prompts from Megan Devine's Writing Your Grief programme.  At first I wrote daily, then weekly, then monthly. Eventually the memories were all recorded (there were only eight months of them after all) and I’d used up every metaphor for agony that I could think of. Slowly synapses began to reconnect and a new life started to emerge. When I returned to Ty Newydd a year later it was with a potential new romance in mind. The year after that, my annual retreat signalled the end of that relationship. Having new love in my life had eased my loneliness but it hadn’t been the saviour I might have expected after all. In fact falling in love again had unleashed whole new layers of grief and tipped me into something close to a breakdown. I'd read that, for many people, the second year of grief is worse than the first and, in the end, perhaps this was true. If I spent the first year of grief wallowing in a pit of despair, I spent the second year grappling to climb out of it, trying to navigate my way in a new world with no faith in my map or my compass and no hope that some guardian angel was working for my greater good. In the second year I battled with anxiety, depression and what I eventually realised was post-traumatic stress. It was a very hard journey. It was hard to trust again. It was hard to love again. And it was very hard to lose love again. In fact, all of it was hard.
            Still, two years, eight months and three days after Paul’s death, in truth, I am doing great. I am off all medication and not feeling in need of any therapy. I am dating again but happy also to be alone. And I am writing fiction again, my head bursting with new stories and fresh ideas. I am working on new projects and filled with ambition and hope. My brain is mostly functioning, my heart is mostly repaired, I am mostly recovered. The house that I moved into six months after Paul’s death is feeling like home and, though I lost friends in the aftermath, I gained more. And the other house, the house by the sea bought with the money left by my mother, is now a place for writers to come together and create. I am living a dream that somehow arose like an island in the fog. And the grief? The grief has receded but not vanished. A few weeks ago, I went on a date with a man who later messaged me to tell me that he’d realised he used to know Paul. As he described what a lovely man he was, the floodgates opened and I had to pull over my car because I was crying so hard. I can still be blindsided by grief. And on Bonfire Night last week, I wandered around poking sticks in fires and wondering why on this, my favourite night of the year, I felt full to the brim with sadness. And it was only later that I recalled that it was still grief and that memories of the blacksmith still lingered in the embers. Fascinated always by narrative, I ask myself, does a love story finish just because the hero dies? Or do the threads that bind two lives together continue beyond the grave, beyond the last page? Does grief really end two years, eight months and three days after a traumatic loss? Or does sadness echo through the days that follow, seeping like wet ink onto the blank pages of the future? Of course it does. In fact, though it gets easier to live with, grief shifts and changes like clouds in the sky and goes on, in some form, forever. Grief, like love, goes on for eternity. I realise now that I wouldn’t have it any other way.
            This weekend I ran a writing retreat, not in Wales, but at my house in Bridlington. As I often do, I sent the participants off to the beach to look for treasure, to search for the gifts that the ocean left behind. I picked up an assortment of objects: green sea glass that I imagined as a top hat for a leprechaun, a swirling conch that, though it no longer held the sound of the sea, was a lens to view it through, the pale blue-striped shell of a clam. As I walked my eyes, as always, were looking for hearts. It is something I used to do in the early days, searching for signs that all was not lost. And that day I found one. At night the sea was wild and by day black sand swirled over the beach, and, over a flat stone, the rivulet of water and sand made a heart-shape. I watched for a while, mesmerised, thinking of Paul and of the journey of grief. I wanted to reach down and pick it up but I knew that to do so would break the illusion. I would just be left with a stone. So I left it there and moved on. And I was walked, I realised that, at that moment, I was so unbelievably happy and so completely at peace with myself and with the world. I felt full to the brim with joy, my pockets full of gifts, my heart full of hope. I felt so very lucky and wondered how this is possible. But it is.
            The next day, the rain was pelting down and the sky was a blank bank of cloud. It was not a day for swimming but I live now as if each day is my last and I cannot miss an opportunity to swim in the sea. It is the gift of grief, the gift I didn’t want to hear of when he died. I undressed and walked to the water’s edge. Already the air was cool against my skin. I dipped my toes into the sea and felt icy waters prickling my feet. I waded in deeper as the strips of seaweed and swirling rocks twirled around my legs. I walked out and then back in, wondering if I was brave enough, out and in again like the tide. And eventually I dived. The cold took my breath away as I swam briskly through the waves, rising and falling, going with the flow of the water. I was swimming not through the clouds but beneath their canopy and though I could not see the blue of the sky, I knew that it was there and that it will always return. My skin tingled with the euphoria that I always feel when swimming outdoors and as I walked back up the beach shivering, I said to my friend, ‘these days I feel invincible.’ Though the journey has been impossibly hard, I am alive and I survived.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Swimming through clouds

