Friday, 19 June 2015

Fighting Back........Sometimes

Its very easy, and in many senses comfortable and rewarding, to assume the role of victim that society wants to assign to me. I receive sympathy, favours and have few expectations placed upon me. I barely need to make it out of my front door fully dressed to be praised for my strength and bravery. This can be very gratifying and rewarding. There are times when I genuinely need those allowances and favours and that sympathy, times when I want to pour my heart out to the stranger on the other end of the phone line, or to the supermarket cashier or the hairdresser. Times when I need to tell them that my wife has died and I am broken and to receive their support and understanding, or at least soothing noises which I optimistically choose to interpret as understanding. 

Occasionally - and I say this with no pride - I have even used my victimhood to manipulate situations to my advantage. Its amazing how much better service you can receive from a call centre, or how quickly you can send nuisance marketing calls packing, when you drop into the conversation the fact that your wife has recently taken her life. I possess a trump card which I can play in almost any circumstance. Get out of jail free. 

But increasingly there are times when I want to break out of the straightjacket of mourning, when I am suffocated by the shocked or awkward response of strangers, the preferential treatment, the widened eyes, the sympathetic look and tone of voice. And perhaps most of all by the sense of obligation, to be constantly having to thank everybody for the kindness they are showing to me. When your entire self image, and your designated role within your marriage, has been that of the 'rock', the person who provides stability, its humiliating to suddenly be  perceived to be vulnerable and in need of special consideration. 

In these moments I want to be normal again, to pass incognito. I want to be given permission to leave, at least momentarily, what Helen Bailey describes as Planet Grief, that strange and all encompassing environment where bereavement becomes your only identity, your only experience, your only way of seeing and interpreting the world around you. I have been grieving constantly for nearly 5 months now. Other than when I am at work every single waking moment is spent in some form of activity related to Louise's death, be it writing my diary or this blog, engaging on line or in person with others in  similar circumstances, reading about grief, loss or suicide, archiving Louise's life and the precious records of our relationship. I have been dealing with the administrative requirements, talking to or about Louise, memorialising her in obituaries and works in her name. Its emotionally and physically exhausting. 

I have become so lost in this subterranean world of darkness  that I forget the one that I used to inhabit still exists. I found myself looking at photos of couples the other day and wondering which one of them was dead. It startled me to remember that neither of them were. Newsflash! In some marriages both partners are still alive. Worse, when I do encounter this strange normality I can react to it ungenerously, jealous of people whose partner still breathes.

I don't want to continually feel as though I am something of a freak, even though, statistically speaking, I know that I am. Approximately 1 adult male in every 350 under the age of 50 is widowed in the UK. That makes me, if not quite a freak, then at least something of an oddity. But only around 1,300 women take their lives in the UK each year, or in other words about 1 in 20,000. To be that 1 in 20,000 widower, even assuming that each of those women was married, is undoubtedly freakish.  It's a curious feeling to be such an outlier because to me I'm There is nothing abnormal about my wife taking her life at the age of 40. Its my reality, my normal. I know no different. Its people whose husbands and wives are still alive, who have managed more than 3 or 4 years of marriage, who are the oddities, not me. 

When I am feeling strong I want to resist the victimhood, the world that I find myself in, the exceptionalism. I want to metaphorically put two fingers up at my fate and proclaim that I will survive and even be stronger for the experience. Bloody minded resistance isn't necessarily my strong point but this is the only life I have and I need to make the best of it, even if it isn't the one that I expected or had chosen for myself. Louise doesn't have a second chance. I do and I owe it to her to approach it positively, particularly as one of the reasons she took her life was because at that moment in time, in the depths of her darkness, she thought it would free me to enjoy a better future. If I curl up into a ball and allow this to defeat me I will have failed Louise and made her sacrifice even more pointless, even more tragic.

