This weekend has been looming large in my mind for a while now. Not because I’m a huge royalist. In fact, I probably won’t even watch the coronation on TV, but because Sunday marks a year since Pete died. I’m not sure how it’s been a year already, but it has.
The last few weeks have been pretty intense, March and April have always been busy months for us as a family. Mother’s Day, my late brother-in-law’s birthday the day before Pete’s birthday, my birthday, Pete’s dad’s birthday, our wedding anniversary, my sister’s wedding anniversary with her late husband, the anniversary of our first date together back in 1989, and my Mum’s birthday all fell within the space of 3 weeks. These events all coincided last year with Pete’s condition deteriorating rapidly and a hospital stay at Weston Park where we were told that there was nothing more that could be done for Pete except to make him comfortable and that time was very short.
So it’s been an intense time of reflection for me. Add into that our younger daughter starting her GCSEs, our first traditional Easter family holiday with friends in St Ives without him, and the resumption for the first time in a few years of our traditional get-together with friends in Weymouth, a place where Pete and I share many happy memories and friends, and it’s easy to see why the last few weeks have been a bit trickier and I’ve been a bit more reflective.
I have been talking to friends going through similar things and I recorded a podcast for Ashgate’s life and death week a couple of weeks ago, so I’ve had lots of opportunities to reflect on the dying and grieving process as I’ve experienced it over the last couple of years. From being given the shock news of Pete’s diagnosis to his death, and trying to build a new life for us all afterwards.
Everyone tells me I am strong, but the reality is that there isn’t really an alternative and it isn’t about being strong or weak. Grief is grief and we all deal with it in our own different ways. I am lucky and grateful that Pete and I had such a good life together and that even in the last year when we knew our time would be very short indeed, we managed to enjoy the time we had left and say everything that needed to be said. We made funeral plans so I knew exactly what he wanted and was able to fulfil his wishes, we talked about the big things and shared how we felt about each other and we also talked about the future, how he wanted us all to carry on and live our lives to the full. I hope he would have been proud of what we’ve done so far.
Those last few weeks were really hard. Knowing that he was deteriorating and hoping that he would rally, but not wanting him to suffer was a really difficult process to deal with. I think we were very lucky that he stayed as well as he did for as long as he did thanks to the excellent care he received from the NHS at Weston Park, the Royal, the Hallamshire, the community nursing team and Ashgate Hospice. Watching him deteriorate so rapidly was really tough and I look back and wonder how we got through those last days, dealing with the knowledge that we would very soon lose him, while managing an endless stream of visitors and medical staff and yet still managing to have some time to talk, laugh and cry together. I remember someone in a similar position to me saying that they didn’t think they were strong enough to deal with it, which is a really natural fear. But what I’ve discovered is you find that you are, and you get through those days. On difficult days when I don’t feel like getting out of bed, I remind myself that I managed to get through those days, and through the funeral and that today probably won’t be as hard as that.
A year has passed and it feels like 5 minutes, it also feels like a lifetime since we saw him. The house feels different and we’re getting used to finding a different rhythm in it, a different way of living. We’ve kept ourselves busy. Both of the girls have been lucky to have the support of counsellors from Ashgate, who have helped them to process and find ways to deal with their grief, Hannah’s school has been incredibly supportive, and Charlie’s work colleagues and bosses have been brilliant. They understand that grief isn’t a linear process where you just gradually “get better”. Grief is something you live with. Sometimes it inhabits a huge part of your day and is at the forefront of your mind, at other times it is more quiet, always present but not dominating your every thought.
Sometimes it feels like it’s never going to get better and that you’re going to feel sad forever, and then there are days where you realise that you can be happy and it’s ok. The trick is not to feel guilty about those days. I know that we are lucky that Pete told us he wanted us to enjoy our lives, so I don’t feel guilty when I do have those days. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t tinged with sadness because he’s not here to enjoy them with us, or to tell about them afterwards. But I can still enjoy them.
Everyone has an opinion on how to deal with grief, but just as every human being is unique and different and special, so is every relationship. Consequently, everyone’s experience of grief will be unique. There are so many variables which will affect it. The unique person experiencing it, their previous life experience, economic situation, their dependents and responsibilities, their friendships and family circumstances, and their relationship with the unique person they have lost. The way I experience my grief for Pete is different from his parents, his sister, his friends, and his children. So, there are no rules. Each of us must find our own path forward. I think once you accept that, it becomes easier to deal with.
Once you accept that there will be days when you wake up and feel excited about the day ahead, but the next day you might feel that you can’t actually make it to the bathroom, then it becomes easier to deal with. Once you remember that you got through the most difficult of days before you feel like you might be able to get out of bed and go and do something productive. Sometimes a successful day is the day you launch your book, or go to a class and try a new skill that you’d never dreamed you’d do, or travel to the other side of the world on your own, and other days success is making it down to the sofa to cuddle the dog and watch rubbish telly under the mardy blanket. Every day above ground is a good day.
