Thursday 9 March 2023

Seven year itch

Like the number 3, the number 7 seems to be a signifcant number to human beings in both the arts and sciences. Lucky number 7, The Seven Year Itch, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers...these are just a few of the ways the number 7 is referenced in our society. I've also read that the human body renews every seven years so that essentially, on a cellular level, we're not the same person we were seven years ago (though a quick Google tells me that this is not entirely accurate). 

I'm thinking of these things today not because I'm about to leave a partner out of boredom, but because a partner left me seven years ago on the 10th March when he tragically died. I'm also thinking about it because I remember reading something by Elisabeth Kubhler Ross which suggested that it takes seven years to recover from major loss. I've also read that Kubhler Ross' theory of the five stages of grief has since been adapted to a seven stage model, the stages being: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance and hope, and processing. I've certainly experienced all seven of those phases in a cyclical pattern over and over, and when I revisit my blog and my memoir they're clearly reflected back at me. But have I completely processed the grief on this seven year anniversary? Have I fully recovered? Am I still the same person that I was back then? What if the cells that loved Paul, and the cells of me that loved him, no longer exist! That's a terrible idea! 

Regardless of the science, it's nonsense, of course. When we lose someone, people often say that they live on in such nebulous places as our memories and in our metaphorical (if not our literal) hearts. They do. Though I no longer think of Paul daily and don't actively grieve for him on a regular basis, I can sometimes remember being with him as if it were yesterday. I can still feel deep love for him and gratititude for the time we spent together and I can still feel deep sadness for his loss. But I no longer live with grief as a constant presence. In that sense, Kubler Ross is right and I have recovered. 

Though I wouldn't force it on anyone who isn't ready, recovery, I feel now, is right and proper. It is important to learn to live a full life again after loss, in honour of the person whose life was denied as much as anything. I think I am, mostly, succeeding. I have a beautiful life in many ways and I recently began a new relationship with another beautiful man who makes me very happy...when I allow myself to feel happy instead of terrified! The truth is that, though grief might be resolved by the seven year point, trauma lives on in the body, heart and mind and I'm not sure any amount of cellular renewal erases its imprint. My trauma tells me that to love another human being is the most devastatingly dangerous thing I can do. 

It's not just the loss of Paul that was truamatic, of course. I've experienced multiple losses and traumas in my life and many devastating consequences of relationships. All of it is triggered when I fall in love. I'm in the middle of having EMDR therapy for PTSD (following other recent major life dramas) and my therapist tells me that the Protectors, Managers and Fire Fighters in my brain are in overdrive. As she says, they smell burnt toast, believe the house is on fire and activate the alarms - alarms which say things like RUN! GET OUT NOW! They believe that, when you fall in love, terrifying things happen. It's an absolute nightmare for me and rather sad for the man who loves me that, while he is cockahoop, I'm finding multiple reasons to distance myself from him, push him away and that I am testing every possible aspect of our relationship like a person with OCD might check lights, switches and ovens. It's exhausting for me and hard for him but testimony to how wonderful he is that he puts up with it all with so much love and understanding that I can't help but adore him however petrified I am. Synchronicity and serendipity is strong too and, despite my fears, I believe there is something very good about the connection that we have. People keep telling me how happy I look and I can't deny that they're right! 

The irony is that it's the very fact that my new partner is so wonderful and makes me so happy that terrifies me! In fact, he reminds me of Paul in many ways. He's strong and kind, patient and funny. He loves words and being outside and making things. Sometimes he even looks like Paul, laughs like Paul, talks like Paul, knocks on the door like Paul. 'There's a strong pattern match,' my therapist says as she tells me again that, 'he's not Paul!' Just because Paul died, it doesn't mean I will lose my new love so soon. 

In the end, regardless, we don't conquer our fears by running away. We conquer them by facing them and, like a person conducting exposure therapy, I fall in love little by little and I let my new partner get closer day by day. Sometimes I have to retreat but I always come back. I feel the fear and do it anyway because this is what I gained from loving Paul. 'Would you ever wish you hadn't been with Paul?' my therapist asks and I don't hesitate. I wrote a whole book about how I would do it all again. And here I am, doing it all again. 'What's the worst that could happen?' I ask my demons. It doesn't bear thinking about. But I think about it anyway and I tell myself that I survived before and that I will continue to survive. Love is the most precious thing in the world. Life is for living. Every moment is special. That's the gift. That's the lesson. There's the post-traumatic growth. Am I the same person? No. I wouldn't want to be. I like the me that I am now. I am braver and stronger, I follow my instincts and intution more and I live my life more fully. 

