Bereavement, Bowels & Holy Basil


Promising anonymity, I recently put out a call to some of my widowed tribe, asking them if they would contribute to a chapter in my book about things NOT to say someone who had been widowed. The stories flooded in and reading them, I cringed and laughed, sometimes simultaneously. Take this little gem: “When I was on a girls’ night out, an acquaintance on hearing that I’d been widowed (by then about three years) and not seeing anyone asked me, ‘What do you for sex? Are you a lesbian?’ I was gobsmacked.” Reading it made me wonder if my lesbian and gay friends were asked whether widowhood had turned them straight.

Faced with a widow, some people genuinely don’t know what to say, so awkwardly casting around for some common ground they end up comparing the loss of your spouse to their pet rabbit dying, or when they had glandular fever or their boyfriend dumped them. At other times, inappropriate comments are made through ignorance or a belief system which is totally at odds with your own. On the beach as chaos reigned around my poor, blue, husband, a woman came up to me, put her arms around me and said, “God needs him more than you. It’s God’s will. He knows best.” 

I can understand widows becoming furious at the term ‘golf widow’ or ‘footie widow’, though these phrases have never particularly bothered me. I see them as part of the English language, trotted out because they trip off the tongue in the same way that Gorgeous Grey-Haired Widower used to call me by his late wife’s name, and I would call him John and ask him whether he was going to play golf at the weekend. We were so used to saying this collection of words, we didn’t even know we were saying them in the same way other widows used phrases to me such as, “I feel I’m drowning in grief,” or being told to keep my “head above water.”

But just when you think you have heard it all, something knocks you off your perch of tolerance and ruffles your fragile feathers.

A combination of being unwell and pulling the book together has sent my spirits plummeting and my anxiety levels rocketing. On a break from reading and writing about grief – when I should have been having a break from the keyboard – I started Googling my symptoms and discovered that the panacea for my problems was something called Holy Basil. The name alone cheered me up. I have only come across two Basil’s in my life: Basil Fawlty, and our neighbour’s dog in the 1970s, Basil the Bassett Hound, both of whom were completely bonkers. I had to have Holy Basil. Without Holy Basil, I would either spontaneously combust or beat the living daylights out of my laptop with The Hound’s ball launcher. Long-term readers of Planet Grief might remember that I have form when it comes to violence with a ball-launcher.

I set off for the local herbal apothecary. In the street, I met a friend of mine, another writer, who is putting the finishing touches to his book, a work of erotic fiction published under a female pseudonym. He asked me where I was going. I told him that because I was as strung out as a line of weasels strung on a barbed wire fenced in the Northumberland countryside, I was off to hunt down some Holy Basil. His view was that it wasn’t Holy Basil I needed, but something called 5-HTP. 5-HTP was the answer to anxiety, a wonder supplement that had helped a teacher he knew sail through a recent Ofstead inspection without so much as a blob of underarm sweat. Despite writing about bondage to a tight deadline, he did seem remarkably chilled. I decided that as long as they didn’t combine to form some strange hallucinogenic compound, I needed both Holy Basil and 5-HTP.

I went into the herbal shop. Essential oils burning away in the corner and rows of glass jars labelled ‘Feverfew’ and ‘Chamomile’ felt calming. The woman behind the counter looked bursting with health and vitality, a goddess of herbal remedies. I wanted whatever she was taking, even though I knew it wasn’t going to knock ten years off me and turn me blonde.

I explained that I had started off wanting Holy Basil, but that there had been a last minute swerve towards 5-HTP. She asked why I wanted those supplements. I told her that I was stressed and anxious. She had a lovely smile and a warm manner. She took a pen and pad of paper and said, “Can I just ask you a few questions first?” I took this as a good sign: professional, not just some random herb pusher getting by on her good looks and flawless skin. She asked why I was stressed and anxious. I told her that I’d been ill for weeks, had been (to borrow the term from a friend of a friend) coughing up ‘gobbets of grimness’, felt perimenopausal and post-viral, but that the book that I was writing certainly wasn’t helping.

The Herbal Goddess looked up from her notes. “Oh, you’re writing a book! How exciting! What’s it about?” she enquired, looking all bright-eyed and glossy.

I muttered that it was about the death of my husband and the aftermath. A woman had come in after me to ask whether Hopi Ear Candles might help with her tinnitus. She was hovering, waiting to speak to The Herbal Goddess in more depth, so I kept my voice low hoping that my answers would be below the decibels the ringing in her ear was reaching.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said. “How did he die?”

