I listened to an interesting Radio 4 show this week, on which they asked the question “How do you find your sense of purpose when the person who was your world dies”? There were some fellow members of WAY on the show who spoke eloquently and heartbreakingly about their loss and picking up their life again.
While I admired them, and thought they were brilliant, and brave, I have to confess to being slightly bothered by the premise and the question. I think if the question had replaced the word “purpose” with “sense of self” (or “sense of direction” - something I have never had and Chris, as a geographer, was very useful for!!) it might have had more resonance with me.
Firstly I’m not sure I have ever had a sense of purpose, but if I did, it certainly wasn’t centred on Chris - he would have hated the idea of it!
And please don’t judge me, but it’s also not my children. I love my daughters (to the moon and back etc.) but I have always been clear in my mind that at some point, if I have done my job well, they should leave and do whatever they need to do without giving me a second thought. That’s a very painful thought now that it’s only me and them, but seeing my older daughter flourish at university and imagining all the opportunity ahead of her gives me an enormous sense of pride that… almost… outweighs the sadness of letting her go.
I do understand that having a sense of purpose is important psychologically, and goals and targets make me more productive at work. I just don't feel it in relation to grief. So if it wasn’t a sense of purpose that got me through the dark days, then what was it?
I bravely opened my journal from those weeks today, I haven’t read them in a long time. It is a series of letters to Chris, telling him how much I loved and missed him and how grateful I was to have been loved by him. Time after time I wondered how I was going to get through this, I described the physical pain and the sensation of not being able to breathe. The longing for him and wishing it was all otherwise. But there is nothing there asking why I needed to go on, or what I needed to go on for. Maybe it was knowing that he wouldn’t expect any less of me, maybe it’s just that I am pragmatic. I genuinely don’t think I considered an alternative. His illness and death was something that happened to him, but impacted me. You’ll know from this blog how much that still hurts and how much I still love him. But quitting was never an option, I may not have known how, but I knew I would.
My life had to go on.
After Chris died and even now, almost 3 years later, I don’t really have a plan for what that life should look like. Part of that comes from having had plans with Chris that would see me through to old age and seeing cancer snatch it away. After that, the realisation that the best you can do is plan 3-5 years ahead as there are no guarantees that you’ll even get that can be quite motivating. That has helped me to make some big decisions because I don’t think in terms of forever any more , I am much more about living in the moment.
I also view work differently. My identity used to be very much about my work, and even though now I am back at work I feel much happier, I find I care about it much less than I did (please don’t tell my boss!). I take pride in doing my job well, but if there are delays and problems, I try to fix them, but I’m fortunately in a role where nothing I do has any life and death consequences. It will all work out, one way or another. Hakuna Matata.
I have said it before but we put so much pressure on ourselves. Are we grieving enough, too much or too little? Are we emerging from this somehow stronger, better and improved from the challenge? Are we seizing the day, discovering a sense of purpose and having our own eat, pray, love experience as a result of the death of our loved one?
Actually it’s ok if you’re not.
This worst thing that ever happened to you can be just that, it doesn’t have to become the best thing that ever happened to you. Maybe you don’t have to become a better version of yourself because you were bereaved. Maybe you were already pretty awesome!
I would love to think that I was put on this earth to achieve something amazing, but I don’t really believe in that kind of predestination. I simply try to be amazing to the people that I love (and occasionally achieve it!) I am relatively content to bimble along purposelessly and make the most of the life I have, to feel my feelings whether they are happy or sad.
My aim is to live my life in honour of Chris, and have the courage to take opportunities I hadn't imagined instead of letting my fear hold me back, to re-build a good enough life around my grief that it starts to outweigh and outshine the sadness. Now I think about it, I guess that is a sort of sense of purpose...