I am grateful for the love I shared with Paul and grateful for the man who loves me now. My intuition tells me that Paul would love him too. Seven years on my grief is still an itch and this is me scratching it. I make space sometimes for sadness and memories. Because I remember Paul and all that he gave to me and to the people who loved him. And I remember the life that he lost too soon.

Seven years. It's unbelievable. Time goes so fast. Which is why we must make the most of it. Here's to love my friends. And to understanding that loss is a price worth paying. 

Friday 28 January 2022

Two years on from the launch of Dear Blacksmith

 I’m in a reflective mood this week. There’s been a lot happening, a lot coming to a close and a lot of memories resurfacing. Two years ago, my memoir, Dear Blacksmith was published by Valley Press. In that same month, my children stopped seeing their father, precipitating two years of unimaginable trauma in family court, and a strange virus blew in from China, upending life in ways none of us could imagine.

As I sit now in my kitchen, wrapped in a blanket, remembering my book launch, the court case has just come to a conclusion, coronavirus seems finally to be retreating and I’m able to look forward with something like hope for the first time in a long time. It’s been an utterly bonkers two years.

I’m listening to the playlist from the launch. Prince is singing Purple Rain and I’m recalling that the last poem in my book features a reference to the song. It’s a piece written in the voice of my lost love, Blacksmith Paul, a message from beyond the grave, willing me to keep going. The last words of the book come from a collage that he made with me on New Years' Eve 2019 and they go like this:

remember to explore

keep on keeping on

you were my inspiration, let me be yours

and most of all,


P.s sorry about the mess.

Boy, was it a mess!

It was a brief and passionate love affair. The kind of romance that books should be written about, set against the sweeping backdrop of the Derbyshire moors where an eccentric hero fell in love with a single mum, rescuing her from her mundane, urban life and then dramatically dropping dead. It was not a book I wanted to write. As I wrote at the time, ‘the end just happened in the middle.’ I was looking for a happy ever after in a great romance novel not a brutal short story. I was definitely not looking for a memoir of trauma and grief; I’d already had enough of that.

Still, it is a beautiful book and a beautiful record of some of the best and worst times of my life. I was proud when I held the book in my hands and proud as I sat on that stool reading from the book in front of a huge audience of people, many of whom had been my safety net when I was in the depths of a kind of grief that floored me over and over again. But I was also sad, deeply sad, because the story of that wonderful love affair was over, packaged in a four hundred page book, wrapped in the photograph that Paul had taken when I thought we were on the brink of forever, and I was left alone to carry on without him, to write a new narrative. And what kind of a narrative do you write when you’ve loved so deeply and lost so traumatically? How do you keep going and rebuild?

Mostly, it seems, you keep going because you have to. But, I also hung onto the lessons that I learned with Paul. I try to stay in the moment, continue to explore possibility and potential and to look for the good in every day. I reach for the light and spend my days (where I can) doing only the things I love with the people that I love. For me this has meant a lot of writing and time spent helping other writers to find their voices, a vocation that fills me with joy on a daily basis. It’s meant the founding of The Writers Workshop, a wonderful nurturing community. It’s also meant spending a lot of time in nature, walking and swimming and escaping to the sea as often as possible. Most of all, it’s been time spent with the amazing friends who have stayed by my side through the multiple appalling events and situations of my life, and especially time with my beloved children. The three of us have been to the kind of hell I didn’t know existed over this last two years but at least we have been there together and there have been many moments of joy and laughter amidst the pain. The memories of halcyon days of ‘home educating’ in the garden will stay with me forever.

I have kept on keeping on because what else can I do when I have the privilege to still be alive? The memory of Paul will always inspire me to keep striving to live my best life. It’s a gift only available to those who have experienced extreme pain. And love? Love infuses everything I do. The only way to counter the darkness in the world is to keep loving. I’ve learned that love takes many forms: the love of friends and family, love for my writing community, compassion for myself and the kindness of strangers. I strive to be a kind stranger always. And I’m proud to be the kind of strange I am.

