Sunday, 26 June 2016

The reality of this grief

Sometimes I imagine that my body is full of water. Someone has left a tap dripping inside me and each drip is full of grief and love and memories of you. They say the female body is sixty per cent water, but at the moment it feels more like ninety per cent. I am at least ninety per cent grief. Still. Almost four months since you died. Grief is my constant companion. I feel the water sloshing around inside me constantly and it makes me feel unstable. The noise of the dripping is like tinnitus that I can only drown out temporarily and I have to tread carefully to stop the water from spilling. The longer I go without talking about you, about it, the more the water builds up, the drips getting faster as the day goes on. Eventually, I am full to the brim with grief and it spills out in tears. I am still crying every day for you.

Today the tears came as I was standing in a sandpit at a children's party and a friend asked, with genuine concern, how I was doing. I don't know what I said but the tears and the words came unbidden and with them the relief that I feel when I am allowed to talk about it, to say to someone, 'this is how it feels', to share, just for a moment, the unbearable pain that somehow I am expected to bear, that somehow, I am bearing. I want to tell people about it again and again.  I want to tell them how awful it was to find your body; how terrible it is to have to live without you; how painful it is to have loved you and lost you so soon; how horrendous it is to have been the person you shared your dreams with; how your unfulfilled dreams are carried in my body now, like the weight of that water.

But I have told everyone I know all about it. This isn't news. And yet, somehow, for me, the bereaved, it is. Somehow, when you have lost someone so close to you, that person dies again and again as you wake up each day and with every day, they just get more and more shockingly dead. It isn't getting any easier, in fact is is getting harder, I guess because denial has retreated and I am facing the reality that you are never coming back and that somehow, I have to build a new life without you.

When some people see me crying and hear me still talking about you four months on, they look at me with concern. Their usual response is to ask if I am still seeing my bereavement counsellor. They look relieved when I tell them that I am: at least the professionals are involved. Others ask if I have seen my GP, the implication being that perhaps I need some pills, that this sadness is not normal, that it is out of proportion to the loss. Sometimes I wonder if they're right. The professionals tell me they are not.

Part of the problem is the length of time we were together. We were only involved for eight months. Sometimes I remember the break-up calculation that someone once gave me. Theoretically, according to someone, it should take half the length of the relationship, to get over it. By this logic, I should be over it by now. How great that would be. To be able to put it neatly away in a box, along with the other failed relationships and move on. But this isn't the same. You didn't leave me for another woman, we didn't get bored of each other and we didn't hit that point where we realised that it just wasn't going to go anywhere. You died, completely out of the blue and disappeared from my life without warning. It is a huge loss.

And yet, I am not a widow. We weren't married. We hadn't even established whether we would ever get married, or even whether we could live together. For comfort, I read books written by widows and I see the difference. They describe the way in which family and friends descended on them with food for weeks and months on end, how they moved in with relatives or how relatives moved in with them. They describe not having enough vases and buckets for the flowers, their houses overflowing with letters of condolence. It wasn't like that for me. I got two cards and a bunch of tulips. A wonderful friend stayed for two nights and other friends brought food occasionally, listened occasionally, helped with the kids occasionally, but, essentially, I was on my own. I am on my own. It is hard.

The professionals agree. My bereavement counsellor tells me that even if I had just found a stranger's body, I would still be in shock. It would be normal to still be reeling. And, as she points out, I didn't find a stranger's body. I found the body of the man I loved, deformed and decaying, three days after he had died. The memory haunts me still. It is natural to still be crying. And even if I'd had a happy life and then this had happened, that would be hard enough but to have it happen on top of the loss of my mum and previous partners and the long-term sickness of my son, is really too much. 'No wonder you have lost your optimism,' she says.

And the GP says that, no, I don't need pills. I am having a normal reaction to a horrendous set of circumstances. This week I took the coroner's report to show her because I don't understand the medical terminology. She visibly flinched as she read it and acknowledged that she has had no experience of post-mortems, that she has never seen a body three days after death, that it has just struck her how horrendous that must have been for me. I remember the therapist I was seeing when you died and her reaction when I told her. She sent me home because it was too upsetting for her to deal with. The shock was unbearable for her. She had been listening to me talk about you for eight months and needed time to grieve herself. She had become fond of you and suddenly you had died and she was completely unprepared for this turn of events. She couldn't help me.

Only people who have been through similar bereavements understand how completely earth-shattering this kind of grief is because there is no widespread recognition of the pain of grief in our culture. In other cultures and historically in our culture, the expectations around grief are much clearer. People wear black or rend their clothes to visibly show the world that they are grieving. They are not expected to act normally. And there are recognised stages to the grieving process, that go on for months and years. No-one expects someone who has experienced a close bereavement to socialise and after my attempts at going out and attempting to be normal, I can understand why. Yet, in our culture, we are expected to 'get over' someone's death once the funeral has passed and get back to normal as quickly as possible. My bereavement counsellor likened it to the way in which we deal with having children. These days, celebrity magazines show us photographs of women who are back at work with their bodies slim and toned, weeks after giving birth. We are meant to assimilate these huge changes effortlessly and are left feeling like failures if we acknowledge that birth and death have completely rearranged our internal and external landscapes.

I read about bereavement and am reassured and horrified in equal measure. I keep reading, with dismay, that the second year is worse than the first and that grief takes not months but years to work through. I read that uncomplicated grief, such as for the death of a parent in old age (uncomplicated because it is at least somewhat expected) takes four years to come to terms with where shocking death (like the one I have experienced), takes seven. I feel like I don't have seven years to lose to this grief having lost so many years previously to other griefs and losses and sickness. And then I realise that grieving is not going to be the only occupation of these next seven years. I will live alongside the grieving process and there will be moments of joy amongst the sadness. But I read, also, that it will never go away and my bereavement counsellor tells me that this is true, that she is not in the business of making it better. I will carry this grief, like water, for the rest of my days. And sometimes it will spill over. And I will need to keep talking about it. And I will write about it because spilling ink is as healing as spilling tears for me.

A friend recently sent me this quote from Elizabeth Kubler-Ross:
'Telling your story is primal to the grieving process. You must get it out. Grief must be witnessed to be healed."
So I keep talking about it to people who listen and after I had cried in the sandpit, I felt a little more able to carry on again. The tears that spilled out made room for a little more pleasure and made the grief easier to carry. And now that I have written, I feel a little better, until tomorrow morning when I will wake up and realise that you are still dead and it will all start again.