Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Exhaustion

Early on in this journey I came to the conclusion that the overwhelming experience of bereavement wasn't loss, despair, guilt or anger but love, a love for Louise of startling purity and raw intensity. That love hasn't dimmed. I will hold it for ever, Louise's most precious gift to me. But now, nearly seven months on, the overriding day to day sensation is perhaps different and somewhat less noble. It is exhaustion.

Grief hollows you out, both physically and mentally. I came to it already on my knees. While Louise's death was sudden and shockingly unexpected, we had together been fighting her severe depression for several months, managing the strains and pressures and the emotional distress this brought on a daily basis, the darkness pervading every aspect of our lives. During this same period Louise had lost her father in traumatic circumstances and my mother had been cripplingly disabled by a catastrophic stroke. Neither of us had any reserves of strength left to draw on. We agreed that we wouldn't have the capacity to deal with even the smallest further crisis.

And then I found myself dealing with the largest crisis of my life.

In the early days after Louise's death I was carried through by a cocktail of shock, numbness and a form of adrenalin. Friends and family were notified of the news, funeral arrangements were made, eulogies written, paperwork dealt with. I was rarely off the phone. The whole world, it seemed, wanted to talk to me. And I needed to talk to them. But gradually the formalities and rituals of death and commemoration were observed, the calls dried up, people returned to their lives and I was left to begin the process of coming to terms with my new reality, the grim day to day slog of life without Louise.

It's a wearisome journey in every respect, a supreme effort simply to maintain my composure, keep going and appear strong in public. The lack of sleep is physically punishing. Even those of us who once slept soundly find that in grief the facility deserts us. Four hours sleep a night is barely sustainable over seven months. Its not that I cannot sleep. In fact I am so tired its a constant struggle to remain awake. I find myself dozing off, my head dropping and eyes closing, while I am at work and talking to family and friends. I constantly fear doing so while behind the wheel of my car. The ability to drive while exhausted is, like driving while crying, a key survival technique the newly bereaved quickly acquire.

But I will not allow myself to sleep, even when I should do so, even when my body is screaming at me to switch off. My brain is so active processing thoughts, trying to make sense of what has happened that it is almost impossible to stop, even in the middle of the night. My natural body clock tends towards the late shift anyway but without Louise's restraining and moderating influences, or the motivation to discipline myself, I keep going, thinking, doing, turning night into day in the process. 

The emotional intensity is sapping. Imagine just one thought on your mind almost every waking moment for seven months. And its a destructive, despairing one.  Outside of work, and when I can escape into football on a Saturday afternoon, there has been barely no time since that January evening when I have stopped thinking about Louise's death or been doing something in some way connected with the consequences. The daily outbursts of tears, holding and processing the traumatic memories of the night itself and the events leading up to it, learning to live alone, trying to envisage and re-plan a future utterly different in every way to the one that I thought would be mine. And all the time, never far from the surface, the guilt and the 'if onlys' which play on a constant loop.

Then there is the seemingly never ending bureaucracy which needs to be attended to, the process of officially closing down Louise's life, from filing her final tax returns to returning her library books. And above all the compulsion, one which I am completely unable to resist, to spend every spare moment in some kind of activity to memorialise Louise, to honour her memory and record our lives together; to write this blog and my diary, to use recovery software to search for hours for lost fragments of video footage, to print out email and text conversations, to digitise hard copy photos and documents and print electronic ones in the interests of secure back up. I will not be able to rest until this process is complete, until I can be satisfied that Louise, the person and my marriage to her, is safely captured and stored for posterity in every possible way. It is the closest that I can come to keeping her alive, alongside me. This is now all I have left. 

Before I returned to work I at least had the time and space to grieve. In those initial weeks I could devote myself almost whole time to my needs. But they have long since somehow had to be fitted in around the demanding responsibilities of daily working life and supporting my partially dependent Mother. And when I am not working or on caring duty I have tried hard to 'do the right thing' and resist the temptation to retreat into my shell, to sit at home licking my wounds. I try to make the effort to reach out to people. Not only to maintain contact with old friends and my place in Louise's family but also to meet and interact with new people through support groups. In doing so I am partly driven by a genuine desire to help others struggling along the same path as myself but I am also mindful that some of my old networks, those built around Louise, will fail and I need to look for new ones if I am not to risk bitter and lonely isolation.