As for romance, it’s not easy to find that kind of love again as a lone parent battered by grief and trauma, but I keep looking anyway, periodically and half-heartedly. I keep looking because, though I’m ok on my own and full to the brim with self-love, there are some things that only a lover can provide. It would be nice to have a little bit more joy and just a little bit of help from a partner.

Sadly, there aren’t many men who come anywhere close to meeting my requirements these days and even the few that I’ve liked have ended up being disappointing. One was intimidated by my ‘wonderful life,’ and another was put off by my ‘stressful life’. Six years on, I’m unbelievably strong but still vulnerable and any kind of disappointment can floor me. Despite therapy, trauma is still easily triggered and when the last man I was exploring an amazing romantic potential with stopped messaging, I immediately panicked that he was dead. I’m still anxious. My reality is probably too much for him. I don’t blame him; my reality is too much for me too! He’s afraid that he would let me down. Which is what Paul also said. And so I’m cast back again to what I had and what I lost. Paul and I were afraid to take a risk, afraid to fall in love, afraid of our messy circumstances. I’m so glad we took the chance. I know that love is all that matters in this world and I know I’ll take that risk again, one day when someone special wants to risk it too.

In the meantime, I keep writing and loving my way through the precious, wonderful, stressful and horrendously messy days of my life. Two years on, I can still be sad but I’m glad to be alive and grateful, so grateful, for the gift of love and for writing - the one true love that never lets me down.

My book was massively affected by the pandemic. I never even saw it in the 180 bookshops that stocked it. If you’d like to read it, it’s available from all the usual places and also via my website to UK readers.

Wednesday 10 March 2021

One line a day

Today is new notebook day. 

I love new notebook day. All of those blank pages, all of the possibilites, the stories yet unwritten. A new notebook holds promise for the future and the opportunity to start afresh. There are no mistakes in a new notebook.

Though today is the first day of writing in my book, I've actually had it for a while. It was a present from my friend Bryony. I remember her bringing it to me in my new workshop space last year. When I look at it, it conjures memories: the smell of fresh paint and colourful prints, the yellow chest of treasures over in the corner of the room, sitting with my friend drinking tea - simple pleasures that seem so far away. I'm not sure when she gave it to me but I know it was before: before the difficult family events of this year, before my book launch, before the virus.

A year ago today, I was sitting on a stage talking about the book of this blog with another dear friend, Rosie. Numbers in the audience were dwindling as rumours of a virus spread and later, in the pub, we sat alone and knew that things were going to change. 

It was five years ago today that Paul died.  And everything changed.

I never expected to write those words: five years ago. I don't know what I expected to happen but not that. Perhaps I thought that his death was the end of my story. At the time I didn't want to believe that life would go on and I certainly didn't want to hear about silver linings. A life without him seemed inconceivable. Now, sometimes, it seems inconceivable that he, that we, were there at all. My life, my story has continued regardless. Grief isn't dimished, they say, but new life grows around and from loss. Though we don't want it to happen, it happens nonetheless. If there has to be trauma, it's just as well that post-traumatic growth follows. If there must be clouds, I'm grateful now for their silver linings.

As I open up my notebook, the world is opening up again too. My children are returning to school. Rosie and I are planning a meeting to think about re-opening the workshop space. Anxiety rises as the rain falls and the writers in my Zoom workshop feel on edge again, minds scattered, thoughts adrift. We are all of us buffeted by storms, drowning in loss. Today I am full to the brim but low on words. My writers talk of writing as an anchor and a life raft. We share stories and feel ourselves righted, as we always do, held up by writing and by each other. 

My eldest is feeling anxious too as we sit chatting over our last home ed lunch. School is looming and new and familiar challenges litter the landscape like ice bergs. 'Things will always keep changing,' I say, 'for better and for worse. It is the only thing we can be certain of.'

I close my new notebook. 

One line a day it says on the front. 

I think of Paul and the words he used to say: Keep buggering on.

This is how life unfolds, this is how books get written, this is how things change.

This is how I survive. 


If you'd like to read the book that launched a year ago, Dear Blacksmith can be bought here.

Saturday 4 April 2020

What grief taught me about how to survive in times like these

These are strange times aren't they? I've heard that phrase a lot recently and it can't be denied. These are strange times indeed. Another thing I've heard recently is that we have entered a time of collective grief. I get that. The life we knew has been turned upside down suddenly and we are losing things that we, in our privileged Western lives, took for granted. Our birthday parties are being cancelled. Our summer holiday plans have been destroyed. Our ability to drive to a beauty spot for a picnic has been withdrawn.

