Three Years Bereaved

Kate would have been 59 on 4 July 2020 and the third anniversary of her death falls on 13 July, just nine days later.

It feels timely to reflect on my bereavement again; something I last attempted more than two years ago.

So much has happened between then and now – some amazing; much dreadful – as if Kate’s death set off a sequence of seismic shocks that have disturbed my equanimity.

But these experiences have also made me kinder, stronger, more caring and compassionate.

I have been thinking how our relationship has evolved since that fateful day three years ago.

I know many people believe relationships end with death, but those who experience the death of a partner will often tell you otherwise, even those (like me) who cannot countenance an afterlife.

I have come to accept this paradox: to understand that my relationship with Kate continues because her influence – her approval or disapproval of my decisions and my behaviour – survives embodied in me.

It is perhaps human nature to continue to associate this influence with Kate’s persona and presence, and even her voice, so it can sometimes feel as though she is communicating these messages directly, from somewhere beyond the grave.

I have also come to understand that the restorative process of bereavement – the capacity ultimately to escape profound sorrow and resume the pursuit of happiness – somehow depends on finding a new, post-mortem equilibrium in this relationship with one’s former partner.

That doesn’t necessarily imply full, unconditional approval from Kate for every one of my decisions, but rather the conviction that she is comfortable with the way I’m living my life, and I am comfortable living it now without her.

By the way, I’ve used some photographs from our 2018 Canada trip to illustrate this post. There’s more about that below.

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Early bereavement

When a life partner dies, the initial trauma may be followed by an extended period of numbness. For some considerable time it may feel to the surviving partner that he or she isn’t really living either, but marooned alone in some tumbleweed limbo.

Others may also perceive the recently widowed as barely existing, going through the motions merely, stuck on autopilot, often emotionally drained and emotionally detached.

Sooner or later though, most of us glimpse a chink of light. Mine arose from curiosity about how others like me were coping with their loss, and a desire to learn from their experience. I hoped that, in the company of other widow(er)s, I might discover empathy, support and wisdom, and so begin the healing process.

A few months after Kate’s death, I joined a ‘walk-and-talk’ group run by the hospice where she died. Some of my fellow walkers were freshly bereaved like me; others had lost their partners two years beforehand.

I soon found what I was seeking, but also discovered that many of the more recently bereaved were struggling far worse than me.

And that led me to appreciate that I might be capable of reciprocating the support I was receiving, which showed me the way out of my emotional cul-de-sac.  

I recall snippets of conversation from this time that illustrate vividly the extent of some widow(er)s suffering. One widow told me that, for almost a year, she had been unable to listen to music – any music – without bursting into tears. A second found herself distraught after dancing with a male friend at a social event.

All of us were prey to sudden tremors of deep sadness, often triggered by the most trivial experiences. But, whereas mine were rare – I can only recall the time I saw a memorial to a railway accident that happened on our wedding day – for others they could be daily occurrences.

It was curiosity about these ambushes by memory that led me to read A la recherche du temps perdu, which took the best part of six months. Often it helped me back to sleep if I woke in the middle of the night!

For me, these first hesitating steps towards my new normal also involved climbing inside the new more extrovert personality I had begun to acquire, probably because I now had to arrange my own social life and could no longer hide in the background, more than happy to let Kate hold the limelight.

It was tough dealing with the irony of that transformation – becoming much more as Kate would have wanted, only when she could no longer benefit herself.

By the time I wrote my previous bereavement post, approaching nine months in, I had evolved the guarded optimism I described, beginning to:

‘…entertain the possibility (no more; no less) that the best days of my life might still be ahead of me’.

I tried to live my life accordingly and, during this time, began to draw close to someone new, who soon became very special to me and who has helped me through these dark times, just as I hope I’ve helped her. I like to think we are each other’s guardian angel, operating in full accordance with her 50% rule!

Looking back now, perhaps I was a touch too glib, just a little too cocksure. Perhaps I had discovered my way through bereavement rather too quickly for my own good, taken a shortcut by intellectualising the problem, rather than living and working, carefully and methodically, through all the stages of my grief for Kate.

