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 comparethemarket.com. 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.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

I feel it creeping up on me

It's that time of year again isn't it?

At this time of year my mum would start phoning, asking what I'd be doing for Christmas. Did I want to go to the theatre? The panto? Did the children want to go on the Santa train? I'd typically be irritable. It's only November, I'd tell her. I don't want to think about Christmas yet.

Now, no-one is phoning and, of course, I miss it. When she died, it seems the mantle of responsibility fell on my shoulders. It turns out that if you don't book the theatre and the panto and the Santa train in November, it sells out and suddenly all of these traditions seem more important. Because these traditions remind me of my mum who isn't here anymore and they remind my children of their grandma. It turns out my mum wasn't a control freak, she just wanted to spend as much time as possible with her family while she still could.

So I message my brothers and my sister-in-laws and I liaise with the ex, trying to work out how we can fit it all in and, as I do, I feel a sadness creeping up on me. It's not a sadness that I seek out, or indulge, it's just there, like a shadow or a dark cloud overhead. Two years ago, my mum was struggling to hold onto life and on the tenth of December she died. Her funeral was on the twenty-third, the same day as the Santa train she'd booked. These memories linger.

But it's not just the looming anniversary. You don't have to have been to your mum's funeral at Christmas to feel sadness as the festive season approaches. Christmas is difficult for anyone who has experienced loss. As we go about our business - shopping, planning, booking tickets - it's like we are accompanied by the ghosts of Christmases past. For me it's not just the sadness of the last two years that I remember, but the memory of the time when Christmas meant a day spent with a mum and a dad, two sets of grandparents, a coherent family unit. It wasn't perfect but still, I miss it. Instead I get the joy of watching my two little people open their presents on Christmas morning but I don't get to share that joy with anyone else and at lunchtime I will wave them off to spend the rest of the day with their dad, his new wife and his family (with mums and dads all in tact) and I will feel sad. I can't help it. I'm sad because this isn't the way I thought life would be. And that's part of the problem isn't it?

So often, we have an image in our heads of how life should be, how Christmas should be. Families should be nuclear. People shouldn't die or divorce. Christmas should look like a John Lewis advert. But, of course, the reality is that for most people, families are fractured and heartache coexists with joy. So, I try to practice acceptance and gratitude for all that I have known, for all that remains and for all that is yet to come. I try to blend the old traditions with the new. Last year, it was just me and my kids for Christmas dinner and so we went to the supermarket with a trolley and each bought exactly what we wanted. There were a lot of sweets! We had a great day and there was a freedom to being released from the tradition of the huge Christmas dinner. This year I'll probably go for a walk where Paul's ashes are scattered and remember him while I wait for my boyfriend to come back from his night shift and from seeing his family. He'll probably fall asleep as soon as he gets to me. I wish he didn't work night shifts. But he does. Life isn't a fairy tale. There is no happy ever after. But there are moments of wonder and beauty that sit alongside the deepest wells of sadness. This is life. I'm glad I'm still here. Someone has to book the Santa train after all. And as we put the decorations on my mum's tree, we will remember her and all the love that still remains.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

I'm doing much better now, thank you

On Facebook tonight, an old friend asked me how I was doing. We'd not spoken for a year or so. 'Not too bad,' I replied, not wanting to go into too much detail in a public conversation that began with me wishing her Happy Birthday. Not too bad. 

At the same time, today I rejoined the charity Widowed and Young having let my membership lapse when I felt that I no longer wanted to be identified so completely with my grief. Tonight I found myself going back onto their Facebook page wanting to offer some hope to people who are earlier on in their journey. I wanted to tell them that things do get better, at the same time as recognising that, when I was in the early stages of my grief, the idea of being 'better' was almost as horrifying as the idea of 'dating' or 'loving again'. Still I offered some hope anyway and then realised that if they looked at my blog, my last post with all of its talk of trauma, anxiety and depression would not be very helpful. So, here's a hasty update.

I am doing much better now, thank you.

The grief and sadness has not totally gone. I still miss Paul (and my mum). I still sleep with his fleeces. I still find myself periodically gazing at clouds, hoping for hearts. I still see people walking towards me who share his build or his facial expression and feel an unconscious surge of joy followed by a crushing sadness when I realise it can't be him. I still pause to notice herons on the pond or feathers on the path. But I walk on without picking feathers up. It's a calmer, more reflective. more intermittent sadness these days.

