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.