How Grief Distorts Time

Losing your love throws the earth off its axis. It fundamentally shifts your entire universe. Your whole world is ripped apart, the ground beneath your feet shaken so hard that you don’t even know how to stand anymore. Losing your love so early in life is beyond words… your past, present and future has vanished in the blink of an eye. There’s a seismic shift so beyond words that even time itself is reconfigured. It’s not only the earth that’s out of sync, you fall out of sync.

Time doesn’t move and flow in the same way after loss. We are used to time being linear but death rips time and space apart at the seams. You’re stuck in the moment it happened yet it feels like it was an entire lifetime ago… yesterday, yet five years. It’s so raw yet you’re sometimes unsure if it really happened at all. Two seconds ago, yet you’re frozen in time. A discrepancy starts to appear in the fabric of time for you… how does it feel like it just happened yet so long ago?

Grief lives in the everyday. It lives within us… becomes a part of our DNA. Grief isn’t a one-time event where we feel sad and recover, it’s not an anniversary or a funeral, it’s a whole-body experience and we carry it everywhere we go. Grief lives in the day-to-day missing of them, the vacuum their loss has created in our lives… so maybe this surreal feeling of time being changed grows out of that; the space between living grief every day and realising it has been years that you’ve been living with it. Grief lives in the moment their food is no longer in the fridge, the moment when we can’t text them at work, when their toothbrush is missing. Time and time again. Day after day. Grief is fluid, it moves and changes with us throughout life… it is so much more than the initial shock, it reverberates through every part of life, nothing is left untouched… even time itself.

You fall out of sync, out of time, out of belonging. When something as fundamental as time itself shifts… it’s hard to find your footing again in life. When my love died, I was 26. I’m now 31 and yet a lot of me still feels frozen in time, stuck at the age of 26. My life stood still for such a long time that even though the universe keeps moving, keeps unfolding at rapid pace… I’m stuck in the middle of the haze. You try to steady your feet, to find an equilibrium, but the fact is your life has changed, the core of your entire universe has altered. Grief even changes your basic senses. You won’t eat the same again, sleep the same again, breathe the same again. Your life becomes divided between before and after loss. You will regain a lot, as time moves forward your grief will too and it becomes intertwined within you but very much a part of you. We rebuild. We search for new foundations… but we also have to acknowledge that the foundations that grief destroyed weren’t just our home. Just like René Magritte’s painting… it was the universe that was thrown off its axis. We have to rebuild the sky, the clouds, the very stability that our world was built on.

I write this in the hope to not only speak to those who have lost their partner so you know you’re not alone… but for those close to us too. Many of our friends think we’re rebuilding a house, a home that was bulldozed.  We’re rebuilding the whole sky… from scratch.

(Picture – The Universe Unmasked, René Magritte)

 

The Unwed Widow

When your love dies, you find out how lacking language is. You find yourself searching and struggling for words to put your grief into but nothing is enough… language does not have the form to express this much love and this much loss.

If you weren’t married this lack of language can be so hurtful as people use it as a way to dismiss or diminish your relationship and your grief. I still remember one of the hardest hitting comments was someone quite innocently and with no ill intent asking ‘oh, was it serious?’ after I said my boyfriend died. I hated that it needed to be asked… I hate that I needed to justify my grief or our relationship. I’ve lost count of the number of ‘you’re young and beautiful, you’ll find someone else’ comments now.

Words are powerful. They give rise to expression, help us communicate, give us community and help us find the right support. This is why I claim the word widow for myself. I lost my love, my future, all our life plans, hopes and dreams. He was my person. We were going to grow old together. We struggle about how to define ourselves in a way that society understands as we have no word for our loss. The term widow fits us outside of law because people can understand what you’ve lost if you say ‘widow’. It gives us a way to express ourselves, our loss and our love… and that means a hell of a lot to me and other unwed widows.

If you are an unwed widow struggling with this… I am here to remind you that love is the best thing we do.

The love you gave and shared with your partner is a gift. The purest form of affection and joy. I find comfort in the idea that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him… but he did spend the rest of his life with me. You made the end of your loves life infinitely better by loving them. Love is not measured in time or marriage certificates. Love is purer, kinder and more human than this.

