Grief and The Fluctuating Future

When your love first dies, the lights of the universe are switched off.  

Time moving feels wrong, you want to scream at the sun for rising and you wonder how you’ve landed in this apocalyptic existence. People will tell you of a time when the pain eases, when your life will return to normal somehow… what they don’t realise is that normal doesn’t exist for you any longer. It cannot exist because the most central person to all of your hopes and dreams has gone… but it goes deeper, bloodier than that. I lost my ability to daydream when he died because it’s not only my future with him that stopped existing, but any future at all. I’ve always been a daydreamer… yet suddenly all I could see was such dark black that everything ceased to exist. There was no life, no air to breathe, the colour didn’t just drain from the world… the world ceased to exist under a blanket of darkness. Grief reconfigures so much of your life that it’s natural for the very concept of a future to feel alien. You’ve just fallen out of sync with the only life you ever knew and the trauma blocks vision.

At first the pain was all I could see. The idea of being in this much pain forever felt horrific, yet equally horrific was the idea that the pain would ease… because that would mean he really was dead and I had no idea what my life would look like, a life of After Him. I didn’t want that life. I was desperate for the pain to ease yet terrified of what that means… terrified that I’d be in this intense pain forever and equally terrified that the pain could ever go. That was much of what early grief was for me.

The truth is time doesn’t heal, it gives us space to absorb this loss into your life and learn how to carry it so we can become friends with our grief, a constant companion walking by our side. The intensity of the pain lightens as time gives us the space to build our lives around loss so we can move forward and find new joys… and that, right there, is one of the biggest things that made me realise I could survive this… joy and grief can co-exist.

There was a shift somewhere deep inside me when I realised that I didn’t have to let go of loving Marky and missing him to move forward and find new joys. I felt so much lighter when I realised new happiness and old grief can co-exist. We carry that grief and love and suddenly a future looked possible, with him still by my side, just in a different form. I can’t tell you of an exact crystalised moment that a future felt possible… I think grief lives within us and becomes so interwoven with the fabric of our lives that one day you just realise that the future doesn’t look as terrifying anymore. I still have no idea what the future looks like, but it wasn’t overwhelming darkness anymore. There’s a viral tweet that really spoke to me… ‘You don’t have to be hopeful about the future, it’s enough to just to be curious about what is coming.’

Of course, when you realise a future is possible it is terrifying in a myriad of new ways. Grief makes us simultaneously feel like nothing can hurt us again as we’ve been through the worst imaginable already… yet also makes us feel more fragile to hurt. Invulnerable yet supremely vulnerable at the same time… which is difficult to hold.

Rebuilding a life where every plan has been thrown away is hard. I’ve found the future fluctuates for me… sometimes I am hopeful, sometimes I am scared, some of my plans pre-grief still exist and parts of me are coming back, equally some parts of me are forever changed, reborn. Living with grief isn’t an either/or… we contain a multitude of seemingly contradictory emotions, overwhelming loss and overwhelming joy are not opposites, we walk through this life with a permanent amputation now. Grief doesn’t give us only two choices, to look to the past or to look to the future… we can hold both.

If you’re in raw grief… hold on, you don’t have to look to the future right now, I know that it doesn’t exist for you right now. If you’re in the darkness, those of us further along will hold your hand through it.

When your life falls out of the present tense

When my love first died, I found I didn’t have words for my life anymore.

I never knew which tense to speak in… using past tense broke my heart, I wasn’t ready for it… but the present tense also became confusing and painful. I felt I couldn’t join conversations anymore. If a conversation was happening about a favourite band of ours, I couldn’t say ‘we love them’ as that is speaking of him in the present, I couldn’t say ‘we loved that band’ as it puts me into the past tense and leaving him out of the equation to say that I love that band feels like it denies my present, my memories and my best friend’s life.

It left me tongue tied… like my entire life had fallen out of the present tense onto this surreal plane of existence that was entirely different, yet I looked exactly the same to those around me.

I found it wasn’t just that people were awkward with my pain and grief, they seemed to be uncomfortable with my happy memories and love too. Averted gazes when I talked about a holiday we had, uncomfortable silences filled the room like a ghost lingering over me. Mark was and is my best friend, when he died so suddenly, I was spun out of orbit… all roads led back to him, every single thing had a connection to him yet I felt like I had a gagging order over my life.

I don’t want my life to become a history book and I’ve found the art of carrying my grief is about holding the past and future simultaneously. Six years into this surreal new life and I still switch tenses and I still want to talk about my life with him, because he is forever present for me, a part of my life and our love that I carry with me and is interwoven with the strands of a new life that I am trying to rebuild. I am bringing him with me… he is not consigned to a chapter of my past or an event for people to talk about in hushed tones… he was and is my love. He is the most beautiful person and I will always be in love with him – and what do you do when you’re wholly in love with someone? You shout it from the damn rooftops!

This doesn’t mean I am stuck or I am refusing to rebuild a new life… I honour my grief and my Marky’s life by telling his story, our story and letting the world know.

