Two years ago my love suddenly died. You probably know the story by now. He felt rough at work. He went home and spoke to his mum. He told her he had a headache. He evidently took some pain killers, lay down on his bed and died. He was out of touch with me and I was out of my mind with worry. It took a couple of days for me to sound the alarm, three days for his friends and I to break into his house to find him there. He was only fifty-three. We’d only been seeing each other for about eight months. We loved each other deeply. And he was gone.
I never expected to write those words: two years ago my love died. Of course I never really thought that he’d die at all (which of us does?) and a year before that I couldn’t even have conceived that he and I were about to fall in love. As Joan Didion wrote: Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant. We can go from single to in love in the skip of a heartbeat, from coupledom to widowhood in the time in takes for a heart to stop. Still, somehow I never thought I’d write those words, ‘two years ago’. I never thought I’d feel like a graduate of the grief club.
I remember when, in the wake of Paul’s death, I first joined online support groups. I was reaching out in desperation with the newly bereaved and I’d see these people who would post on Facebook: two years ago, five years ago, ten years ago. Somehow I knew I would never be one of those people. Two years seemed like an impossibly long time. Whilst not literally expecting that I would cease to exist, I simply couldn’t compute that time could keep passing like that: not for me, not when my heart was shredded, not when my nerves were tangled like knotted rubber bands, not when I was resonating with grief like a freshly-plucked guitar string. Time slowed down in those days. It was an ordeal to get through each second, each minute, each hour. A day could feel like a week and some moments of grief could be so intense that it was like time had vanished entirely leaving me staring into an eternal void. It is hard to describe that feeling now. It is hard to recall that feeling now. Truth is, it is hard to recall a lot of things from that first year.
Sometimes now, when I’m with a friend, they’ll be talking about something and I’ll look at them in surprise thinking: I don’t remember your brother being hospitalised / your dad remarrying / your best friend having a miscarriage. Perhaps I’m exaggerating but for the first six months or more my head was so chock-full of grief that I had no room for anything else. I don’t remember much of that time at all. Of course I vaguely remember Brexit and that awful day when the Tories got re-elected but, honestly, it felt like small-fry compared to my personal devastation. In fact, I almost enjoyed seeing other people collectively mourning for a brief time. At that time grief moved into my life wholesale and I was consumed by it. I wrote because it was the only thing that brought relief from the unrelenting pain. I shared, I think, because I felt so alone. People sometimes say that I I was brave to share my feelings online but I didn’t feel brave. I felt demented. I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t set out to write a blog. I didn’t intend to share it. I wasn’t expecting to find myself writing for HuffPost about grief or being nominated for grief blogger awards. I wasn’t expecting any of it. But life changed in an instant. The ordinary instant. And I changed with it.
No, I didn’t expect to be one of those people saying, two years ago. I didn’t expect to be one of those people writing messages of hope to the newly bereaved. I certainly didn’t expect to be one of those people who fell in love with someone new so soon. Was it too soon? In some ways I wasn’t ready for it and perhaps it seemed too soon for some, but those of us in the club know that there is no timescale for grief and no rule book about how much love the human heart can hold. If a year seems like a short time to you, I can tell you that the year I spent grieving alone felt a hundred times longer than any other year of my life. It’s like dog years or cat years or light years. In grief terms I grieved for at least 101 years before I fell in love again. Unless you’ve been through it, don’t question it. Life changes in an instant. The ordinary instant. And everything changes with it.
Even though I remember my bereavement counsellor telling me that it takes on average two years, eight months and three days to fully process a major grief (that fact, for some reason, is etched on my muddled brain), two years still feels like a major landmark to me. Perhaps it’s because I remember asking her at what point I could train as a bereavement counsellor and her telling me that they advise two years. Because, the theory goes, by the end of two years you have processed your own grief fully enough to be able to help others and because, she said, after two years people often feel like they want to return to the land of the living. Although I was sure at the time that I just wanted to write about death and talk about death for the rest of my life, I can understand what she was saying now. Although I do want to help people with their grief, I do also want to return to the land of the living.
So, how has it been today? I’ve felt the anniversary of Paul’s death looming like a cloud on the horizon or a distant rumble of thunder for the last month or so and today, when it came, I certainly felt the rain. My body feels water-logged with sadness even though I’ve only shed a few tears, even though much of the day has been filled with smiles and laughter. Still, the two year anniversary has felt very different to the first year. Today, I marked the occasion by having a nice walk with some of Paul’s friends, stopping briefly to lay a rose on his bench and to observe the way the weather has taken it’s toll on the woodwork. And tonight I spent some quality time with my wonderful daughter and relished that pleasure. Fittingly, we watched Titanic (she for the first time) and I felt the parallels with my own story: a brief and life-changing love affair, a catastrophic incident and a woman clinging to a life raft. I could labour the metaphor of icebergs and rafts but I won’t. I have written so much that I am running out of words. Running out of steam wasn’t the Titanic’s problem but it is mine. I can’t write any more about grief. Still, I take the message of the film to heart. Make it count. In the end, in order to make life count, I know that I have to rejoin the land of the living. While I live with an awareness that each day might be my last, I also have to live with the assumption that life will go on, for a while at least. And though I cannot lose the knowledge of what death and grief can do, I’m thankful that the shadow of death no longer sits on my shoulder. Though I know the worst can happen, I no longer expect it around every corner. The world feels mostly benign again. (Though, of course, there is Brexit, Trump, the Tories.........)
In fact, at what might be the end of my blog, I return to the blog post which is still shared daily over and over again and reflect that I no longer sit, as I did, on The wall of in-between, with one foot in the afterlife. I made it back from the brink. It is hard to shut the door in order to keep living but, at the same time, I know that it is possible to do as I hoped and keep Paul’s memory and influence with me in the whole of my heart and live whole-heartedly again.
And so, I end the day thinking about Paul and about love. I was privileged to know him and my life was enriched by his love. May I enrich others with my love and may I reach a hand out to you if you are stranded on a life raft and whisper like Leonardo di Caprio, ‘Don’t let go’. There is a life still out there to be lived if you can just hold on.