Of course I struggle. Lots. I'm lethargic, my sleep patterns are chaotic, I get into work late and am sometimes present in the office more in body than spirit, I'm not eating enough vegetables (Louise would be gently disapproving at the lack of colour on my plate), I haven't summoned up the strength to move or sort through, much less dispose of, Louise's possessions. I don't have the concentration span or motivation to read a book or watch a TV programme. I cheat with the housework by having somebody into clean once a fortnight.

But despite all this, on balance I am sometimes rather proud of myself. This is the most difficult and challenging time of my life. I have dealt with events and emotions that I never dreamed I would have to confront, that are beyond the experience, or maybe even the imagination, of most people. I found my wife dead in horrific circumstances,  summoned up the strength to make the calls to inform family and friends, returned to the house within 24 hours and adapted to living here again, alone (the first time, in fact, that I have ever lived on my own). 

With some assistance I arranged the funeral, visited Louise, or at least a waxy representation of her, in the funeral parlour and steeled myself to kiss that cold, lifeless and not entirely convincing likeness goodbye. I survived the trauma of the funeral, the unreality of sitting through a service staring at a coffin which contains the body of my wife. I managed to hold myself together sufficiently to deliver a coherent eulogy to her in front of hundreds of people at not one but two memorial services. I have mechanically worked through the paperwork and bureaucracy that comes with death, every telephone call and letter of notification representing a mini death, the closure of another part of Louise's life. I have battled with the incompetency of the Coroners Office, negotiated the Mental Health Trust's investigation and final report. And I stood in our favourite local beauty spot scattering the ashes that were once my best friend, my lover, my wife, my inspiration and my hope.

Each and every one of these events would, individually, represent the worst moment of my life. But of course they don't occur in isolation. One leads to another and the brutality of the collective trauma is overwhelming, exhausting, disabling. And in some senses  the time in between is even more difficult to deal with. The sheer grim and lonely reality of the day to day grind of life without Louise.

And yet here I am, still standing, still functioning, albeit imperfectly. And doing so without the aid of any artificial stimulants, whether alcohol or medication, or meaningful counselling. I fumble around in the darkness, trying desperately to do the right things; to help me, to help others and to honour Louise and positively represent her memory and legacy to the world. I am trying to reach out to others in support groups, resisting the temptation to withdraw into myself. I constructively process my experiences through talking and writing. And I am working with eminent and high profile professionals in the medical world to develop a charity in Louise's honour of a scale that surprises even me, using our story as a means of assisting others.

Of course none of this is necessarily down to any particular strength of character on my part. The numbness that comes with the uncomprehending shock of bereavement, particularly sudden bereavement, has carried me a long way under its anaesthetic. On much of the journey I have found myself simply floating downstream on the currents. I haven't made any attempt to go out and deal with events. Rather, they have come to me. All I have had to do is get through each hour and each day. In that way time passes and things happen to me on the way. 

And I haven't done anything on my own. I have had the good fortune to receive wonderful help, support and love from family and friends, to have had an understanding employer, no particular financial pressures and to have discovered the invaluable charity WAY Widowed and Young which provides the lifeline that comes from contact with others in my situation, who truly understand and support each other through the mutual pain and loss. I have also had the advantage that, unlike many who lose their loved ones to suicide, I know and understand why Louise took her life. All of this has helped me through.  

I often ask myself what Louise would be thinking of the way in which I am coping, and what she would be doing if the situation was reversed, if it had been me who had taken my life. Always practical and clear minded in a crisis, she would be making a better job of things than I am no doubt. But I like to think that she would approve of most of the choices I have made on her behalf and be proud of my efforts. 

Recovery is still a long way off, and it will only ever be superficial. The wounds may heal but they will always be liable to be reopened, raw and bleeding, because the scar tissue which covers them will be so thin. But I sense that I am now through the very worst. I have reached the end of the beginning. And I am still alive, still fighting, and still hoping for better. That is the biggest achievement of my life.

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