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.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

It's coming around again

I don't understand it and I can't explain it, how somehow the mind and the body seem to store up memories like a hard drive, how they're in our wiring and make-up, like pixels in a photograph, so many tiny pinpricks of sadness, invisible to the viewer, but integral to the whole. How we don't even need a Facebook reminder saying 'This time last year' for us to remember anyway, snapshots popping into the mind unbidden, feelings hanging around like too many open documents on the desktop. Am I pushing this metaphor too far?

The build-up to the anniversary started on Valentine's Day this year, or perhaps it started earlier this month, in a teashop in Robin Hood's Bay when I remembered last year's lonely clifftop walks, last year's empty hotel bed, last year's poem inspired by a teashop trinket: You, Me and the Sea. Only this year I wasn't alone. I had a hand to hold on the cliff and the warmth of love in my bed and I was happy, really happy. And sometimes that makes me sad, so sad. Because I am still here and Paul is not and without his death, I wouldn't be where I am today, with the man I am with. It's an unfathomable equation.

My boyfriend isn't a fan of Valentine's Day and I woke this year thinking about last year when Paul's bench was magically fitted on the 14th February like a gift from the gods. I remembered the year before too and the card that I'd bought him and never sent. I had an urge on Valentine's Day to take it and put in on the bench but I wasn't sure if I wanted to let it go or keep it forever and the day ran away with me anyway. So I put it back on the shelf in my little shrine to Paul. I wanted to write about it but I had too much to do so I mentally clicked 'save' on those thoughts and feelings and carried on. I am good at carrying on. Even the broken-hearted have to find ways to carry on.

Sometimes my writer's mind finds my surroundings mirroring my internal world and today I noticed that I am surrounded by broken things. Every day I walk past my mother's ornamental hares with the broken ears at the front door and into the house where all of the clocks stopped months or years ago, where all the lamps need re-wiring or bulbs replacing, where even the bed I sleep in (my mother's old bed) is on the verge of total collapse. The frame keeps coming apart and the slats that hold the mattress keep falling through the gaps. It is not a stable foundation for sleep, especially now when I wake with the fearful lurching feeling that is back again as March approaches. At the moment the bed is a broken raft and every morning I feel lost at sea with the waters of panic and anxiety rising again and those words from C S Lewis finding their way to me like a message in a bottle: no-one told me that grief feels so much like fear. And I recognise those feelings. Ah, this is grief again. My mind is remembering even when I want to forget. And my body is remembering too. It is worn out and run down and needs to rest but it can't sleep on a broken bed and my anxious brain churns like choppy waters, afraid of the oncoming storm.

My boyfriend suggested last night that I get a new bed. He said I should chop it up for firewood. It was an innocent and sensible suggestion but suddenly I was weeping as if he'd suggested that I chop up the very essence of my mother. I felt that I couldn't let go of any more of her things. Earlier in the day I'd found myself packing up more of her clothes in bags for charity shops, burying my nose in her garments once more and feeling again the agony of loss as I let go of the things that I thought I might wear, that I now know I won't. I was shipping things out to make space in the drawers for some of his things when he stays, letting him a little further into my life. It is a struggle to let him in. I am afraid to rely again on someone else.

For weeks and months my laptop has been struggling too. Day after day I have clicked 'ignore', 'remind me tomorrow'. It has been telling me that its start-up disk is full, that I need to free up some space. It is overloaded with memories - words and photos crammed one on top of the other. Eventually it froze. It shows me only a blank grey screen. It can't function anymore holding so much of the past in its lightweight frame.

And so I'm back to where I started with the metaphor of a clogged-up hard drive with too many open tabs. The laptop has gone to be mended. They're backing it up and clearing some space so that it will work again. In the meantime I've bought a bigger computer with more memory and today I looked at new beds. They say that loss doesn't shrink with time but that life grows around it. I need a bigger space for the new life that I'm building around my past. As I approach the second anniversary of Paul's death, I turn my attention to my own maintenance. I clear out some more things from the past. I back up my memories knowing that nothing can erase them and I download my thoughts back here on this page. I make a little room again for the sadness, knowing that happiness can only follow when I press pause and clear some space. Reboot.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Putting the pieces back together

I've made collages at New Year for as long as I can remember. I can't recall how or when the tradition started but I've always loved sitting with my pile of magazines cutting out words and pictures, slowly building up a picture of how I would like the year to look. I prefer it to setting New Year's resolutions that I know I'll break. You can't break a vague montage of pretty pictures and inspiring phrases.