We talked about marriage all of the time… Marky used to joke that we were engaged to be engaged to be engaged as he would always ask me to spend the rest of his life with him… especially during morning cuddles. Two months before his sudden and unexpected death he told me he knew how he was going to officially propose… and it kills me that I’ll never know what he planned, or get to have a wedding or marriage with the love of my life. We had chosen names for our future children. We even talked about our wedding on the morning of the day he died.

I wish we had gotten the chance. Our short time together or lack of official paper doesn’t make our love less than, and doesn’t make grief easier as Mariella Frostrup recently suggested. Like other young widows, we grieve the life that was meant to be, the future that was stolen from us and that part of loss is bigger than you can imagine. Some choose not to be married or have children and that doesn’t make their love less than either, true commitment takes many forms. Myself and my love would travel over 170 miles into a different country to see each other on weekends… That is a commitment to your shared love.

It took me a few months to find my biggest support, the charity Widowed and Young, as I did not think to consider myself a widow. In the early days of grief, I would be desperately googling bereavement support, searching forums and groups to try to find a place where my grief would fit. It was only on the recommendation of someone I met through one of those bereavement groups that I found my place… WAY is for those who lost their partner young. Full stop. Inclusive of all genders, sexualities and relationship statuses. I almost missed out on finding support and my community because I didn’t have the language.

This also takes a political turn… unmarried couple’s children lose out on bereavement payments that they need, deserve and should be entitled to, simply because of the marriage status of their parents. There was recently a landmark case which was won, where this was found to be in breach the Human Rights Act as it’s discrimination on the basis of marriage and birth. The Supreme Court Judge said ‘Their needs [unwed widows], and more importantly their children’s needs, are the same’ yet the Department for Work and Pensions have said the Government is not obliged to change the law following the Supreme Court’s decision.

There are times when filling out legal papers I am aware I will continue to have to select single, rather than widowed… it is painful for my tongue to form the word… like saying he never existed and our relationship never counted… and that sadly cannot be changed. What can be changed is how we accept and acknowledge people’s pain and relationships, no matter of what form they take. If you know an unwed widow, validate how painful this is for them and acknowledge how much they’ve lost.

No matter of time or paper, we lost our happy-ever-after.

On Grief and Social Media… A Love Letter to the Internet

People make statements about social media disconnecting us from real life but our use of social media is all about connecting with others.

I wouldn’t have met Marky without a facebook group about Jeff Buckley. I wouldn’t have friend requested him if he hadn’t typed the sweetest and most emotional post about people being connected through music… something in his words touched me. We didn’t even meet for years as we had busy lives in different countries but we became best friends through the internet. We shared so many in-jokes and giggles and so much of our lives through messages long before we met and fell in love in person. He was the first person I told when my dad was diagnosed with cancer and he was my biggest support when my brother was in hospital. After we met, we still had to do long distance and the internet let us keep intimacy alive even when over 170 miles apart. Since he died, I often watch people on trains smiling down at their phones. Where others see disconnect, I know those people are talking to their person, fostering new friendships or reuniting old ones.

In the worst time of my life I have been able to turn to the internet for support and community. I feel so thankful to have social media now to write about him, to share photos and express when the pain feels overwhelming and it feels like I cannot go on. When grief leaves me isolated, I can still reach out for help. I found my home in the charity Widowed and Young… this support group is a little bit of magic… finding people going through the same thing has saved my life. Our loss is understood within each other and we support each other through every part of life that grief touches (everything). It feels like a place where everyone ‘gets it’ and you don’t have to explain the nuances of grief or defend your grief to those who don’t understand… you can just share as little or as much as you want and there is always someone else who has been there. We make amazing friendships and build new foundations together in a life that none of us wanted, and that is something so beautiful.

This is before I have even mentioned how many amazing, beautiful, kind and empathetic people I met through online activism. I have met many best friends this way who inspire me greatly. Some dismiss this kind of activism and label it ‘armchair activism’ as if it isn’t worth anything but they’re wrong to do so. People organise rallies through social media, create protests, debate and find new and inventive ways to help.

We create friendships and love through the internet. We create unity and a sense of belonging. We are living in the real world and this helps us through it and connects us to people we may never have met, issues we may never have thought about and experiences we may never have been able to have without it.

Interwebs… ily.

