How can I even begin to write about this year? As it began, we were still grieving the loss of my younger brother in 2020, still in lockdown, still despairing over the state of our present government, still unable to think very far ahead or make firm plans. The world continued on its headlong rush to hell in a handcart. I blogged only occasionally, about Passing Time, and for Holocaust Memorial Day, and about my reading during the year (all my writing energy was going into the PhD). All the usual sort of things happened, and some less usual ones – I had a fall, which reduced my mobility significantly for the rest of the year, we went to a family wedding, our son moved into his new house, I submitted the PhD, to general rejoicing.
And then, on 9 October, a week after I’d submitted the thesis, I woke in the early hours to realise that my husband was having a cardiac arrest, and in the blur and muddle of a sudden awakening to realise that I was losing him. The paramedics did everything there was to be done, and kept on doing it until they knew there was nothing more that could be done. Our kids were summoned and arrived, and we sat, shell-shocked, trying to understand what had happened. In the space of an hour our world had utterly changed, for ever.
Since that day, everything I’ve done, everything I’ve written, everything I’ve watched or listened to, has been about that loss. The mountain of bereavement admin, of course, and the planning of the funeral. The decisions about how to manage here on my own, especially as I’m not very mobile at present. Every conversation, even when we’re not explicitly talking about ‘it’. I was determined to do my usual summaries of what I’ve read and what I’ve watched during the year, but I had to acknowledge and address the huge gulf between Before and After. And I still find I cannot listen to music in the focused way we used to.
It’s too early for me to have any profound reflections on grief. I’m just at the beginning of that journey. I’ve encountered it before, of course – the loss of my mother 26 years ago, the loss of my mother-in-law gradually to dementia and then finally to a stroke three Christmases ago, the loss of my younger brother to cancer in 2020. The difference here is that, as much as all of them were loved, however important they were to me, none of them was woven into the fabric of my daily life. And so I could go for hours, even days, feeling normal until I bumped into something or was ambushed by something that brought it back. Nothing is normal for me now and yet everything around me is familiar.
I know that the old Kubler-Ross ‘stages of grief’ hypothesis has been re-thought, to describe ‘states’ rather than stages, getting away from any notion of a linear process. If I have learned anything about grieving it is that it is not linear. The description of the five states also clearly encompasses a wide range of situations, including coming to terms with one’s own illness and mortality, and other life crises, and some of them seem alien to at least my experience of bereavement.
I have not in any of my grieving so far felt anger. Perhaps, as I do not believe in God, I have nothing/no one to rail and rage against, and the people I’ve lost have been lost to illnesses that, however cruel and brutal, are common, rather than to tragedies with a human cause. I haven’t ever asked, why him? why her? why me? The question makes no sense. Why? Because cancer invaded their body, because their heart had a genetic weakness, because dementia took away not only cognitive but other physical functions too. The same goes for bargaining: who would I be bargaining with, and for what? The people I’ve loved and lost aren’t coming back, however virtuous my life from this point on.
Denial? Only in the sense that in those early hours, as we prepared to make phone calls, we all had this sense of unreality, that we were perhaps about to waken family members and close friends with bad news that we had somehow hallucinated. But we knew. We knew there was no alternative reality to cling to, that the sense of unreality was a product of shock at something utterly unexpected, and of the only possible human response to death, that it makes no sense.
It makes no more sense now, over two months later, than it did in those awful first hours. How can a person be there, fully there, and then not, and so completely not that their absence from their own body is unmistakable and irrevocable? There’s an episode of Buffy that I will never, I suspect, be able to watch again, which confronts this, using a non-human to express what we all feel but don’t usually say:
I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s – There’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid. And – and Xander’s crying and not talking, and – and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why. (‘The Body’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 5)
Faced with this incomprehensible reality, it is little wonder that human beings feel the need to believe in something after life, whether it is heaven, or reincarnation. Unfortunately those ideas seem as incomprehensible to me as death does. What lives on, I believe, is not the person, in some other sphere or inhabiting some other form, it is the memory of the person, the shape of them in the lives that they’ve left behind, the echo of their voice, the physical objects that they touched, the music that they loved. I do like this, however, which our son quoted in his tribute to his father at the funeral:
Picture a wave in the ocean. You can see it, measure it – its height, the way the sunlight refracts when it passes through – and it’s there, and you can see it, and you know what it is: it’s a wave. And then it crashes on the shore and it’s gone. But the water is still there. The wave was just a different way for the water to be for a little while. That’s one conception of death for a Buddhist: the wave returns to the ocean, where it came from, where it’s supposed to be.Michael Schur, The Good Place
I was very moved by the way death was shown in The Good Place, the origin of this quote, a comedy about what happens after you die. Various versions of heaven and hell (the Good Place, the Bad Place) are encountered, but in the end, our protagonists choose, instead of going on forever, to become part of the ocean, part of the universe. And I can find more comfort in the idea that the people I have loved and lost are part of the ocean now than in the idea that they exist in some other plane, where I could theoretically be reunited with them in due course.
I know that this process of grieving will be lifelong. Each loss has altered me, and this one most profoundly. There is nothing in my life that is the same as it was on 8 October. And so I have to learn how to be myself, how to order my life, how to enjoy the things we used to share. It’s not that he defined me, rather that our partnership helped me to figure out who I am, to define myself.