At four years old, I won the Sheffield Water Babies cup. Though some memories are embellished by other family members' narratives or recalled mostly through photographs, my memory of winning that trophy feels real. I remember it in sensory details that only I would recall. I remember the sensation of the water in my nostrils as I descended into the swimming pool from the side, plummeting so deep that I could almost touch the tiles on the bottom, the sounds of dry land muffled and retreating as my ears filled with water. And I remember the view of bubbles in the water as I slowly rose back up to the surface, the sounds of laughter and relief from the crowd as I emerged and smiled and began to swim breaststroke down the big pool at Sheaf Valley Baths. I don't remember what I was thinking as I swam but I remember the comfort and ease of the challenge. All I had to do in order to win was to be the youngest child to swim a length and water was already where I felt at home. 

At some point I must have wondered where my family were because I remember stopping mid-way to tread water and looking up into the gallery to see my father. I guess my mother was there too but it is my father that I remember because his presence was more rare and thus more special. And I remember pausing to wave gleefully to him and I remember, as clear as if it's a photograph, his smile beaming down on me. I've heard that the audience were charmed. As a parent myself now, I can imagine the scene. I remember too, standing on the podium and being handed a trophy that was almost as big as myself and I remember refusing to hold it because I was afraid it might get wet. My memory stops there but the family albums show me posing at home, dried off and holding the trophy with my brothers. Sometimes I joke that it was the high point of my life and that it has all been downhill since then. There are times when it has actually felt that way. 

Last weekend I took on another swimming challenge to raise money for the charity Widowed and Young. The organisation had a free place at the Swim Serpentine event and no-one to take part and so, at the last minute, I said that I'd do it. Outdoor swimming has always been a love of mine and I knew that it would be easy for me to swim a mile around a lake in central London. Besides, Swimming through Clouds has become the name of my blog, so it seemed fitting and I've often felt guilty that I haven't run a marathon or climbed a mountain in Paul's honour. It seems to be a thing that bereaved people do. Everyone needs something that keeps them getting out of bed, something that keeps them moving (though they've no idea where they're going), a cause that helps them to create something vaguely positive from the unbearable pain of loss. Some people in these moments of heartache, take up new hobbies and new challenges and some of us return home. I am a returner. If you'd asked me as a child what I loved most in the world I would have said reading and writing and swimming. True to form, when Paul died, I immediately began to assemble a bereavement library and I wrote as if my very life depended on it. And through it all, I swam.

For me, there is something meditative about swimming. When I swim, the world and my cares recede. I imagine that returning to water is like returning to the womb and throughout my life, when I'm stressed, I gravitate to it - the sea, the pool, even the bath. Water makes me relax. But, though a bubble bath is great, swimming is better. With swimming come the endorphins that we all get from exercise and as we move the body, somehow we simultaneously clear the clutter from the mind. For some, I imagine the pounding of feet on pavement or wheels on tarmac creates the beat but for me the rhythm of the strokes is akin to the rhythm of the breath  Sometimes I even find myself counting: 1, 2, 3, 4, breathe, 1, 2, 3, 4, breathe. I am focused, occupied only in the business of propelling myself through the water. Even in the early days of grief, when I was swimming, I could stop crying. When I was swimming I felt ok. 