Of course, sometimes I still get completely derailed by grief unexpectedly, like the time last week when the chimney sweep came to clean the chimney of my log burner, declared it unfit for use and handed me a card recommending a friend of Paul's for the job of rectifying the situation. And suddenly I was crying just because I saw his name and because Paul used to make log burning stoves and he should still be here. As his friend said when he came round to look at the stove, 'he's a bugger going and dying like that.' I don't blame Paul but still, it is, a real bugger. And just the other day, I received a Facebook notification that it was Bert Mulligan's birthday and, honestly, my heart leapt with excitement as if I thought that Paul's Facebook alter ego might still be alive even though he is not. And I almost opened up Messenger to re-read our messages, but I didn't. I didn't. 

It's nineteen months now and the fog has really started to clear. I no longer live in a state of perpetual anxiety and fear. A week or two ago, I finished reading my first novel and I've managed to watch a few episodes of TV dramas as well as a few films. I am working more and buzzing with ideas for creative projects, in fact, I have so many ideas that I'm impatient that I can't bring them all into fruition immediately. I was moaning to a friend about my frustration with my progress towards my creative goals the other day and she helpfully said something along the lines of, 'I think you're doing ok. Not so long ago, you couldn't see the point of living.' She's right. I couldn't. I have come a long way. 

The truth is, when I read my early blogs, it's almost like reading fiction. Last week I met an author that I hadn't seen for a while and when I blithely told him about what had happened, I saw the look of horror on his face and was taken aback when I remembered that it actually happened to me. I remember it of course and I can recall the anguish and the unbelievable pain but it feels distant now, like a memory of a place that I lived in for a while, that I hope never to return to. I blame the therapist in London who has been treating me for post traumatic stress disorder. He's been practising some bizarre magic that takes away some of the pain associated with traumatic memories. Evidently it's worked. I look at the photo of myself taken by my boyfriend at the seaside last weekend and I see joy in the eyes that have cried so many tears. The bags under them, I fear, are here to stay but who cares? It is such a relief to see that I can smile genuine smiles of happiness again. 

Of course, not everything is fixed - he wasn't that magic. Life is not perfect and I'm still finding my way. I still suffer from anxiety and I am worn out right down to the bone marrow. I'll never go back to being who I was before. But I feel that annoying post-traumatic growth taking place that I never wanted to hear about; who wants to trade love for growth after all? Yet, I feel it anyway. I feel like I'm changing, evolving, moving forwards into some unknown future. I don't know where I'm going but, as I learned so very deeply, all futures are unknowable anyway. All I know at the moment is that my future is a future that I want to live for and that I'm doing much better now, thank you. 

Thursday, 6 July 2017

And the grief goes on

I thought I'd finished my blog with a positive post about finding new love. It seemed like a hopeful ending and I've been been trying to wean myself off blogging. I don't want grief to define me. I'm a writer and grief is just one of the things that I can write about. I also want to be a fully rounded human being and loss is just one of the things I have experienced. But I'm also a person who is committed to telling the truth, and the truth is that I have been struggling lately.

I was warned that this might happen. The people further down the road in online support groups told me that the second year of widowhood is routinely found to be worse than the first as the shock wears off and they adjust to the reality of a new normal without their partner. Not for me though, I thought. I am different. After all, I'm not a widow. I don't have grieving children and I don't have a whole life to rebuild. Neither do I have all of the secondary losses that I read about: I haven't lost my income; I'm not having to learn how to be a single parent (I've had that t-shirt for four years and, like me, it's worn out); I haven't lost my identity as a part of a partnership because Paul and I were only just becoming a couple and still lived mostly independent lives. Yet, I have lost a lot and the repercussions are still being felt, like aftershocks, long after the the debris from the original earthquake has been cleared up.

To the outside world, I probably look like I'm doing well. I have a lovely new house, I'm working, I took the kids on a foreign holiday on my own, I no longer walk around crying in public and I occasionally manage to go out and smile at social occasions. I imagine that I've lost the haunted look of the newly devastated and the bags under my eyes have gradually faded. Most importantly, I have a new boyfriend which is surely the ultimate indicator of my success in embracing a new future. I lost one boyfriend and found a new one. Job done, surely?

But, no. In fact, having a new boyfriend, like every forward movement, has unleashed a whole new tirade of grief. I proclaimed my new love to the world like someone who was one step away from winning that slippery game of Snakes and Ladders and promptly landed on a snake which sent me cascading back to the beginning again. It happened a month or so ago on Paul's birthday. I woke up smiling in my new boyfriend's arms, looked at the date on my phone, realised its significance and everything began to fall apart. How could I have woken up happy on such a sad day? And how could I be sad while my new partner was happily basking in the glow of new love? Even worse, how could I have forgotten the significance of the date? (Not so hard for me because I never spent a birthday with Paul). As a friend helpfully said, "it's a headf**k!" I couldn't hold so many conflicting emotions in one body and I slid down that snake into a pit of anxiety that I'm gradually trying to climb out of. I've been waking up with that lurching feeling in my stomach again, walking on a tightrope again, feeling like I might fall at any moment. I am full to the brim with emotions that threaten constantly to spill out and I am vibrating again like I was at the beginning, shaken to my very core, feeling unsafe.