This unsustainable whirl of activity and thought leaves me exhausted, my head full, my nerves frayed. I yearn for a break, to be able to find the off switch but it seems not to exist. Relaxation is beyond me. I cannot watch TV or read a book. I have no interest or energy to do so and my concentration span is shot to pieces. A holiday would be pointless. Whenever I think about the respite it might bring I realise I am chasing an illusion because my vision of a holiday is inextricably bound up in those I shared with Louise, moments and experiences that are now gone for ever. In any event, grief and loss cannot be escaped and would follow me wherever I went. Louise's absence would be as keenly felt on holiday as everywhere else, perhaps even more so since they were times when we were never parted.

It is somewhat ironic that as I find myself stabilising emotionally I realise that I am still at risk of breakdown. The difference is that now it is less likely to be from the despair of grief or the trauma of the experience than from sheer exhaustion. I urgently need rest. I need to be able to step outside the world I am trapped within, if only for a short period. I am, however, completely unable to work out how to do so.

14 comments:

  1. Hello Gary

    Greetings from Scotland. I recognise so much of this pattern....the exhaustion, the brain that refuses to switch off, the inability to concentrate on a book or a film, the frenetic activity followed by the huge gap as you observe everyone getting on with their lives. I guess we must consider this as a normal response to unbelievable trauma. My closest friend said if I had been in a serious accident there would be months and possibly years of recovery as it is such a huge assault to the brain. I too suffer from lack of temporal boundaries, as you know I read and write during the night as my brain burns up with thoughts, memories, questions and tries yo work it all out often ending as I collapse in exhaustion only to sleep for a few short hours....But Gary I wanted you to know something....and I am at the 14 month mark....in terms of the overwhelming brain activity it DOES get easier ! A few months ago I thought I would never ever watch a film again, and I really had to force myself to do it. The watching was imperfect but I was able to watch for a few minutes at a time...A bit like taking a few steps on your own after months of not being able to walk. It's rubbish retraining yourself...in some ways I had to go through the motions but I have made progress. It's important to gain some kind of self discipline, some kind of routine...with eating and sleeping...to take care of yourself. I know it's not possible most of the time but taking a step in that direction does reduce the stress. I wish I had your way with words....to express what I mean.....but please allow healing through practicing dome mindfulness. When my husband died My mind flitted violently from one thing to the next...no respite at all, no control, exhausting and frighteningly out of control....remember when you went to see the football....when for a few moments you became absorbed in something else other than tragedy ? The mind can only deal with so much at once....you have proved it is possible ! You will continue to put together your treasure trove of memories of Louise...but do it on your own terms....allow yourself to heal with good food, with music, with the love of your friends, with football.....whatever it takes.....You are going to heal...and the loving memories will still be there just not so painfully. Your brain has received the most traumatic emotional assault it will take time. Huge hugs x

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello Sarah. Thank you for continuing to read and your encouragement. I am so glad that you are positive about your progression. I really do think that I can pull this off. Despite the odd (probably very odd!) despairing blog post I am beginning to see a path forward, a life for myself that is worth living. In an strange way that makes me quite proud. Its just that sometimes the vision gets temporarily lost in the midst of grief. If I can just sort out my chaotic sleep patterns I'm sure that I will feel much better and less tired. Its just unfortunate I have always tended to lack self discipline in that respect and now that tendency is greatly magnified. Incidentally, don't worry about not having a way with words. You write very eloquently and I am grateful for your support. I very much hope that you continue to feel your own load lighten. We will all get through this, I know. Love and hugs.

      Delete
    2. Self-discipline is not exactly my forte either. A whole bunch of folks spent the last week or so helping me to sort out my house and make our old baby-room into my new bedroom to stop me from sleeping on the sweaty sofa of despair. Most nights I still can't bring myself to go up there, even though I do sleep better if I do. I feel like I don't belong anywhere. I miss our old room and old bed, even though I know the change was the right thing to do. My new room feels echo-y and empty and foreign. I need the company of the television to help me nod off. The sofa feels familiar and normal and less of a vivid reminder that he's gone.