If swimming is one step up from the bath, swimming outdoors, for me, is the holy grail of wellbeing. There is so much written about the positive benefits of outdoor and cold water swimming and if I were a different sort of person I could quote research and analyse the effects on mind and body. But I am not a scientist and I don't need empirical research to tell me what I feel in my own mind and body. I only know that when I enter the cool water of a reservoir or lake, my mind is as still as the water's surface and that I feel at peace. When I swim outdoors, I feel like I am in my rightful place, part of the glorious whole that is nature, suspended between water and sky, like something bigger than me is holding me together. It's a similar feeling to the one I get when I sit at the summit of a hill or lie on a beach gazing at solar systems, the comforting feeling that I am small and my worries smaller, that nothing matters but the feel of the water, the movement of clouds, the fluttering of leaves at the water's edge. For those precious moments, everything is fine, just as it is.

But swimming the Serpentine was a different matter. There were rules to be adhered to. If the temperature dropped below 15 degrees, there was a wetsuit that had to be worn (wetsuits make me panic). If I chose to swim without a wetsuit, I needed a tow float (what the heck is a tow float?) There were forms to fill in (forms make me panic) and tags and labels to attach - tattooed numbers for my arms, timers for my ankles, baggage labels for my stuff. And there were crowds of people (crowds make me panic) and they were all wearing wetsuits (even though it was a blissful 17 degrees) and they were stretching and preparing like swimming is some kind of sport. It was all a bit terrifying. My swim friends had told me not to go to the front and so I took my time entering the water. I walked slowly down the ramp, aiming to give myself time to acclimatise but I hadn't prepared for the fact that the ramp gave way abruptly to deep water and I found myself descending, plummeting under, bubbling back up, trying to catch my breath. And then I smiled and started swimming and gradually the rhythm returned: 1, 2, 3, 4, breathe, the crowds spread out and I was able to look around at the trees and the water and the clouds. And it was ok. Halfway round, I wondered where my children were and I spotted them by the side of the lake. They were jumping and shouting, doing a little cheerleading routine. I stopped to tread water and wave. I thought of my dad and I thought of Paul and of the cycle of life. When I emerged, someone gave me a medal and we hugged and posed for family photos just as I had done when I was four, only this time I was the adult and the people who were proud were my children.

The truth is that aside from the crowds and the tags and the admin, swimming the Serpentine wasn't a challenge for me. It was just a little swim in the park. Pleasant, but a bit too busy for my liking. Compared to the challenge of grief, it was nothing. But I am happy to have raised so much money for a charity that do wonderful work, who were a life raft for me as I journeyed through what felt like impossible waves of grief and I am extremely grateful for my sponsors and supporters. Mostly though, I am proud that I came through it all and that I can still smile. And if there have been a lot of downs since that Water Babies cup, maybe now, the only way is up.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Grief has long tail feathers

Last weekend I ran the first writing retreat in the property that I've renovated in Bridlington. On the Saturday afternoon I sent the participants out onto the beach to write about the sights and sounds and instructed them to come back with an object from the beach that inspired them. I picked up a long, straggling feather. It wasn't particularly inspiring but it was the thing that drew my attention. Writing is like that. Our attention is often directed by the unconscious mood. We write what we need to express. I've written about feathers before but this one was not pure and white like the feathers that are supposed to be signs from the other side, this one was long and brown at the edges like it had been soaked in vinegar, matted like the wet fur of an old dog's tail. It lay bedraggled and squashed in the sand and looked as if the only thing it was hoping for was to be washed away. When I wrote about it, I wrote about grief. Because we write what we need to express and though the sun has been shining on everyone else, for much of the summer I have been in darkness again. Because grief has long tail feathers that stretch like a shadow over everything. Because grief goes on much longer than people think.

Of course, though grief can't be ignored or overcome, there are things that can help to alleviate it. Like love, for instance. And there are things that can make grief return with a vengeance. Like loss of love, for instance. Grief is snakes and ladders I once wrote. It's true. Grief is often one step forward, two steps back. Finding love again after loss is like shooting up a ladder, feeling that there might yet be a game that you can win. Losing it is like falling into the mouth of the longest snake and finding yourself almost back at the beginning.