I have found that having things to look forward to has really helped me to get through this year. I’ve booked weekends away, planned day trips, organised theatre trips, been to festivals and gigs, planned projects at home, and joined classes that I wouldn’t normally have chosen. I am very lucky to have good friends. Some of them have known me almost all my life, and some of them are newer friends, but I know that if I want to do something there’s usually someone around I can call on. I’m pretty sure that I could walk into town and bump into someone I know for coffee or a meal. I’m also used to and happy with my own company, which probably helps a lot too. I know that some people aren’t as lucky and that must make grief even harder to deal with.
Doing things on your own for the first time can be really daunting and I know that I’m very lucky to be confident enough to do that. It doesn’t mean it’s always easy. That first holiday abroad with Hannah was quite a big deal, even though I’ve travelled alone before. The weight of the responsibility of it all on my shoulders, and of keeping a teenage girl safe and happy in a different country was big! But the best way to get over those anxieties is to crack on and do the thing. The first time is hard, the next time it’s slightly easier, and every subsequent time it’s easier still until it becomes the norm.
Once you’ve walked into a room full of total strangers and joined in a class where they’re experts and you’re a total novice, the next time it gets easier. You realise that the worst that could happen is you make a bit of a fool of yourself and in the big scheme of things that doesn’t really matter. They’re strangers, the chances of them laughing at you are slim but if they do, the world won’t end. You might make new friendships or discover a new thing that you love. At least you’ll be experiencing something.
Keeping busy helps, but it doesn’t mean that the grief goes away, it’s always still with you. It just means you can break it down into manageable amounts to deal with. When it feels overwhelming, doing something to distract or keep busy can help you, so that you can deal with whatever is overwhelming you when you’re in the right frame of mind. A sort of grief management approach. Grief can be totally overwhelming and exhausting, so sometimes you need to say that you’re having a quiet day at home and doing nothing. I’ve told people to be kind to themselves but what that actually means will be different for different people. For some it will be getting out and going for a walk, or meeting with friends, for others it will be spending a day in your pyjamas and not bothering to speak to anyone. Whatever you need, that’s being kind to yourself.
I’m now able to have whole weeks where I don’t cry or get upset at all, this is pretty momentous really, and it was only when I got to the end of the first week where it happened that I realised that I’d gone a whole week without getting upset. That might surprise people who know me well and who spend time with me at work or socially because they probably haven’t seen me get upset or cry at all. Just because people appear to be ok, it doesn’t mean they’re not upset. The difficult thing is that grief catches me unawares. I can have a really tricky conversation and be talking about the most difficult thing, the last weeks of Pete’s life, administering his care and treatment, organising his funeral etc. and not shed a tear, and then a song will come on the radio, or I’ll find something of his around the house and I’ll be a blubbering wreck. Sometimes it can be as simple as hearing a piece of news and realising that I can’t tell him about it. Or watching our girls do something and thinking how proud he would have been. Something will remind me of a shared joke and now the person who shared it with me is gone, so the joke or reference is gone forever. It can be the little things that floor you.
When my sister lost her husband, she told me that the second year was harder than the first. The reality hit that he really wasn’t coming back and friends who made a point of being there for the first anniversaries naturally go and get on with their lives. Which is only right, but it can feel like they’ve moved on and are “over” the loss. Of course, they’re not but life does and should go on, and we know that that’s what the person who is gone would have wanted to happen. I can see how the second year might be more difficult. It’s crossed my mind that people will expect us all to have “moved on” that the approved amount of time will have elapsed for us to grieve and that now we should just crack on with the rest of our lives. I doubt there are many people who really think this (and if they do, I’ll wager they’ve probably not lost the most precious person in the world to them) but it’s a story we sometimes tell ourselves. People will think that surely we’re ok now.
I have worried that as a year passes Pete will somehow feel further away from us. Which is totally ridiculous as he couldn’t be any further away from us than he was the minute he died. You can’t get much further away that being dead, can you? Maybe it’s a fear that I’ll forget the sound of his voice, or the way his hand felt in mine, what it felt like to curl up in bed next to him and hear him breathing, the way he made me laugh until I really couldn’t speak and his quiet, bemused acceptance of all my foibles. What if I forget all of that? I don’t really want to live in a world where I can’t remember that stuff, because then it will be like he’s truly gone. Then I remember what my sister said when she read a poem at his funeral, “when you live in the hearts of those you love, remember then, you never die”.
Tomorrow we hope to head off to Scarborough for a walk on the beach with the dog. I’ve booked a hotel room if we fancy staying, but we might wake up in the morning and feel like we can’t do it. And that’s ok. We can always stay home. We’ll be kind to ourselves and do what we need to do because that’s all you can do to get through it, isn’t it? Take it a day at a time, an hour at a time, and sometimes even a minute at a time.