When I was first widowed, the constant thought going round in my head was “I don’t know how to do this”. How was I going to wake up every morning and remember that Chris had died? How was I going to function, work, take care of the children, keep on top of the house, pay the bills, arrange a funeral, attend functions, and appear normal? Why should I do all these things? How had the heartbreak I had just endured not finished me off too?
I learned quickly that it was all about survival - even if at that point I didn’t particularly want to survive. In that early stage of grief it’s not even a day at a time, but breath by breath, then minute by minute.
Slowly it becomes day by day and then week by week, and you find a rhythm to life, you start to do the things you enjoyed before, you make new habits. But it’s not a full life, it feels constantly that something is missing. There’s nothing in this new life you wouldn’t trade to have them back.It’s existing, not living, but it’s possible to get so good at it that nobody else notices - it’s just inside you, a feeling of not knowing who you are anymore, behind the mask that the world sees. For me there was a sense of wanting to be invisible and blend into the background, of being engaged enough that I wouldn’t be lonely, but not doing anything that might cause any pain or injury to my very fragile heart.
As the well known passage from Captain Correlli’s Mandarin says – “Those that truly love, have roots that grow towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms have fallen from their branches, they find that they are one tree and not two”. The problem with widowhood is that one of the trees has died, and the surviving one has to work out which of the roots is theirs.
Learning who I am now after Chris has been a painful process, which I know isn’t finished. Until recently I would have said who I am again - I was looking to unpick myself from me and Chris. I realise now that all that Chris gave me is still part of me, I don't have to unpick myself from us. Instead I am asking - who am I now? Grief has changed me - in some areas I am harder, and in others softer. I am more willing to take risks now that I know life is short and can be changed in the blink of an eye, yet I am also more tolerant when things go wrong; since in the context of what's happened to me, it doesn't seem like that big of a deal if nobody died.
However, there has been a sudden shift in the last couple of weeks and I have held off writing about it in case it was just a temporary blip! It has been a few weeks now, and so I think it is more than just a passing phase. I have discovered under the layers of sadness and grief and loss, there is a Sue underneath it all who actually wants to live, not just exist, who wants to feel alive, that wants to push up into the sunlight and be seen again.
This awakening is such a contrast to the last couple of years of feeling hopeless and unable to imagine a future. And even now it’s not that I have an idea of what my future will be or what I want to do. But the simple desire to have a future, to achieve … something, to be… something - is a sea change from so much time of needing to rest and to grieve.
It is a sense of hope. The last 4 years have been dark with occasional bright spaces. Every so often there is a wave of realisation that he is gone and isn’t coming back. There have been times when I haven’t recognised myself, and I have felt so lost, not knowing what to do next. There is a relentlessness to grief, it can feel like an endurance race, but with no end and no medals. But recently, I have noticed myself beginning to see little chinks of light, little green shoots, a glimpse of hope, but most of all a desire to be me (even if that's a new version of me!) and to not be defined only by my loss. A feeling of there being a point to this life that isn’t just waiting for my turn to go wherever Chris went.
A realisation that I didn’t die with him.
A transition from existing, to living again.
A feeling of hope and anticipation for a future, even without Chris in it.
I know this won’t be easy. I know there will be days where I can’t carry the hope, where I will need to grieve. There will be days when the absence of him will be so huge that it almost removes all the oxygen from the room. But I also know that it will pass, and I will be ok.
For example, I know that the next 3 and a half months will be tough at times, it's the worst time of the yearly cycle. This is the time of year when facebook memories are not my friend and clicking on that link is a russian roulette. There will be memories of the hospital admission when his kidneys failed, the Easter Monday when I cried because the hospital café was closed early because it was a bank holiday and all I wanted was to get him an ice-cream! The unexpected call to come in for the pre-op assessment for the life-saving surgery, hurriedly making arrangements for his being in hospital for 3-4 weeks, followed by the meeting with the consultant where we were told there had been a mistake, we shouldn’t have been called in, and actually he was inoperable and there was nothing more that they could do. More admissions, his birthday, the Macmillan hike, the final admission, Chris dying, the funeral. I’ve done this before, I know the dates to watch out for, there will be days when I will need to be extra kind to myself. I haven’t yet found a way to stop these memories from replaying, but this year I will see the waves approaching from the horizon and I can prepare for them.
I am not suggesting that this is the end of my grief journey, but I do believe it is the beginning of a new phase within it.
Somebody I talked to about all this asked me what actually this looked like, and I appreciated that, otherwise it’s just more feelings and they can change. In practice, this is me moving to a job that will hopefully stretch and challenge me, after stepping away from my ideal job after Chris died. It’s me signing up for yoga, caring about what I eat and wanting to exercise. It’s saying yes to more events and gigs and even going by myself to the theatre. It's being open to new things. It’s seeking adventure and booking holidays and creating a life that is interesting and engaging - not just going through the motions while mentally I sit in the waiting room for death.
For the first time in 4 years I genuinely care whether I live or die, and I really want to live!