Explaining the unexplainable permanence of death… Grief, Shock and Nightmares

The shock of your love dying peels off in layers and reverberates through every fibre of your life. The initial impact of shock is what we see in films… it is that moment that two police officers showed up at my door close to midnight and they had to argue me into sitting down before they told me the news. For others it’s being told by a doctor it’s terminal. The initial shock of your love being gone from this world is fast… so it’s natural to assume that shock itself is also fast, instant… shocking… and then it’s over.

The truth is our brains process shock 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 often 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.

Many of us dream about our loves coming back from the dead, or being half-dead… My mind has been trying to understand and fix this for years now, to solve it like a drama murder mystery. My mind comes up with elaborate answers to explain where he has vanished to so suddenly. In some of my dreams he is a missing person,  in others he is dead but has come back to life, in some he can’t understand why I’m so paranoid about him dying again, 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 trying to contact him. I’m constantly trying to find him. 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.

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

This is also 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 our trying to explain the unexplainable… what is death?

The first year of grief is like a horror film…

Your organs have been ripped out but somehow you are left alive, you try to tear off your skin but that cannot save you… you cry so much it makes you vomit every day. You want to die but your body will not give up the ghost. You drink, you abuse, you cry till your eyes swell. You cannot believe a human body can hold this much pain.

The second year of grief is debris and puzzles…

You are sitting in the debris of destruction left spilled around you. You stare at the debris and hope it will make sense somehow, fit together or form a shape… but no. It looks dull, pointless, alien… the pieces left don’t make sense. They’re illogical, just like the grief dreams. Upon reflection I was in shock for the entire first year… but in the second year your body becomes less numb and your mind is left to reflect on your reality. You stare at this debris as if it could possibly make sense while simultaneously laughing at yourself, of course it can’t make sense?! Your person is dead. You’re trying to rebuild a life you cannot fathom or make sense of… 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.

Years after years blur into one…

…and as someone over five years into grief, I just want to reassure you that you are not doing your grief wrong somehow if you’re still struggling. Shock itself takes so much time… let alone absorbing grief and learning how to live carrying this grief and this love.

The stages of grief have been debunked. Our grief doesn’t fit into a neat and tidy linear process… and they weren’t meant for us to begin with. Kübler-Ross, the original researcher, actually went on to say she regretted how her stages of grief model had been misinterpreted. The original research was about terminal illness and how people who were dying came to terms with their death. They were never meant for us as the grieving people left behind. Sadly, for those of us left behind the ‘stages of grief’ model has been absorbed into common knowledge as if it were fact and it leaves us often feeling bewildered as we find our emotions aren’t linear and don’t fit into neat tidy boxes. Shock isn’t tidy or linear, no part of grief is. There is nothing wrong with you if your grief feels like a spaghetti bowl of every emotion ever! There is nothing wrong with you if you flit between a million emotions a day. There is nothing wrong with you if you don’t fit any of those boxes.

The idea of acceptance to me is simplistic… it’s not simply the knowledge that our person is dead… it delves so deep into our core and can keep shocking us at different times.

So, my message is to you… you gentle soul who can’t work out why you haven’t accepted your partner’s death. Maybe you keep expecting them to walk through the door…. Maybe you feel like they’re on an extended holiday or trip… are you saving up things to tell them about life, once they return? You are normal… this is normal. It’s horrific and normal. 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 two 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 reconfigures 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.

If you know me, you’ll probably guess for me this took for the form of the TARDIS. I wished so hard that time-travel existed, that my love had simply regenerated, that sometimes that felt so real, as if by thinking about it enough I would try and will it into existence somehow, like the TARDIS was going to show up at my front door any day now, and this would be over, we could be happy again.

Five years on… sometimes I can still picture it.



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.