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.

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.