It feels a bit pathetic to be floored by sadness over the end of a relationship at my age. It's frowned upon if we don't bounce back, move on. Even more deranged to write about it but if I don't tell the truth, who will? In the widowed community (which they kindly let me be a part of) finding new love is the holy grail and we wave people off to live the new illusion of happy ever after again but it's just not like that for a lot of people. People are fragile after loss and trust is hard. New relationships often founder. And whether the object of love is alive or dead, loss is still loss and loss hurts. And however much we may have done our best to process past losses, they sit one on top of the other and it's Kerplunk again as the layers fall away and we sink right back into grief. One ending reminds us of another. The future that we thought we'd have has disappeared again. We are back at square one. Alone.

Which is ok, of course. Alone is ok. When I was questioning whether my relationship was sustainable and my therapist asked me if I was scared of being alone, I didn't have to think about it. I'm not scared of being alone at all. In many ways I have a great life on my own. I have good friends, wonderful kids, a beautiful home, a community and a passion which sustains me. I am very lucky. But I am bored of being alone and tired of it. This is my fifth summer as a single parent after an unhappy decade of trying to be a normal family and, three broken relationships down the line (I know, it wasn't Paul's fault), I'm still doing it all on my own. And doing it all alone is hard however capable and independent you are and however much self-love you have. I've got all those t-shirts but, I'm telling you, it's still hard.

People often tell me how well I've done and when I look at how far I've come since the death of my mum and Paul, sometimes I amaze myself. I find myself now running two businesses, managing two properties and bringing up two children pretty much single-handedly. I know that every day I do a great job, inspiring other people to write and fulfil their dreams, making time when I can for my own writing, giving my children the best life I possibly can, spinning more plates than anyone could manage and only smashing a few. People say they don't know how I do it and I don't know myself. If I didn't live my life, I could almost believe the hype.

I wrote another eulogy for a good friend a few weeks ago. It was my fifth: Grandma, Dad, Mum, Paul. I'm the go to girl for a eulogy. My friend had Alzheimer's and was in her seventies. She died being cared for by her loving husband of fifty-plus years and her extended family were all there talking about her life well-lived. She was a wonderful woman and a great friend and role model for me. I was sad again. Sad for her and her family. Sad to be back in that same crematorium, speaking from that same pulpit and sad that my life doesn't look like hers, that it doesn't have a straightforward trajectory. Instead, sometimes it feels full of broken ladders whose rungs lead nowhere, paths that disappear into dark forests or stop at the edge of unforgiving seas, sandcastles knocked down and rebuilt over and over again, washed away by the rain or the tide, leaving me like a tiny flag still upright alone on the beach when everything else has gone. I picture my own funeral sometimes (when you've been to so many, it's hard not to) and know that the crematorium will be packed with people who will say a lot of nice things about me. And I imagine a headstone carved with the words: she was so STRONG and BRAVE and INSPIRING. And underneath those words I imagine my ghost adding in graffiti: but sometimes so TIRED and SAD and LONELY. I love to swim and when I swim I feel at peace but sometimes I feel like Stevie Smith's man out in the sea, not waving but drowning.

Stupidly, in my loneliness, I turned my dating profiles back on again. I flicked through the profiles of all those men with their half-full pint glasses and their weekend pursuits, their nights out and in and I felt my heart sinking again. Because these are not my people. And I'm too tired to start again. I turned them off. I don't want just any Tom, Dick or Harry. I want something special. I want someone who is brave enough and strong enough and inspiring enough to take on the challenge of loving someone like me. I want someone who wants what I want. Someone who can hold their own weight, who knows that I can hold mine too. Someone who will dance the dance of love with me, who wants to walk side by side and hold my hand. I can do it all on my own but sometimes, I want someone to say, those bags look heavy, let me take one. Maybe that time will come. In the meantime, I plan to be alone. I have things to do. Writing retreats to run, kids to love and books to bring into the light of day. I'm even thinking about doing a Channel swim with some other strong, brave, inspiring folk.

