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.

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 ( 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.

Friday, 5 May 2017

To the mother-in-law I never had.

I never knew you when your son and I were together but I knew of you. You knew of me too. He and I were only together for eight months before he died and somehow we just hadn't found the time for family introductions. We were too caught up in each other, enjoying our precious time together, knowing that we mustn't waste a moment of it, even though we couldn't see the sand streaming through the hourglass.

I knew where you lived though, having driven past your house with him on a few occasions. I knew of your illness too and of his fears for your health. He didn't think you had too long to live. (It never occurred to him that he might not outlive you.) I knew that he loved you too. I saw the way he cared for you: taking you shopping, bringing you flowers. You'd been restricted by your disabilities for years but he did his best to help you to live a full life. I heard about the trips that he'd taken you on and how he paid attention to the things that you made you happy. He was like that: thoughtful, considerate, kind. I now know that he took after his mum.

When I read through the blog of my grief I notice how often you feature. Since he died you've become an integral part of my story, an integral part of my life. You're another character who is gone too soon, who won't make it to the last page. Still, I'm so glad you were there, so glad I had a chance to know you. You were a life raft when I was floundering and an anchor in the storm.

I'll never forget the first time that we met. It was a surreal experience, bringing flowers to the mother of my boyfriend just a few days after his death. The last time you'd seen him had been Mother's Day. He'd come from my bed, bringing you flowers. You said you'd watched him arrange them for you in a vase and had a feeling, some mother's intuition, that something wasn't right. The last time I'd seen him was a few days later when I'd broken into his house to find his body. We were, all of us, in shock. You asked me to put the flowers in a vase and said you felt some comfort watching me in the kitchen where he'd been the week before.

I remember the moment, talking about the announcement for the newspaper, when you asked me how I wanted to refer to him and the feeling of being lost without him there to confer with, not even sure what my role was or how he would refer to me. Boyfriend and partner both sounded wrong. We didn't even live together, weren't even sure that we could ever live together and he was fifty-three and a giant of a man. And before I could censor myself, I'd blurted out, 'soulmate? Does that sound silly?' and you'd said, 'No, I don't think it sounds silly at all.' I knew at that moment that we would be friends.

Over the last year or so we have spent many hours together. Week after week we drank chamomile tea and talked about where we thought he'd gone, the manner in which he might have died, whether we could see his shape in clouds and rainbows, how much he was missed. At first you phoned me daily, always with those opening words: 'I won't ask you how you are. We don't say that do we, you and me?' It was such a relief to talk to someone who knew that I was not ok, that this was not ok. Together, we filled in the jigsaw pieces of his past. You told me of his childhood and his family; I told you of our adventures and our love, of the happiness we shared for those last eight months of his life. We went on our own adventure together too, in search of ducks on a pond in the Peak District and in search of locations for a memorial bench. We watched clouds scud across the sky and held each other's hands as we walked and as we talked. We drove together clutching his ashes in a green plastic jar to say our goodbyes. Sometimes we cried and sometimes, in the early days, desperate for connection with someone who loved him as much as I did, I would phone you sobbing and you were always so kind, never competitive in your grief as some people can be. You invited me into your family and into your home, once even asking if I would come and sleep on your sofa because you didn't like to think of me being alone. You were the loveliest mother-in-law I've ever known, even though I can't really claim you as my own.

My children like to claim you though. They remember you only with fondness too. You searched through your flat and gave them presents: Meccano sets and an old toy dragon for my boy, Flower Fairy books and pretty scarves for my girl. Once, we'd been to visit before we went on holiday to France and, forgetting to give them the money that you'd intended for them, you threw it down from your balcony into the park where we were playing. When you're eight years old, you don't forget a woman who throws money from a balcony. They saw you as another grandma to replace the one they'd lost, my mum, just the year before and you were like a mother to me too. The same age as my mum, you'd grown up round the corner from each other and told the same stories of May Day dresses and Sunday School. It was so comforting for me to be around you.