Of course, though we're collectively being impacted, we're each impacted differently. We're each losing different things. The mother on maternity leave is losing the life of coffee mornings and baby groups she'd been looking forward to. My twelve year old is losing her new-found freedom. Students are missing nights out and exams. Some will miss their final year of school or graduation. Grandparents are missing their grandchildren. Many people are losing the activities that helped them to feel sane and connected. And, in case we forget, there are other people who are losing their lives to this silent killer and others who are being denied the opportunity to say goodbye. That's a whole new layer to grief.

There's so much that could be written on the subject, so much that is being written. About how much more impacted the people living in small flats with no gardens are. About how horrendous it must be for people who are trapped at home with abusive parents or partners. About how this is situation is overwhelmingly worse for the people who are being forced to keep travelling on public transport, who are working on the frontline, who have lost their jobs, who don't have an Ocado reserved pass. There's no question that this is a lot easier for people like me. I'm a single parent and that's hard but I'm privileged. I live in a lovely house with a lovely garden in a leafy part of town. And, though I've lost my usual way of making a living and am not eligible for as much government support as some, I can adapt my business to work online and I have savings. I am incredibly grateful.

What I want to write about though, is how I believe this is easier for me not just because I'm privileged, but because I've already lived through so much grief and trauma. To be honest, I'm so accustomed to my life being derailed, that this new reality feels relatively easy to absorb. I'm a bit peeved that every time I think life might get better, something else goes wrong but this is how I've come to expect life to go. I'm a bit bored and a lot tired but, as a single parent, I'm used to that. I'm used to not being able to go out when I want to and I'm used to juggling children and working from home. It's not a dramatic change for me. Mostly though, I'm familiar with having my world turned upside down overnight and to having to adjust. I'm used to having to survive in a world that is not of my choosing. I can apply everything I've learned from the loss of my partner to this new situation and, so far, it's really helping.

Here's what I learned. I share it in case it helps you too.

We are not in control of life. We we can plan for the future but we can never guarantee that the future we plan for will come to fruition. The future is always unwritten and unpredictable. When my partner died, I stopped thinking of the future and learned to get through each day one at a time. That serves me well now. There's no point, for me, in wondering when this period will end or what I will do when it does. I just get up and set about getting through each day one at a time. That helps me. Don't get me wrong, I fantasise about hugging people and going on dates and on holidays but mostly I just think about what to do in this moment and the next. This is how life is built.

Even in the worst of times, there are always things that make us feel a bit better. We should lean towards those things and structure our days around them. Writing makes me feel better. It grounds me. Doing my work as a writing facilitator makes me feel better. I know that I should be gentle with myself and work less but working gives me a sense of purpose and helps me to feel useful, and feeling useful helps me to keep getting up in the morning. Being useful is something we can turn our attention to now. How can we play our part in helping someone worse off? When I experienced loss, writing about it and sharing my journey helped others and helping others made me feel better. Sharing writing prompts helps others now. It's the thing I can do that improves the lives of other people and that helps me too.

Being outside helps me to feel better. Everything feels more manageable with your feet or your hands on the earth and your eyes lifted to the sky. Exercise makes me feel better. I can't swim at the moment so I've returned to doing yoga. Moving my body helps to shift my mindset.

Connecting with people makes me feel better. So, I programme in those video calls, even though it's not the same, even though all this screen time is tiring. And I make the most of all of those events that I can now attend. Like so many people: the elderly and those with disabilities, single parents are no longer excluded from cultural events. I love that! And I stand in my garden and talk to my neighbours from two metres away. It makes me feel better. The truth is that this grief is so much easier than the grief I experienced before because we're in it together and everyone wants to chat to me. I don't feel nearly as isolated now as I did four years ago.

The sense of community is something I'm really grateful for. That there are always things to be grateful for and that beauty can be found even in the darkest days is something I learned in grief. Looking for the beauty is another thing that makes me feel better. In early grief, I hated being told to look for silver linings but, over time, I became expert at it and there are a multitude of beautiful things to notice now, especially if we can be outside and slow down. The sense of community as people clap the NHS, the tiny wonder of blossom unfurling, the laughter of children, a conversation with a neighbour that I never really knew before.