We lose so much when our person dies, we lose a shared language, all our secret in-jokes and knowing looks, our person who knows us inside-out. We even lose some of our memories… have you ever remembered an awesome thing that happened and had a conversation where your memories bounce off each other? You miss the only other person who was there in that moment, who shared it with you, to remember details and giggle about it with you.

When we can’t join normal, every day conversations it compounds that feeling of our life having fallen out of the present tense… We want to talk about them. We now live lives of a seeming duality, holding the sadness of grief and the bursting passion of love. Grieving widows contain a multitude of emotions, whole worlds craving to express themselves, to be present, to be heard, to be lived – as our present is so painful but still our lives, our stories and our love.

On Grief Dreams

We process huge loss and grief at night… We dream about them coming back from the dead, or being half-dead… My dreams come up with elaborate answers to explain where he has vanished to so suddenly. My grief dreams have been trying to understand and fix this for years now, to solve it like a drama murder mystery. In some of my dreams he is a missing person, in others he is dead but has come back to life, in some he’s come back from the dead and can’t understand why I’m so paranoid about him dying again (while I scream at him that he can’t go for a run because he just died and has to be careful with his heart!), in others he has left me and we haven’t talked in years… in some he has fallen out of love with me, or found love with someone else. I’m often searching and I am often confused. He is so often within reach but I cannot reach him… which echo the night he died and I am desperately trying to contact him. The dreams make me search for him… endless puzzles with every answer other than he obvious… he died.

Our minds process death and how someone is missing from our lives on a multitude of levels… they peel off and crumble at different moments and often in our dreams. Dreams show our grief in the way of a puzzle… our minds take such a long time to process what death is, that our dreams treat it like solving a riddle of ‘where have they disappeared to?’ so they test out different scenarios to make it make more sense… testing out different puzzle pieces to see if one fits and makes sense.

My mind has thrown up every possible scenario about where my beloved has gone… because how do you accept the permanence of death? What is acceptance? It’s an easy word to say but not to comprehend. Even though we know our partners would never ever have wanted to break up with us or weren’t kidnapped by MI5, our poor brains are still telling us it’s still more likely than death as death is utterly overwhelming and utterly illogical. Sometimes it feels like the dreams confront death itself… many of us have disturbing ones where our loves come back half-dead, zombie-like… decaying and parts falling off them as we desperately try to ‘re-build’ them, but they’re not there, they’re not the same. It’s like looking death in the eyes. I had these ones years ago and they still make me shudder.

Our minds are clinging and grasping for that logical answer… the permanence of death is too shocking.

This is not denial of the fact they have died. I saw my love’s body in the chapel of rest. I kissed his cold forehead and told him I love him. I saw his body lowered into the ground. 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. Our minds are trying to explain the unexplainable… what is death? There is no explaining the unexplainable permanence of death.

The first year of grief I would describe like a horror film… Your organs have been ripped out but somehow you are left alive. You don’t know how one human body can hold pain like this. The second year of grief is debris and puzzles… you’re left with pieces of a life that don’t make sense. They look alien. They’re illogical, just like the grief dreams. You stare at this debris as if it could possibly make sense but you’re still working with an illogical puzzle, you’re trying to make a puzzle work that is missing huge pieces and all the edges don’t fit with each other and don’t slot into place. Grief dreams keep trying to form a shape out of our experiences and make them make sense… but they need time, a lot of time.

My most recent grief dreams as someone five years into grief have haunted me in a different way. I have dreams where my love is the backstory… he is there, a constant presence… yet I don’t talk to him. I wake up and feel angry and disappointed in myself… why on earth didn’t I speak to him? I’ve been wanting to connect and to talk to him for so many years now… yet I didn’t when I had the chance in my dream. He was there and I didn’t speak to him. I felt so upset with myself waking up from this dream but on reflection I think it is my mind placing him into my current life. I understand he is no longer here… but he is a constant undercurrent in my life, my guide, a constant presence in an ongoing life without him. His life, our love, my grief…. They are a constant in my life now, they guide me going forward and I carry my love for him forward in every part of life now.

He is a part of my DNA… I don’t believe in guardian angels but he’s a constant guide and presence in my life, my undercurrent.

So, my message to you is… you gentle soul who can’t work out why your love’s death doesn’t feel real or why you keep expecting them to walk through the door… why you keep dreaming of them coming back from the dead or leaving you. Grief isn’t linear… sometimes grief comes and punches you in the face without warning and whispers ‘he’s dead’ with overwhelming clarity and it hurts like hell. Clarity of death and ‘magical thinking’, as Joan Didion put it, can co-exist. It feels the harshest reality on earth yet surreal and unreal at the same time. I remember with horrific clarity the night the police rang on my door bell to tell me my love was found dead, collapsed in the street. We had no idea his heart was in trouble, no warning signs, he was seemingly fit and healthy. I remember with horrific clarity years on when it suddenly hit me out of utterly nowhere, a normal day at work and my mind just whispered to me ‘he’s really dead’… out of nowhere. I couldn’t contain myself. The shock creeps up on you, yet surprises you so often. You’re normal if you’ve wondered if this was all a dream… did your life with your love even happen? It doesn’t feel it often. I’ve written before how grief distorts time itself… the whole universe. I love the title of the book ‘The year of magical thinking’ as it speaks so much to the surreal, not earthly feeling you’re left with after your love dies… you’re waiting for them to return, often not consciously… but your dreams play tricks on you.

