Saturday, 29 August 2015

Letting Go of Grief

At every point in this journey through grief I face loss. Louise's death represented not the end of the process but the beginning. The bewildering and shocking loss of her physical presence is reinforced and multiplied by hundreds, thousands, of smaller but still significant deaths. Whenever something which was part of her life, which stood as a proxy for her existence on this planet, her part in my life, disappears I mourn all over again. When I throw away her favourite food, cancel her driving licence, remove her toothbrush from the bathroom, I experience another break with the past. I take a further painful step away from the person, and the life, that I loved so much. But there is a loss which is rarely recognised as such; the loss of grief.

By this I do not mean the loss of sadness or remembrance. They will be enduring, eternal. I would not wish it to be any other way since they are a mark of the extent to which my life has been touched by Louise, proof of the love that existed between us.  I will shed tears for Louise and her suffering for the rest of my life. Nor do I mean the loss of loneliness - if only that could be so easily waved goodbye. I don't even necessarily mean the loss of some of the individual raw emotions of grief; the despair, the guilt, the fear.

But I am approaching a point when I will have to have the courage to let go of the mindset of acute grief, of victimhood and exceptionalism.  When I stop framing my whole life in the context of Louise's death, defining myself by my loss, identifying myself primarily as a widower. When I stop looking only over my shoulder, back towards what I had, what I have lost, or looking forward only in the terms of what I will now never have. When I stop expecting to receive preferential treatment. I cannot carry the intensity of raw grief forever. It is not sustainable. It is too exhausting, too destabilising, too disabling. If I try it will destroy me. I have to let light, hope and opportunity back into my life. I have to start to live again, tentatively at first no doubt, but hopefully with increasing confidence and certainty. This, to some extent, will require a conscious decision to do so, and a determined effort to maintain it. It is the use of the power of positive thinking on a grand scale.

You might think that I would embrace the loss of grief gladly, that I would be only too keen to be rid of something so dark and destructive. And of course I am. A few days ago, after selling the car that Louise and I shared together, that took us on so many holidays, so many visits to friends and family, and in which we enjoyed so many conversations I again found myself prostrate, disabled by tears wondering when, or indeed whether, this nightmare will ever end, when the pain will stop and I can emerge in to a gentler and more hopeful world.

But the transition from grief can in itself be painful and frightening. It is a form of loss in its own right. It is very easy to cling to grief like a comfort blanket. Its become a familiar part of my life over many months. In fact its become my life, my identity. Who am I? 'I am a widower'. How am I?' 'I am grieving the loss of my wife'. That's it. Nothing else about me or my life has mattered for longer than I can now easily remember. I have become consumed by the rituals and activities of grief and memorialisation to the point where I have had no other connection with the rest of the world, no other form of conversation and precious few other forms of thought. I have come to understand the rhythms and routines of grief. In a world where I have lost almost all my reference points this is a form of certainty. A normality of sorts. 

Grief protects me from the need to plan, to think, to act. This is convenient because I know that I am not capable of doing so. It reduces peoples expectations of me to a tolerable level, one fitting to my crippled capacity.  It means that I am treated gently and with respect. And perhaps above all else its easy and comforting to come to interpret my grief as evidence of my love and a sign that I continue to hold Louise in the present. For so long as I cry every day, for so long as I feel that wretched, twisting void in the pit of my stomach, for so long as I feel myself a stranger separated from the rest of the world around me by an invisible but insurmountable barrier - for so long as I hold on to grief -  its easy to prove to myself, to others and most importantly to Louise, how much I cared for her. Grief can be taken to validate love. By clinging on to emotion I cling on to Louise. She is still here, with me, because I feel so deeply.

Letting go of all this is not easy. It means that I have to learn how to remember and honour Louise, to demonstrate my love for her, in ways which are more positive and celebratory. I have to lift my head and look towards a future that is uncertain and ill defined. I have to find the energy to make plans, take charge of my life once more, begin to take risks in establishing the new normal, work out what feels right and what doesn't. I have to allow myself once more to be judged by the same standards as others and open myself to the possibility of rejection and failure. And I have to do all these things on my own.

It also means that I have to come to terms with how others see me. While close family and friends will no doubt recognise and adjust to my development and understand me for who I am, not what has happened to me, many people will continue to define me by my loss. And as I take Louise's story out into the medical community, using the power of the personal narrative to raise funds to support the needs of doctors battling with mental illness, I will come face to face with those for whom the news of her death is fresh and find myself, yet again, the object of sympathy and condolences. None of us see ourselves as tragic figures and it is a curious and potentially destabilising thing to be viewed in this way, particularly when we ourselves are trying to find a new self. I will have to learn to accept that for many Louise's death is what I will be known for and find a way to wear this lightly, to prevent it dragging me back into the identity of grief.

There is plenty there to frighten me. And it makes me feel guilty, as if in the process of saying goodbye to grief I am also bidding farewell to Louise. Every time I laugh, every time I find myself distracted, every time I plan an activity my conscience pulls me up; 'What do you think you're doing? Don't you realise its only months since Louise died? How can you have forgotten already?'  

Nevertheless, I believe that I am ready to take the first faltering and imperfect steps beyond acute grief. It will not be easy and I will frequently fall back, perhaps particularly as Christmas and the anniversary in January of Louise's death approaches. But I can carry with me the confidence that I have acquired merely by surviving these past seven months, the knowledge that however difficult it may be to learn to live again nothing can be as challenging as what has gone before. I will not be moving on, leaving Louise behind. I will be moving forward, taking her and everything that she gave me into my new life. It is by doing this, and not by grieving, that I can most appropriately honour Louise and continue to uphold my love for her.

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