Being mindful is a game-changer. Giving your full attention to whatever you're engaged in can calm anxiety and make everything a source of wonder. As a child, I could lie on the ground and be completely absorbed in the movement of an insect on the grass. Those insects are still there now, if we stop and look. Even mundane tasks can be more enjoyable if pay attention to them, if we really feel the water on our hands as we wash them - again. And it's good to lose ourselves in any activity that absorbs us and that takes us away from what's in our minds, to cultivate that sense of flow by writing, dancing, playing music.

In grief I also learned a hard lesson for a high-achiever like me. It's a lesson that I've learned from chronic illness and single parenting too. I learned that I couldn't do it all and that I had to slow down. I learned to pace myself. Like grief, this is likely to be a marathon, not a sprint. It's ok to spend hours doing nothing much at all. My son has just spent five hours playing Minecraft. It's not ideal but he'll be ok. I will make him exercise after lunch and we'll play a game or do some baking. He knows that he is loved and that he is safe. That's what matters most. In grief, I learned to only pay attention to the things and the people that mattered most.

Still, it sucks, doesn't it? It sucks that our family holiday is cancelled and that I can't go on my writing retreat next week. It sucks that I'm on my own with no partner and that I've no idea when I can next go on a date (though grateful, so grateful that I'm not stuck with the wrong partner at this time!) It's hard work doing everything on my own. This is a difficult time, no question. We can't always be Pollyanna. And that's the other thing I learned from grief. I learned that it was ok to be honest. That it was ok to reach out to other people and say "I'm struggling with this". Just because other people have it worse doesn't take away from the reality that we're all finding this hard, that we're all losing our own particular things, that we're all experiencing grief. Grief needs to be expressed in order to be healed. So, I'm expressing myself. It helps me feel better. I hope it helps you too.
Something to be grateful for - the hotel garden in walking distance of my house.

Friday 31 January 2020

This is not the story that I wanted to write

My book arrived in the post this week. What a thing of beauty it is. It is heavy and smooth in my hands, the paper has the lovely off-white tint of, well, real books and it has my name on the front in big letters. It has only just struck me as I sit here looking at it, that it also has a picture of me on the front cover. That little figure in the yellow cardigan walking poetically alongside an abandoned house - that's me. 

I remember the day that the photograph was taken. It was four and a half years ago now. How can it have been so long? I was having the most wonderful day with a man I was about to fall in love with. I didn't know yet that he took beautiful photographs, just knew that in his company I felt righted, aligned, deeply happy. I miss feeling like that. He sent me the photo later on that day as a memento of 'a magical day'. Seven months later, he died. Just like that. Unthinkable then. Unthinkable, even now. 

I took a selfie with the book. It's what authors do. It's a lot of work to write a book and the first sighting of the actual thing is a moment to be cherished and celebrated. I shared the photo on social media and got the expected outpouring of enthusiastic comments: how exciting, how proud you must be, enjoy! I should perhaps have cracked open the champagne but it was a Monday and I had my kids to drive around and no-one to drink it with, plus I'm on a stupid detox diet. I showed it to the kids anyway and they were as momentarily impressed as kids can be on seeing the book that their mum wrote about the death of a man they barely knew. They turned to find their names in the acknowledgements and went back to their screens while I went to cook the tea. It was a bit of an anti-climax on the whole. 

The truth is that I'm not really sure that I feel like celebrating anyway. I'm not really sure what I'm feeling at all. Proud, yes, but also anxious, sad and overwhelmed. My story is going back out into the world and I am going with it, on the cover and between the pages, on the radio and in newspaper articles and at literary events. It's daunting. There was a time when all I wanted to do was tell the story of my heartache, when I all wanted to do was talk about loss. But I'm not in that place anymore. Or I wasn't until my words became a book. And now I'm going back there again. 

I read it cover to cover on Monday night once the children were in bed, just to check that the words were all where they should be. They were. All of the memories, all of the metaphors for grief. They were all there, bound up in four hundred pages of poetry and prose. Of course, I thought, it could be edited further. Of course, I thought, it's a bit self-involved. But it's pretty good, I think. Yes, I am proud. 

As I read it though, these phrases jumped out at me. 

This is not the story that I wanted to write. 
I could make this a bestselling memoir and then what? You would still be dead. 
I didn't want a memoir of loss - I wanted a living love that lasted. 

It's true. 

