Sunday, 7 June 2015

A Thousand Deaths

I've decided that I need to take the sympathy cards down. They started arriving within 24 hours of Louise's death in the darkness of midwinter and were soon overflowing from the shelves on to the dining room table. Meals were eaten next to a forest of sorrowful messages and tributes, bottles of ketchup jostling for table space with 'thinking of you at this sad time' cards until space was cleared in the conservatory to absorb the excess. Now, two seasons on in full summer, it seems to be time to pack the cards away in a memory box, if only to preserve them from damage. They will come down together with our last Valentines cards to each other. (Louise died three weeks before Valentines Day but I found her card to me, unwritten,  in her bedside drawer). It could be interpreted as a step forward. A sign, to use that ugly phrase beloved of the non bereaved but rarely used by those who have suffered real loss, of 'moving on'. Maybe it is. But for me it also feels like a step away, a further break in my bonds with Louise and one less sign of her presence within the house.

A wise friend warned me early on that for those left behind death is a process and not an event. Every day since has borne out the truth of that, each one chalked off a mixed blessing. The passage of time eventually, imperceptibly, begins to dull the raw intensity of despair, bewilderment and hopelessness. When I was sitting slumped on the floor of the ambulance, curled up in the foetal position, minutes after finding Louise's body, I found myself thinking 'I wish it was April'. I just wanted the next two months to disappear, to wish away the immediacy of the tragedy. I knew time would bring relief of a sort. And even though sometimes its hard to realise in the frequent moments when grief bites back hard, it does. It just takes what feels like an eternity. Even though I can recall every moment of my time with Louise prior to 23rd January as if it was moments ago, the four months since have unravelled within their own completely separate dimension of time . The day of Louise's death, the funeral and all the events surrounding it feel as though they took place in another age. I relate to them as though they were experiences from decades ago, made remote and unreal, softened, by the march of time.

But those passing days are less welcome for the distance they begin to put between Louise and I. The world moves on, and I reluctantly have no choice but to go with it, while Louise stays behind. Its now more than four months since I held her, kissed her, stroked her hair, heard her tell me that she loves me. That gap can only grow wider. Every day brings a further small change that moves Louise from the present into the past, that makes her death more irrevocable. Every single one brings fresh pain. Every time that I throw away even the smallest piece of evidence of Louise's existence; scrap paper with an inconsequential note on it in her handwriting, a receipt, or food that she will never eat, another small part of Louise dies and I feel it all over again.

Food has in fact been a particular emotional challenge. It took me until April to throw away the remains of the stockpile from what transpired to be our last Christmas together. There was little space in the freezer because it was full of plastic containers with the excess turkey and gammon,  stuffing and mince pies, even some remnants of pecan pie from the American side of the family. Eventually I was forced to clear it after an over enthusiastic trip to Sainsburys (I find it difficult to judge the right amounts of food to buy for one).  I grabbed the food up as quickly as I could, ran to the bin and threw it in, not looking back. I didn't want a repeat of the Sunday afternoon which I spent in floods of tears because of the sight of a pile of frozen vegetable lasagnes laying in the bin. Every time that I discard Louise's food not only do the comforting signs of her presence in the house diminish further, but I also feel as though I'm starving her. Her foothold in the freezer is now marked only by a single carton of vegetable soup, well beyond its use by date. I have no intention of moving it.

Those catalogues and advertising leaflets which keep on dropping through the letter box are no longer unwanted junk mail but welcome signs of life and normality. HMRC, the DVLA, the BMA and a host of other acronyms may all have had to be informed of Louise's death, painfully in each case, but there's no reason why I have to let clothing retailers or charities into the secret. Dr Louise Tebboth has pretty much passed away now. Nothing comes for her any longer. But Mrs Louise Marson lives almost every time that the postman visits. 

I can capture memories of Louise, get photos enlarged, framed and displayed but these are second hand memories, reminders of what once was. What really provides me with comfort, with the illusion that all is still well, are the signs of her active occupation of the house, practical evidence of her life. The little indications that she will come downstairs or come through the front door any moment; the rucksack with her equipment for home visits to patients, her scarf and coat by the door, her purse, gloves and mobile phone in the lounge. You can tell that Louise died in the winter by the type of clothing still out on display. I briefly half seriously considered  swapping it all for items more appropriate for the new season, replacing, for instance, her winter bobble hat in the hallway with her summer baseball cap before I realised it was the insanity of grief. I do, of course, make progress of sorts. The occasional sudden burst of energy and determination might lead to a few clothes being put in a drawer, a rucksack being emptied. But moments like that are few and come at considerable emotional cost.

This reluctance to change anything, even the smallest thing, which distances us creates an inertia. I now understand why the homes of so many elderly people look as though they have been in a time capsule for years. I have wanted to modernise parts of the house ever since we moved in. Redecoration of the hall might even help to smooth over the memories of finding Louise there. But I couldn't possibly change anything at the moment, to make the house less like the one Louise knew and we shared together. Those 1980's kitchen units have an indefinite reprieve. 

I know that this isn't sustainable in the long term, that I cannot hold back the tide of time. But I'm determined to continue the unequal fight for as long as possible. And tomorrow is the fifth anniversary of the first time that we met. Maybe it isn't the right time to take those cards down after all.


  1. I know how you feel. I am waiting for it to "feel right" to move things, or get rid of them. I have a real desire though to change the house, paint it, change kitchen cabinets and so on. It is strange how people are affected differently when confronted with a loss.

  2. Hi Katherine. I don't know whether we respond differently or we just pass through different phases of the coping mechanisms at different times. It wouldn't surprise me at all if at some point I had a screaming urge to tidy and change and renew.

    Another recent widower provided me with a very useful alternative perspective the other day. One which goes some way to which helping me come to terms with my own fear of change. His view was that if he changed and improved his house it would no longer be the same one that his wife knew but it would be the same as it would have been had she lived. And I guess that's right. Had Louise still been alive the house wouldn't be in stasis. It would be constantly evolving. So in a sense embracing change is more 'normal' than turning away from it. Its very persuasive - but I'm still working on it!