Last year, for the first time in many years, it wasn't the resolutions that got broken though, but my New Year tradition. As I sat down to make a collage, my courage failed me. I was too shattered by grief to contemplate a future and the memory of making collages with my love the year before was too painful to bear. It's not often that you fall in love with a man who thinks that making collages is a fine way to spend New Year's Eve. Not often either that you meet a man who carries logs and an axe up a hill to build you your own personal bonfire in the darkness of winter. I lost that man in 2016 and with him I lost my hope and my way. At the end of the worst year of my life, there were no words or images that could make my future feel hopeful. At that point, everything felt broken. I was stuck between a rock and a hard place, too sad to look back and too scared to look into an empty future without him. I didn't want to stay in a place of unbearable pain but neither did I want to move further away from the precious time I spent with him. So, instead of making collages, I did what came naturally to me during that awful year - I sat and put my pain into words, clinging to my keyboard as if it were a life raft keeping me afloat. I held on and rode the waves of grief into a new year.

Now, as I approach another new year, I'm still riding those waves. They're smaller and further apart these days but I can still be floored by them unexpectedly and the truth is that in many ways 2017 has felt even harder than 2016. If 2016 was spent wallowing in a pit of despair, 2017 was spent grappling to climb out of it, trying to navigate my way in a new world with no faith in my map or my compass, no hope that some guardian angel is working for my greater good. It has been hard work battling anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress - the cousins of grief. It has been hard work trying to build a new future. Sometimes still, I feel like I'm back at the beginning. At the two year anniversary of my mother's death in December I was spilling over with tears at the slightest provocation, besieged by crippling anxiety, floundering in the darkness again. Facing Christmas was hard and facing New Year's Eve has been almost as bad. Sometimes things feel so difficult that I wonder if I've made any progress at all. And then I read my blog and look through my photos remembering all of the things that I've done during 2017 and realise how far I've come. At the end of 2016, I couldn't face the future. I couldn't imagine loving again or writing fiction again. I couldn't imagine wanting to live and thrive. Yet, here I am at the beginning of 2018 with new projects on the go and things that I want to carry over from one year to the next: a new boyfriend, a new house, a new novel. I have places that I want to go and things I want to do. Most of all, I have hope.

I've come so far that this year I decided to get out my magazines again and to reinstate the collaging tradition. The collaging tradition is mine. I don't want to lose it. It was painful at first but gradually I found my groove as I remembered the joy of cutting and sticking my new vision together with the pot of glue that Paul left behind. And as I sat here tonight, surrounded by fragments of images and broken phrases, it struck me that the making of a collage is an appropriate metaphor for the process of rebuilding that takes place following a major loss, or losses. Some things you take with you from the past but other pieces just don't fit anymore and in some ways, it feels like starting from scratch, building up from the corners and gradually moving towards a whole. My new life is a work in progress but this year I feel optimistic that 2018 will be better than the previous two years. Last year couldn't be a good year, containing as it did, the anniversary of Paul's death and the loss of his mum. And even though I started a new relationship last year, it hasn't been the saviour that I might have hoped for. New love triggered whole new layers of grief and guilt and fear that I wasn't prepared for. I didn't expect to fall in love so quickly. I didn't expect it to be so terrifying. I wasn't ready for it at all. This year there is less to dread and much more to look forward to. This year I have at least some idea where I'm going. With inevitable sadness, this year I have accepted that I can't move forward without, in some ways, leaving Paul behind. My love for Paul and the tragedy of his loss will always be a part of me like the glue holding the torn pieces together but gradually a new picture is emerging. I owe it to him to make it beautiful and I will.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

The cost of loss

Taken whilst planning my writing walk with Paul two weeks before his death 

I've just done my tax return. You wouldn't expect a tax return to be a trigger for grief but it was. Being a hapless artist, I'm not finely attuned to financial cycles but I realised today that I lost my love right at the end of the last tax year, so as I trawled
through all of the papers that I'd stuffed in boxes (mostly unopened envelopes), trying to remember what I'd earned and when, I had a trip down the fiscal memory lane of my first year of agonising grief.

I started, as I always do, by going back to last April (in this case April 2016) searching my bank statements for anything that looked like it might be income (not much), for anything that might be tax deductible (slightly more). Almost immediately I saw a payment to a funeral director. I struggled to remember what it was for. Paul's family paid for the funeral and I paid for the wake. Why did I pay a funeral director? And then I remembered the last minute realisation that, yes, I did want to put flowers on his coffin along with the ones chosen by the family, remembered phoning up in a fluster, arranging for a woodland wreath with red roses, the closest thing I could think of as a representation of my love. My gesture cost me £100. The bill for the catering came next.