While I was in Bridlington, I couldn't sleep. I missed my boyfriend who will always be a part of that place for me. I have been hoping he'll return but he seems lost at sea. I got up at 6.30am and, ignoring my own health and safety briefing, I went swimming in the choppy cold morning sea alone with the sky and the birds. It was beautiful. While I was swimming, I watched a man jog up to my clothes. He picked up my dry robe. I could almost see the question mark above his head as he wondered whose it was, imagining it had been left the day before. I watched him start to run up the beach with it. 'Hey!' I shouted to him from the sea and he stopped. He saw me. I was waving, not drowning. He laughed and put it back down. He gave me the thumbs-up, jumping up and down and cheering and then jogged on. He probably thought I was strong and brave and inspiring. And I am. Sometimes we need to feel sorry for ourselves and express the truth of the sadness in our hearts. But, in spite of it all, I know I am blessed. I still have a beautiful life. I've been through the worst and I know how to take care of myself. You don't need to worry about me. Sometimes this is just what grief looks like. I'll be all right.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

In between again

I have a theory. I doubt it's new but still, it's mine. That there's some kind of boundary separating this world from another. I don't think anyone can see it but I'm sure it's there, like a one-way mirror, impenetrable usually to our earthly gaze but there nonetheless. Or some kind of ethereal muslin that lies like an invisible mesh somewhere above our heads, permeable only by spirits or mystics or people in an altered state. I haven't thought this through. And yet, I'm sure it's true.

When Paul died, it was like the gauze between those worlds was shredded to pieces. At times I felt like we were both in limbo somewhere in between, neither of us able to settle into our respective worlds. I was aware of his presence, heard his voice, felt his touch, saw signs of him in herons and robins, in rainbows and clouds. At the same time as feeling that I was drowning in the violent waters of grief, I felt buoyed up by the certain knowledge then that it is life and not the afterlife that is a mirage. At times there was such peace in those early days, like all the extraneous crud of life had been stripped away until what remained was pure love. In those early weeks, it was the ordinary, everyday world that looked strange. The people going around their ordinary, everyday business seemed bizarrely deluded in their apparent misconception that life is solid and knowable, in their belief that everything can be understood by science and reason.  I was on another planet or on another plane, in a different realm, sitting on my wall of in-between, unable to join the land of the living for fear of losing him. I saw signs everywhere I went, the path beneath my feet littered with feathers, heart-shapes appearing in clouds and pebbles and frying pans. I journeyed with a spiritual treasure map, collecting clues in fragments of phrases found on scraps of paper or song lyrics, in the titles of books or in the interpretation of runes. Life was one long found poem and though I was lost, paradoxically, I knew that I was found too. Am I losing you? I haven't thought this through.

I thought of signs and of that permeable layer again this week though as I sat on a different wall of in-between. I have been stranded for a while in the land of relationship ambiguity, not sure whether to stay or leave, hovering somewhere between single and still in cahoots with the man I have been loving for the last year. We had pressed pause on the story of our love and I've been zooming in on the issues, rewinding through the freeze frames, searching for clues, wondering which way to go. I followed the signs into this relationship but it's not been an easy journey and we have come to a crossroads. I didn't know what to do. So I did what I have become skilled in. I sat with uncertainty, in between, and felt it deep in my bones. I wrote. I walked. I swam. I talked. I breathed deep and searched for peace. I read my own words and they echoed back to me, reminding me of the things that I've learned and lost and gained and found and somehow I worked my way back onto my own path, trusting in my own feelings, walking alone again on solid ground.

On Thursday, Paul's birthday, I walked alone to his bench. I'd forgotten it as I did last year. Last year I woke in my new boyfriend's arms and the realisation that it was Paul's birthday threw me into a tailspin. The clashing of those two worlds, the old and the new, was too violent and I crashed headlong into a pit of depression and anxiety. Looking back, I wasn't ready for a new relationship. It was too much for me. But, having learned how precious love was, I didn't want to let it go. And, as my therapist said, the only way to get over my fear of loving again was, simply, to love. And so I did, step by tentative step, tiptoeing into an unknowable future.

