It wasn't just Louise's life which stopped on that January evening. Although mine was not ended it has effectively been on hold ever since. As each successive day has given way to another and the rawest of grief, the acute pain, has gradually subsided, I have stumbled my way through ten months on automatic pilot, seeing, doing, but rarely feeling. Anaesthetised by shock, I have survived but achieved nothing else. Whereas before life was rich with a succession of moments which I savoured and hoped to be able to remember for ever, no new memories have been created in the course of the last 10 months. Nothing has happened which interests or excites me, nothing which I will ever wish to remember. The year has been a void, offering nothing more than the daily grind of getting by. Stabilisation, it seemed, was all I could realistically hope for at present.
But out of nowhere this monochrome life has suddenly been splashed with colour. A weekend in Bruges with nearly 30 of my new friends in the community of young widows has transformed my horizons, serving to remind me that life retains the capacity to be good. Not right, and certainly not better than it was before. But still good, and that is revelatory.
I have been uplifted by spending three days in the company of resilient, wise, compassionate, inspirational and brave people, all of whom have known tragedy, all of whom have a heartbreaking story to tell, but all of whom have chosen to fight for a new life over surrender to the loss of the old. It was good humoured, supportive, sometimes reflective, sometimes raucous and, ultimately, immensely hopeful. Almost every one of us was re-learning how to enjoy ourselves, testing and revelling in our ability to do so within the context of a safe community and the certainty of mutual understanding. Within this bubble, surrounded by others in a similar position, we were normal again.
It's true that there were tears and conversations of the type that would have made those listening in on adjacent tables recoil with horror (close familiarity with death leads to a certain casual attitude towards the detail of it which can be shocking to those removed from the experience). But the weekend was also filled with the normal tourist activities; over eating, drinking, shopping and sightseeing.
And most of all, there was laughter. Much of the humour was as black as coal, directed at our own fate. Mocking bereavement, particularly when there is safety in numbers, allows us all to feel a little braver. But there was also the banter and good humoured teasing to be found in any large high spirited group. I laughed more in three days than I have in the past ten months. And it was not the shallow mechanical laughter which has been the best I could manage up to now, but deep, genuine and instinctive. I had forgotten what it felt like to experience pleasure and fun. And now I did so not just for a few moments, or even hours, but sustained over an entire long weekend.
Even better, I was able to display that happiness without fear of giving the wrong impression about the extent of my recovery. I had no need to worry that my smiles and laughter might be misinterpreted. Here, everybody understood that a good weekend did not mean that I no longer loved Louise, no longer missed her or no longer mourned her. It did not mean that I was back to normal, that somehow things were now all right again. Here it was understood that it simply meant I was enjoying some respite. It was not a cure but a release.
I still felt Louise's absence, of course, but my time was so full and the company so good that it no longer seemed quite so oppressive. It was no longer my sole focus. The relentless pressure was lifted, the skies cleared and a shaft of sunlight shone through. So much so that for the first time since Louise died I felt the desire to remember the moment. This is the first positive new memory that I have made, the first hesitant entry in the blank journal of my new life. I found myself wanting to record the weekend, to capture and hold its spirit. I once more lost myself in taking photos, absorbed in the moment, and looked for souvenirs, including that mug, to mark the occasion for posterity.
That this liberation should happen at all was a surprise. But the fact that it occurred just days after the ordeal of Louise's inquest, a botched process seemingly designed to cause maximum pain to those who loved her, was quite extraordinary. The strange course of widowhood struck me again and again. If I had been able to clear my stunned mind for a moment back on that darkest of January evenings what would I have thought had I known that it would lead directly to my presence here, in a Belgian bar in the early hours of the morning in the company of a group of widows and widowers?
There is a price to pay for the happiness and it is, inevitably, in guilt. Guilt that I should be enjoying myself when Louise is no longer here and incomprehension that just ten months after finding her body I can obtain this release. There is bitterness too. I have this second chance, the opportunity to re-start my life, but Louise doesn't. Not for the first time I wonder why it was her and not me, why the fates decided that the less deserving of the two of us should survive and be able to go on and enjoy moments like these. Louise was younger than me, more gifted than me, physically healthier than me. She was able, by virtue of her profession, to offer the world more than me and had a much wider spread of family and friends to feel the pain of her loss.
The return home was filled with apprehension. Acutely conscious that the moment was over and the contrast with reality would be stark, I stood in front of the empty and darkened house just as I had done the night that Louise died, dreading the loneliness and the inevitable tears that I expected to overwhelm me once I stepped inside.
And there were tears. But a week later the almost euphoric afterglow, shared with so many others who made the same trip, is not quite dimmed. In one sense nothing has changed. Louise is still dead, I am still alone. Yet this journey can surely never be quite as bad, quite as hopeless, again.
The pain of Louise's loss will not shrink and nor would I want it to. But for the first time I can begin to see how life can grow around it to the point that it is no longer all consuming and it no longer defines me. I am crying again. But this time the tears are of relief because now I know that it is possible to get through this and live once more. Others have promised me that this will happen but I have now experienced it for myself. I have tasted good and will do so again. Happiness is attainable. Opportunity genuinely exists. Suddenly I can glimpse other signs of positivity and hope. I really am going to get through this.
As I opened the front door on Sunday evening, waiting for me in the post was a parcel containing the joining instructions for a holiday I am treating myself to, a once in a lifetime trip that I am increasingly excited about. More new memories wait to be created.