Friday, 24 July 2015

Hope and Confusion

Anniversaries take on a particular emotional significance for the newly bereaved, even half anniversaries. Six months ago yesterday Louise took her life. In the process the life that I was living, and thought that I was going to live, was violently wrenched away from me. In the time it took me to read the note left on the front door I was transformed from a contented and fulfilled husband to a lonely and despairing widower.

In the days and weeks that followed I could really only understand two things; Louise was gone and I was broken. When I tried to peer into my future I saw nothing. Almost a complete void. All my life, every aspect of it, had been uprooted. I had no idea where I would live, when, or indeed whether, I would be able to return to work, how I would spend my time and who I would spend it with. The only thing that was clear was  that the coming months would bring nothing but the greatest darkness and pain of my life. I knew that it was impossible to avoid the despair and sadness grief brings. However overused it may be, the journey as metaphor is appropriate here since grief is a state of moving from one emotional place to another. You can't go round it, over it or under it and you certainly can't turn round and go back. The only option is to put your head down, accept and absorb everything that is thrown at you and to walk through the desert until conditions slowly improve and eventually you reach the other side. I had no map for that journey and no idea how long it was likely to take. It was one I had to make alone. My life would be on hold for its duration. 

Six months on, I have no clearer idea of where that journey will take me, what my 'new normal' will look like. I have, of course, established routines, coping mechanisms and rituals designed to get me through each day and deal with the loss and sadness. But they are temporary measures rather than a long term settlement. Almost everything remains unknown and in flux.

I am still in shock. Six months is not sufficient time to recover from the impact of the loss of the focus of your love, pride, hope and future, let alone sight of Louise in such violent and dreadful circumstances and the knowledge of her pain and suffering.  Life has an unreal air to it. I have moved through the past six months in the same way as I relate to a dream, experiencing but not totally feeling or understanding a world that is something like the one I recognise but bizarrely and disturbingly different in so many crucial ways.

I still live every aspect of my life in the shadow of the deepest sadness. Once I shut the front door behind me when I come home from work I am hit by a deafening crescendo of silence and an emptiness which never fails to cut me to the quick.  The slightest trigger - a photo, the sight of Louise's handwriting, an old email, anything which shows her as a whole person,  alive with the joys and possibilities of life  - is still guaranteed to reduce me to tears. I still cry on most days though it is no longer remarkable when I do not. I go to bed in the middle of the night, not because I can't sleep but because my brain is too active to allow me to stop thinking and because my body is too tired to make the effort to move from the sofa. And there is, in any case, no longer anything for me in bed - no companionship, no love, no security, no intimacy, no sex. Just a blank.

Nevertheless, I have an admission to make. I hesitate to do so because of the guilt it brings and my fear of misinterpretation. In some senses it is the hardest thing I have had to say along this journey because it does not conform to expectations; I am essentially doing OK. Better than I had anticipated, better than I had dared to hope. I am beginning, if not to live again, then at least to think about how I might soon do so. I am beginning to contemplate making plans for my future. I am proud of myself for dealing with and overcoming some of the worst possible circumstances that life could throw at me. 

If I had been told as I sat in the foetal position on the floor of the ambulance on that cold and dark January evening that my life could go on, that it still held something for me, I wouldn't have believed it.  And yet I am beginning to sense something strange. Something completely absent for so long. Not perhaps hope as such but at least the anticipation of it. The glimmer of light that I first discerned a month ago is continuing to grow. 

Something is changing. Perhaps its acceptance and an understanding that this is now my life. Not the one that I wanted or planned but the only one that I have. I am less emotional and more composed. When I cry the character and intensity of the act has changed. I no longer find myself shaken by volcanic eruptions of tears of an intensity and physicality far beyond anything which I have ever know or suspected might be possible. I no longer find myself laying on the floor literally writhing in the agony of the emotional pain. My tears are real and sad but more conventional in their flow and volume. They are tears recognisable to the non bereaved.

I am learning how to manage the loneliness. I am beginning to become accustomed to visiting friends on my own. That space on the sofa or at the dining room table next to me where Louise should be still gapes but I can mostly put it to the back of my mind. I have always been able to enjoy my own company and that now equips me to more easily cope with the long hours at home on my own. I have learnt to get through each evening by imagining it to simply be one night on my own, as if Louise was out, rather than merely one of an endless succession of lonely nights all following the same predictable pattern. The same as last night and tomorrow night and the night after. 

While everything always comes back to Louise, I find that the periods for which I can be distracted and throw off that heavy burden of grief are becoming more frequent and of a longer duration. I am currently on my first holiday without Louise - one spent surrounded by much of her extended family - and I feel surprisingly comfortable, relieved to be free from the associations and memories of the house, and able, largely, to distract myself. 

And I am beginning to look forward to certain things. To the new football season. To opening a book about something other than bereavement or spirituality for the first time since January. To a major holiday planned for the New Year. Most of all, to starting the task of building my new life. I am not ready to commence that new life yet, nor even to actively plan for it, but I now know that the day will come when I am ready to do so and perhaps relatively soon. 

The prospect of one day opening my heart to another woman no longer seems as impossible, or as repugnant as it once did. I tease myself with visions of a future relationship that gives me back some of what I have lost, perhaps even provides something new, and allows me to openly hold and honour my love for Louise. Life is desperately, sometimes cruelly, short and I am impatient to be able to break free from this grief and live it as Louise intended me to as quickly as possible.  

Its true that the shock and bewilderment, the inability to appreciate the enormity of what has happened, remain ever present. But I am coming to the conclusion that perhaps they always will. Perhaps they are beyond absorption.

All of this confuses me. Instinctively it does not feel right.  I feel guilty that I am grieving in the 'wrong' way.  I worry that it means I might not have loved Louise as much as I thought and that she will be upset at the speed of my recovery. I even wonder and worry if I am capable of the kind of love that provokes extended mourning. 

But I know that none of this is the case. I have already written about the depth and purity of my love for Louise. If I had it in my power to save her at the expense of my own life, to swap places, I would do so. So why, then, am I not still mired in acute distress? How can the intensity and rawness of the pain have been dulled to something which is usually much more manageable? How is it that I can now tentatively look forward as well as reflecting back?

The answer, I think, is simply the astonishing human capacity for resilience. George Bonanno, writing in The Other Side of Sadness, emphasises that this has been greatly underestimated. While a minority experience chronic grief reactions and risk getting stuck at that point, most people, however shocked and wounded they may be, manage to regain their equilibrium relatively quickly, at least to the point where they can start to pick up their lives again. The extent to which those people did, or did not, love is immaterial. It appears that I am not so unusual after all.

I do not want to mislead, to minimise the stunning impact of the loss of a partner at  a young age. The  re-emergence of hope and a sense of possibility is fragile and the concept of 'recovery' relative. The fact that even during the course of the two days I have been mulling over this post I have found myself broken down in tears twice illustrates that I have not yet found my way out of the desert.  In fact in many respects the journey has barely started. I shall have to live the rest of my life without Louise and the sadness and loss will always now be a part of me, branded on my heart. There will be plenty of difficult times to come and it is inevitable that on occasions I will stumble and retreat back into darkness. Its possible one of those stumbles could lead to a major fall. The next six months will bring the challenges of our wedding anniversary, Christmas and the anniversary of Louise's death and the events leading up to it. I am dreading all of these for the emotional grip that they will exert, but none as much as the last public ordeal still to be endured; the inquest.

My journey therefore continues. The ground is still rough and the landscape barren. However, I now at least feel as though I have an outline of a route and can see that I am travelling in the right direction and at a quicker rate than I thought likely. I am doing OK. 

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