Anyway, where was I? I'm losing myself. Paul's birthday. I forgot. But the night before, I dreamed of him again for the first time in many months. And the next day, in one of my writing groups, I picked the title 'Dance in the City' from a random scrap of paper and I found myself writing about my memories of him for the first time in many, many months. And then his ex-partner reminded me on Facebook and so I set aside what I was doing and walked to his bench. As I paused by the pond in the park I looked up and saw a heron sitting, regal, in a bush and I smiled to myself, though I brushed it off. The gap between the worlds has closed these days and I live with the living, coloured once more by their scepticism. I took out my phone to take a photo and as I did, the heron swooped from his perch and flew right at me, looping in an arc over my head and returning to his place amongst the purple blooms (Note to self. Must learn plant names). I walked on and as I walked, white feathers drifted from the sky, falling at my feet, littering the pond and I remembered how I used to believe in this stuff but I couldn't quite stretch my mind to embrace it, to reach him, though I saw the rob rob robin, bob, bob, bobbing alongside me.

Yet, in spite of it all, there was this feeling, that something, someone, is still holding me. 'Are you here?' I asked as I sat on his bench between the strong arms that remind of his. 'I'm always here,' he replied. And I rested a while on his bench and knew that if I just keep walking, the way will always become clear, that there's a voice inside that does know what to do. The paths twist and turn and I keep choosing the scenic route, the road less travelled. For now, my boyfriend and I will walk on different paths, still in view but on different sides of the pond. I'm ok with that. I've had worse. So much worse. We're still alive and can stay connected and maybe our paths will converge again. And, if they do, that's fine too. For now, I need some time off from love to simply love myself. As I read the signs, I know that I must stay aligned to my own true north.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Two years ago my love died

Two years ago my love suddenly died. You probably know the story by now. He felt rough at work. He went home and spoke to his mum. He told her he had a headache. He evidently took some pain killers, lay down on his bed and died. He was out of touch with me and I was out of my mind with worry. It took a couple of days for me to sound the alarm, three days for his friends and I to break into his house to find him there. He was only fifty-three. We'd only been seeing each other for about eight months. We loved each other deeply. And he was gone.

I never expected to write those words: two years ago my love died. Of course I never really thought that he'd die at all (which of us does?) and a year before that I couldn't even have conceived that he and I were about to fall in love. As Joan Didion wrote: Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant. We can go from single to in love in the skip of a heartbeat, from coupledom to widowhood in the time it takes for a heart to stop. Still, somehow I never thought I'd write those words, 'two years ago'. I never thought I'd feel like a graduate of the grief club.

I remember when, in the wake of Paul's death, I first joined online support groups. I was reaching out in desperation with the newly bereaved and I'd see these people who would post on Facebook: two years ago, five years ago, ten years ago. Somehow I knew I would never be one of those people. Two years seemed like an impossibly long time. Whilst not literally expecting that I would cease to exist, I simply couldn't compute that time could keep passing like that: not for me, not when my heart was shredded, not when my nerves were tangled like knotted rubber bands, not when I was resonating with grief like a freshly-plucked guitar string. Time slowed down in those days. It was an ordeal to get through each second, each minute, each hour.  A day could feel like a week and some moments of grief could be so intense that it was like time had vanished entirely leaving me staring into an eternal void. It is hard to describe that feeling now. It is hard to recall that feeling now. Truth is, it is hard to recall a lot of things from that first year.