The book is another ending, my journey tied up with the journey of the book. It's done now. That episode of my life is over, summed up in one neat volume. But like all of the other endings on the journey, it is a false ending. Because I will keep talking about it and writing about it. Because I will always have to live with it. Because it's part of who I am. Because it will never really be over. Because I would never want to completely leave it, leave him, behind. 

'His place in your life is documented and that's something very special,' said one friend. It made me happy to think of it like that. I like that I have memorialised our relationship. 'Paul would be very proud,' said another. Would he? I don't know. I hope he would. I hope he is. I hope he's pretty chuffed to see his photo used as a book cover. It's nice to see his photo and my name together like that. 'We should make a book of your photos and my words,' I said, the night before he died. 'We will,' he said. And here it is. I hope he's proud. I hope it helps other people. I'm glad that I wrote it. But this isn't the story that I wanted to write. 

Wednesday 15 May 2019

Death can be depressing sometimes

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. It is a chance for us all to be open about our own struggles with mental health, to reduce the stigma attached to anxiety and depression, to discuss the fact that sometimes we all feel down, that sometimes we struggle to cope. It is also Dying Matters Awareness Week, an opportunity for us to be open about the fact that we all die and that we're all affected at some point by bereavement. It is convenient for a time-poor, part-time grief blogger that the two issues are, in my experience, often closely linked.

It seems to me that gradually, or perhaps suddenly, we're getting much better in our society at talking about mental health. Celebrities are leading the way in coming out of the closet and openly discussing their struggles. Thanks to authors such as Matt Haig, Stephen Fry, Ruby Wax and Fearne Cotton, it is no longer taboo to talk about anxiety, depression or bi-polar disorder, which is so important when we're frequently told that something like one in five of us will experience mental health issues in any given year. It is essential that we talk about this, that we normalise the experience that so many of us have. And yet, when I write those words: WE ALL DIE (even when I don't write them in capitals), it still feels as if I'm saying something shocking and uncomfortable and inappropriate for polite company. Even though it happens, not just to one in five of us, but TO ALL OF US!

In case you don't know my story, by the age of forty-five, I'd lost both of my parents to cancer and then, a few months after my mother's death, I discovered the dead body of the man I was in love with when I broke into his house. He'd apparently died of heart disease three days earlier, though the exact cause of death has never really been determined. It was, without question, the most traumatic event of my life. It left me reeling, not just for days or weeks or even for months, but for years. It was like a bomb had gone off at the centre of my life and the aftershocks went on and on and on. Three years later I consider myself to still be in recovery, I'm still grieving. I still have days when I struggle. My mental health has been deeply affected by loss. I know that I am not alone in this experience. And yet I have never felt more alone than I felt during the early months of that grief.

When Paul died, most people had no idea how to be around me. They didn't know what to say. They didn't know what to do. Most of my peer group had no experience of losing a parent, let alone a partner, let alone both. When I tried to talk about it, some people offered me platitudes about heaven needing angels or gardens needing flowers. (I wanted to murder those people for suggesting that some deity had inflicted this on me for his own pleasure). People asked me to be grateful for the happy times and cherish the memories. (I had eight months of a wonderful relationship. It wasn't enough.) People told me that I would 'get over' it, that things would 'get better', that I would meet someone new. (I didn't want to get over it; my sadness was all that was keeping me close to the man I loved. Things couldn't get better because all I wanted was for him to come back. I didn't want anyone else). I was angry and desolate and I wanted to be where he was. I was difficult to be around, I know. And I wasn't just difficult because of the anger and the desolation and the non-stop tears, but because I was standing there openly talking about the fact that death happens. If it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone and no-one wants to think about that. Our culture does not want to acknowledge that death happens at all. It especially doesn't want to acknowledge that death happens to children and young people, to people who appear healthy, to people who are our age, to people like us. But it does.

And when someone close to us dies, nothing can prepare us for the impact. People who haven't experienced deep grief, assume that it feels like sadness. They expect us to cry a little and then get back to normal. But this is not my experience of the kind of grief I experienced when Paul died (or even the grief when my parents died which was much much milder for me). This grief, like many griefs, was shocking and traumatic and grief like that is a full-body experience. For many months I felt like I was vibrating with shock. Grief stops some people from being able to sleep. Grief stops some people from being able to eat. Grief makes it impossible to concentrate or to remember things. Grief literally wiped out huge parts of my long-term memory and still affects my short-term memory to this day. Grief can lead people to live in a state of terror; once the unexpected has happened, anything could happen at any time. Nothing feels safe anymore. Anxiety is a huge side-effect of grief. It is not at all unusual for depression to follow. Grief makes it very hard to cope.