I told her he’d drowned, whilst we were on holiday. She looked surprised. I began to feel so stressed, I wondered whether I should be mainlining Holy Basil and inhaling pure Neroli oil.

“When did this happen?” The Herbal Goddess asked.

“Just over four years ago,” I said.

“Oh, four years ago.” There was relief in the tone of her voice. “So it’s all dealt with by now.”

I stared at her. She clutched her pen as her hand hovered over her notebook.

“No,” I corrected her. “It’s not all dealt with. Far from it.”

The Herbal Goddess straightened up from bending over the counter and said, “Sorry, no, what I mean is, it’s not still all swirling around in there, is it?” She drew circles above her head as if she was indicating a spinning halo.

I resisted the urge to start pelting her with goji berries and said sharply and so loudly that Tinnitus Woman couldn’t fail to hear, even if her ringing ears were plugged with a burning candle, “Of course it’s still swirling around in there. I’m writing a book on it. It’s dredging up all sorts of stuff. It’s not dealt with and it’s still swirling.”

There was an awkward silence and then The Herbal Goddess asked, “And how are your bowels? Are you constipated?”

I didn’t get either of the wonder supplements I came in for, but I did leave with a concoction in a brown bottle which I was supposed to take in hot water several times a day. It gave me such awful indigestion, I stopped using it and ordered some Holy Basil from Amazon. I’ll let you know if it works. If you don’t hear from me for a while, I’ve either gone mental in the High Street with a blue plastic ball launcher and am in custody awaiting medical assessment, or I’m tripping on Holy Basil and am seeing giant rainbows arched across the end of my bed as unicorns gallop across the carpet towards the bathroom.

The Herbal Goddess was a very nice woman. To be fair, no combination of herbs and flower remedies and healing energy was ever going to ‘cure’ bereavement, but it reminded me of how there is a perception that after a set length of time, grief is done and dusted and dealt with. For those with years rather than months under their bereavement belt, raw grief is put to one side, packed in a box. It has to be, because it would be impossible to function day after day for years with loss being at the forefront of your mind. But there are times: birthdays, family occasions, when you feel ill and vulnerable, when you are writing a book or just for no reason at all that you can fathom, that the lid pops open and like some terrifying Jack in The Box, The Grief monster appears, the shock of which is enough to get even the most sluggish bowels moving again.

18 Comments

Lizzie
Reply May 7, 2015

So true, so well written x

    Planet Grief
    Reply May 11, 2015

    Thank you Lizze. xx

Lynsey Spurling
Reply May 7, 2015

An elderly friend, widowed many years ago, similar to our stories, and happily re married, said to me recently, ' you will never stop thinking and wondering and missing'. That takes nothing away from where I may now be, and is very true. Thank you Helen - again xxx

    Planet Grief
    Reply May 11, 2015

    So true Lynsey. I am so happy that your life seems to have taken such a joyous turn. xx

Al
Reply May 7, 2015

Hahaha oh H.B that had me in stitches!
I am at 4 years and 4 months, in a relationship for the last 2 years and according to some.... ' What have you got to be sad about now? You've got X, are you sure it's grief , maybe you just feel guilty!'
Probably lucky I don't have a ball launcher!

The GM picks the locks on the cupboard..... Sneaky fecker! xx

    Planet Grief
    Reply May 11, 2015

    Here's the thing Al, and a comment you might identify with (can't be so presumptuous everyone feels the same way as me!). I have written about this before, but feel even more so now that whilst a 'new' relationship can undoubtedly be lovely (knowing someone wonders whether you have got home is such a comforting feeling for instance), for me, it has thrown under the spotlight the relationship I had with my husband. Things I never thought about whilst married or just accepted, I now look back on with a different and less charitable view. And I find that hard sometimes. And sad. It wasn't that I had the rose-tinted glasses on after he died, but whilst we were married. xx

      Al
      Reply May 14, 2015

      Oh HB you will never know how much I identify with that!
      I wrote the exact words to a friend a few months back, and I mean the exact words!
      " Things I never thought about whilst married or just accepted, I now look back on with a different and less charitable view. And I find that hard sometimes. And sad. It wasn’t that I had the rose-tinted glasses on after he died, but whilst we were married. "