Later, I visited you in the hospice. I've been there a lot for my bereavement counselling and I would sit with you for an hour, before going to weep for your son's loss in the room down the corridor. On the anniversary of his death, it was with you that I wanted to be and we sat quietly holding hands as we watched a film of babbling brooks and crashing waves and thought of him. We didn't need words then.

You inspired me in those days. Incapacitated and on the brink of death, having lived such a hard life, as you had, you were still smiling, so grateful for the care you received, delighting in trying new dishes on the menu, revelling in the simple comforts of baths and hand massages, family and good friends. You helped me to see that, even in the darkest of times, there are still things to live for. This year, you helped me to stay alive.

You were by far the best mother-in-law I've ever had, even though your son wasn't there to see it. I want to thank you, Pat. I hope that you are with him now where both of us so longed to be. I hope you look down and see that, it is partly because of you that I can still smile and live on with your memories in my heart.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Today I was your girlfriend again

Today was a weird day. It was your mum's funeral. I guess you already know that. I hope that you and she are already reunited somewhere and that you were looking down on the crowd of people crying and smiling. Perhaps you cried and smiled too. And perhaps you saw me there. Perhaps you watched me take a deep breath as I walked up the steps and saw me looking around like a lost child wondering where her mum was, or where your mum was or where you were. It wasn't right to be going to your mum's funeral without you. You supported me when my mum died; I should have been there supporting you. Or maybe I felt you should have been there supporting me. I have come to love your mum and I will miss her greatly. It wasn't right to be going back to the place where I last said goodbye to your body or my mum's body either. It wasn't right to be saying goodbye to her body. Today was all wrong. As I said, it was weird.

I didn't think that I would know anyone there apart from your family and I didn't but, of course, a lot of people knew who I was. After all, I gave the eulogy at your funeral and your mum's friends would have been there. After all, they had watched me then, this strange being, this non-widow that no-one knew, standing shaking at the pulpit telling them how wonderful you were, how safe you made me feel, how much I loved you. They had probably seen me hold it together until I'd finished speaking and had watched me crumple back into my pew weeping. They will have watched me as I stood by your coffin on the way out too and seen how I kissed it and held onto it, wanting to jump on top of it, wanting to scream, wanting to drag you back to life. I remember afterwards, that your mum told me that her friends had said they admired her dignity for not crying at your funeral. I guess they felt that I'd lost mine. They didn't know that I felt myself being held there by a magnetic force, that I'd lost the use of my limbs, that I didn't know where I was, that all I could see was that box and a lump of oak separating you from me. They will have watched as my friend strode down the aisle and pulled me to her sobbing, as she steered me outside, away from you.

Today, as I stood outside the crematorium the tears came even before the funeral cortege. A woman had just introduced herself to me. I can't tell you what her name was but she had a kind face. 'Can I sit with you?' I said having lost my social skills again, remembering the same moment at your funeral when I had suddenly grabbed the arm of my most motherly friend and asked her to stay by my side. She was kind. They were all so kind, like your mum. There was a lot of kindness in that room. It was a lovely service.

Still, it was a weird kind of day, a sad day. Sad to be saying more goodbyes, sad to lose another connection with you. The strangest thing though was that, just for today, I was your girlfriend again. Perhaps today, I was your girlfriend for the first time. I'm not sure anyone has ever introduced me as your girlfriend before. You certainly never had the chance. It was weird to be ushered around, being introduced to people: 'This is Paul's girlfriend,' they said. 'Oh, you're Paul's girlfriend, aren't you?' they said. It was nice to be your girlfriend again, just for a day. I wish you'd been there to see it. I hope you and your mum saw it. I hope you both know how much you are loved.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Desperately seeking young, fit, risk-averse, spiritually-inclined man, with good genes whose entire family were wiped out in a freak accident

Beverley, Writer, 46
Quirky, sincere, creative and obsessed with when you're going to die.

Catchy huh?