Six months after my loss, I went back to see my old therapist. I didn't go to talk about grief (I had a bereavement counsellor for that). I went as a routine follow-up to the therapy that I'd been having before Paul died, a therapy that, bizarrely, ended the same week that he did. I remember sitting in her office filling in the standard NHS depression questionnaire which asked me how often I had felt hopeless (every day), how much I had cried (every day), how often I felt fearful (every day), if I had felt that sometimes I'd rather be dead (every day). My therapist totted up my scores and told me that I was clinically depressed and in need of ant-depressants and CBT. If I wasn't depressed when I'd entered her office, I certainly was when I left. I was no longer grieving, I was depressed. She implied that I should have been better by now, that there was something wrong with me, that I was failing grief. Like the rest of our society, she had no idea how to deal with bereavement.

Luckily for me, I had a wonderful bereavement counsellor via the hospice where my mother had died who reassured me that I was throughly normal in my response to my experience and who supported me for a year as I went through the necessary process of grieving for my love and for my parents. Luckily I had some friends who were gifted in empathy, who were able to sit with me while I cried, who were able to listen without judgement while I talked. Luckily I was a writer who instinctively knew that in order to heal, I needed to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth of my experience. Luckily (perhaps) I had already had my own struggles with mental health and I knew the strategies that would help. I got out into nature, I swam, I upped my mindfulness practice, I became an expert in self-care. I survived. Three years on, yes, I'm still in recovery but I am smiling, I am happy, I am thriving. Things can knock me off balance and sadness and anxiety can return but I know how to pick myself back up again. Having been through the worst, I know I will be always be ok. Having been so close to death, I have also made peace with my own mortality. Death has become familiar to me. It no longer scares me.

Which brings me full circle. We are scared of that which is unfamiliar. How can we prepare for something that no-one will talk about? How can we learn how to support people who are struggling if we have no understanding of why they are struggling? How can we admit that we ourselves are struggling if we fear that we will be misunderstood and silenced when we speak out? Mental health matters. Dying matters. We need to talk about it all. We need to get better at supporting each other in dealing with it. So here I am, doing my bit to raise awareness, in this awareness-raising week.

Tuesday 16 April 2019


Very hot and tired at the top of Lion Rock, Kandy

I'm reflecting on journeys today, mostly because I've just returned from an epic journey around Sri Lanka with my children and also because I've made this the subject for the writing workshops that I'm running this week. Journeys are a good theme for writing. From the epic quests of Homer and Virgil to the voyage and return narratives of Gulliver or Alice, authors have always written about journeys. Because, as readers, we want to be taken on a journey by the author. Because, as readers, we want to experience, with the writers and characters, some kind of transformation. In order for a narrative to succeed, a change needs to take place. It would be a sorry tale if the protagonist in a story ended up back exactly where they started. Whether change is internal or external, the transformation needs to take place and an internal or external journey is the route to that transformation.

Grief is a journey too. No, not that seven stages of grief, jump over a few obstacles and arrive at the finish line kind of journey. I don't subscribe to that model of grief at all. Still, it is a journey nonetheless. In fact, a quick search tells me that I've mentioned journeys twenty-three times in this blog. But my experience suggests that grief is not a linear journey at all. It's more cyclical than that, more like a repeating spiral, or a complex web. In one piece I described it as Snakes and Ladders; in grief we're constantly moving forwards and falling back. But even the Snakes and Ladders metaphor implies an end point. It implies that grief is a process that can be completed, a game that can be won, a course that can be graduated from with a diploma in survival. It isn't really like that.

Still, I returned from my trip to Sri Lanka feeling that if there were a diploma to be granted, I would have deserved it. Even before the loss of my mum and Paul, I've dreaded holidays as a single parent. It's not easy taking two children away on your own and spending each day with only children for company. It's not easy making all of the decisions on your own and having responsibility for all of the packing and the paperwork, for all of the driving and all of the carrying of luggage. It's especially not easy when the suitcase that you're carrying includes a hefty package of sadness and loss, when your hand luggage is anxiety. Usually I come back from holidays feeling pleased that I've survived and proud that my children have enjoyed themselves. I don't usually come back feeling that I've had a good time too. But this time I did.

