Saturday, 2 April 2016

Grief Work

As I sat huddled in a foetal position on the floor of the ambulance the night that Louise died, I had no conception of what the future held. Everything that I knew about it, without exception, had been stripped away from me. I was staring into a void, both bewildering and terrifying for its complete lack of form. Five minutes was an impossibly distant and unknowable horizon. I had no clue what was going to happen once the paramedics and police had finished speaking to me, never mind where or how I was going to live from now on.

Some 14 months later there is the comfort of the structures, routines and social networks which have developed over time in order to fill that void. They may only be interim solutions while I complete the task of steadying myself but for the time being that is good enough. I have stumbled, more by accident than design, into a new life of sorts. 

And I often reflect on the astonishment I would have felt as I sat in the ambulance had I been able to know some of the unlikely and slightly surreal things I would find myself doing as a direct consequence of the events of that evening. The journey through grief and loss has led me to the strangest of places and activities in the urgency of my need to process my experience and appropriately honour Louise and our marriage; speaking at medical conferences, becoming a blogger and writing a book, working with doctors and other experts to establish a charity of some potential substance in Louise's name, sitting in the early hours of the morning in a crowded bar in Belgium with a large crowd of young widows and widowers completely unknown to me months previously, marking the arrival of the New Year 6,000 miles from home in the sweltering shadow of the majestic Table Mountain.....and now possibly the most bizarre experience of all for somebody accustomed to mediocrity and quiet suburban anonymity; conducting a radio interview to be heard across the planet.

One of the privileges of writing this blog is the connections it provides with others walking the same path. Through these I found myself a few days ago speaking to the 'Weekend' programme on the BBC World Service about the experience of grief and widowhood. As I sat waiting for the sound engineers to complete their checks I couldn't help but feel saddened at the irony that the most energetic and creative period in my life, and perhaps the most interesting experiences and noteworthy achievements of my life, have been borne directly out of tragedy and, paradoxically, come at a time when I am more exhausted than I ever thought it was possible to be. One day I will look back and wonder how I did all this, particularly on four and a half hours sleep a night.

Non widowed friends kindly suggest that this frenetic burst of activity is a sign of my bravery and resilience, that I am somehow remarkable for my efforts, but it feels very different from my side of the fence. While this should not be the way that energy is released and potential is realised, the desire to do and achieve and the seeds of self growth contained within it is another of those curious hidden blessings in grief that so many of us discover. I have responded in the way that I know best, by talking and writing. Others do so in different ways but the stimulation and the effect is, in many cases, largely the same.

In part perhaps it simply reflects a desire to live life more urgently. We now better understand its fragility and its transience. We know what it is like for somebody to disappear from view in an instant. A living, breathing person, just like us with the same human hopes, fears and responses suddenly and inexplicably gone, vanished from our sides without trace to a place completely unknown. Next time it may be us and we all have much that we want to do before then. 

But more than that, it is our love for our lost partners that drives us to new levels of achievement and forces us beyond our comfort zones as we seek to celebrate them, secure their legacy, make them proud of us and hold on to some essence of them, even if only by pursuing a cause or an activity meaningful to them. It is almost as if the love that we can no longer give to them in person finds its outlet instead as a source of energy, inspiration and courage. A bundle of nerves before the radio interview, every instinct told me to turn and run but that was never a possibility; in some vague sense I was doing this for Louise.

It is also, of course, a way of rationalising our loss, making sense of what is otherwise bewildering, grossly unfair and pointless. If we can continue to harness that energy, better ourselves and the world around us, then at least we have something to cling on to amidst the wreckage of our lives and hopes. It is not much of a consolation - selfishly I would much rather have Louise by my side than change the world - but it provides some motivation and purpose when we need it most.

In a sense this is a literal manifestation of the concept of 'grief work'. It doesn't come easily but then nothing on this journey does. I suspect there may also be a less noble motivation too, on my part at least; fear. Fear that if I stop running as hard as I can I will fall to the ground and may not be able to pick myself up. I am being sustained by momentum alone.  Sometimes I wonder what will happen when I finally allow myself to slow down for a moment. 

I am exhausted. But I hope that Louise is somehow aware of what is being done in her name and proud of me for doing it. I mustn't let her down.

Listen to the interview (the feature starts at 44:56 and I can be heard at 48.34)

1 comment:

  1. Words are inadequate to reply your blog. Look forward to hearing your broadcast. xx