Saturday, 23 January 2016

The Longest Year

My Sweetheart, it's now exactly a year since the fog swirling around in your mind became so dense that it obscured all hope, a year since you took what you saw as the only practical solution open to you in order to ease the pain. It's a year since we cuddled up to each other in bed, a year since I heard you tell me that you love me, a year since I saw your smile, felt your touch or shared your presence. It's a year since I last read to you, made you your favourite cup of mint tea or massaged away the tensions of your day. It's been the longest year of my life, one in which I have hurt over you more than I ever thought it was possible to hurt, cried over you more than I ever thought it was possible to cry and loved you more than I ever thought it was possible to love.

It's a year which I never thought would end, a horizon which at first I couldn't even imagine, much less see. As I lay on my sister's sofa covered in blankets, shivering with shock and willing that first interminable sleepless night of widowhood away I was able to think only in terms of surviving minutes. Gradually, as time passed this became hours, days and then weeks until, eventually, I knew a significant victory had been won; I had stopped counting the weeks and started counting the months. At every small landmark on the way, at first every Friday, then in time every 23rd of the month, I found myself surprised, and a little proud, to have reached that point, both relieved to have put distance between myself and that hideous evening but deeply sad at the distance that was also emerging between us.

I still worry about you endlessly; whether and what you are thinking, feeling, experiencing. I struggle to comprehend your reality now. I wasn't with you when you died but I have been able to piece together most of your last day, what you did and said and, by extension, what you felt. I imagine over and over the sight of your last moments, though curiously it  is only in the last few days that it has occurred to me to wonder about the sound of that struggle. Every time that I stand outside the front of the house and prepare to enter it, or look out of the window, particularly in the dark, I remember those moments this night a year ago, beyond chilling, beyond words, when I stood locked outside the house knowing that you were inside, dead. Every time that I walk through the hallway I picture you as I found you.

I have done things during this long year which I never imagined I would have to do and would not wish on my worst enemy. In the early weeks particularly each day seemed to bring a new previously undreamed of horror; walking through the door of the undertakers to arrange your funeral, spending hours on the phone to the Coroners Office in order to establish whether your body would be released in time for it, sitting alone in a candlelight room saying goodbye to the waxy half-likeness of your body, trying to find the words for my eulogy, having to announce your death over and over to dozens of call centres as I dealt with the endless bureaucracy. Even the day that I paid off our mortgage was one of the saddest of my life. 

I am exhausted. Grieving is a full time occupation. It consumes all my emotional energy and saps my physical reserves of strength through sleeplessness and the restless, incessant drive to memorialise you, to honour you and to preserve your memory. Almost everything that I do is connected in some way to the events of twelve months ago. I look back far more than I look forward. My concentration span is shot to peices. I am still unable to contribute at work in quite the same way as I was before, operating at only three quarters capacity. I find it difficult to motivate myself to do anything which is not connected to you. Getting out of bed on (usually) a morning is the hardest part of the day.

And then there is the loneliness as I struggle to adapt to living alone for the first time in my life; The silence and stillness around the house, the cold and empty side of the bed next to me, the empty chair at the dinner table. The lack of anybody to discuss my day with, to share experiences with, the absence of human touch. The lack of your comforting presence by my side when I wake in the early hours after a nightmare and realise that the reality is worse than the dream. 

It's a cruel irony that it is precisely because you have gone that I need you more than ever. Perhaps the very lowest point of all was when, watching the hearse slowly approach the crematorium, I turned to see that everybody around me was huddling in the arms of their partners for comfort but at my greatest moment of need, the lowest point of my life, I could not do the same because you were in the coffin.

I know that to those who have not experienced a loss such as this it will sound as if I am not coping, not 'moving on'. I have received much advice over this year, all of it well intentioned, much of it wise but some of it hurtful in it's simplistic ignorance of the complexity of the emotions of grief. I smile politely and refrain from asking how somebody who has not experienced this most shattering and unique of losses can presume to know what I should be doing and how I should be feeling.

But please do not worry about me Louise. There is no need. If I have learned anything during this year it is the remarkable power of human resilience. It is almost as if my brain has shut part of itself down in order to protect me from the worst aspects of the shock and trauma. The whole experience has seemed so bewildering, so unreal, that I can barely relate to it as my own. I still cannot grasp the simple fact that you have died and I have been widowed. At the very worst moments I have floated through almost as if it were an out of body experience, present but not feeling, observing rather than participating. It makes the unendurable durable.

I take great pride in the fact that I have got through without a major breakdown. I still function, still go to work, still meet my other family caring responsibilities. I still watch Brentford every week and, to my surprise, find that the outcome genuinely matters to me. Despite the memories of this night a year ago I am still at least tolerably relaxed in the home that we built together, able to take comfort from your association with it and the sense of continuity and normality. I have been holed but have not sunk. It is the greatest achievement of my life. I have emerged from the year with a new self confidence, a sense that if I can deal with this I can deal with anything.