Of course, you might think I jolly well should have had a good time. I've been to Sri Lanka for God's sake. I've been white water rafting and surfing. I've stayed in treehouses and hotels with swimming pools. I've seen elephants and bears and crocodiles. How lucky I am, how privileged. I am. I know. But I'm still proud of myself. Proud of myself for being brave enough to travel to the other side of the world with my little family. Proud that I kept them safe. Proud that I am learning to live wholeheartedly again.

I didn't do the whole journey alone. Once I'd got us from Sheffield to Heathrow and from Heathrow to Colombo, we joined a group tour around the island. Our guide was a Sri Lankan local, who colloquially referred to himself as Sam. Sam has his own story to tell, a story that he wants to write. He's been on his own journey of transformation. Once in the tobacco trade, he swapped his suit for the traveller's life, preferring to be in the business of spreading joy rather than disease. He survived bombs and bullets during the Tamil conflict (he showed me the scars). He stood with tourists watching the sunset four hours before the tsunami destroyed their vantage point. Sam knows a thing or two about close calls. You don't come out of those experiences unscathed. Close calls with death change your perspective on life. Once a Muslim, he now has a more pantheistic belief system and  'takes the good from everywhere'. On our trip he talks about Buddhism and Hinduism with equal reverence and he's changed his views to incorporate the Western philosophy of the travellers that he's encountered. Despite the disapproval of his community, his daughter was allowed to reject seven suitors before she found 'the one'. Sam believes in love.

Sam intersperses his instruction on wildlife and culture to share wisdom and philosophy. On the bus, over the microphone, he tells us that the Singhalese see life's journey reflected in the landscape. Sometimes, he says, the road is flat and easy and sometimes there is a mountain to climb. And then the flat again. Ups and downs, over and over. This is the journey, he says. He talks about the seasons and the passing of time. He tells us that it will be the Singhalese New Year while we're there. When I ask him why New Year is in April he somehow diverts into astrology and numerology and I find myself unexpectedly having a personal reading over the microphone. He tells me that my life has been hard but that my future is bright. He says that though I seem soft on the outside, I am tough inside and that whatever life throws at me, I will survive it. There is something personal though that he says he must talk to me about in private.

Over dinner on the last night, Sam asks me for my advice about writing his life story. Like all writers, he's not sure where to begin. I tell him that constructing a story is like constructing a tour, to think of his life as a series of interesting landmarks. His job is to put them in a compelling order, to tell the story of his journey. I suggest that he begins with a bang to hook the reader. I tell him to start with the explosion and the time when he lost his hearing and didn't know how he ended up where he was, to  gradually let the story unravel, the pieces assemble. He lights up. He understands. And then he asks me, 'what happened to him, your partner?' And of course there have been a few partners but I tell him about Paul. 'I can see it,' he says. 'You seem so happy and smiling but you carry it like a stone inside.' He tells me that I will love again. That I will encounter my life partner at a creative gathering, that our eyes will meet across a room. He reinforces my feeling that I won't be internet dating again any time soon.

I return from my holiday feeling jubilant, like I've taken a giant leap on my post-loss journey. The climb up from the depths of grief was harder than climbing Lion Rock in the midday sun (it was really hard) but I've made it to a brighter vantage point, a point from which I can admire the view with the kind of intense thankfulness that, it seems to me, can only come from the close hand knowledge of how quickly things can change. Sudden loss is like a tsunami, the consequences devastating and long-lasting. The scars remain. Still, I feel like I've shot up a ladder on the board. I realise that I am no longer just surviving. Mostly, now, I am thriving. I'm not waiting anymore for a partner to have adventures with (just as well because Sam seems to think the next one might not appear until 2022) but am seizing the day now, living life to the full in a way that I didn't think possible three years ago. I spend the money that my parents left making new memories with my children. I go to the places that Paul would have loved to go, hoping that I carry him with me as I travel. I savour each precious moment knowing that it might be my last, fearing always that it might be my last. I have been on a voyage to the underworld and returned. A transformation has taken place.

And when I get home, I feel it again. The lack of a person to come home to, the urge to phone my mum. I feel bereft once more. I'm not at the end of the journey. The grief is still there. I carry it always like a stone. But it's easier to deal with, lighter to carry. For now, I'm mostly on the flat part of the journey and though the ups and downs will continue, I know that I am strong enough to survive it all.