For, when my father’s health began to decline rapidly in the late spring of 2018, my new-found positivity failed to protect me.

It was as if his impending death became rolled up somehow in Kate’s, overloading my bereavement circuits and my capacity to cope.

I had been forging a path out of grief, confidently leading the way, only to plummet suddenly back into the depths of despair. I needed help badly, and I could no longer give anything much in return.

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Taking a turn for the worse

I’d supposed that Kate’s death would be the nadir of my life, until my own endgame at least, but I hadn’t counted on the abject misery of mental breakdown.

There is some history of depression in my family. Up to this point I’d escaped it completely, but my secondhand experience had always thrown a dark shadow across otherwise happy childhood memories, and I’d always been frightened of it seeking me out.

There had been immense stress and worry during Kate’s final months, watching her grow weaker and finally fading away, but I had to keep strong for her and, somehow, my old introverted, ‘aspie’ personality shielded me from harm.

But my fledgling new personality made me far more emotionally susceptible. Giving more of oneself emotionally may make one more popular and likeable but it also has a down side. I was too emotionally exposed to manage my father’s death on top of Kate’s, and I fell back to earth with a crash.

Some months beforehand, I’d booked an ambitious Canadian holiday: an extended tour aboard the Rocky Mountaineer followed by a stay in a Vancouver Island hotel.

Kate had visited Banff shortly before our marriage and it made a great impression on her. We’d originally planned this trip to celebrate our silver wedding anniversary. Now my son and I made it as a memorial trip, timed so we would be there on the first anniversary of Kate’s death.

As the departure date drew ever closer, I knew I was in no fit state to travel, let alone enjoy the experience. But I also knew that I couldn’t let the others down: I simply had to go.

The itinerary was very demanding – entire days spent in one’s carriage on the train and stops in seven or eight different hotels spread over twelve nights. I vividly recall fighting down panic on the flight across to Vancouver.

What might have been the holiday of a lifetime became a struggle to control my increasingly volatile mental state. I fought through each day and night as best I could, all the while trying hard not to put a damper on my son’s pleasure.

It was hard to find distraction. There is no wifi aboard the Rocky Mountaineer, despite negligible mobile phone reception along much of the route. Sometimes the natural beauty was jaw-dropping, but it is all too easy to overdose on mountains.

Passengers begin to invent wildlife to fill the gaps between rare appearances by the real thing: bears in particular are notoriously shy. I began to suspect they were an invention of the Canadian tourist authorities.

When we transferred to Vancouver Island, the problem became having virtually nothing to do, except scour the internet. I spent endless hours sitting on our balcony, staring out over the expanse of beach to the Strait of Georgia beyond.

Shortly before we’d left for Canada, I’d realised that I was falling in love, and that made spending so long apart more than doubly difficult. There were also the consequences to consider: I try not to worry too much about what others think, but bereaved people aren’t immune to the societal expectation that they won’t fall in love with indecent haste!

We whatsapped endlessly across the time zones, sharing each day pieces of music with meaning for ourselves that we thought the other might like. Receiving her messages, her musical choices, and choosing pieces of music to send back to her kept me together just enough to pull through.

It was torture to be delayed several hours at Nanaimo Airport by a forest fire close to Vancouver Airport. I couldn’t hold on much longer. Relief flooded through me as soon as I boarded the plane home.

But, once back, and after the initial euphoria of reunion, I had still further to fall. By holding off the worst until I returned, I was only postponing the inevitable.

I first noticed how bad things had become when it took a heroic effort of will to reorganise and re-label the three shelves in my airing cupboard: what should have taken half-an-hour took well over four!

I fought to regain control, determined not to succumb, but my will was eroded by weeks of insomnia.