So, it's one thing to decide that you are interested in experiencing love again (see the blog more catchily entitled - I would do it again) but finding love is a whole other kettle of fish. You can't just click your fingers and ask all appropriate suitors to form an orderly queue. Especially if you're a self-employed, single parent who spends most evenings trapped in their own home, meeting someone is not easy. Paul was the only appealing single man that I have encountered in real life in the last decade or so and my time is precious; I don't expect to get that lucky again. So, not prepared to wait another decade, I have dusted off my fishing rod and, only eighteen months since I deactivated my dating profiles, I find myself online fishing again.

I started gently, casually, by reactivating Tinder and adjusting my personal statement to reflect my change in circumstances. I made it clear that I was not ready for a relationship but would like some male company. It was a clumsy beginning. The first person who approached me got short shrift when he asked me about my taste in books, films and music. At that time my brain was so shot to pieces that I couldn't remember anything. I hadn't watched a film or read a book for many months and had had the same CD playing on repeat for just as long. I told him to stop asking me so many questions. Luckily he was patient with me and I found myself an online Scrabble buddy (cue the blog in which I weep my way through my first Scrabble game, feeling like I am cheating on Paul who loved to play Scrabble with me). Next I met an ex-vicar who I've been for a couple of drinks with and then a fellow writer who has become like a surrogate online boyfriend. We chat about kids and writing and he offers me online hugs when it all gets too much. Sometimes he indulges my need to have someone to say goodnight to. He's not ready for a relationship either but, along with the others, he has been part of my rehabilitation into the land of the living. It's been good to spend at least some of my online time talking about something other than death and grief.

Then there are the others (oh so many others), the ones who read, 'I might like some male company' as, 'I want sex'. They like to tell me that I must have needs and the many ways in which they would like to meet them. They are fascinated to know how long it is since I last had it. One of them made the mistake of asking around the time of the anniversary and I killed his ardour somewhat by saying that actually, I could remember exactly when it was because it was the last time I saw my love alive. Sometimes these men delete me before I delete them. Sometimes I get there first. It's been a depressing business. There have been a lot of tears.

Recently I had the revelation that perhaps my ambiguous profile wasn't helping matters and that, actually, I now realise that ultimately I want more than a friend, more than a lover. I changed my profile again to reflect this new stage in my journey and said that I would like to experience love again one day but that I am still finding my feet. And things changed a little. I get messages now from people who might at least consider the idea of having a relationship even if they are few and far between. It is noticeable that I get a lot less messages than I did two years ago. Not every man is looking for a middle-aged orphaned single parent who writes a blog about grief and mentions death in her online profile. On the other hand, answering my dating messages used to feel like an overwhelming part-time job. I prefer it this way and at least it sorts the wheat from the chaff, the men from the boys. I definitely need a man not a boy, I reflect. Or do I?

I expected that it would be complicated to find someone who could love the new me; I have changed a lot as a result of enduring what I have endured. What I didn't realise until I started dating is that my requirements in a partner have changed too. Emotional intelligence and empathy have become my most important criteria now. Naturally, I need kindness and compassion above all things. But there are other things too, surprising things that I come up against as men message me or as I swipe through profiles.

For instance, it turns out that atheists and sceptics are no longer welcome here. Suddenly I can't countenance the idea of having a relationship with anyone who might try to argue with me about the existence of an afterlife. Where before spirituality was just a mild curiosity of mine, now it is a matter of prime importance.

Then there is the question of age and health. I find myself studying profiles and my first thought is not whether the men in the photos are attractive or interesting but how likely they are to drop dead in the near future. Suddenly I am unforgiving of a few extra pounds, social smoking or excessive drinking. I see an imaginary warning label saying 'heart disease risk' over every man who is a little overweight or pictured holding a pint of beer. I discount anyone who rides a motorbike or who likes extreme sports, preferring men who keep fit by doing yoga. I'm no longer sure about anyone over the age of fifty and find myself considering men who are younger than me rather than older. I can't countenance the idea of dating anyone who is called Paul or anyone who is fifty-three.