Then there came the books. As a writer, I have the pleasure of logging every purchase from Waterstones as a tax deductible expense but when I looked at receipts today, I realised that all of my purchases during the last financial year were self-help books and grief memoirs. No fiction, no poetry, just books about death and recovery. The tax year ended with the payment for a memorial bench. Only the books were tax deductible.

I've been reflecting a little recently on the cost of loss. Two weeks ago I was invited to the parliamentary launch of the new Life Matters strategy. The strategy proposes a broad raft of measures to better support grieving families but it grew out of the government's recent changes to bereavement payments to widowed parents. Where, in the past, married parents who had lost a spouse were entitled to financial support for the duration of their dependents' childhoods (until they remarried), the support is now limited to the first eighteen months following the death of a spouse. I went to offer my support to an important cause, even though I felt that it wasn't really relevant to me. I'm not a widow and my children were not really affected by the death of my partner. The financial and emotional cost of grief is not the same for me, I thought.

Still, as I listened to Benjamin Brooks-Dutton talk about the total lack of support that he experienced when his wife was tragically killed leaving him to bring up his two year old son alone, I found myself reflecting on my own experience. I found myself remembering how I had found Paul's body in the middle of the night and how, the next morning (and the morning after that and the morning after that), I had got up and taken children to school. How, in shock, I had continued to cook tea, read stories, do the laundry. How no-one from any kind of support service ever called to see if I was ok. How I just carried on. I honestly don't know how I did it. But I do know that it cost. It cost me dearly.

I'm self-employed so I had to sign off my own requests for compassionate leave and I lost a lot of income. Today I found the contract for the creative writing walk that I was meant to lead along the industrial rivers of Sheffield, the walk that I couldn't lead because I'd scoped out the territory with Paul a few weeks before, talking about our future as we noted the landmarks on the canal. I wasn't strong enough to cope with it. In fact, I didn't take on any new work that year. I just maintained a couple of regular workshops and later added grief writing workshops to my repertoire. It was enough for me to handle. I also kept paying for an office that I wasn't using because I didn't have the energy to empty it.

Then came the other payments. I paid for help around the house. I paid for massages when my shoulders seized up with stress. I paid therapists for treatment for post traumatic stress disorder when I was having flashbacks to that awful night, when my anxiety was out of control. I paid the herbalist for her strongest calming herbs, paid the mindfulness teacher for a space on a mat every Tuesday night, paid for gym membership so that I could swim.

This year my outgoings have far outweighed my income. I hate to think what kind of state I would have been in if I hadn't inherited some money following my mother's recent death. As a result of her death in a hospice I became eligible for free bereavement counselling and it was worth its weight in gold. I don't know how I would have coped if I'd been like many bereaved people, placed on a waiting list for a maximum of six sessions, instead of the full year that I had. I don't know how I would have coped at all and I feel so very conscious of my privilege. I felt guilty spending so much money during that year (and this) but every time I've paid out for some element of self-care I have thought of the parents who left money to me and considered that this is what they would want me to be doing: looking after myself, helping myself to heal so that I can be the mother that my children need me to be. Because they were affected after all. They watched me sobbing uncontrollably and saw me struggling to cope. My grief took it's toll on them too.

Loss is expensive, emotionally and financially and there isn't enough recognition in our society of the toll it takes on productivity and mental health. I've been privy to many conversations amongst widowed people and I know how many of them, post-loss, have had to change their careers in order to better support their families. I also know how long grief takes to work through. It is two years now since I lost my mum, and twenty-one months since I lost Paul and I am still nowhere near functioning at the capacity that I was before. Today I couldn't recall who insured my house and could find no paper or email trail confirming the broker's identity. I couldn't tell the accountant how much interest I'd had on my bank accounts because I appear to have closed my old accounts and thrown all of those documents away. My paperwork is a mess. I could tell them how much I earned that year though. It was easy to work that out because it was just twenty per cent of what I earned the previous year. And I can tell them how much money I spent on self-help - a lot. And that only the books were tax deductible.

The event in London was sponsored by I found myself chatting to their representatives over canapes and wine. 'What's your connection to the cause?' I asked, tired of telling my own story over and over again. 'Life insurance,' came the reply. And a light went on in my brain. I came home and reviewed my own life insurance but, even with all the proposed changes, I'm not sure anyone would make provision for someone who lost a partner who wasn't the father of her children, to whom she wasn't married and whom she didn't live with. But it cost. Boy, did it cost.