One Saturday afternoon I reluctantly allowed myself to be taken to an out-of-hours GP, who quickly diagnosed clinical depression and generalised anxiety disorder. He prescribed diazepam and sertraline. We collected my prescription from the pharmacy in a gigantic Sainsbury’s nearby. I felt both relieved and scared.

Shortly afterwards my own GP confirmed the diagnosis and the treatment too. I wasn’t offered alternative therapy, presumably because it is in such short supply (though I was later given a valuable opportunity to learn how to manage stress and worry).

Soon afterwards we fulfilled a commitment to the Coast Path, though I couldn’t walk too far. My father had lately taken to his bed, but I’d expected him to survive into the following year. I learned of his sudden death by email on Capstone Hill, above Ilfracombe.

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Rock bottom

Once home, I found myself almost completely incapacitated. I hadn’t anticipated the evaporation of all physical energy, on top of loss of motivation and loss of concentration. So much of my time had been spent engaged in physical pursuits, but now they were beyond me – even the vital hospice ‘walk and talks’.

I couldn’t travel any distance on public transport, so was forced to rely on a kind friend to drive me the 150 miles to my mother’s home ahead of my father’s funeral. I knew I was jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

Dad’s funeral passed in a daze. And afterwards I couldn’t get back home again for more than three weeks, until another friend offered to give me a lift. I so badly needed comfort, care, peace and tranquillity, but none of those were to be found where I had to be.

I felt trapped in an environment perfectly suited to stimulating depression and anxiety rather than easing them. I struggled to comfort and support my mother, who was almost beside herself with grief.

The nights were awful. I tried to sleep in the tiny box room, the TV booming loudly next door. The bedclothes became drenched by merciless night sweats and I was tormented by sertraline-induced tinnitus.

By morning I was exhausted, forcing myself to rise only because there was slightly less discomfort out of bed.  Most of the morning I would lounge in an armchair, watching nothing happen. Sometimes I tried to eke out the last dregs of concentration, perhaps by reading the news or playing myself at online scrabble.

Every afternoon I forced myself out for a short walk, trying to get a little bit further each day, all the time worried that I would collapse on the pavement. I struggled to derive a tiny flicker of positivity from anything at all – perhaps a flower or a snatch of birdsong. But there was precious little joy to be had.

I managed to cook dinner once or twice, though it took all my faculties and strength  to prepare the simplest meal.

There was a single novel in the house – ‘Gone With The Wind’ – so I began that and even took it home with me. It became a sort of penance: I told myself that, by the time I’d finished its 1,037 musty pages, I would be allowed to function normally again.

The diazepam brought some temporary relief, but the GPs I saw were anxious to wean me off before it became too addictive. Meanwhile the sertraline took a couple of months to kick in and, as it did so, had the alarming tendency of causing the very symptoms it was designed to alleviate.

Once finally back home, I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to look after myself and so would have to return to my mother’s. For the first time my loneliness frightened me, but returning back from whence I’d come frightened me more! Cooking dinner remained the biggest challenge, because everything depended on being able to feed myself.

I fought the desire to stay in bed, hauling myself onto my feet by nine o’clock each morning, as if plunging into a cold shower. I made myself perform a few basic physical exercises, adding one more repetition daily, trying to rebuild a little strength.

For some weeks much of the rest of the day had to be spent recovering from that effort by lying on the sofa, until I could reasonably head back to bed again.

There were fresh challenges once I could move outside. I remember that choosing and buying food in the supermarket was a major ordeal. For some reason, vegetables posed the biggest problem: I would stand in the aisle for up to ten minutes, trying hard to make a decision.   

I made slow progress, but every day brought fresh tribulations. I vividly recall travelling into London by train for the first time, struggling to control my panic, convinced that everyone around me was laughing at my obvious discomfort.

Walking through the South Bank crowds, I forced my eyes to focus on the pavement just ahead, trying to blot out the unsettling noise and bustle. Someone talking on their phone just behind me felt like a personal threat.

The worst was over by the end of December 2018, and I began live more normally again. I took up pilates, started a creative writing course and joined the Hospice book club. Soon I was climbing confidently back to the place from whence I’d fallen.