Living with Loss

People say grief comes in waves. In shock, especially with sudden loss like with losing my Marky, the world is turned into a nightmare within the split second it took the police who showed up at my door to tell me that the love of my life was found dead in the street that afternoon… and I did not find that grief came in waves. Grief came in debilitating overwhelming pain that would not cease. I could hardly stand up… it was hard to physically breathe for months. Almost a year on and I finally understand that grief does grow into something that crashes over you in waves because it starts to live inside you. A deeper sadness is filling into my bones. One of missing, one of longing, one of aching. One of mourning rather than grief you could say. I carry my grief with me everywhere I go…. Sometimes I can smile, I can function unlike in the first ten months but it is with me all the time as an undercurrent. Other times the waves envelop me and all I can do is lean in and collapse into the wave that leaves me crawling on my hands and knees begging for life to take me too. I let the wave fill my lungs and I try to embrace grief and turn it into an act of love so that my love for him can live on.

Waves often come as bloodied punches to the face. At least once a day I get this sudden hit of ‘he is really gone’ and I feel this sharp pain in my chest and suddenly can’t breathe again… it becomes hard to inhale.

When that sharp pain of reality hits it feels like the memory of when the police were in my living room all over again only there is no fog of shock to disarm it even slightly. I always carry around the ache of grief yet in those moments it feels like the pain hits with more clarity. Some days it feels like my mind is intent on torturing me and replaying that moment in my head. I wonder if this is my brain trying to drill ‘acceptance’ into me… whatever the word acceptance means when it comes to death. I have nightmares where my brain throws up so many scenarios, as if my mind is playing out a puzzle of ‘where did he disappear to’ where my brain can’t process death or how suddenly it came to be. I have so many nightmares where he is missing or lost and I am desperately trying to get in touch with him. They echo the day he died as I hadn’t heard from him in hours and I was starting to panic but trying to reassure myself that he had got back to The Shire and fallen asleep.  I kissed him only three hours before. As logically as I understand death, the soul or psyche or mind or whatever we have in our heads… it either does not want to understand or simply does not grasp the sudden disappearance of the most important person in your life.

In Levels of Life Julian Barnes writes… ‘Perhaps grief, which destroys all patterns, destroys even more: the belief that any pattern exists’ and the second I read this sentence it struck me. Grief comes in many forms, one of them is a crisis of faith. When someone you love dies you don’t just lose that person, you don’t even just lose your future with that person… you can lose your faith, your core, the pattern of life that you on some level have believed in. I am not talking personally here about religious faith as I do not have one, but of a faith that goes right to the core of your very being and of who you are. Even if you have no belief in an afterlife or even a soul, suddenly the world makes so little sense that everything becomes meaningless. When the best person you know dies young, nothing in this universe makes sense any more.

A friend says to me ‘your existence still means something’ when I tell her that life feels meaningless, but as much as I know she loves me and is trying to help, this isn’t about ego or myself. Existence feels futile in every sense, not my life, not even someone else’s life… but if the universe makes no sense then what meaning is there to derive? What is the point? I never needed a point before. My philosophy on life has always been that none of us know the answers while we are here, so just live life… yet when the most beautiful person is taken from this world so suddenly you need answers in a way you never knew before.

My friend says she can see that I feel betrayed by the universe… I answer that ‘betrayed by the universe’ is a perfect way of putting it. Julian Barnes wrote that many feel an anger not directly at the world but the indifference of it… The indifference of life merely continuing until it merely ends’.

I cannot describe how earth shattering sudden loss is. It is not simply the death of a person who you love and miss. It shakes you so fundamentally that you don’t even know if you believe in the same things anymore. Someone has cracked you open at the centre so that you simply don’t trust anything anymore, you have no plan, you just fight to survive and on some days even that one day you have to get through seems so horrifically awful to survive through. That is what makes attempting ‘normal’ life so hard… you are no longer normal. You don’t see the point in anything, and you don’t want to be around anything that seems even in the slightest bit like a ‘normal’ world, it feels surreal, detached from you, and often insulting that life has just carried on and people live their lives around you while you don’t even know how to stand up anymore and loss is all you care about. The best person died, so why is the world still living?

…and this is what carrying grief with you feels like. We survive, we fight on… every minute that passes can be a battle. We carry with us infinite love and gratitude, a survival instinct that will make you cower, a love for life that can often surpass life itself but a pain that grounds us daily and makes our minds dig underground and want nothing more than to be with the dead. Our love lives on.

I have not written about grief in months because of this. I have even found it very hard to reach out to my support groups… because living with this grief is so exhausting but we carry on. In many ways we are the living dead, carrying the weight of death, loss and infinite love within us.