Luckily, you don't come across many blacksmiths on dating sites but I came across one man who upcycles industrial equipment and found myself sobbing as I told him about the lamp that Paul was making when he died. He deleted me before I had time to realise the terrible conundrum that, having found and lost my ideal mate, I can't go near anyone who might remind me of him.

Finally I realise that I need someone who has experienced enough tragedy to be able to empathise with my own journey but nothing that would suggest too much risk. A fellow orphan would be appealing, I think, because then I won't have to deal with supporting them through loss in the future (I'm not heartless, just tired of funerals) but I don't want an orphan whose parents died of cancer because that might suggest a genetic connection. And I don't want someone who is so scarred by tragedy that it poses a risk to their mental health. I already know that widowers are the gold standard when dating in the widowed community (even my bereavement counsellor tells me that these relationships have the best chance of success) and so I have found myself adding 'widowed' to my search criteria whilst wondering at the same time if I want to deal with their grief as well as my own, whilst considering if I am secure enough to not find myself asking pitifully if they loved their previous spouse more than me. It is a weird world I have entered when I find myself having these thoughts.

All of which leaves me with my opening statement: 'Desperately seeking a young, fit, risk-averse, spiritually-inclined man, with good genes whose entire family were wiped out in a freak accident'. That's not too much to ask for surely?

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Leave a little light on

I got your lamp back this week. As far as I know it was the last thing you were making. You'd sent me a photo of it one night and told me that it was neo-brutalist art. I wasn't sure how to respond, not really being a connoisseur of post-industrial chic. You know me, I don't always appreciate things the first time I see them. I'm not one for love at first sight and looks don't impress me. But your lamp has grown on me, like you did. I want you to know that I totally get it now. With the wiring done, the tap added and the funky filament bulb installed just the way you intended, it looks really cool. I absolutely love it.

I found the half-finished lamp when I was rummaging through the debris of your house, as a team of friends and relatives were tossing things in a skip, and I asked if I could keep it. If I hadn't, I guess it would have gone in the skip with the other unwanted items: one man's art is another man's junk and in your house it was hard to separate the two.

I know that you had hopes for that lamp. You'd had encouragement from the man who owns the shop down the road. You saw this one as a prototype and thought you might be able to go into production if it sold. I hate that you never got to find out if it would sell, though as I've since found at least two men making a living making similar items, I'd say you were onto something. One of them deleted me on Tinder, presumably because all I could talk about was your lamp and how much it was making me cry to see the things that he made. The other one finished your lamp off for me. I thought about taking it to the shop so that it could be sold as you'd intended but I decided it would be silly as you'd not have any use for the money, besides which, no-one would value it more than me. So, now it sits on my desk and forms part of my collection of the things that remind me of you.

These are the things you left behind

A neo-brutalist lamp, salvaged from your forge,
Two packs of borage seeds with healing properties, of course,
A bat in a tin that you once found in a book,
A print called Stardust -  'the journey of our love',
A pot of aloe vera that you bought to heal my wounds,
The Penguin Book of Love Poetry with an ill-fated poem,
Your 'Rules for Collaging' and a New Year's collage,
Notebooks of your musings on days spent 'with Beverley Ward',
A laptop of photographs of times together and apart,
A ring made from recycled silver found in a coffee pot,
An old Oxo tin that I borrowed and gave back,
Two shirts bought for Christmas - my attempt to smarten you up,
Two fleeces that I still wrap around me when I sleep,
A jangling yin-yang ball: of dark and light, love and grief,
The old printers' tray that you brought, unwrapped, on Christmas Day,
The 'Birdhouse in your Soul' that I made at a friend's craft party,
An Ainsley Harriot cookbook left from when you cooked for me,
Spring bulbs blooming beneath a freshly planted tree,
A Valentine's bench by the side of still, deep water,
And that poker, forged with love one fateful day in August.

And words. Hundreds and thousands of words. Words to remember and words to forget. Words of love and words of pain. Words to capture moments of the greatest joy and the deepest sadness. Words to bring tranquility and words to express pure madness.

