The Blog

We Can't All Be Butterflies In Grief

This time last year I was mostly amongst friends and holding it together pretty well in company until, one evening, one of the participants didn't come down for dinner and I found myself drowning in panic thinking that he might be dead. I stood up, excused myself and rushed sobbing to my room and didn't stop crying for hours.

At the moment I'm running a writing retreat in Ty Newydd in Wales. I've had a productive time working on the young adult novel, which has been abandoned over the last year of grief. I've enjoyed walking on the beach and spending time in creative company. Only occasionally did the cloud of grief pass its shadows over me. Only occasionally did I reflect on this time last year and how different things were then.

This time last year I was on the same retreat only, instead of writing novels, I was writing eulogies and funeral poems, preparing to say goodbye to my partner's body for the last time. This time last year I was mostly amongst friends and holding it together pretty well in company until, one evening, one of the participants didn't come down for dinner and I found myself drowning in panic thinking that he might be dead. I stood up, excused myself and rushed sobbing to my room and didn't stop crying for hours.

Of course the writer wasn't dead. It was ridiculous of me to think that he might be. Because stuff like that doesn't really happen. Only sometimes it does. Sometimes, when you least expect it, when it's really the last thing on earth you could do with having to deal with, monumentally bad stuff happens. And when my partner died completely unexpectedly and I found his body, it was by far the worst thing that had ever happened to me. One minute I thought he was alive and then, at some point late that night, out in the Peak District in my pyjamas, I found he was dead. A few hours later I got up, got the kids to school and began an unexpected journey into a whole world of pain. I don't want to think about that night and I don't need to write about it again (you can read the story here if you're interested: but still, this is what I find myself thinking about as I sit down to write today. I still can't quite believe how horrendous the experience has been.

I find myself saying this a lot, like I think people still don't really get it, like I want them to understand even though I know they can't truly comprehend the enormity of it if they haven't been through it. I find myself wanting to explain that I'm not some kind of drama queen, but that losing a partner like that is a mind-blowing, life-changing trauma. I want to say it for all the other people who feel the same, not just for me. It is a natural urge for people to compare experiences as a route into empathy but I want people to understand that it wasn't like getting divorced (though I know that feels really bad, having been there) and it wasn't like losing a parent (though I know that really sucks having lost both) and it wasn't like being left by someone you were in love with (which seriously nearly pushed me over the precipice just the year before). It was worse, much much worse than all of that. And it wasn't even like the stress of watching my little boy suffer with chronic illness for years, or like watching him apparently lying dead in my arms as a baby. It was worse than that because there was a happy ending to that story eventually. He survived and now he's thriving. But Paul didn't.

For a while, I wondered if it was just me who felt so bad but, no, I have spoken to a lot of people who have lost partners this year and, give or take a degree or two of pain, they all agree that it is excruciating. I have also questioned whether I felt Paul's loss so much more acutely than my other losses because perhaps I wasn't as close to my parents as some people are but I've done my research and my experience isn't unique. I asked a Facebook group of widowed people if anyone else had found that the loss of their partner had been a lot worse than the loss of a parent and 100% of my survey answered 'yes'. About a hundred people answered, not just with a quiet, subtle 'yes' but all of them with a loud agonising scream of a 'YES!' Losing a partner (especially perhaps with the shock of a sudden death) is pure agony. The grief at losing a partner is not like sadness (though sadness is there, of course) and it's not just a case of missing someone (though we do, desperately). Grief at losing a partner is physical. It runs through every fibre of your being and rips its course through every aspect of your life. It is serious trauma. It takes a long time to recover from and, much as society would like to push it away and get us all to move on, grieving for enormous loss can't be rushed.

Still, time heals they say and I guess it does. Slowly, gradually synapses reconnect and new paths into the future are forged, though what I have learned is that there are no shortcuts. There are surely things you can do to make it more bearable but, in the end, you just have to live with it, feel it, work within it and hope one day to emerge. If you're lucky, maybe you get to emerge like a butterfly from a chrysalis but it is perhaps more likely that you emerge like an amputee from a hospital in a war zone. Either way, you're never going to be quite the same again.

Thirteen months on, I'm pleased to say that I do feel a kind of re-emergence taking place and a transformation too. In some ways I am probably a better person and in other ways not. I find myself softer but also harder, in many ways more able to empathise with others and yet also impatient with struggles that sometimes seem lesser than my own; there's nothing quite like losing the one you love to give you a clear sense of what matters. I'm able to look forwards again now in a way that I never thought would be possible. I'm even starting to get tired of writing about grief and beginning to write fiction again. ('Thank goodness' say my loyal friends who must be tired surely of reading this misery, but 'don't stop,' say the grievers who find solace in my writing, who know that grief isn't over yet). My bereavement counsellor is getting ready to discharge me as well. She thinks I'm doing well. She's using my writing when she trains other bereavement counsellors and says she's now getting clients coming through who are quoting my blog back to her. 'You're as good as you're going to be,' she said recently. I'm not sure whether to be proud of my achievement or terrified that she's saying I'm going to feel like this for the rest of my life. Either way, I can see that there are other people who need her more than me. Unlike most widowed people, I've been so lucky to have had fantastic, regular counselling free of charge from a qualified counsellor via the hospice where my mum died and it's been so helpful to me. But my counsellor is like Mary Poppins, Nanny McPhee or Pete's dragon. She needs to fly away to help someone new whose world has been freshly decimated. Eventually, whether I am a butterfly or an amputee, I need to learn to survive on my own.

When I was away in Wales last year, you were already gone and I was already on my own with a new journey beginning. It wasn't a journey that I chose and it isn't a journey that I would recommend to anyone. If you've been on this journey, I look into your eyes, hold your hand and salute you. And if you haven't, I hope it's a journey that you never have to make. There are surely better ways to achieve transformation and there are easier ways to break out of a chrysalis. And maybe, sometimes, it's ok to stay in a cocoon.