I’m in my office again, gearing up for the start of a new term, in the New Year, having made a deliberate choice to take the same school holidays as my younger daughter. This means that I’ve missed out on some Inset work but the time I have left with my daughters still at home will be limited. Hannah is in lower 6th now, before too long school holidays will be a thing of the past, and there’ll be time enough to work later, all being well.
The beginning of a new year is always a good time for reflection. On New Years Eve when the clock struck midnight, I found myself surrounded by friends, listening to my best friend’s band play Auld Lang Syne. I reflected on the fact that I’d survived my first whole year from start to finish in a world without Pete in it. Not something I ever thought I’d have to do, or certainly not for many years to come, yet here we are.
When you lose someone you love dearly, anniversaries can bring into sharp focus the fact that someone is missing, that another milestone has passed without them there. Christmas, even if you don’t make a big thing about it, is always tricky. The promotion of perfect family times, the ideal of everyone getting together which we see in the media is probably less common than people would have us believe, but it can be tricky to realise that not everyone has the perfect life and if things are less than ideal in your own life it’s easy to see how this can lead to people feeling low at this time of the year. Factor in all the posts on social media about things to look forward to in the year ahead, and it can really hit home how the person you want to share them most with is no longer around, or how the difficult challenges you face can overshadow the positives.
My sister had warned me that she found the second year after her husband died harder than the first and she wasn’t wrong. Life moves on, and understandably goes back to normal for most people, of course they’re still sad, and they miss the person, but life does, and should go on. I’m very lucky; my friends understand that it’s still early days, but it can be hard for anyone to understand how being further away from the day he died doesn’t make the feelings any less raw.
One of my favourite books is A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. This quote has always resonated with me;
“When someone you love dies, and you’re not expecting it, you don’t lose her all at once; you lose her in pieces over a long time—the way the mail stops coming, and her scent fades from the pillows and even from the clothes in her closet and drawers. Gradually, you accumulate the parts of her that are gone. Just when the day comes—when there’s a particular missing part that overwhelms you with the feeling that she’s gone, forever—there comes another day, and another specifically missing part.”
I still get the occasional letter, or phone call. I still had some surprise sadmin when I thought I’d dealt with everything. In November I had a demand for some tax for the 30 days Pete was alive in the tax year 2022/3 . It turned out to be a mistake, but those kind of things can set you back. It can feel never ending, and when you’re tired, because grief makes you more exhausted than you can ever imagine, it feels like just another thing to deal with. Small things can easily become overwhelming if you let them and recognising that’s normal has been an important part of learning to deal with grief for me. As someone who is used to dealing with everything in a very matter of fact way, and getting on with things no matter how challenging, finding seemingly small matters overwhelming has been quite a learning curve. I’ve learned that I have to be kind to myself and accept that I don’t have to do everything NOW if I feel I can’t.
There’s still a lot for us all to process. Watching someone you love suffer and waste away in front of you is really hard. Caring for them while they’re dying and living in a state of not knowing whether today will be your last day you will be together is also really emotionally challenging.
People say, “you could get hit by a bus tomorrow” and that’s true but when you have a terminal diagnosis you know that the bus is going to hit you sometime soon, so there’s a constant feeling of “is today the day?” which changes the way you look at things. It’s also weird once that stops. It’s not relief, that’s the wrong word altogether, but you realise once the worst has happened how much you lived with the threat of the worst hanging over you and how much it impacted your life. My daughter described how every time an adult came into the classroom, she would worry that they would be coming to tell her that her dad had died, she hadn’t realised how much this affected her until it stopped. It’s also horrible to be in a position where you can see the person you love suffering, and wanting that suffering to end, but knowing that the end will mean that they’re gone forever. That’s going to take a while to deal with.
It isn’t all doom and gloom. I’m exceptionally lucky to have amazing friends and my family are wonderfully supportive of each other. People are ridiculously kind. I have a full diary, both for work, and socially. In fact I’ve just spent the last hour looking at it and wondering, “who the heck planned all that?” then remembering that it’s me and to have a full diary as a freelancer is a tremendous privilege. To have a social life which is better than most young people’s (according to my 2 lovely daughters) is also a blessing, it means that I very rarely feel lonely. But that doesn’t mean I don’t miss him. It doesn’t mean that I don’t look around the table when we’re out with friends and wish he was with us too. Every night when I get into bed, and every morning when I wake up, I’m reminded of the fact that half the bed is empty, and that he’s gone forever. Which, bizarre as it sounds, still takes some getting used to. Even after 18 months I half expect him to walk back through the door.
We keep going though, we look for joy and for things to savour. We consider ourselves lucky. There’s a lot to be unhappy about right now in the world, but we are lucky to live in peace, in a place with good neighbours. Despite some challenges we can still pay our bills and put food on the table without having to go without. We’re loved and we have lots of people we love. I have a job I love, so does my eldest and she’s getting to travel the world in her spare time (she’s popped to Brussels this weekend). Youngest is loving 6th form and enjoying finding greater levels of independence. She’s just had a fantastic couple of residential trips, one to London and one skiing in Italy, her first school trips since the pandemic. We’ve planned theatre and gallery visits, holidays, gigs and festivals. We’ve tried new things, visited new places, taken ourselves out of our comfort zones and we’ve enjoyed the company of many friends. There’s a lot to be grateful for.
As a new year starts, it’s ok to look back on what you’ve lost and mourn it. But it’s also important to look forward to the future. I hope 2024 brings some peace to the world, brings you joy and happiness, the courage to face whatever challenges come your way, and friends to sustain you during tough times. I hope that you’re able to see that whatever you have to overcome is not insurmountable, that you’re able to forgive yourself and others for mistakes, because we’re all human, but that you learn from them so that you don’t repeat them, and that you treat people with kindness and dignity and you’re granted the same.
As I’ve been writing I’ve been listening to one of my favourite singers, John Bramwell. If you’ve never heard of him give him a listen. If you get chance to go and see him live you really should go. Expect roughly 75% music 25% chat, he’s self- deprecating and funny and also a brilliant, much underrated songwriter.
His words in the song Astray resonate at the start of a new year:
“And times move so fast, and now there does not seem to be any
And once it felt that there was more than plenty
I do believe that something somewhere sent me
To you, astray, and the bold raging flame of your heart is making me stay.”
Don’t waste the precious time you have on stuff that doesn’t matter. It goes so quickly, and you want to look back, like we did in the last months of Pete’s life and think you’ve really lived your best life.
Be bold, be yourself unashamedly, and live your very best life, because none of us are getting out alive, so make sure the “bold raging flame of your heart” burns brightly. I intend to.
Here’s to 2024, may it be all you wish for.