This is what I have left of you now. There are no more jobs on my Blacksmith Paul to do list, no more memorial plans. There are no more memories left to record. I have done my best but, in the end,  as people often say at times of great tragedy, there are no words.

In the end, there is just love and a light. And a song by James that I sang at a festival, tears streaming in the rain last summer, a song about grief called  'Moving on'. I don't really believe in moving on. Nevertheless, I have spent a year looking backwards and now I must look forwards. 'My bags are packed and my sails are tacked and my course is marked by stars'. In the end you are not in any of the objects that you left behind but you are in my heart and you will always be close at hand. Wherever I go, I will leave a little light on for you. And I will be there with you too, in that little birdhouse in your soul.

With love to you, Blacksmith Paul from Beverley Writer.
Much loved, much missed, remembered always.


The food of love

At Wagamamas on a rare occasion when Paul let me buy him dinner because he was helping me with Christmas shopping after my mum's death

'People always wanted to feed Paul,' says your mum. This information makes me smile because it leads me to conclude that this is how you got by. Even as a grown man, you'd rock up to people's houses unannounced and find yourself eating plates of toast, or cake or staying for dinner. You loved food but you didn't know how to make it, though some of your concoctions were legendary: garlic sandwiches, cider vinegar potions. I don't really even know what you ate most of the time. I know you occasionally cooked fish and roast dinners for your friend but generally I assume you got by on a diet of tinned food. I know that you liked to mix things up, adding spices and garlic to tins of beans and soup and that it didn't always turn out the way you intended. And I know that you loved cheese.

'Do you like cheese?' I once asked you by Messenger.
'I am at least 40% cheese,' you replied. 'And must have it at every opportunity.'
You made me laugh.

At the beginning of our relationship, things proceeded in the manner to which you were evidently accustomed. I'd bake flapjack in anticipation of your arrival and you'd arrive hungry and eat your way through a plate of it with obvious gusto. If it was evening, I'd cook you sweet potato curry. You didn't like going out to eat. It wasn't really your style and you didn't like spending money. And nor did you like me to pay for you but, on the other hand, I really didn't like having to cook on my days off childcare. As a feminist it irked me to always be the one doing the cooking. It was another conundrum. 'I'm not cooking for you every time you come round,' I said. So, you started picking up a meal for one in the supermarket with mock seriousness, even though I protested that I didn't really mean that I would never cook for you; you took feedback on board and you were not going to have me resenting you.

One day, in January, you decided to show me that you could be the new man you felt I needed you to be. You determined to cook me dinner. You arrived, Ainsley Harriot cookbook in hand, with a bag of shopping and set about chopping in my kitchen while I went to a doctor's appointment. I returned to the smell of burning and you, dripping with sweat and visibly shaken in a way I'd never seen you, pans all over the kitchen and a pile of orange slop deposited onto two plates. It tasted ok, I said, just slightly singed. I said it added to the depth of the flavour. It took you a full hour to calm down. It took another hour to clean the kitchen. You never cooked for me again. But I loved you all the more for trying.

Monday, 13 March 2017

I would do it again

'Each griever must ask the question, ‘Who am I, now that you’re gone?’ And the answer to that question often revises one’s self-narrative. Grief is a story you tell yourself. It’s a story of the death of someone you loved. It’s a story of the life of someone you loved. It’s a story of your life with them and it’s a story of your life without them.'

Ron Marasco and Brian Shuff, About Grief

A little while ago I went to see La La Land at the cinema. It was a bit of a milestone for me as the first film that I managed to sit through that wasn't grief-related, in fact I really loved it. Essentially I'm a sucker for whimsy and romance, the classic dreamer, head in the clouds and all that jazz. I want always to believe in destiny and true love even though my own life hasn't done much to encourage those beliefs. La La Land is a perfect dreamers' film. It reminded me of our magical love affair, of course, and also a bit of my first true love. He was an aspiring actor from California and I was an aspiring writer from Yorkshire. We had a fairytale meeting in Eastern Europe (dancing in the snow in Prague as opposed to the sunset in LA), a wonderful courtship (including drama and deportation) and we had a beautiful wedding after eighteen months. A few years later, we divorced. It was a harsh lesson to learn, at twenty-six, that happy ever afters are often just the stuff of Hollywood and not of real life.

