When I was 30, I got married. When I was 33, my husband died. Almost seven years later, I have learned a lot about myself, about grief, and about how to start again.
I have a print of the above C.S. Lewis quotation on the wall above my fireplace. It’s a daily reminder to look for the light in the darkness, to trust in myself and to keep going when I feel like giving up.
I have always enjoyed spending a lot of time by myself. I am an introvert – I recharge my batteries through time alone – but I’ve found the solitude that comes with the loss of a spouse can feel like you are floating in a deep, dark pool of nothing, miles away from anything you once felt close to. After the initial shock and pain of loss, an enveloping lake of numbness can take you away from being in touch with real life on a day-to-day basis. I have spent a lot of time since my husband’s death feeling as though nothing much really matters. I have spent a lot of time feeling bone-achingly tired and weary, having no enthusiasm or excitement for ‘real life’. This is grief, and you have to let yourself feel it.
In the past two or three years, I’ve felt the green shoots of new interests and energies pushing upwards in my soul. I feel gratitude on a daily basis for the new life I have created, the wonderful friends I have, the love and support which surrounds me. I feel strong and proud and, most of all, content. A life-changing loss has given me the opportunity to see how lucky I am to still be here. My husband was 39 when he died, the same age I am now. Turning 40 feels like a real privilege as it’s an option he never had.
Everyone experiences losses in different ways and one of the most important things I’ve learned is that there is no right or wrong way to deal with it. However, these are the things that have stuck with me:
- Be kind to yourself. You will not know how you will feel on a daily basis and, most days, just getting out of bed can be a real achievement. You will feel like holding on to buildings and hedges and bus shelters as you walk, bambi-legged, down the street, a street that will seem tauntingly ‘normal’ to you whilst your whole world is in bits. You have to go through this bit, so don’t be scared and don’t shut your feelings away. Feel however you want to feel.
- Give people practical things to do. No one will know what to say to you but they will most likely want to say or do something. It can be hard emotional labour as you find yourself consoling others or reassuring them that it’s ok that they don’t know what to say. Tell them there’s nothing they can say, that you appreciate their support and that if they want to help they can mow the lawn/do your ironing/get some groceries/cook you a lasagne/walk the dog or myriad other things that you will not have the capacity to deal with.
- Talk to someone. You will struggle to talk to loved ones as you will feel you are burdening them. You will also want to shout at them when they, in their eagerness to ‘make things better’, stop listening to you and start telling you about when their grandma/parent/dog died. You need space to talk about your grief as you try to sift through the wreckage in your head and work out how on earth to find a way forwards. Grief counselling is a brilliant thing in this respect.
- When people say it gets easier, they mean you incorporate it into your life. The loss of a loved one feels like a hostile stranger in your head at first. Uninvited, unknown, unpredictable and unwelcome. As you live with the grief, it becomes part of you. You get to know each other, give each other space and learn to take it in turns to exert your influence, so that eventually the ‘old’ you and the bereaved you combine to become a new you. Grief is a tribute to love and, over time, I have found space and respect for it by seeing it as such.
- Work out who your best people are. The biggest learning point for me was that people you thought you could rely on will let you down, but that love and amazing support will emerge from the most unlikely places. This is just the way it is in testing situations of any kind. Accept the good stuff and build yourself a wall of support.
- Grief is not linear. You can feel like you are on an even keel years after you lose someone, then suddenly a song or a smell or the ghost of how someone walks will ping you back to an intense feeling of pain and sadness. This is ‘normal’. In time, it will also happen with happy memories and you will find yourself smiling and even sharing them with others. The loss is always with you, but so is the magic and happiness that person brought to your life. It will all come flooding back in time.
- Loss changes you. I feel completely different to the way I felt at 30. I know this is true of most people but I also know that spending ten years dealing with terminal illness, death, grief and all the legal paperwork that comes with it has shaped who I am now. I really like who I’ve become and I try to see that as a silver lining. I have made other big changes in my life as a result, but they were my choices and they were all the right things to do.
It’s an oft- quoted phrase but I love its pragmatic simplicity: the only way to get through something is to go through it. Keep going.
Courage, dear heart.