I recently finished watching “After Life” on Netflix. This is a Ricky Gervais series (2 seasons so far) about a recently widowed man. The first time I tried to watch it was quite soon after Chris had died, and I didn’t like it. As I watched it this time I thought it was brilliantly done, capturing so much of the swirl of emotions of grief and that initial feeling of resenting everyone who gets to be alive, as well as being funny (and as it’s Ricky Gervais, occasionally a bit uncomfortable!).
The reason I hated it the first time I tried watching it was because of the video of his wife. He is often shown with his laptop, watching a video recorded by his wife before she died, in which she encourages him to accept that she is gone and make the most of things. It’s an essential device, which goes to show both the wonderful wife he is mourning as well as somehow redeeming his character, who we only see as angry and bitter in his grief. This device works so well in film, but sadly, I think is rarely seen in real life. After Chris died I tore my house apart, looked through every notebook, every loose sheet of paper, his phone and his laptop, searching for the letter that I was so certain he would have left for me.
There wasn’t one.
Two and a half years on I think about it and I realise that of course there wasn’t one. I think how selfish it was of me to think that he would have done something that would be so hard and so sad for him. To write me that letter he would have had to accept that he was dying, and also think about me living on without him, and then spend time writing a letter to make me feel better! I found the last card he wrote to me, on our wedding anniversary, 22 days before he died, and even in that he had written that there was so much he wanted to say, but that it was too hard and he didn’t want to be sad on a day that should be happy.
I started thinking about this earlier this week when there was a discussion in my support group about whether people had had conversations with their loved one about what they should do after their death and whether they had said anything about what they would want us to do. There are so many big decisions after a death, how do we know we are doing what they would have wanted? Several people replied that even with “expected” deaths these conversations hadn’t been broached, which surprised those who had experienced sudden loss. They had assumed that this was something only they had been unable to have and it struck me that this is another media trope that rarely actually happens.
I only remember two conversations with Chris about my future without him. In one he was upset about missing our daughters’ weddings (the girls were 14 and 17 at the time so they weren’t imminent!) and he suggested that he might write his speeches so that we would have them to read when the time came. (It was a beautiful idea, but I didn’t find those either). And we decided on, and visited, his burial place. That was it. No instructions or exhortations about how I should live my life when he was gone. No permission to find someone new, or directive that I must live like Miss Havisham. No details on what the girls should study, where I should live or what he hoped for my future. Neither of us were ready to face that he was dying, and besides, we thought we had more time. By the time we realised that the inevitable was upon us (or I realised, I’m not sure what he was aware of) he couldn’t hold a pen or a phone, or in fact, even a conversation that made any sense!
Such videos, letters and conversations might be more common, I suppose, if medical professionals were more honest about what was about to happen, and if counselling was routinely provided after a terminal or incurable diagnosis. Ironically, the Kubler Ross curve that is foisted on those of us left behind was actually designed to describe grief for the terminally ill. When Chris was told that they were moving from a curative to palliative treatment pathway, we knew this meant that he was incurable, but he was told he had possibly a year or more and we were encouraged to book holidays. The T word was never mentioned and yet he was dead 3 months later. He wasn’t given any help with facing what was happening to him.
In our culture of positivity we are asked, no, expected, to value a dignified death; if it was sudden then we must be glad that it was quick or that they didn’t suffer, or, if they suffered then we must be glad they are not suffering anymore. I disagree. Those things may be good for our beloved person but they are of absolutely no help or comfort to us. In the early weeks I lost count of how many times people asked if it had been peaceful. It seemed a bizarre question to ask after I had gone through the trauma of watching him die. My stock answer became - "it's nothing like on TV."
Is there such a thing as a “good death” for the ones left behind?
In the time since Chris died I have met people widowed by cancer, chronic illness, accident, sudden heart attack or stroke, murder, suicide, medical errors, COVID19 and more, and every story is heart-breaking, none of them I’d wish on anyone. Some seem far worse than what Chris and I went through, none seem better, but what we all have in common is that we are still here, widowed, and trying to make sense of it all. Whatever the circumstances of the death, in our grief, our after life, we are left with a mass of uncertainty, painful memories, and the unrelenting requirement to carry on regardless, to somehow cope with our grief and work out what to do next, making all those decisions we used to make together, alone. For some there are inquests or press or court cases or family rifts to endure on top. Some of us are now lone parents, or lone carers for elderly relatives. Some of us are alone.
In the aftermath of our loss, we might be any or all of devastated, angry, sad, bitter, or broken-hearted. It is understandable if we look up bleary eyed from the wreckage left of our lives and say – especially if they didn’t leave us instructions in a video or a letter – “I don’t know what to do now.”
We can’t know or ask what our loved ones would have wanted, and as I once joked, if they wanted a say, then they shouldn’t have died! The best advice I have had since being widowed is that there are no "should's" in grief. If we are doing anything because we think we should, then it's a good idea to think about whether it is what we really want.
I know that I have made decisions that Chris might not have agreed with if he had been here, but I also know that if he was they wouldn’t have been options. He would never have encouraged me to leave my job, he was too proud of me for getting it – but had I not been floored by grief and lone parenting my children in their loss, I wouldn’t have needed to. I think he would have encouraged one of our daughters into engineering rather than the arts course I have supported – but if he had been here, he would have been able to offer her support and help with homework that I simply can’t. Would your loved one want you to meet someone else? If they were alive, then probably not! But heartbreakingly they are not so the question is; do you (the new after life version of you) want to? Whether the answer is yes, not yet or no, it's your decision and there's no guilt due.
I’m two and a half years in and I’m now glad I didn’t find a letter. I have enough cards and memories from our life together to know how loved I was. I don’t have to imagine him writing it, thinking about him being gone and me carrying on without him. If I was living my after life with a list of instructions, and without the freedom to make my own decisions, I think it would make it harder for me to work through this process of learning and becoming the after life version of me without him.