For that reason, I quite liked the ending of La La Land, even though I still sat crying on the back row with my friend when it finished, not because the hero and heroine didn't end up together but because it reminded me of the unsatisfactory nature of my own love stories. 'What is it all supposed to mean?' I asked her. Like the couple in La La Land, you and I seemed destined to be together. I felt you were my soulmate and that it was written in the stars that we should collide. Our paths had criss-crossed so often throughout our lives that it was only a matter of time, or timing, before we would get the message and fall in love. And when we finally made it, I thought I'd made it too, to the end of some kind of convoluted romantic journey, to my own (slightly later than expected, slightly unconventional) happy ever after. And then suddenly you died and the narrative was shredded and I was bewildered again wondering what to make of it all. 'The end just happened in the middle,' I wrote. The path into the future had disappeared overnight and I didn't see how I could go on. Essentially, I lost the plot.

As a graduate of English literature and a writer (predominantly of fiction), narrative is important to me and something that has preoccupied me a lot in my grief. I'm painfully aware that the narrative of my own life (put simply) is a complete mess and not something any publisher would be interested in; there's no clear narrative arc at all, certainly not from a romantic point of view. It might make a good collection of, mostly tragic, short stories but it's a hopeless romance novel. Every time someone looks like the hero of the piece and I invest in them, they vanish and your particular vanishing act was truly spectacular. In a pitching workshop that I once attended, I was told that I needed to be able to encapsulate the plot of my novel in a one-line summary. At the beginning of my grief journey, this is how the story looked: 'Two lovers, destined to be together, miss their chance repeatedly, spend their lives apart having a pretty miserable time, finally unite and then, just when things are going great, he dies and her life is ruined'. Maybe it makes a good weepy but it's certainly not an easy story to write a sequel to and, left here without you, that is, essentially, what I have to do. 

My bereavement counsellor says that the work of bereavement is to find a new narrative and perhaps, in this respect, I'm lucky that I know a lot about making up stories. Perhaps that's why I have written so many thousands of words since you died, trying to find a way to write the story in such a way that it makes your narrative bearable (though it would take a genius to achieve that) and also leaves the way open for me to continue to write a better future for myself. When you died, my overwhelming feeling was that I just wanted to die with you but gradually, over the course of the last twelve months I've been forced to consider the possibility that your ending can't be the ending of my own story. If I'm going to go on to live a rich and fulfilling life (and how can I contemplate anything else when I have the privilege to still be here when you are not?) I can't afford to have my narrative be the one in which the love of my life appears and disappears in the space of a year during middle age. It's just too ridiculous. So, I must try to find a new way to frame things and, though I have raged against the people who talk of gifts and silver linings, I find myself looking for them anyway. Because who wants to read a narrative without hope? And who can live a life in which there are no gifts?

So, I try to rework the narrative and I'm left with something like this: 'Just as they are both about to give up on hope and true love, two star-crossed lovers, battered by ill-fortune and plagued by self-doubt, find each other and repair each other's broken hearts, restoring their faith in love. Though he tragically dies, he dies happy in the knowledge that he is truly loved and accepted for who he is. And, though she is heartbroken at being left behind, she is left with the same knowledge: she has known what it is to love deeply and to be loved deeply in return. He has left her with the gift of knowing she is worthy of true love.'  It still needs work, but it's an improvement, at least, on the first version. 