      Sad but true, my life is SO completely different now, the biggest change is that I have fun now, I became a very serious person, as he was, but now, silliness, giggling, mucking about.... I had forgotten how to have fun, I smile more now too :)
      Onwards my friend, ever onwards xx

        Planet Grief
        Reply May 14, 2015

        Al, I understand completely. You know, I wrote a piece for the new book all about the rose-tinted glasses of my marriage. After I had finished it I really freaked out and wondered if I should send it to my publisher as part of the manuscript. I did, but later I started pacing around the garden wondering what the hell I had done. I'm not sure that JS comes over well in that particular chapter - he sounds petty, mind-spirited (especially when it came to dealing with my depression) and cold. He could be all of those things, but they were only a tiny part of a much bigger, warmer, picture. I come over as a silly simpering woman who didn't stand up for herself at times. This isn't true either. The sum of our flaws made our marriage work, at the time. Would it now, if he came back? It saddens me to say that no, it probably wouldn't, that I would no longer put up with things that I put up with then. This is an aspect of living on Planet Grief I never even considered. So many potholes on Planet Grief eh?

        xxx

          Al
          Reply May 15, 2015

          Very deep potholes .... But the difference now is that the ladder is long enough to climb out :) xx

            Planet Grief
            Reply May 15, 2015

            Al: An excellent analogy. x

Al
Reply May 7, 2015

Oh, I forgot, reference perimenopausal .... www.wellsprings-health.com ... Give them a call, trust me when I say this stuff is a miracle in a jar! xx

    Planet Grief
    Reply May 11, 2015

    Will do and thanks! x

Louise
Reply May 7, 2015

Thanks for the entry. Really funny and well written.

A friend of my late husband said something really odd in reference to a tiny gherkin that was on my plate when we were having a pub dinner. She said it looked like a little winkie about the size of my 5 year old's and then said that 'I bet you haven't seen one of those for a while' in a nudge nudge wink wink kind of way, which I took to be a bloke's penis and I was really taken aback. I just muttered that my 5 year old's was bigger than that and ignored the rest of the comment. Her husband was best friends with mine. My husband died 15 months ago but she wouldn't know if I was seeing anyone or not. For all she knows I could be having sex every night with a different bloke (I'm not nor do I want to) but I felt really hurt and my cheeks burned as it felt like a slap in the face that I am on my own with no loving man by my side. I know she wouldn't have meant it to hurt me but by god it did. When we left the pub I went home with my two young children and she left with her husband. Just that little comment about a gherkin hurt me so much. Gherkins suck. Being on my own sucks. Why do people say such ridiculous things?!

    Planet Grief
    Reply May 11, 2015

    Louise, thank you for contributing.

    GOOD GOD! I thought I had heard it all until the gherkin story. What planet are these people on? Forget gherkins; I want to up the size of the vinegar-infused veg and ram a couple of pickled cucumbers where the sun doesn't shine. Seriously, you poor love. Life is hard without having to cope with inappropriate food and sex quips. I expect she thought she was being funny so her judgement is questionable on many counts.

    Hugs. xxxx

      Louise
      Reply May 11, 2015

      Thanks for the reply - made me smile :)

Alison Parker
Reply May 8, 2015

In my experience grief has no timetable. I pray with people who are still feeling the ravages of it years down the line. What I have discovered though is that the recovery of hope and joy is not predictable either. I do not think it is accurate to think about an end to bereavement but it may be appropriate to celebrate the interludes of hope and joy that can become more frequent and longer lasting. I feel for all who have lost someone so dear to them.

    Planet Grief
    Reply May 11, 2015

    Welcome Alison. Thank you.

    When I was first widowed, another widow told me that I would never get over JS drowning, that I would grieve forever. At the time I was terrified, because I thought that her comment meant I would always be in that terrible raw early state of grief. Another widow then told me that whilst loss is forever, grief is not, that it is finite, that grief will end, but that we carry the loss with us. I agree with her, but at times the overwhelming sense of loss that batters us is painful.

    xx

Elizabeth Riley
Reply May 31, 2015

Fabulous piece thankyou! My 83 year old Dad came out with possibly the most insensitive comment at THE most inappropriate time as he stood up to leave my late husband's wake... He said 'Well thank goodness thats all over - we can all get back to normal now'

Fortunately, I was in an acute daze and state of numbness so unable to repsond in any way at all. My sister just threw me an absolute look of thunder in response to what he had said. It was a very awkward moment.