Lissa Evans’ lovely novel, Spencer’s List, talks about how grief moves into a different phase one year and a day after the death. That until that point, every day one thinks, ‘this time last year’, and recalls a world in which that person is there, in which one can reach out and speak to them, hear their voice, hold their hand. And one year and one day later, ‘this time last year’ recalls a world that they have already left. It doesn’t mean it gets easier – that realisation in itself is painful – but it is different. And it goes on becoming different, as we are different, each time we lose someone close.https://cathannabel.blog/2020/05/29/some-fantastic-place-2/
A couple of years back when I wrote the above, I was talking about the loss of my mother and my youngest brother. I had no idea then what I would soon face, or how it would affect me. But there’s truth in that idea, that one year and one day is a staging post in the weird, convoluted journey of grief.
It’s not only that you’ve accumulated a whole year of memories of the world without them in it. You have got through the practical stuff, by and large – you’ve dealt with the bereavement admin, maybe tidied their clothes away or donated things to charity shops, figured out how to do the stuff around the house that they always dealt with (or figured out who to ask for help). You’ve got through the ‘firsts’ – first birthday, first Father’s Day, first Christmas, first wedding anniversary without them, and the new anniversaries, of the day they died, of the funeral.
And then you realise, this is it now. Which is why, I think, many people have said that the second year is tougher than the first.
During that first year, it often felt a bit as if I was part of an experiment in solo living. A friend, Molly Bell, in her warm and insightful book on living alone after her husband died, likens it to ‘those TV series, where a willing group of people are made to live as though they existed at a different point in history … for a year, perhaps, … before returning to life as it was before’. But there is no returning.
The things I’ve learned to do for the first time on my own now seem normal. Cooking a meal for one and eating it alone now seems normal. Going to sleep and waking up on my own, coming home after an evening out to an empty house, deciding on my own what and when to eat, what to watch or listen to – all normal. (Which doesn’t mean I don’t have moments when it seems ridiculous, impossible, that I’m on my own, when I still think, even after all this time, where the heck has he got to?)
Some of this is kind of OK. I can do the cooking and eating alone thing, as long as every now and again I have a meal out with friends or family, or I can cook a meal for them. It’s OK, but it’s harder to find the motivation to tackle a meal with a lot of ingredients and a lot of prep time, when it’s just for me. I go to concerts on my own, if friends aren’t free to go with me, and it’s OK. I go for walks on my own, although I am much more cautious about going off-road, if there isn’t someone with me whose arm I can grab if I wobble, and just because I generally feel more vulnerable.
Other things are much less OK. It’s quite possible to go for days without speaking out loud (other than when doing my Duolingo sessions), or hearing another person’s voice (other than via the TV or radio) in the room. It’s quite possible to go for days without laughing out loud. We were always talking – mostly nonsense, trivia or simple practical discussions, but also about what we were reading, what was going on in the news, what was going on in the lives of the people we loved. And we did laugh together, a lot. It feels odd to laugh at something when I’m sitting on my own.
I spend as much time as I can with family and friends, but at the end of the meal or the cinema trip I come home to an empty house. I am used to it – though there are odd times when it hits me all over again as if it was the first time – but I don’t suppose I will ever like it. I think it’s the starkness of the contrasts that makes it hardest, between being with other people and being completely alone. For over 44 years I was only alone at home for a few hours in a day, if that. The norm was that companionable presence, no need to talk, but he was there, and either of us could share our thoughts with the other whenever we wished. And so when I’ve been out, or the house has been full of voices and laughter, and then it’s just me and there’s silence, that abrupt, brutal contrast sometimes lays me very low. And so no matter how many more outings or visits I arrange, how much of my time I spend with other people, at home or away, at the end of that I will still feel that aloneness.
Loneliness is now normal. Sadness is normal too. It’s not a mood so much as a presence. I’m not talking about being wracked with grief, though that happens sometimes too – just about that sense of having lost, of being less, of an absence that will still be palpable in every room in the house, in every activity outside the house, whatever I do.
Those things can’t be fixed. I’m not asking anyone to suggest how I could fix them, or asking anyone to do more than they’re already doing to support me. I have to work through this process – and writing about it is part of how I do that – and believe that I will over time get a better balance, feel less bleak less often.
My experience of widowhood is, obviously, very much mine, and will not follow the same pattern as anyone else’s (if any of us are following any discernible pattern). The ‘one year’ thing is very different if the year leading up to the loss of your person was spent watching them weaken, anticipating their loss, nursing them, trying to support your children through that gradual bereavement in advance. My year up to 9 October was entirely, utterly normal. With hindsight there are events – occasions when we spent time with family or friends, for the first time since Covid – that have gained significance because they were both the first and the last time, but then, they were just lovely occasions, that we expected would and could be repeated in the years to come.
Whatever differences there are in the way we – widows – lost our person, what we share is that the person we lost is the one with whom our lives were inextricably entwined, so that there is nothing that has nothing to do with them. So the loss is inescapable. Because we share that, we can help each other. I’ve found immense comfort and strength in talking to other widows (in person or online) – not that they have answers for me, but to have someone say, yes, I know, I know what that’s like, I feel it too, and to understand that isn’t an imaginative leap on their part, but real, deep, lived knowledge.
So what has helped me through this year and a bit? Obviously, love. The love of my children, as we support each other. The love of my family and friends, which has been steadfast and sustaining. Letting myself feel what I feel – not berating myself for having weepy days, not feeling bad for not weeping as much as I ‘should’. Being practical – getting things done, getting things fixed, making plans, reminding myself that I have a future, even if it’s not the one I envisaged. Enjoying – on my own or with other people – things we used to enjoy together: music, films, TV, books, the view from our windows, local walks, good food and wine. Talking about him, reminiscing about him, never shutting him out of the life I have now. Being sentimental – the yellow roses to remind me of our wedding day, the patchwork cushions made from his old shirts, the playlist I made for the wake, wearing his old dressing gown, dedicating a track to him on Jazz Record Requests.
There is no road map, no itinerary, no timetable for any of this. I can be fine, and then ambushed by grief. I can be strong and practical and able to cope, and then whimpering in a corner because the central heating thermostat needs new batteries. I can be adventurous and bold and then want to just be here, in our home, with the familiar things that we shared around me.
And so I go on into that difficult second year, trying to be kind to myself, holding on to the many, many good things in my life, holding on to the people who’ve got me through this far. Allons-y.