It’s always nerve-wracking to meet a boyfriend’s mum for the first time. You go through the usual anxieties: what shall I wear? Should I bring a present? Will she like me? What will we talk about? I went through all of these thoughts when I first made the trip to see my boyfriend’s mum. I made sure I looked presentable and stopped at a florist to buy her a pot of spring daffodils on the way. It wasn’t unusual, apart from the fact that I went alone because my boyfriend was dead. In fact a few days earlier, I’d discovered his decaying body three days after his death and, I realise now, I was in shock.
At least we had plenty to talk about. To begin with, we had to go over the details of his death – I’d found him on his bed in the shack where he lived alone on the moors. We thought he might have died of a heart attack but it didn’t account for the blood. We wondered if it had been a brain aneurysm. We didn’t know.
We discussed the fact that they wouldn’t let her go to the mortuary to see his body. I told her as gently as I could that she really wouldn’t want to see it – the image haunts me still. Then there were coffins to choose and announcements to write for the local press.
“How do you want to refer to Paul?” she asked. “Partner, boyfriend?”
“We’d been together for less than eight months and most of our time had been spent blissfully content away from the rest of the world. The truth was I had no idea what to call him.”
I remember the moment so vividly, sitting there wondering what to say, wanting to confer with someone but knowing that the person I wanted to confer with was dead. We’d been together for less than eight months and most of our time had been spent blissfully content away from the rest of the world. The truth was I had no idea what to call him. We weren’t married or living together. He wasn’t my spouse or my partner. ‘Boyfriend’ seemed ridiculous – he was 53 and a giant of a man.
“Soulmate?” I offered. “Does that sound silly?”
“I don’t think it sounds silly at all,” she replied.
Despite the circumstances, we got off on the right foot. She was the best mother-in-law I never had, phoning me regularly, every day at first, beginning each call with the same words: “I won’t ask you how you are. We don’t do that, do we, you and me?”
She knew that I was not okay and that I wouldn’t be okay any time soon. She wasn’t okay either. Sometimes it felt like she was the only person who truly understood.
Most people really didn’t understand at all. Most people hadn’t even known us as a couple and barely knew anything about him. In the past I’d enthused about partners who came and went, but I hadn’t wanted to jinx this one. And our time together was so precious, so much so we didn’t want to share it with anyone else. I wouldn’t let him meet my children so we only saw each other twice a week – twice every week – for every moment of my free time. The only exception was that final week when he was out of touch, when I wondered if it was over, when I never truly believed he could be dead.
The fact he was an unusual suitor didn’t help people’s understanding. Sometimes, even he didn’t think it could work. After all, he was a blacksmith who lived in a makeshift house in the Peak District, a man who kept to his own schedule: walking the moors at night, sleeping during the day. He was chaotic and eccentric and altogether unsuitable for a professional suburban single mum. But, for us, our connection was irrefutably right and we were in love, deeply in love. We even talked about getting married and, when I bought my new house, we discussed him living in a shed in the garden; somehow it was too much of a stretch for us to imagine completely sharing a home.
But we never did get married. And, when he died, there was no name for what I’d lost and no name for what I’d become. I wasn’t his widow. People seemed to think that as we’d only been together for a few months, I’d be over it in a few months too.
“I hope you feel better soon,” they’d say in text messages when I expressed, again, how desolate I was, like I had a bout of the flu.
“You’ll meet someone else,” they said, as if I could go on Tinder a find a replacement boyfriend just like that, as if that would make it all better.
“Are you still sad about Paul?” asked one friend three months after his death. Once the funeral was over, they expected me to get back to normal. Only there was no normal for me. My normal had been blown to pieces. I was in turmoil, so broken-hearted that I could barely function, unsure if I would ever be able to function again. It was the most horrendous pain I’ve ever felt. Like my skin had been torn from my body. Like I was spending all day every day looking for a place to rest my heart when the place it lived in had vanished.
“People seemed to think that as we’d only been together for a few months, I’d be over it in a few months too.”
Love is an addiction and I was forced to go cold turkey. It’s hard to explain even now. Unless you’ve experienced such a devastating loss, no-one can really understand the impact on the heart and the brain, on the nervous system, on mental health. There’s no hierarchy for grief – but having felt only a fraction of this pain when I lost my mother and father, I know that, for me, this pain was on a different scale.
But I had no-one to talk to about it and no-one to share my memories. People avoided talking about it. Some people avoided me, full stop. There was no place for this grief in the world. Even amongst widowed support groups, I didn’t feel I quite fit in. I wasn’t a childless widow who could join the adventurous weekend trips nor had my children lost their father. In fact, though those groups were welcoming, I wasn’t widowed at all.
No-one could understand but I tried to explain anyway by writing on a blog. For a whole year, I spent my evenings crying while I wrung my brain and heart out, searching for new metaphors for loss. It didn’t change what had happened but it helped a little to record those memories, to tell the world of my sadness.
Those words are a book now. The act of writing it slowly brought peace. My grief was transformed into a work of art, into a memorial for my dear blacksmith. But it’s still not okay. And I’m okay with that. Grief leaves scars. Scars that remind us how deeply we love.