And there have been other achievements too. Bereavement has led me to some strange places. In the course of the year I have been inspired to do things that I would previously have thought beyond me, that I would never have had the courage or the initiative to do were it not for my burning need to honour you and to look after myself in a manner which I hope you approve of. I have set up a charity, become a blogger, written a book, travelled further than I have ever done before, spoken at a medical conference, fulfilled our promise to investigate Quakerism, and participated in and established networks of suicide survivors. 

And I know that you will be most surprised of all to learn that I have cast aside my natural shyness to wholeheartedly plunge into a whole new social world. Some friends have fallen by the wayside, perhaps those who did not know how to reach out to me, or were afraid to do so. I have not had the time or the energy to take the initiative on their behalf. But other friendships, some of them unlikely, have grown out of the generous support offered to me. I am honoured to be even closer to many of your friends, and your family, than I was before, enabling me, in a sense, to continue to represent you. And beyond that I have joined a whole new social network of fellow widows and widowers, emboldened by the thought that you would wholeheartedly approve.

So, I have finally reached the long anticipated anniversary, a date redolent with meaning and symbolism. I have found myself becoming increasingly distracted over the past week and more tearful than for some months. Much thought went in to deciding  how best to mark the occasion - not just the anniversary itself but yesterday too, the equivalent day of the week, the day when the rhythms most closely matched those of your last. It was important to be where I should have been the evening that you died - at home. A candle from our last holiday together in Sicily flickers as I reflect and write.

That reflection enables me to understand that the anniversary effectively marks two quite different things. It is clearly about endings; your life, our time together. It is a moment to look back on what has gone, to remember you and recall with deep sadness the agony of your last moments, moments which I am replaying in my mind minute by minute as the day wears on, building to the very eye of your storm. The day marks one year of life that you have lost, of things that you have missed out on. And for me, one year of separation from you. It is a figure which will grow inexorably. I hold on desperately to the hope that you are now so happy that you have not missed that year, but I do not have the certainty of faith to properly reassure me.

But the anniversary also marks a beginning; the start of my subsequent journey through life without you. The symbolism is strong. Whilst it too is a story of sadness it is one which allows the possibility of recovery and re-growth.

There is a sense of triumph over adversity simply to have reached this point. I often use the metaphor of a journey because it feels very much like a transition from one place of being to another. But perhaps this feels more like successfully scaling a mountain. I can't help believing that now the shape of my grief will change, that I will give myself more permission to move forward. That does not mean forgetting you, or letting go of my love for you. Nor even does it mean that I will stop mourning your loss. But perhaps I will now feel able to begin to grow the rest of my life around that loss, allow myself to smile, relax and enjoy myself without guilt, to lift my head and look forward as well as back.

I'm aware of the dangers of investing too much hope in the landmark. So much focus is placed on completing the first year that it's easy to forget that nothing substantive will magically change. When I wake up tomorrow morning you will not have returned. I will merely be faced with the reality of the grind of starting the second year of the long journey without you. I know that this can be a difficult time in itself.

I am, however, extremely glad that I am now here rather than where I was this time last year. The very worst is over and I have got through it. If on that Friday evening twelve months ago I had been able to look forward to this point today I would have been largely relieved at what I saw. My life is infinitely poorer and sadder than it was with you.  I have travelled a difficult path and there is further, much further, to go. I will in fact never stop walking it until the day that I join you once more. But despite the occasional detour into difficult terrain the path gets easier to follow and sometimes, unexpectedly, grants me a wonderful blessing en route. 

I would never have chosen this direction for myself but having been given it I have found that it makes it easier to endure if I accept it, attempt to understand it and hope that I will in time begin to enjoy the journey. At least I know now what I didn't when I stood twelve months ago, just a few feet from where I write this now, and looked into your open but unseeing eyes; it is a journey that I can and will survive. And I am doing it as much for you as I am myself. My Sweetheart Louise, my best friend, my hero, my hope, my inspiration, my beautiful wife; I miss you so much. I love you so much.


  1. Nodding my head here, you write it so well. What a horrible road.

    1. Thanks Katherine. It is, and it breaks my heart that any of us have to take it.

    2. Gary thank you for putting into words the pain, sorrow and above all the guilt I feel as I walk this path into a future without him. Our beginnings are different but our journeys are the same.

    3. Thank you Joanne. I hope that you can hold on to a vision of that future which is better than your present, even if it seems far distant at the moment. Not the future that you wanted, but still something worth reaching for. Wishing you peace, strength and hope.

  2. Heartbreaking but beautiful .

  3. Dear Gary, I am of friend of Anne-C├ęcile and met Louise from time to time in France and here in London. Needless to say her smile is always on my mind, but now that I read you, I think she met such a talented man. Your words are beautiful and I admire the way you go through this difficult time. I can't find any words myself to tell you how I wish you feel happy more and more often.

    1. Thank you very much Claire, that's so kind of you. I'm not remotely talented really, but Louise was so special and inspirational that it is very easy to write about her.