But I was acutely aware that my stability was drug-dependent. My GP had wanted to double my sertraline dosage and I had very reluctantly agreed to a 50% increase. Now I wanted to come off it as quickly as possible, but the doctors disapprove of too rapid a withdrawal. I had hoped to stop within a year but, wary of setbacks, I took the entirety of 2019 to get clean again.

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Finding equilibrium with Kate

As it turned out, 2019 was a year of rebuilding and consolidation. The possibility I had entertained could be entertained once more, and I began trying to build a closer, firmer relationship with Kate.

I felt some guilt that I had been heavily self-absorbed during my breakdown. What little grief I had to spare was diverted to my father, and I had naturally given precedence to nurturing my new, living love.

Leaving aside the pilgrimage to Canada, I felt I‘d rather neglected Kate, and that I needed to redress the balance. 

I’d learned from observing bereaved friends. I envied the intimate relationships a few had sustained with their dead partners, although their corresponding beliefs – if religious or spiritualist – often gave me some difficulty. I was seeking an atheistic-spiritual alternative.

I also began to understand more clearly how not to find equilibrium, having observed several widows and widowers never quite managing to escape the limbo that descends on us all when our loved ones die. 

Too many are endlessly reliving how they were together as a couple when their partners were alive. Their ‘leftover life to live’ is left unlived. It is as if they are fixed in aspic, unable to turn a corner.

Often they build an elaborate shrine to their lost loves, taking upon themselves the role of guardian and celebrant, sustaining the sacred flame.

Some appoint themselves curator of a museum dedicated to their other half. The full personal possessions of their erstwhile partner linger on in cupboards, drawers and wardrobes; on pegs, shelves and desks. It becomes impossible for them to part with even one exhibit.

There is always some hope that they may be able to escape their fixation with the past, particularly if some profound shock or stimulus – perhaps something frightening, exciting or desirable – wakes them from their slumbers, jolts them back to the here and now. But the longer they leave it, the harder it may become.

I believe that ‘entertaining the possibility’ is the best way forward for them too, because the greatest gift we can bestow on a dead partner is our commitment and striving to resume a rich and fulfilling life.

Often our partners wish this for us, speak of it to us before they die. If they were still sentient they would be able to share vicariously the joy their living partners now experience.

And this is one way in which we humans can, for the time being, cock a snook at death. For death collects us all in the end, but it is better so after a long, rich and fulfilling life. We must not let death have dominion.

Those that never escape will keep the flame burning, keep the collection intact, until they too succumb – which is when the memorial candle finally gutters out, when the museum is finally scattered to the four winds.

The next generation dismantles it and, pausing only to marvel at their elders’ capacity for hoarding, stuffs the precious relics into bin bags, destined for charity shops or the dump, with nary a second glance.

What has been the point of postponing the inevitable?

The majority of Kate’s belongings have gone. Much went to support the hospice where she died. But I’ve kept the most meaningful of her possessions and, if you know where to look, there are still reminders in every room.

Some of her bric-a-brac has been replaced by mine, often bought from one of the hospice’s shops. I thoroughly enjoy my Senegalese talking drum, my pair of carved female hands and my dildo bottle opener!

In this third year of bereavement I finally felt brave enough to plough through Kate’s many boxes of keepsakes, and she kept everything. There was even a letter I’d written to her in France in 1981.

Re-encountering all one’s own birthday, wedding anniversary and Valentine’s cards was particularly gut-wrenching. Those stayed, alongside hers to me.

But many of the relics of her earlier life – those memory jerkers that she’d expected to rummage through in her old age – had no great meaning for me. It seemed callous, cruel and unfeeling simply to tip them in the bin, and I could feel Kate’s sharp disapproval. Eventually they went though.

After two winnowings, a few months apart, there was still too much I couldn’t bring myself to discard. But I put far fewer boxes back in the loft again. There may or may not be a further sift at some point.