Grief looks like me

I was the picture of grief in the earliest days, when the shock left me unable to walk and breathing ached. Grief looked like me when I’d burst out crying in public or when my mum had to desperately force feed me. Today is 2 years 9 months since my Marky died and today grief looks like me. I carry it with me always. Grief looks like me when I do my eyeliner perfectly and my hair is shiny. Grief looks like me when I talk to friends and laugh with my whole body. My grief is ongoing just as my love is.

I’ve been thinking a lot about a comment that actress Holly Matthews made in an interview about losing her husband… ‘Grief looks like me’. Grief looks like anything you can possible imagine. Sometimes you might look like a depressed wailing heap on the floor (and trust me I have been there and I am the Queen of crying on public transport!) but sometimes you put your makeup on and go to work and smile, interact with the world seamlessly and no one knows how much you’re battling to survive. I always liked that quote… Be kind, for everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about.

Today marks 1005 days of grieving. 1005 since my love died and these days people look at me slightly oddly when I say I am grieving or have had a bad grief day, as if the act of grieving was a static place in time and I should be past that now. I know many widows who wish for the Victoria era of black mourning clothes so we can tell the world that we feel fragile, yet so far along in this journey I would be looked at quite oddly even in Victorian times for still wearing my black veil. I believe grief is something you carry with you for life… it gets easier to handle and feels lighter at times, a huge dull weight at others and sometimes you learn a new way of carrying it. It changes shape constantly and fluctuates but you carry it with you always… ‘Some things in life cannot be fixed, they can only be carried’ writes Megan Divine. My love died utterly suddenly and unexpectedly. Within one minute his life stopped and my entire universe changed and I will always carry this with me as I love him, it matters, it hurts. He was magical and he was beautiful and our lives will forever be deeply intertwined. Yet in our culture when the supposed time for grieving has passed, people don’t understand why or how you are still grieving or how much it effects every part of your life. It is not something to be scared of but to embrace. If you have a friend who has lost someone, ask them how they are today, mention their loves name because it will help. Death is such a natural part of life yet we run scared of it rather than embracing the pain. Sometimes we need to embrace the pain. We want to say their names and tell their stories. We want to smile at those memories but we also want to cry when it stabs us unexpectedly. We want to share it with you on the bad days and the good, but we’re stuck in a culture that tries to shut down pain.

Today you will have passed strangers in the street who have just lost someone, friends who lost their parent a few years back, colleagues who lost their best friend 10 years ago and for no reason at all, today their grief might have hurt just that little bit more… whether on day 1 or 1005. Grief looks like us all because grief is a natural part of life, we need to stop running from it and open ourselves up to the idea that grief lives with us, not opposite.

A letter to the doctor who compared losing my partner to losing a pet rabbit

My first GP said I was young and beautiful and I would find someone else

A nurse said she was sure I would feel better in a month

Friends compared my love dying to a break-up or divorce

You compared losing my love to losing a pet

Many people told me it would make me a better person

In the long run… stronger, more sensitive, more able

When my world was disintegrating at the seams

Many well-meaning people told me

I would love again

Many people wanted to help,

By absenting my pain.

You’re the first place people turn to after loss. When the police came to my house near midnight to tell me my love had been found dead in the street I remember I just wanted to walk. I felt like I could keep walking for the rest of my life. I kept repeating tell me this isn’t real tell me this isn’t real tell me this isn’t real… I had no idea what to do or what happens now. The next morning I went to see my doctor.

The morning my rabbit died I had to get up at 4:30am as I was on the morning shift. I was heartbroken, he was a beautiful companion and he had been in my family for seven years. I did go to work… and the day after, and the day after. I didn’t need anti-depressants to keep me alive, I didn’t want sleeping pills to just-for-the-love-of-god help me sleep… my dreams for the future weren’t utterly shattered to pieces and although I loved that little bunny my future still existed. It is wrong I have to even type these words… to explain to someone why losing the love of your life is simply not the same as losing your pet. It’s not the same as losing your parent. It’s not the same as losing your sibling. It’s not the same as losing your grandparent. It is not the same as any other loss as each loss is different and should never be compared.

Your words not only tried to compare but they exposed a sad picture of how our culture views grief. You used losing a pet rabbit as an example to tell me I should be coping better. If your pet rabbit had died, you would expect to be feeling better by now. You wouldn’t be coping by taking pills. In your eyes I was failing. I was grieving wrong. I was taking too long. I was too sad, for far too long.