Sometimes, I reflect that, overall, my own story is perhaps not a romance at all. When I got divorced, my mum, bless her, suggested that perhaps I was just 'one of those people who isn't meant to be in a relationship.' Cheers for that, Mum. I don't like to think she was right but there are allegedly seven possible plots and not all of them are boy meets girl. Probably my narrative is more a voyage of self-discovery, of becoming. Mostly, in my life, the men along the way feel like they have been obstacles and distractions from my main work, of being my true self and being the writer that I was always meant to be. I remember once saying to a, now well-known, author that I felt I couldn't be a writer and have love. 'With the right person, you can,' she said wisely. You were the right person and I learned that I could. I learned that someone could love both the writer and the person that I am. In truth, the person and the writer are one and the same thing.

I don't know what the next chapter of my story will be as I've yet to write it. Maybe I will go on to find my fulfilment in my writing and you will remain the one true love of my life but, I don't think that's my story. I don't think my mum was right. I've learned a lot over the last few decades of living tragic short stories. I'd like the chance to apply my learning to a bigger and more sustainable project. Maybe I'm greedy but I'd like to have my writing and still have love. I can understand the widows who feel that the love they shared with their spouses is enough to sustain them but I only had a few months. It's not enough for me. I don't know what the point would be of finally understanding what love is, if I'm never to have it again. It may be crazy but the romantic in me didn't die with you. If anything, it has been reborn. 

In the van, I sing along to the soundtrack to La La Land, turning the volume up every time Emma Stone's audition number comes back round. 'Here's to the ones who dream,' she sings. 'Bring on the rebels, the ripples from pebbles, the painters and poets and plays.' She doesn't mention blacksmiths but I see you and our story in every word. It was a magical story completely devoid of pragmatism, a real romance. A story of madness and colour, a triumph of heart over head. Together we captured that feeling, 'a sky with no ceiling, a sunset inside a frame.' And whatever happens next, 'I'll always remember the flame' of our love. Like you, it lives on, in me.
 'Here's to the ones who dream. Foolish as they may seem. 
Here's to the hearts that break. Here's to the mess we make.'  
And here's to you, Blacksmith Paul, the ultimate dreamer. 

At the bonfire that we held after your funeral, I scrawled a message on a paper lantern. I still remember the words that I wrote: 'What an adventure we had! I wouldn't have missed it for the world,'  It's true. I wouldn't. And even though, during this last twelve months, my journey has been a nightmarish trip to the underworld, I am still so grateful for the love we shared. I know that if I had my time again, I wouldn't change a thing, apart from the ending (and perhaps I'd bring forward the beginning). The storyteller in me is able to write new endings and she will. She can conjure worlds in which we will have our time again, in some other lifetime or some parallel universe. Maybe there we will get to have a happy ever after. But in this universe, I will go on and, when the time is right and the person is right (and he will have to be right, now), I know I will risk my heart once more. Because I'm a foolish dreamer like the aunt who jumped barefoot into the Seine.

Smiling through it, she said, she'd do it again. 

Grief is not like sadness and we can't all be butterflies

It is a year today since I found your body. The anniversary of your death passed on Friday but, for me, it feels like it is still ahead. This time last year I didn't know you were dead. This time last year I didn't know what to think but I'm not sure that the idea that you might be dead had even crossed my mind or, if it had crossed my mind, it had been swiftly discarded as a possibility because that kind of thing doesn't really happen. Only sometimes it does. Sometimes, when you least expect it, when it's really the last thing on earth you could do with having to deal with, monumentally bad stuff happens. And when you died like that and I found your body, it was by far the worst thing that had ever happened to me. One minute I thought you were alive and then, at some point late that night, out in the Peak District in my pyjamas, I found you were dead. A few hours later I got up, got the kids to school and began an unexpected journey into a whole world of pain. I don't want to think about that night and I don't need to write about it again but still, this is what I find myself thinking about as I sit down to write today. I still can't quite believe how horrendous the experience has been.