Things got so bad that I went back to see a therapist  She tells me that I am suffering not just from grief but from the repercussions of trauma which has been triggered by the very thing that you'd think might have made me feel better: falling in love. It turns out my whole being is trying to protect me by screaming, "don't do this again! It only ever ends badly." My mind is on red alert, looking for signs of danger in the strangest places - in the tattoos on my boyfriend's arm, in the words that he speaks, the messages that he sends, the love that he gives. My therapist has me recording my anxious thoughts and the other day I'd written down twenty-four of them by 10am. She says I'm like a victim who has been in a fire who now registers every whiff of smoke as a life threatening situation that I need to get out of when, in reality, I have a faulty toaster (my brain) and a bit of overdone toast (a new relationship which, like all new relationships, is a bit scary and not 100% perfect.). When my boyfriend mentioned the idea of one day meeting my children, my anxiety went a level higher. The last time I introduced a partner to my children, he promptly dropped dead. The one before that left and broke all of our hearts. Ok, logically I know it's unlikely to happen again. Maybe it will be third time lucky. But logic has nothing to do with anxiety. My limbic system is out of control and is over-ruling the rational part of my mind. The therapist explains that the amygdala stores my memories and determines my fears based on the strength of my emotional reactions and my amygdala has learned in no uncertain terms that love and the grief that ensues when it ends, is terrifying and not to be messed with. And yet, the part of my brain that can still think really wants to love, and my boyfriend and I are very compatible and he's lovely and is doing his best to understand........

So, I went for some hypnosis and I've seen the herbalist who has increased the anti-anxiety herbs in my medicine. I've been to the GP who has prescribed me pills that I look at every day, wondering if I can manage without or if I should give in. I talk to widows online still and find that, though their circumstances are different, they are still struggling too. Many of them are receiving treatment for anxiety or depression, one, two, three or ten years down the line from the event that changed their lives forever. And, though I don't have all of the secondary losses that they experience, I do notice that I share some of them. No-one talks to me about Paul now. Since his mum died I have lost my main connection with the people who loved him. What do I do with his memory now? And like other widows, my identity has changed. For one thing I've acquired this identity as a person who writes about grief. What do I with that as I try to move forward? Do I keep blogging, write a memoir or just leave it here and move into a new future? Meanwhile, the romantic novel that I was writing when Paul died is still on hold and I'm not sure I can go back to it. Do I start something new? What would that be? I'm a writer and I don't know what to write about. I'm a reader who still can't read a book. I'm a person who still can't watch films or TV. I'm still in transition, out of my comfort zone, trapped between the past and the future, between sadness and happiness. It's not an easy place to be.

And like the other widows, I have lost touch with some real-life friends. I retreated inward when Paul died, needing to be alone to process my grief and spending my time online with the only people who truly understood. Now my Facebook newsfeed is over 50% grief-related and most of my life is lived online. It's been a safe place to be but I know it's not healthy. In the real world I've not been much fun to be around and understandably people assume I should be back to normal by now. The friends who used to call to check on me don't call anymore (I don't blame them as they have busy lives and gave me so much love and support in the early days). I don't have people inviting me to go on holiday with them this year either. Life goes on and I need to stand on my own two feet. I'm no longer a special case. But the grief goes on and, sixteen months in, I am still struggling to keep reaching for the light.

I repeat the words of the hypnotherapist like a mantra: "Love is always stronger than fear," she said. Somewhere, deep down, some part of me believes her. And so I keep going and keep trying to hang on to love.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Love is the only option for me

So, I met someone. It seems almost too perfect for words. I grieved fully and completely for a year, then on the 13th March, three days after the anniversary of Paul's death, I re-wrote my grief narrative to include the possibility of loving someone new (https://bitly.im/JLHYL) and, just a month later, someone appeared. Well, he didn't actually appear but a message from him fell into my dating Inbox and gradually, over the last two months I have found myself falling in love and into the arms of a man who is not the man I thought I would spend my future with. I find myself reflecting often on how lucky I am to have this new chance at happiness but also at how strange it is to find myself here at another twist in the road. I guess it's what Sheryl Sandberg might call Option B. Maybe for her it is Option B but, given the convoluted nature of my life, it might be more accurate for me to call it Option F or G or H or, 'Let's Face it there is no Plan Here'. Whatever I call it, it's not where I expected to be and, however wonderful it is (and it is, really wonderful), it isn't perfect by any means. Because the truth is that, at times, I still feel that nothing can ever be perfect again and every silver lining now brings with it a cloud.

