Thursday, 7 May 2015

Surviving Louise's Birthday

The only predictable thing about grief, it seems, is its unpredictability. Yesterday would have been (or should that be 'was'?) Louise's 41st birthday. I have been steeling myself for this moment almost ever since Louise died, conscious that many of my fellow widows and widowers who form such  a valuable online self help community report significant anniversaries to be particularly difficult occasions. This was the first, and one of the most important, of those anniversaries and I expected it to be one of my biggest challenges to date. So too, it seems, did family, friends and colleagues who got in touch to wish me well in large numbers.

Yet I surprised myself with the way in which I largely managed to get through the day. Of course there was indescribable sadness. But I was calmer and more composed than I thought I might be. I'm fortunate that numbness has returned in recent days, bringing with it an inability to comprehend what has happened. Bewilderment is back. This leaves me angry with myself for my failure to understand what should be quite simple - Louise is dead and not returning - but at the same time brings the blessing of a stunted range of emotional responses. Things which would have reduced me to floods of tears a few days ago no longer do so. A busy day at work provided some distraction as well and the tide of good wishes helped. Not only did they make me feel less isolated but they also comforted me with the thought that Louise is not forgotten.  

But I was still faced with the dilemma of how to mark the day. Sometimes it seems as though bereavement is nothing but a series of unwelcome dilemmas, questions both large and small which cannot possibly have a single definitive answer but to which great emotional significance is attached; where would Louise want her ashes scattered? Who would she want to have her various possessions? How long do I wear my wedding ring for? When should I take the sympathy cards down? Should her obituaries be in her maiden name (by which she was still known for professional purposes) or her married name? What should be the objects of Louise's Memorial Fund? Should I put pillows on her side of the bed? And so it goes on. Each and every one designed to torment as I struggle to do the right thing and find the answer that Louise would choose.

Normally its fairly easy to know how to celebrate your partners birthday. Presents, a card, flowers, a nice meal out. But how do you adapt this formula when they are no longer alive? I needed in some way to recognise the occasion, to express my love for Louise. My limited imagination could come up with nothing more original than something as close as possible to the normal conventions. 

The gift was relatively straightforward. Louise's 40th birthday present from me was a donation to a hostel for the homeless so it wasn't such a leap from that to a donation in her name to the childrens play charity which we had asked people to give to in lieu of presents at the time of our wedding.

But the rest was more problematic. Sainsburys doesn't have a great range of birthday cards for the deceased (a rare gap in the greetings card market). I could see the funny side in trying to find something with appropriate wording for somebody who died three months ago but it was rather a struggle - anything which suggested looking forward to the future, for example, had to be out. As all that could be done was for me to write the card and then read it out loud for Louise to hear, no envelope was necessary but I picked one up to avoid the check out operator remarking on its absence. In fact going through the tills caused some anxiety. I was clutching flowers and a card wishing my wife a happy birthday. I was relieved that the woman didn't ask what we were planning to do to celebrate. I didn't have  a clue how I would have responded to any innocent remark. Admission of the truth, that the person for whom I was buying these items no longer existed, would have caused embarrassment all round but I'm not sure that I'm capable of pretence that my wife is still alive and all is normal, just for the sake of social nicety.

I left the flowers at the spot where Louise's ashes were scattered. Its normally pretty quiet. On a damp, windy evening I expected to have the place to myself but instead arrived to find a photo shoot complete with glamour model taking place next to Louise's trees. While I arranged the flowers as best as I could, tears streaming and talking out loud to Louise, they made a hasty exit, looking back at me and whispering amongst themselves. That is what I have become. At 46 years of age I am that sad man alone and crying on the park bench, lost in his memories and an object of pity for others.

Somehow there, on the park bench, I felt Louise's loss even more acutely than I usually do at home. Apart from her absence the house still feels pretty normal. But this was  a powerful statement. A year ago we had enjoyed a large picnic with dozens of Louise's friends in the same park for her 40th birthday. Louise was very much alive, happy, vibrant, positively glowing. Now I sat there in the drizzle and evening gloom talking to a bunch of flowers laid under a tree. I'm grateful that we can't know our futures.

One consolation struck me. Although another year has passed since her birth Louise will now never age. I looked forward very much to discovering how she would grow into first middle and then old age. One of my most precious photos of her was taken just six months ago, on holiday in Sicily. The lighting and the angle of her face gave a tantalising glimpse of the refined, almost regal, features she would have developed had she lived. It was an early indication of her transition from young woman to mature beauty, her full blossoming. Louise herself sometimes joked about looking forward to being old so that she could, like the woman in the poem, act outrageously and wear purple. But there was another truth behind this. Louise was scared of illness and infirmity in old age, of being a burden on others. Scared perhaps in a way that only a doctor, who has seen so much suffering, can be. She occasionally talked about the future possibility, should it be required, of assisted suicide 

But now Louise will not have to cope with any of that. No matter how many birthdays pass she will never grow old. While I become decrepit Louise will always remain as vigorous, fit and alert as she so much wanted to be. Sweetheart, I will celebrate your birthdays with you for all eternity.


  1. Just written a whole post but still...rewrite I guess!

    You describe everything so well Gary, and you give all of us a voice for how we feel.

    I know it's different for each, but the way you write is so transferable.

    It's Nanas 29th Birthday in June. I have booked the day off work, and I am already preparing for it to be a sad day. Laughing quite pitifully at the thought of me laying down a picnic rug on his grave and speaking to some strands of grass and what I can only imagine is a bundle of bones (very morbid I know!).

    Haven't thought about writing a card, I don't know if I can bring myself to it, the last card I wrote was for our anniversary which he didn't get to read! I recently bought a cactus for his grave, I don't get to see it much as I live miles away, so hopefully it can take care of itself. I then plan to hide away in a random B&B miles away and spend the rest of the day watercolouring. 22 years life is buzzing!

    I also think of the age thing. Sometimes when I am very hopeful and dreaming of an afterlife. I think of him as a 28 year old handsome man, and myself as a shrivelled 90 year old woman.

    Anyway, happy belated birthday to your lovely Louise, and well done for getting through!

    1. Katie, thank you so much. I started writing this blog for my own therapeutic needs but its so humbling to realise that in doing so I can help others in some small way.

      You know, there was something else that we did for Louise's birthday, something which actually left smiles on peoples faces. On Saturday we held a picnic in the same spot where we celebrated Louise's 40th birthday last year. It was lovely to remember her in a less sombre context and to bring all her friends together again. I even took everybody to the place where I scattered Louise's ashes, elsewhere in the same park.

      Nana's birthday will be a sad day, of course, but grief works in strange ways and it might not be quite as bad as you anticipate at present. Louise's wasn't for me. You have obviously already put a lot of thought into preparing for it and hopefully the knowledge that you have done your best to mark the day appropriately for Nana will give you some comfort. Is there anything that you can also do that provides a positive celebration of his life - the equivalent of the picnic for Louise?

      Take care Katie - you don't deserve to be going through this.

  2. Thanks for all your reflections -even if they are difficult to read at times Sorry I will not be able to join you for the picnic in the park. With lots of love Marion

    1. Thanks Marion. We had a lovely day. I'll send you a link to the photos.