I find myself saying this a lot, like I think people still don't really get it, like I want them to understand even though I know they can't truly comprehend the enormity of it if they haven't been through it. I find myself wanting to explain that I'm not some kind of drama queen, but that losing a partner like that is a mind-blowing, life-changing trauma. I want to say it for all the other people who feel the same, not just for me. It is a natural urge for people to compare experiences as a route into empathy but I want people to understand that it wasn't like getting divorced (though I know that feels really bad, having been there) and it wasn't like losing a parent (though I know that really sucks having lost both) and it wasn't like being left by someone you were in love with (which seriously nearly pushed me over the precipice just the year before). It was worse, much much worse than all of that. And it wasn't even like the stress of watching my little boy suffer with chronic illness for years, or like watching him apparently lying dead in my arms as a baby. It was worse than that because there was a happy ending to that story eventually. He survived and now he's thriving. But you didn't.

For a while, I wondered if it was just me who felt so bad but, no, I have spoken to a lot of people who have lost partners this year and, give or take a degree or two of pain, they all agree that it is excruciating. I have also questioned whether I felt your loss so much more acutely than my other losses because perhaps I wasn't as close to my parents as some people are but I've done my research and my experience isn't unique. I asked a Facebook group of widowed people if anyone else had found that the loss of their partner had been a lot worse than the loss of a parent and 100% of my survey answered 'yes'. About a hundred people answered, not just with a quiet, subtle 'yes' but all of them with a loud agonising scream of a 'YES!' Losing a partner (especially perhaps with the shock of a sudden death) is pure agony. The grief at losing a partner is not like sadness (though sadness is there, of course) and it's not just a case of missing someone (though we do, desperately). Grief at losing a partner is physical. It runs through every fibre of your being and rips its course through every aspect of your life. It is serious trauma. It takes a long time to recover from and, much as society would like to push it away and get us all to move on, grieving for enormous loss can't be rushed.

Still, time heals they say and I guess it does. Slowly, gradually synapses reconnect and new paths into the future are forged, though what I have learned is that there are no shortcuts. There are surely things you can do to make it more bearable but, in the end, you just have to live with it, feel it, work within it and hope one day to emerge. If you're lucky, maybe you get to emerge like a butterfly from a chrysalis but it is perhaps more likely that you emerge like an amputee from a hospital in a war zone. Either way, you're never going to be quite the same again.

Twelve months on, I'm pleased to say that I do feel a kind of re-emergence taking place and a transformation too. In some ways I am probably a better person and in other ways not. I find myself softer but also harder, in many ways more able to empathise with others and yet also impatient with struggles that sometimes seem lesser than my own; there's nothing quite like losing the one you love to give you a clear sense of what matters. I'm able to look forwards again now in a way that I never thought would be possible. I'm even starting to get tired of writing about grief and beginning to contemplate a return to writing fiction. ('Thank goodness' say my loyal friends who must be tired surely of reading this misery, but 'don't stop,' say the grievers who find solace in my writing, who know that grief isn't over yet). I have a couple of memories that I still want to record and a few things I still want to say but I'm preparing to gradually slow down the blog. My bereavement counsellor is getting ready to discharge me as well. She thinks I'm doing well. She's using my writing when she trains other bereavement counsellors and says she's now getting clients coming through who are quoting my blog back to her. 'You're as good as you're going to be,' she said recently. I'm not sure whether to be proud of my achievement or terrified that she's saying I'm going to feel like this for the rest of my life. Either way, I can see that there are other people who need her more than me. Unlike most widowed people, I've been so lucky to have had fantastic, regular counselling free of charge from a qualified counsellor via the hospice where my mum died and it's been so helpful to me. But my counsellor is like Mary Poppins, Nanny McPhee or Pete's dragon. She needs to fly away to help someone new whose world has been freshly decimated. Eventually, whether I am a butterfly or an amputee, I need to learn to survive on my own.

When I found you this time last year, you were already gone and I was already on my own with a new journey beginning. It wasn't a journey that I chose and it isn't a journey that I would recommend to anyone.  If you've been on this journey, I look into your eyes, hold your hand and salute you. And if you haven't, I hope it's a journey that you never have to make. There are surely better ways to achieve transformation and there are easier ways to break out of a chrysalis. And maybe, sometimes, it's ok to stay in a cocoon.