I’ve just done my tax return. You wouldn’t expect a tax return to be a trigger for grief but it was. Being a hapless artist, I’m not finely attuned to financial cycles but I realised today that I lost my boyfriend right at the end of the last tax year. So as I trawled through all of the papers that I’d stuffed in boxes (mostly unopened envelopes), trying to remember what I’d earned and when, I had a trip down the fiscal memory lane of my first year of agonising grief.
I started, as I always do, by going back to last April (in this case April 2016), searching my bank statements for anything that looked like it might be income (not much), for anything that might be tax deductible (slightly more). Almost immediately I saw a payment to a funeral director. I struggled to remember what it was for. My boyfriend’s family paid for the funeral and I paid for the wake. Why did I pay a funeral director? And then I remembered the last minute realisation that, yes, I did want to put flowers on his coffin along with the ones chosen by the family, remembered phoning up in a fluster, arranging for a woodland wreath with red roses, the closest thing I could think of as a representation of my love. My gesture cost me £100. The bill for the catering came next.
Then there came the books. As a writer, I have the pleasure of logging every purchase from Waterstones as a tax deductible expense but when I looked at receipts today, I realised that all of my purchases during the last financial year were self-help books and grief memoirs. No fiction, no poetry, just books about death and recovery. The tax year ended with the payment for a memorial bench. Only the books were tax deductible.
I’ve been reflecting a little recently on the cost of loss. Two weeks ago I was invited to the Parliamentary launch of the new Life Matters strategy. The strategy proposes a broad raft of measures to better support grieving families but it grew out of the Government’s recent changes to bereavement payments to widowed parents. Where, in the past, married parents who had lost a spouse were entitled to financial support for the duration of their dependents’ childhoods (until they remarried), the support is now limited to the first eighteen months following the death of a spouse. I went to offer my support to an important cause, even though I felt that it wasn’t really relevant to me. I’m not a widow and my children were not really affected by the death of my partner. The financial and emotional cost of grief is not the same for me, I thought.
Still, as I listened to Benjamin Brooks-Dutton talk about the total lack of support that he experienced when his wife was tragically killed, leaving him to bring up his two year old son alone, I found myself reflecting on my own experience. I found myself remembering how I had found Paul’s body in the middle of the night and how, the next morning (and the morning after that and the morning after that), I had got up and taken children to school. How, in shock, I had continued to cook tea, read stories, do the laundry. How no-one from any kind of support service ever called to see if I was ok. How I just carried on. I honestly don’t know how I did it. But I do know that it cost. It cost me dearly.
I’m self-employed so I had to sign off my own requests for compassionate leave and I lost a lot of income. Today, I found the contract for the creative writing walk that I was meant to lead along the industrial rivers of Sheffield, the walk that I couldn’t lead because I’d scoped out the territory with Paul a few weeks before, talking about our future as we noted the landmarks on the canal. I wasn’t strong enough to cope with it. In fact, I didn’t take on any new work that year. I just maintained a couple of regular workshops and later added grief writing workshops to my repertoire. It was enough for me to handle. I also kept paying for an office that I wasn’t using because I didn’t have the energy to empty it.
Then came the other payments. I paid for help around the house. I paid for massages when my shoulders seized up with stress. I paid therapists for treatment for post traumatic stress disorder when I was having flashbacks to that awful night, when my anxiety was out of control. I paid the herbalist for her strongest calming herbs, paid the mindfulness teacher for a space on a mat every Tuesday night, paid for gym membership so that I could swim.
This year my outgoings have far outweighed my income. I hate to think what kind of state I would have been in if I hadn’t inherited some money following my mother’s recent death. As a result of her death in a hospice, I became eligible for free bereavement counselling and it was worth its weight in gold. I don’t know how I would have coped if I’d been like many bereaved people, placed on a waiting list for a maximum of six sessions, instead of the full year that I had. I don’t know how I would have coped at all and I feel so very conscious of my privilege. I felt guilty spending so much money during that year (and this) but every time I’ve paid out for some element of self-care I have thought of the parents who left money to me and considered that this is what they would want me to be doing: looking after myself, helping myself to heal so that I can be the mother that my children need me to be. Because they were affected after all. They watched me sobbing uncontrollably and saw me struggling to cope. My grief took it’s toll on them too.
Loss is expensive, emotionally and financially and there isn’t enough recognition in our society of the toll it takes on productivity and mental health. I’ve been privy to many conversations amongst widowed people and I know how many of them, post-loss, have had to change their careers in order to better support their families. I also know how long grief takes to work through. It is two years now since I lost my mum, and twenty-one months since I lost Paul and I am still nowhere near functioning at the capacity that I was before. Today, I couldn’t recall who insured my house and could find no paper or email trail confirming the broker’s identity. I couldn’t tell the accountant how much interest I’d had on my bank accounts because I appear to have closed my old accounts and thrown all of those documents away. My paperwork is a mess. I could tell them how much I earned that year though. It was easy to work that out because it was just 20% of what I earned the previous year. And I can tell them how much money I spent on self-help - a lot. And that only the books were tax deductible.
The event in London was sponsored by Compare The Market. I found myself chatting to their representatives over canapés and wine. ‘What’s your connection to the cause?’, I asked, tired of telling my own story over and over again. ‘Life insurance’, came the reply. And a light went on in my brain. I came home and reviewed my own life insurance but, even with all the proposed changes, I’m not sure anyone would make provision for someone who lost a partner who wasn’t the father of her children, to whom she wasn’t married and whom she didn’t live with. But it cost. Boy, did it cost.