In the many emails and messages I have received since my book When Bad Things Happen in Good Bikinis was published, some people have taken me to task over the promise I make in the opening paragraph, which is:
If you are reading this book because you have suffered loss, there is only one thing I want you to know: however you feel right now, however bleak your life is, however much despair you are in, you won’t always feel this way; on my dog’s life, I promise you.
You could hold me down on the floor, smother me in Marmite and release a pack of dachshunds into the room, but despite the torture of dog-breath and being licked to death, I would stand by that statement. It’s based not just on my own experience – a sample of one wouldn’t stand up statistically – but through the experience of the hundreds of widows and widowers I’ve met or corresponded with over the years.
Wynne’s opening line in the story she submitted to Planet Grief says that for her, after eight years, ‘nothing has got better’, and who I am to dispute her statement? And yet, as I read about her husband’s death and its aftermath, I felt that I would like to (gently) challenge her opening line, because as I read on, there were pockets of light in her story, of hope, even of the possibility of new love, unthinkable in the early days after Alan’s death. Wynne writes:
…although I am treading carefully through the years and do enjoy bright sunrises and glorious sunsets, which I thought I would never be able to look at again without sadness, I still sometimes have to revisit that dark place and remind myself that I have been in the worse place I will ever be in and now have nothing to fear.
When I make my promise, I don’t promise the reader that their life will be full of rainbows and puppies and that there will never be dark days. I don’t promise the reader that the pain of bereavement will no longer be a part of their lives or that life will be easy. I’m no grief evangelist, standing on my soapbox preaching that the death of my husband has shown me the light or made me a better person. For me, that’s all a load of crap. It hasn’t. It’s made me fearful of losing those I love, anxious that happiness could be swept away from me at any moment (as it was, literally, when JS drowned) and shaken my world to the point where sometimes I despair that my feet will never feel as if they are standing on solid ground again. There is always a darkness at the edge of the light; my challenge is learning to live with that feeling. But what I do promise my reader is that their life won’t always be as dark as it is in the days/weeks/months after bereavement. Trust me. It won’t.
Over to Wynne:
It will be 8 years on the 31st October since my husband Alan died and for me nothing has got ‘better’ it has changed – vastly. Alan was my second husband. Discovering that my first husband had had a long lasting affair with my sister was a devastating, utterly sickening revelation and Alan was the person who allowed me to feel lovable and loved again. To really trust someone who wore their heart on their sleeve and was utterly and searingly honest. We grew together, had two children and had been together 21 years.
Alan was a super fit marathon runner and competitive hill runner and cyclist. But that didn’t prevent an insidious cancer taking up residence at the base of his oesophagus. In January 2007 he was diagnosed. After 3 months chemotherapy he underwent the huge surgery required to remove a tumour deep in the body like this. 3/4 of his stomach was removed, 1/3 pancreas and his spleen. The surgeon said they would not do this level of surgery unless they were sure that the cancer was no where else and a PET Scan showed clear. Surgery was done in April and Alan left hospital in June. On the 29th August he was told by the oncologist that he was completely clear of cancer and could now look to recovering his life. What Alan asked whether he would see the oncologist again he was told, “Well if I bump into you in the supermarket I will say hello!” We left the hospital on cloud nine. But he didn’t seem to be able to gain any weight which we put down to the surgery. On the 6th October he was taken into hospital for an abdominal tube to be inserted so that he could be fed direct for a while. A CT scan was undertaken and as a result of this it was seen that Alan had cancer in his lungs and liver. Incurable. 6 to 12 months to live. Three weeks later he died of a pulmonary embolism having refused to accept clot busting drugs “they want to keep me alive so that I can die of cancer”.
I found myself 52 with two teenagers and a business to run and I went on automatic pilot. Keep the business going – you have to support the children; focus on the children (one of who went completely off the rails and needed full time support) – get them through. Eventually they were on their own tracks – to University and relationships and ultimately marriage. Then what? What was left? Who was I? Where was I going? I found myself in the equivalent of interstellar space without an oxygen mask. I took to long walks on my own, went to remote places on my own, stopped seeing friends and completely withdrew. I wanted to be in that ‘other world’ where surely I would find Alan? I did not want any of this world. Yet it scared me. I began to feel as if I didn’t exist then one day I was walking in the Northern Highlands and came across an artists gallery. Walking in the door I was immediately faced with the most challenging painting which went right to my very core and I just bought it without looking at anything else. It was a shadowy figure standing on the edge of a frozen sea at night with white aurorae streaming over the head of this androgynous figure who stands and gazes into what appears to be nothingness. I brought it back and gave it pride of place over the fireplace and knew that it was important because it shouted at me – ‘This is where you are, this is grief, deal with it..” I knew that I had to be able to accept and deal with that isolation before I could accept life without Alan. My daughter hates the picture and it will go when I no longer have need of it – but although I am treading carefully through the years and do enjoy bright sunrises and glorious sunsets, which I thought I would never be able to look at again without sadness, I still sometimes have to revisit that dark place and remind myself that I have been in the worse place I will ever be in and now have nothing to fear.
I would love to think that there is time ahead to enjoy the love of another and to be able to love another – but I don’t see it yet. Someone asked me recently why I was still ‘single’ and all I could come up with was that I want my last love and marriage to be my last memory of a relationship because it was so good. My fear is that I might find someone who turns out not be ‘a good one’ but I also know that there will be a strength in being able to risk that and still able to continue without feeling defensive and damaged. I’m just not there yet.