      Delete
    3. I've found its important to cling on to the normal as much as possible. I haven't changed or moved much at all. Louise could walk back into the house tomorrow and pretty much resume her old life straight away (if only!) because pretty much everything is still as she left it. I've drawn comfort from that. I like to be able to look around the room and kid myself that everything is all right. Nothing has happened. There are no right or wrong approaches. We just have to do whatever works for us to get through and if, for you, that means sleeping on the sofa that is absolutely fine.

      Delete
    4. I'm not sure what to do for the best. We made a bunch of changes to the house and I *think* it's for the best, but I'm not sure: https://griefisacliche.wordpress.com/2015/08/10/moving-too-fast/ and https://griefisacliche.wordpress.com/2015/08/23/stuck/

      Delete
  2. I lost my husband to cancer 6 weeks ago. We have a good friend who lost his wife several years ago. He told me that your brain has to reconnect everything differently which is a super energy consuming process. I have to admit that I was hoping the lack of sleep and the feeling of physical and emotional exhaustion was going to improve in the nearer rather than further future ...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sarah, my heart goes out to you. I am so sorry for your loss. Please don't read anything too much into the description of my journey because we each follow our own paths. There are as many different experiences of grief as there are people who have been bereaved. Broadly speaking I think I am doing as well as most and better than many but there is nothing to say that your own recovery might not come even sooner. I know that it might not feel like it right now but things do improve over time. The progression is not linear, we go backwards as well as forwards, and it is so gradual that we barely notice it. But when I look back over the last few months I can see how far I have come. In your case six weeks is very early. I didn't think so when I was at that stage but it is. Everything is still so raw and bewildering. Try not to expect too much of yourself at this point. It will get easier I promise.

      Delete
    2. One other thing Sarah, assuming that you are UK based I wonder if you have come across WAY, the Widowed and Young Foundation for those who have lost their partners under the age of 50? It is essentally a self help network of widows (mostly) and widowers who connect both online and in regular social meet ups. Perhaps its not for everybody but it has truly been my lifeline and inspiration this past seven months. I'm quite sure without the support from the group, and the realisation that I am not the only person struggling through this, I would be in a much worse and more isolated place right now.

      Delete
  3. I'm not in the UK. We are expats: living in France and working in Switzerland. I think it increases the feeling of isolation sometimes. Or maybe that's just the way it is anyway. Thanks for your kind words. I'm wishing you all the best on a beautiful Sunday morning.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'm sorry that it feels that way for you Sarah. I can see how difficult that must be. If it would be helpful for you I'm happy to share my email address with you, or use Google Circles (or whatever its called!) so we can talk offline.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hi Gary,
    You perfectly encapsulate this hideous journey, I can identify every area you brush upon and you leave no stone unturned. I am at nearly 9 months now after loosing William and I too am exhausted by the constant mind video replay .. Some days the weight and trauma are a wrecking ball on me and I simply cannot cope, those days when grid comes in so huge like that I've learnt to know that tomorrow's another day, my composure as times gone on last for longer and the daily tears. Come in bouts , less of what they used to be but when I have bad days , boy do they drown me for longer. As the festive season approaches and my sons birthday I can already feel myself wanting to run and hide away , this first year we know it's about walking through a huge storm . Thank you so much for your beautiful writing . I use the AOH a lot still, I find that useful sometimes. Take care Willsmum1

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Emily, thanks so much for your kind words. The bouts of grief that you describe are, I think, so typical of the way that most of us experience it. Its tidal, coming and going, but I do honestly believe that gradually the waves come in with less and less intensity and almost imperceptibly the seas grow calmer. Christmas will be difficult for all of us for whom its a first but the consolation I can offer on that and your son's birthday is that I have tended to find that the anticipation of major events and anniversaries is worse than the day itself. Sending you my heartfelt wishes for strength and peace

      Delete
  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete