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 Our ability to drive to a beauty spot for a picnic has been withdrawn.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

Journeys

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.

Saturday, 9 March 2019

Marking time


Clouds - sent to me by Paul, 3 years ago today

'When you think about it, tomorrow only exists today,' said my son this morning. 'Because tomorrow, tomorrow will be today. So, really, tomorrow doesn't exist at all.' He's a wise soul for eight. His words reminded me that the only way to live is in the present, today. And at the same time, he reminded me that today, my particular tomorrow is the third anniversary of Paul's death, a death which sometimes feels like it happened yesterday and sometimes like it was many, many moons ago. Time, like language, like grief, is a tricky customer.

It is hard to know sometimes how to mark the passing of time, especially in this digital age, especially if, like me, you've blogged to death about loss. If I don't write on the anniversary of my love's death, will people think I've forgotten and moved on? If I do, will they think that I'm stuck, depressed, a broken record, a tiresome bore? Who knows? Who cares? Not me. Not much. Well, maybe a bit.

'I don't put her photo up on Facebook on her birthday anymore,' said a widowed friend the other day. I nodded. I understood. It's been five years for him and he has a new partner. He's not sure it's respectful to her. I disagree but I understand. Everyone is different. 'I still put flowers on her bench though,' he said. 'But I don't tell anyone.' I nodded again. Again, I understood. Time passes. Grief changes. There is no rulebook. 

At this time, three years ago, Paul was still alive. As far as either of us knew, he and we had years ahead of us. We were chatting on Messenger, exchanging poems and photographs, making plans for the future. It was a pretty deep conversation really when I think about it. That's not unusual for me. It wasn't unusual for us. It wasn't unusual for Paul either, though probably he's mostly remembered for his humour, his wit, his kindness and his warmth. When he died, a friend on Facebook said, 'he could appear daft but he was as deep as the sea.' He could. He was. 

I was telling him to make the most of his potential, to not be afraid to shine bright. And I was also telling him about a TED talk I'd just watched which was all about living in the present and how this is better for our mental health. 'That makes sense to me,' Paul said. 'Longer term thinking is more vague and uncertain, more likely to lead to anxious thinking.' Twenty-four hours later he was dead.

And when he died, his loss reverberated through his community. And when he died, it was like my heart had been torn from my chest and like my whole body was vibrating with the shock. It doesn't feel like that anymore. Thank God, it doesn't feel like that anymore. Time passes. Grief changes.

But, three years on, his loss reverberates through me still. His loss is threaded through my very being. He and the loss of him, are part of who I am now. Not everyone can understand this. I was dating someone recently who didn't want to read my blog. 'I'm interested in who you are now,' he said. He wanted to spend time with me in the present, not to hear about my past. I wanted to spend time with him in the present too but he was concerned about the logistical future of a long-distance relationship, a future which seemed unimportant to me. Because, for me, there's no point in thinking about a tomorrow that might not exist. Because for me, life is all about making the most of every opportunity for joy. My past has informed the person I've become.

My past includes him now. The timing, and other things, weren't right. Love, like language, like time, like grief, is a tricky customer. But when that barely-even-a-relationship ended, I fell into a pit of grief again and it was like my heart had been ripped out again and all of those feelings of loss were deep enough to drown in. I was vibrating again. 'Do you think you're depressed?' asked a friend, with concern. 'No,' I replied. 'It's grief. It just makes loss unbearable now.' At least I am able to recognise it now and, excruciating though it is, at least I know how to navigate it. I had to stop and tread water. I had to cry and give in to sadness but I didn't drown. I can swim on. I can live alongside grief. I have to live alongside grief. This is just the way life is. For now. Who knows what grief will turn into tomorrow?

I read something online today: 'Yesterday is heavy. Put it down,' it said. And I get that, I really do. And I wish I could. But if I put it down isn't that a bit like forgetting? Besides, sometimes, with grief, out of nowhere, yesterday is today again. Whether I acknowledge it on Facebook or not, the repercussions of Paul's loss go on.

When I started writing, it was today and Paul's anniversary was tomorrow. As I finish, tomorrow has become today and it is three years today since he died. His loss flows with the blood in my veins, his love still beats in my heart, his memory lives in my mind. Because of him, I know what love is. Because of what I went through, I feel loss more acutely and I see everything more vividly knowing that at any moment it could be gone. I don't know what tomorrow will bring but, like everyone, I have hopes for it anyway, I plan for it anyway. But mostly, I live for today, taking notice of everything that's here, being grateful for all that I still have and, sometimes, allowing myself to be sad for what I've lost. Because I lost a lot. I lost a man who loved me and who I loved passionately. A man who was both daft and deep as the sea. I lost Blacksmith Paul. Today, especially, I remember him.

Monday, 21 January 2019

Home is where the heart is

I learned a new word recently. I am a writer and so I love words, sometimes almost more than people. Words help to make sense of my innermost feelings. The blank page listens when there's no-one else around. Generally speaking, words don't let me down.

I love the precision of language, the way that, as a writer, if I choose the right words I can convey the exact sensation of feathers on skin, or sunlight over the ocean. Less is more, we say. Why use ten words when one will do? 

The English language is vast and intricate and yet still, sometimes, we say 'there are no words'. In grief, I've learned that sometimes this is the best thing to say. Less is more. There are no words of comfort adequate for something as big as the disappearance of a parent or a lover or a child. 'Grief' is not big enough. 'Loss' is not strong enough. 'Sadness' only goes so far.

And sometimes we have to look to another language for the word we need. The Eskimos, some say, have fifty words for snow. The Americans, allegedly, have fifteen words for sandwich. The Greeks, we're told, had six words for love. And the Welsh? The Welsh have one word which, for me, sums up the pervasive, eternal experience of profound loss. Hiraeth. A word which has no precise translation but a word which means a longing for a place to which we cannot return, a yearning for home.

And yet I am home. I am sitting here in my favourite chair by the fire in the house that I share with my two children, my family. I live in Sheffield. I've pretty much always lived in Sheffield. If you ask me where my home is, I don't have to falter. It is here, nestled amongst the green parks and trees, at the confluence of rivers that fed the steel industry, between the seven hills. It is here that I belong. In truth, I'm not sure that I'd live anywhere else. Maybe for love. Only for love. And yet, for the last three years, I've been homesick, filled every day with longing, desperate to return to something, somewhere, to a place that had no name. Hiraeth.

For me, that place is the place where parents and grandparents congregated around Christmas trees and days when my mother's voice was just at the end of the phone. It is the time when I had someone to love who really loved me. Before he died. Before she died. Before anyone died. The place that I long to return to is a place of innocence. It is a place where, sometimes, it could feel that everything was ok. It is a place of completeness, wholeness. It was a time when nothing really awful had yet happened and when I couldn't imagine how awful things could get.

These days I try to live in the moment. I work hard to count my blessings. I focus on the sensation of feathers on skin, of sunlight on the ocean. I strive to find the beauty in the little things, to cherish what remains. But the longing will never leave me. And every time I love someone, it is tinged with the knowledge of the loss that will come. And every time I lose someone, I fall deep down into a well of pre-existing sadness. And I know that it will always be here. This sadness. This longing. This yearning for a place to which I cannot return. At least I have a word for it. And I love words, sometimes more than people. Hiraeth.

Monday, 10 December 2018

The ghost of Christmas Past

The ghost moves in without me noticing at first. Why would I? Ghosts are invisible after all. But still, I feel it, though the children don't. Their heads are full of candy canes and Christmas crafts, packages beneath the tree. They are in the present, or three steps ahead into the future, counting down, opening doors, eating sweets, their excitement palpable, though also invisible.

When I open doors, the ghost comes in. I inhale it like smoke and it seeps through my skin. Funny how invisible things can feel so heavy. I walk around weighed down with it, as if I am carrying it like rocks in my pockets, like I am full to the brim with it. I still don't realise what it is. You'd think I would recognise it by now.

Gradually it reveals itself, though it takes the form of absence not presence. It is in the gaps in the list of gifts to purchase and in the box of decorations for the Christmas tree. It is threaded like tinsel through ferns. It is in the making of plans that someone else used to organise. The Christmas train is a ghost train now and the spectre is there on the stage at the panto. Behind you. The ghost of grief is in the air. The ghost of grief is everywhere.

The ghost sucks up joy like a dementor, demanding to be seen. And then I remember: ghosts don't like to be ignored. I set a place at the table for grief and welcome it in. Only then can the festivities begin.