Sometimes now, when I'm with a friend, they'll be talking about something and I'll look at them in surprise thinking: I don't remember your brother being hospitalised / your dad remarrying / your best friend having a miscarriage. Perhaps I'm exaggerating but for the first six months or more my head was so chock-full of grief that I had no room for anything else. I don't remember much of that time at all. Of course I vaguely remember Brexit and that awful day when the Tories got re-elected but, honestly, it felt like small-fry compared to my personal devastation. In fact, I almost enjoyed seeing other people collectively mourning for a brief time. At that time grief moved into my life wholesale and I was consumed by it. I wrote because it was the only thing that brought relief from the unrelenting pain. I shared, I think, because I felt so alone. People sometimes say that I I was brave to share my feelings online but I didn't feel brave. I felt demented. I had no idea what I was doing. I didn't set out to write a blog. I didn't intend to share it. I wasn't expecting to find myself writing for The Huffington Post about grief or being nominated for grief blogger awards. I wasn't expecting any of it. But life changed in an instant. The ordinary instant. And I changed with it.

No, I didn't expect to be one of those people saying, two years ago. I didn't expect to be one of those people writing messages of hope to the newly bereaved. I certainly didn't expect to be one of those people who fell in love with someone new so soon. Was it too soon? In some ways I wasn't ready for it and perhaps it seemed too soon for some, but those of us in the club know that there is no timescale for grief and no rule book about how much love the human heart can hold. If a year seems like a short time to you, I can tell you that the year I spent grieving alone felt a hundred times longer than any other year of my life. It's like dog years or cat years or light years. In grief terms I grieved for at least 101 years before I fell in love again. Unless you've been through it, don't question it. Life changes in an instant. The ordinary instant. And everything changes with it.

Even though I remember my bereavement counsellor telling me that it takes on average two years, eight months and three days to fully process a major grief (that fact, for some reason, is etched on my muddled brain), two years still feels like a major landmark to me. Perhaps it's because I remember asking her at what point I could train as a bereavement counsellor and her telling me that they advise two years. Because, the theory goes, by the end of two years you have processed your own grief fully enough to be able to help others and because, she said, after two years people often feel like they want to return to the land of the living. Although I was sure at the time that I just wanted to write about death and talk about death for the rest of my life, I can understand what she was saying now. Although I do want to help people with their grief, I do also want to return to the land of the living.

So, how has it been today? I've felt the anniversary of Paul's death looming like a cloud on the horizon or a distant rumble of thunder for the last month or so and today, when it came, I certainly felt the rain. My body feels water-logged with sadness even though I've only shed a few tears, even though much of the day has been filled with smiles and laughter.  Still, the two year anniversary has felt very different to the first year. Today, I marked the occasion by having a nice walk with some of Paul's friends, stopping briefly to lay a rose on his bench and to observe the way the weather has taken it's toll on the woodwork. And tonight I spent some quality time with my wonderful daughter and relished that pleasure. Fittingly, we watched Titanic (she for the first time) and I felt the parallels with my own story: a brief and life-changing love affair, a catastrophic incident and a woman clinging to a life raft. I could labour the metaphor of icebergs and rafts but I won't. I have written so much that I am running out of words. Running out of steam wasn't The Titanic's problem but it is mine. I can't write any more about grief. Still, I take the message of the film to heart. Make it count. 

In the end, in order to make life count, I know that I have to rejoin the land of the living. While I live with an awareness that each day might be my last, I also have to live with the assumption that life will go on, for a while at least. And though I cannot lose the knowledge of what death and grief can do, I'm thankful that the shadow of death no longer sits on my shoulder. Though I know the worst can happen, I no longer expect it around every corner. The world feels mostly benign again. (Though, of course, there is Brexit, Trump, the Tories.........)

In fact, at what might be the end of my blog, I return to the blog post which is still shared daily over and over again and reflect that I no longer sit, as I did, on The wall of in-between, with one foot in the afterlife. I made it back from the brink. It is hard to shut the door in order to keep living but, at the same time, I know that it is possible to do as I hoped and keep Paul's memory and influence with me in the whole of my heart and live whole-heartedly again.

And so, I end the day thinking about Paul and about love. I was privileged to know him and my life was enriched by his love. May I enrich others with my love and may I reach a hand out to you if you are stranded on a life raft and whisper like Leonardo di Caprio, 'Don't let go'. There is a life still out there to be lived if you can just hold on.