I’ve learned some things so far.
I need to accept offers of help, whether I could manage without them or not, where they are prompted by the desire to support me and be useful. If I turn that away, I am in some way rejecting that person’s love. I’d rather swallow my stubborn independence in some small measure and say yes, thank you. And I need to ask for help clearly and directly when I really do need it. That’s not easy but it’s going to be vital.
Life is short, and one may get no notice that it’s about to end. After he died, we found so many things bought for him with love, that he was delighted to get, but so delighted that he saved them ‘for special’. That ‘special’ bottle of wine or whisky was untouched, the new rucksack still had its labels on, the book’s pages had not been opened, the cellophane was still on the CD or DVD. That’s not going to be the way I live, not now. If I have something lovely, especially something lovely that someone has given me, I will use and enjoy it now. Now may be the special time, for all we know.
The kindness of strangers has helped me more than I could have imagined. I have been overwhelmed with messages from my friends and family, and their support has been what has kept us from going under in these last two months. Practical and emotional support. Hugs and flowers and scones and lasagne and shared tears. But since I spoke about this on social media, I’ve also had support from people I’ve never met in real life. People may hesitate before expressing sympathy with someone they only know from a few tweets, because they fear intruding, or because they don’t feel they can express themselves articulately enough. The thing is, I’ve been public about what’s happened, so an expression of sympathy and support is not an intrusion. And I don’t expect anyone to have anything mind-blowingly profound to say – clichés have their place, in allowing us to reach out to someone we don’t know. And all of the ‘you’re in my thoughts’, ‘I’m so sorry’, ‘sending love’, and just ‘Oh, Cath’ have comforted and strengthened me, made me feel less alone. So, if you feel moved by someone’s situation, tell them. (Please, though, don’t give advice unless asked for, and don’t tell them they’ll feel better soon, and don’t say that everything happens for a reason…)
This is going to be a long haul. I will learn to live on my own, but to ask for help when I need it. I will learn to live in our home in a way that suits my needs and circumstances, and to celebrate the good things and the good times, and to enjoy the music and the TV and films that we used to enjoy together, as well as the new things I find, and the things that I always had to cajole him into watching or listening to. I’ll adapt, and I’ll cope, and I’ll be OK.
But we had 47 years of companionship, 44 years of marriage, and in all those years we were never apart for more than a week or so. We’ve now been apart for nearly twelve weeks, and I don’t understand where he’s got to. Our conversation hadn’t ended; there are so many things I want to tell him or discuss with him, things I want to ask him (the name of that neighbour who was so kind the other day, where on earth he put the locking wheel nuts for the car, that sort of thing), plans I want to make with him. Maybe the strength of that sensation, that he’s just popped out somewhere and been inexplicably delayed, will fade. But for the last 47 years, our lives were woven together and that can’t be unravelled. The pattern of my life will be different, but I will still see the threads of our companionship running through it.
What is grief, if not love, persevering? I took that line from the Marvel TV series, Wandavision. It took us a while to understand what was happening in the show, but I can see now that it was all about grief. And grief is all about love. The shape and power of that grief and that love will change, but I don’t believe they’ll fade into nothingness. And I don’t want them to.
At the funeral, I talked about the ordinariness of the last day we had together, a day which is only memorable because it was the last one.
In 44 years of marriage, there are more days like that than there are portentous or memorable ones. Days like that are what a lifetime of companionship is all about. A lifetime (all our adult lives, anyway) of affection, laughter, sharing out tasks and sharing worries, bickering (about things that mattered and about things that absolutely didn’t), watching detective dramas and Marvel movies and Doctor Who, and listening to music. Lots and lots of listening to music.
I don’t know what the shape of my days will be, without him. I’ll learn to listen to music and to watch the programmes and films we both loved, without him. I’ll go to concerts and the cinema and the theatre with other people, and I’ll spend time with our kids and our families and with friends. It will be strange, and difficult. But I’m thankful for those 44 years of everyday days, as well as the momentous and challenging and glorious and awful days, every kind of day. So, as Ray Davies put it (and as Kirsty MacColl sang it):
Thank you for the days,
Those endless days, those sacred days you gave me.
I’m thinking of the days,
I won’t forget a single day, believe me.
I bless the light,
I bless the light that lights on you believe me
And though you’re gone,
You’re with me every single day, believe me.(R. Davies)
My love goes out to our children, who in their own profound grief, have given me so much strength, comfort and practical support. He was so very proud of them both, as am I.
So, 2022? I hope it will bring the completion of the PhD, weddings and babies, maybe a new knee for me. I can’t think much more widely than that at the moment, I’m afraid. I’m deliberately trying not to grasp the enormity of living alone as a permanent state not just (as it sometimes feels at present) as an anomaly, or an experiment, because when I do for a moment I feel so weary and so daunted. If I think a day or a week at a time, I can do this. Because I’m not doing it alone, but with people I love and who love me. And if I hold on tight to that, I’ll find the strength I need to keep on keeping on.
I will hold on to my hat and hang on my hope, and wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day. And this poem, Sheenagh Pugh’s ‘Sometimes’, which you can hear read by my dear friend Ruth Arnold, is for all of us: ‘The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.’