Five years ago today, I was a wife at breakfast and a widow by lunch – actually, by morning coffee.
Sitting here this morning in my dressing gown, typing this post, a mug of tea by my side, it seems both a lifetime ago and yet only yesterday.
I didn’t believe that I would get through that first night alone, three thousand miles from home. I didn’t believe that I would make it through that first week or that first month. Many times, I didn’t want to make it through the next hour, willing my demise and courting fate, feeling desolate when my pleas to spontaneously combust or get hit by a car came to nothing. I was amazed to arrive at the first anniversary of JS’s death, but despondent that when that milestone was out of the way, I didn’t suddenly emerge from the pit of despair with a huge smile on my face and a positive attitude. Instead, I felt weary, flat, frightened. The non-bereaved seemed to think that every milestone out of the way – the funeral, the first Christmas, the first year – meant that I was closer to being ‘over it’, as if grief was an illness that required a treatment plan: some drugs, rest, a bit of physio and eventually I’d be cured.
We never move on, but in our own time, at our own pace and in our own way, we move forward from that moment that our loved ones took their last breath. At times, it may not feel it, indeed, we may feel as if we are going backwards, but we’re not, I promise you. Our world may have been shattered, but life continues and drags us along with it, sometimes unwillingly. But even with new lives, new loves and new opportunities, we never truly leave those we love and have lost behind. Somehow, they come with us, weaving themselves into our ‘new normal’. They are with us through memories, or when we ask them what they would do and hear their voice in our head advising us, encouraging us, warning us. We see them in our family or, if we have no genetic links surrounding us, through their books on our bookshelves and playwrights and musicians they introduced us to. But we don’t have to see physical things. Whatever our beliefs – or even if we have no belief in an afterlife – we just know that they are still part of our lives; our lives were too tightly woven for death to completely destroy the links between us.
Last night, I posted this message (below) on the Planet Grief Facebook page, but for those who don’t use Facebook and because it seemed fitting to mark five years today since JS died, I repeat it here.
Five years ago tonight I was eating dinner at my favourite restaurant, the Lone Star in Barbados, with my husband. It was a perfect Caribbean evening, and we felt incredibly lucky that when we arrived at the restaurant, we’d been allocated a prime waterside table. I could not have wished for a lovelier evening, eating, laughing and drinking champagne cocktails in idyllic surroundings with my husband who, after a difficult year, was back to the charming, witty and relaxed man I’d met more than two decades before. At that moment, life felt perfect.
Twelve hours later, my husband was dead, drowning in the very sea we had dined beside the night before.
Over the years, I have often debated in my mind (and with other widows and widowers) which route to Planet Grief is worse: to arrive suddenly, or to know that you are heading into the wilderness of grief. Each has its own challenges and repercussions, but recent events in my ‘new’ life has underlined my feeling that for JS to die without warning or preparation was almost certainly the ‘better’ way for me, and for him. The cruelty was that I was so far from home and help and on holiday, but I was spared months or years living in a tunnel of fear, a life punctuated by dashed hopes and destroyed dreams.
Through the blog and because of the book and the media interviews I have given to accompany it, I have been contacted by many people who see me as an expert on grief, someone who can give them the key to bypassing all those terrible emotions: the despair, the howling in pain, the panic, the depression, the terror and the sheer hopelessness of life after death. I tell them that I can’t write with any authority on death or grief, only authenticity. I can – and do – give them words of hope, but there is no shortcut through grief. Five years tomorrow since being widowed, my belief is that any shortcut taken, any quick fix to numb the pain whether that is buying an Aston Martin or remarrying quickly, never really works.
Not only do widows and widowers write to me, but also those who know that their loved ones have only a short time left to live. ‘How can I prepare for grief?’ they ask. ‘What can I do?’ I feel appallingly impotent in my response, because whilst I believe you can prepare for death, I don’t believe that you can prepare for grief. Even those who have lived with the Grim Reaper hovering over their lives for years have told me that when the end came, even if there was some relief that their loved ones suffering was over and that their own lives on hold for so long could start again, they were surprised at how grief-stricken they were. ‘I thought I had done most of my grieving whilst he was ill, but I was so wrong,’ one widow told me after her husband died after a long battle against cancer. Only weeks before she had told me that she wanted her husband to die, because as much as she loved him, she knew that there was to be no happy ending, no miracle cure, and that nursing him at home with the endless round of soiled sheets, confusion and falls he was was suffering was driving her to despair.
So tonight, reflecting on the past, I want to send special love and hugs to those of you who lived with the knowledge that your time with your loved one was coming to an end, men and women who still had to get up to go to work or take the children to school or wrap the Christmas presents and organise birthday parties and live life whilst death was knocking on the door.