We label people with complicated grief when it doesn’t fit into our standards. We desperately want the bereaved to move on… a phrase that feels like acid to our skin. We try to cover their pain with platitudes about healing and finding another love, as if one love replaces another or that falling in love with another would stop our grief dead in its tracks. Excuse the image. The bereaved are always too much.

So let me tell you a secret that all bereaved people know, no matter who they have lost. The first two to three years after a loss is the immediate aftermath. Then the beginning starts. The beginning is when we start to be able to live rather than survive, when hopefully, we can move with our grief instead of against it and build a life around it. Our grief is messy, strident, consuming and yet invisible to you at the same time. All bereaved people know this secret that grief is life-long. It does not mean we are broken. It means we’re human, we loved and still do.

When you dig down to the roots of the thing, there lays something that isn’t nothing, it isn’t emptiness, it is love with no place to go… it is love that still grows and love is a powerful thing. Yet you view us as weak. I turned to you for help, you’re in a trusted position. I came away from seeing you feeling more isolated than ever, feeling like the only people who would ever understand were those who were also widowed… and suddenly the world looked very narrow, very disconnected.

I wish I could write to you what grief feels like but there is a reason I call my writing a nameless pain… language does not have the words to express this. Each loss is unique, even when they share so much… there are universal experiences but so much is individual. Your words came from a place of judgement but many try to compare losses in a desperate attempt to connect and show us they care… but no loss is the same.

 

I feel some hope that there are charities trying their best to get our not so hidden secret into the minds of others. The bereaved community feel like we’ve been screaming it at the top of our lungs for years yet nothing changes. The charity Widowed and Young has many resources for outsiders to read. The Good Grief Trust aims to bring all bereavement charities and organisations together, so no one slips through the net and no one feels alone.

If you’re a doctor and reading this, or a nurse, or a friend… please pass this message on. We need to be heard. Please stop trying to absent our pain.

Love isn’t passive

Love doesn’t stop just because death takes the person away from our physical presence on this earth. I think love continues to be a very active thing… an ongoing feeling and experience. Love isn’t passive… it remains exuberant and outspoken. That’s why I still love ‘doing’ things for Marky, because my love continues to grow and that bond is still expanding. The grief is so intense because the love is so intense.

Happy Anniversary, my love.

Explaining the unexplainable

You wake up at 4am drenched in sweat. Other people tell you reality takes a minute to hit but for you it punches you fresh in the face… your partner is dead.

I am constantly analysing my dreams since my Marky died. They try to fix puzzles, to solve the mystery… where did he disappear to? Where did he go? Why did he suddenly vanish? How do I process this?

I am two years into this and my dreams and nightmares remain the same. My mind is trying to fix this, solve this, come up with an answer somehow. In some of my dreams he is a missing person, in others he is dead, in others he is dead but has come back to life, in others he has left me and we haven’t talked in years, in others he is dead and remains dead but can communicate with me, in others he is dead but doesn’t realise and can’t understand why I am so affected by his death that never happened, in some he is dead and has returned and cannot understand why I am so paranoid about him dying again.

My mind has thrown up every possible scenario about where my beloved has gone. They all ache. The traditional stages of grief (which were originally about people dealing with their own death, not others) did not tell us that the idea of acceptance of death is really so misinformed. I can stare you straight in the eyes and tell you my Marky died. I saw his dead body. I kissed his cold forehead and whispered to his dead corpse that I would love him for eternity. I saw his body lowered into the ground by his friends. I took earth into my palms and scattered it in the ground. I know he is dead… but tell that to my dreams? They will not believe you.

I have spoken to many fellow widowed friends who have found the same, our minds seem to confront us with every rational possibility of what may have happened to them in our dreams. Disappearance? Check. Vanished? Check. Cheated? Check. Argued? Check. Died? Check… but how? Found by MI5 for a crime? Check. Living a double life? Check. Died and then came back to the living? Check. Died but has to be careful about death? Check. Died but came back as a different form? Check. Died but came back and died again? Check. Check Check. Check. Check.

What is acceptance? I can tell you he is dead, but evidently my mind is playing tricks on me and is still trying to explain his sudden disappearance from my life.

My mind has thrown up every possible scenario about where my beloved has gone. Because nothing explains it. Nothing will ever explain it.