A year ago my beloved partner, Blacksmith Paul, died. We'd only been together for eight months, although we'd known each other when we were younger and not realised the depth of the connection that we shared. It is a tragic story of chances missed, bad timing and true love. I was a single parent, recently orphaned, who had not been lucky in love. I'd known a few things that I thought were love before but nothing like this. This was the real deal. Too scared to risk things going wrong after the last boyfriend debacle, I'd been reluctant to introduce him to my children but, on the sixth of March 2016, I did. I can still see him standing in my front garden that night writing messages to Hephaestus the blacksmith god with them, releasing paper lanterns into the sky. They loved him. I loved him. He loved me. And that was the last time I saw him. Five days later, he was dead. No-one really knows why. It seems his heart just stopped beating. He went out of touch and I went out of my mind with worry. On the thirteenth, two of his friends and I broke into the tiny shack where he lived alone in the Peak District and found his already decomposing body on the bed. My world imploded and I experienced the kind of relentless pain that I didn't know existed. I didn't think I could survive it. But I did. Like lots of other people who have been through impossible heartbreak, I continue to survive.
It seemed appropriate just before the anniversary to spend last weekend at the AGM and birthday celebrations of the organisation Widowed and Young. The organisation has been a lifeline to me over the past year even though I'm not really a widow, even though I'm not really that young, even though I've not been sure that I really belong. It was only a short relationship after all and we weren't even married; I've not been sure that I can compare my loss to the loss of people who have been married for years, some of them with children. But the members of WAY have always welcomed me and, over the past year, I have spent most evenings in an online room with the only people who truly understood how it feels to have your future ripped apart. It felt right to make it to the AGM, to meet some of those people in person, at this time. The title of John Irving's novel, 'A Widow for One Year' keeps going round my head. When I read it many moons ago, I never thought that it would be me.
It is strange the solidarity and comfort that can be found from being in a room full of people who have known great tragedy. As I stood in the hall of the hotel in Stratford last Saturday night, I looked around me and was overwhelmed by the thought that every one of the people in the room had lost a partner, that all of those people had had their worlds blown to pieces. The love, and the lost love, in the room was palpable. Still, it wasn't a sad occasion, on the whole. There was fun and laughter and by the end of the evening everyone was on the dance floor. It turns out that the widowed have lost more than their spouses - their inhibitions have gone too. For them, the worst has already happened. In some ways, they have been liberated from fear and they know how to live, how to love. They are a truly fabulous bunch. It was a fabulous weekend.
Even so, gradually, inevitably the stories came out. I found a girl (really, just a girl) crying in the toilets and offered her a hug. My heart broke for her. How could someone so young survive something like this? Then I spoke to a man who had lost his wife soon after his baby had been born. She'd developed cancer while she was pregnant. 'That's so sad,' I said feebly and he nodded wearily. He had told this story before. And then there was my online friend, who had given birth to her only child two weeks after her partner had been killed in a bike accident. She was choosing funeral flowers when she should have been choosing baby clothes. 'How do you survive something like that?' I found myself thinking, kicking myself at the same time because I already know the answer. You survive because you have to.
As I sit here, a year on, I find myself reflecting, not just on my enormous loss and sadness but at the resilience of the human spirit. Sure, my grief is still deep and I still cry a lot. I still wish that I could rewind time and bring Paul back. I wish I could undo this long year of pain. And I know that grief will not be tied up neatly at the end of this year but will go on in some form for as long as love goes on (forever). But I can also see how far I have come. I have moved house and started new ventures. I have let go of the work that was weighing me down and now only do work that I love. I have written more than ever before and made new friends. I am even, very tentatively, dating again. And I experience joy, like sunshine between clouds of sadness, on a regular basis. Slowly I am building a new life for myself. What's more, I can tell you how I did it. And this is how.
I wrote. Sometimes, I wrote all night long, often with tears streaming until the words on the screen blurred in front of my eyes. I just had to tell the world my story, even if they thought I was mad, even if I felt mad myself. I needed to get it out. When you're in love and your partner dies, you just want to talk about it and my laptop listened when friends were asleep. The very act of writing calmed my mind. Sometimes, just trying to find the perfect metaphor for turmoil gave my brain something to do and when I had finished, I felt sated. It was like literary self-harm, releasing the pressure from my heart and mind. And in sharing my words, I found support from compassionate friends and from other bereaved people. I also found meaning, as I realised that my words were helping other people. Writing gave me a purpose and, when your world has fallen apart, a purpose is what you need.
I learned to slow down and I learned to say no. I rarely went to social occasions (it all seemed so trivial and alienating) and I removed from my life anything or anyone that didn't make me feel good. I let go of the pressure to meet other people's expectations and focused on myself. I filled my life with the things that made me feel better: not fixed, but less bad. I went outside as often as possible and looked at the world from high hills with big skies. I walked crying through woods and parks, not caring who saw. I swam, feeling the support of water, absorbed in the rhythm of the strokes. I learned, finally, to meditate, practising mindfulness on a daily basis, staying in the moment, learning to name my emotions, to focus on the feeling of the ground beneath my feet. In deep grief, the moment is the only place to be; thinking about the future all too often gives rise to panic. So I stayed in the moment, even when that moment was pure agony. I gave in to pain and sobbed so hard that I thought I was going to die. Like the writing, it brought release, it brought peace.
I exercised. Gently at first, more vigorously now. My bereavement counsellor tells me that in shock, we are in fight or flight mode all of the time. Exercise seduces my body into thinking it has fought and afterwards, it can relax. I tried to remember to eat. I tried to remember to drink water. I tried to remember to sleep. Finally I understood what people meant when they talked about the need to look after myself, about self-compassion. I asked myself what I needed and I tried to give it, to myself. In the absence of anyone else (and often there was no-one else), I had to care about number one.
Still, I reached out to people and I learned to ask for help. I had regular bereavement counselling, saw a herbalist, paid for help at home (luckily, I was able to afford to do it). I said to my friends, 'I can't do this!' Some of them stepped up to support me. Some of them backed away and left me floundering. When I moved house, I told Facebook that I couldn't manage and a whole hoard of people came to help, some of whom I barely knew, some of whom I hadn't seen for years. I will never forget the kindness of the people who came forward. (I am trying to forgive or let go of the people who I felt let down by. Not everyone is able to be close to a disaster zone.)
I learned to stop caring about what other people think. I let go of my own idea of how I should be. When I'm on my own death bed is it going to matter than someone I don't even like that much thinks I'm self-absorbed, or that someone I barely know thinks I'm too vociferous in my grief? Does it really matter if my children go to bed an hour later, or watch a bit too much TV, so long as they know that they are loved? Does it really matter if I am ten minutes late and don't send thank you notes? As Dr Seuss says, 'those who matter, don't mind and those who mind, don't matter'. I learned to value myself as my partner valued me. My resources are precious, my energy is precious, my time is precious. I am careful now where I invest it.
And this year, I have invested a lot of it not just in surviving my grief but in supporting other people who are in agony. Every day, for the last year, I have talked to the people on the Widowed and Young Facebook group (and to the writers from Writing Your Grief) and, regardless of the differences in our circumstances, I have felt myself to be at home in those places. There is solace to be found in the communities of the heartbroken. There is no silver lining to the cloud of my grief and yet, I am grateful for the wisdom that has come from my experience and for the companionship of the people I have met. I am grateful for the knowledge that I am not alone, that other people have been here too and that they have survived. We, the heartbroken, have known great love and we have known great loss. We have stared death in the face and we will make the most of the time we have left. We know how precious life is. We know what love is. We are warriors and, even though it is harder than we could ever have imagined, we will survive.