I’ve also made big changes: a woodburning stove, a new bathroom, an additional shower room. The colour schemes I’ve chosen wouldn’t have passed muster with Kate. But she has no need for houses or colour schemes now.

Although I know Kate is horrified by some of my choices and decisions, we don’t sweat the small stuff. I can feel her disapproval when I’m doing something she doesn’t like, but if it’s something relatively minor, I do it anyway.

Just occasionally I’ll overrule her, as I did when those keepsakes went in the bin. But she forgave me.

I know she doesn’t expect me to keep an imposing shrine. She’s happy with the single photograph, placed on the stairs so I pass it frequently each day. There are one or two ornaments and a handful of her idiosyncratic earrings dangling from a wooden mushroom. Sometimes I remember to change the battery in the nightlight there; sometimes I forget. Often I smile or say a few words; and she smiles back.

It feels to me as though we’ve reached an understanding.

I know that, above all, she wants me to take lifelong loving care of our son, but of course that goes without saying. I know, too, that she’s delighted with the new woman in my life, entirely approves of me having one, particularly someone so wonderful, and is greatly amused by my lovelorn ways.  

At first it felt right to keep them separate, but now I want to build more connections between them. I love them both, but I am in love only with the living woman. One love never hinders the other, for they are complementary. There is a bond between my two female dancing partners, almost a sisterhood.

In short, I know Kate supports my decision to live my life differently, with a new personality in a new normal. She will always be here, but she will never be here, and I am quite comfortable with that.

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Lockdown intervenes

By the first quarter of 2020, I felt that my fortunes were beginning to mend. The drugs were gone from my system and I felt healthy, stable, calm and positive.

In March we spent an amazing week back on the Coast Path, walking from Clovelly to Bude. We caught snatches of news on the radio, but nothing too alarming and returned, prophetically enough, on Friday 13 March.

Over that weekend the national mood changed and, following a week of fearful uncertainty, lockdown was formally imposed on 23 March.

My positivity disappeared almost overnight, and I struggled badly throughout April and May.

It felt as if many of the restrictions imposed on me by breakdown had now been reimposed, with only the small consolation that others were suffering too. I was forced into isolation. Each morning I took myself off for a solitary walk; towards the end of each afternoon I hit the home gym.

Betweentimes, I lounged on the sofa, or in my garden hammock, following the Covid-19 news with fervid interest, reading big novels – both ‘Life and Fate’ and ‘Belle du Seigneur’ were consumed during this period – and trying to learn advanced Sudoku techniques!

My pleasant round of social distractions – sociable walks, café and pub chats, dining out, visits to theatres, concerts and art galleries – came to a grinding halt.

Worst of all, I was kept apart from the one person essential to my contentment and happiness. Zoom was a poor substitute. The whole thing seemed intolerably cruel: even worse, perhaps, when we were allowed to see each other from a distance of two metres.

But then, just as I was railing against the Government for its delay and discrimination against non-cohabiting couples, it finally implemented a restricted household bubbles policy that meant we could be together again. It felt like release at the end of a prison sentence, for a crime I didn’t commit!

During that three months I was desperately worried that I would be dragged back down into depression, that the dire news would spike my anxiety, and that I would soon be back on the drugs from which I had only just successfully weaned myself. 

There has been a delayed physical reaction to the stress of that period but, touch wood, my mental health is reasonably robust. I don’t want to go back there – to lockdown or to breakdown – ever again!

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Conclusion

Looking back then over my three years bereaved, Kate’s death has proved the first of several setbacks. Each has been surmounted only with grave difficulty. But I believe each of these seismic shocks has made me stronger, better able to withstand the next.

For the time being I have emerged into sunlight, with optimism intact, in equilibrium with Kate and with new love thriving. There will be more unpleasant challenges ahead, no doubt, but there has been so much fear and sadness. It’s high time the tide turned.

The time must come when I’m no longer ‘entertaining the possibility’ but instead ‘realising the actuality’ of my best years.

I want that to be now please.

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TD

July 2020

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