In my grief journey, I've become expert at naming clouds and emotions. It's a trick that I learned in mindfulness classes and it has helped me enormously to be able to recognise emotions as they come and go, without chasing after them or chasing them away, without clinging onto them, without trying to excavate their meaning or build a future upon them. Everything changes and this too shall pass. So I watch them now, the clouds that come along with this new beginning, this blue sky of happiness and I name them as they float by. I see Clouds of Guilt (how can I love someone new when he is dead?), Clouds of Sadness (how can I be happy when he is dead?), Clouds of, what is this - Shame? (I said I really loved him. If I love someone new do I diminish that love?), Clouds of Doubt (can I even do this?) and, worst of all, Clouds of Fear. These are the clouds that are big and dark and simply labelled: What If? What If? What If? They trail anxious thoughts behind them, that go like this:

What if I am vulnerable and no longer able to make sound judgements in matters of the heart? What if he sees my vulnerability and wants to take advantage of that? What if I allow myself to fall in love again and then he leaves me? What if he has an undiagnosed disease? What if he has a mental health problem that might, one day, cause him to commit suicide? What if we start to be happy together and and then his heart stops beating too? What if we start to be happy together and then I get cancer? Having got comfortable with the idea of death, (having even actively wanted to die), perversely, I now find that I want to live again and feel afraid that my life could be taken away. My brain is on over-drive. What if? What if? What if?

The What Ifs have been running amok from the moment I first spoke to this man, trampling over my tentative attempts at trust - in him, in life, in a future.  In fact, when I reflect on it, I realise that I haven't fallen in love at all. Falling in love implies reckless abandon. I picture someone diving wilfully from a high cliff into a warm pool. If falling has been involved, in this case, it's been more like a game of Kerplunk, a process of carefully and slowly removing barrier after barrier until eventually everything comes tumbling down in a chaotic heap. It's been a clumsy process of fits and starts, back to Snakes and Ladders again, one step forwards, two steps back, falling occasionally, yes, into gaping chasms of bliss but also of utter terror. Because, the ultimate truth is that each step towards love, each opening of the heart, is a step towards inevitable loss and I know now how agonising that loss can be. I'm actually not sure I can withstand another loss. But nothing is permanent. Everything changes. This too shall pass.

Last week my new boyfriend and I were meant to be meeting for a date. He works nights so I knew he would be sleeping until he came to meet me but he didn't turn up and my brain got busy immediately, presenting me over and over again with the possibility that he was either dumping me or that he was dead. I kept telling myself that both possibilities were incredibly unlikely but that logic no longer works for me. The last time I told myself that everything would be fine, Paul WAS dead. Shit happens. Option A doesn't always work out. My heart was racing for a full hour while I paced the streets, naming emotions, sights and sounds, trying to keep my feet on the ground, my head out of the black clouds: this is anxiety, this is fear, I can see a homeless man next to a red door, I can hear water from the fountain, I can smell fresh fish from the grocery store. I sent messages, remembering the way I'd sent messages before and the way they had gone unanswered and when he phoned me, an hour late and distraught because his alarm hadn't woken him, I sobbed uncontrollably down the phone. And when we met, finally, I held him tight and knew that this was love. Not perfect, not Option A or even Option B, but love and something to be cherished. My boyfriend was surprised at how lovely I was about it. Perhaps he expected me to be cross. Perhaps I would have been cross in the past too but he hadn't dumped me and he wasn't dead so what was there to worry about? This is what things are reduced to now. If it isn't life or death, it doesn't matter. Life feels simpler now and yet more complicated. I am simultaneously fearless and more afraid than I have ever been.

Because I know now that love is the only thing of value in this world and I know that the price for loving is huge. On the one hand, I know I can survive anything. On the other, I know how badly a heart can break. Like a mother with two children, my heart has made room for someone new, whilst still cherishing the love that came before. At night, when my boyfriend isn't here, I find myself still holding onto Paul's fleeces whilst simultaneously missing both him and my boyfriend. It feels odd. It is confusing. It is not the way I thought it would be. My new boyfriend is not Option B (who would want to be Option B anyway?) but I have been given another chance at love and I will take it. Because fear is no place to live. I don't forget Paul by loving again. Instead, I honour his memory by making the most of the gift of my life. I know that every moment is precious and that love can vanish in a heartbeat. So, in spite of everything, as long as my heart is beating, I will love. Especially in these difficult global times, we must keep choosing love however scared we are.