Monday, 14 December 2015

The Second Festive Helping

This season sucks. I thought it may be different this year – you know? With it being my second Christmas in this new normal life I am working so hard to carve out for myself but it just isn’t that simple. 

I want to participate. In so many ways I think that it would be good for me to embrace the holiday season, despite not subscribing to the religious meaning of it all. Last Christmas went by in a blur. I was barely toddling in my unwanted new world and well, things were literally handed to me on a plate. By that, I mean mince pies, festive dinners and all the trimmings. I rolled the roast potatoes around my plate with a fork, still unable to stomach the vast majority of food that was lovingly cooked and passed my way.

On Christmas day last year, I packed up the necessary provisions to prepare and cook the dinner and like a modern day red riding hood, I got in the car and drove in a somewhat zombie-like state and arrived at my father’s house to do the honours. It was a quiet affair. I sat at the table with Dad, who at 83 was so happy to be spending the afternoon with me but I remember that I could hardly see my plate of food through the huge drops of silent tears that hung in my eyes silently. Of course I had the overwhelming feeling of gut wrenching pain that had been delivered earlier that year when my husband passed away but on top of that, I was sad for my Dad. 

I was sad for my Dad because when my husband died, my father also lost his daughter – not in body but in spirit. My spirit had been crushed, chewed and spat out in a heap – and the remnants of the happy go lucky daughter were sat opposite him, unable to make any kind of conversation.

I was sad because I also felt guilty. I felt guilty from the pit of my stomach that here were we, my Dad and I, on what could be his last ever Christmas and I was unable to communicate anything meaningful, let alone appreciate the man who only ever wanted the best for me.
And the shit thing now is that I was right. This year he has gone. 

He died a couple of months ago. 

That is the last memory of a Christmas day that I have. I need somehow to deal with this but I am unsure as to how?

As you know, I am hugely pragmatic. Shit happens. People get sick and people die. People you love drop dead unexpectedly or if you are ‘lucky’, then you get to find out just a few weeks in advance. If you are super unlucky, then it happens to your husband and your father in barely more than a 12 month period.

So I wonder was I super unlucky? I know that the ones I have lost were – but hold on…
I am the one still standing. I am the one still breathing. I am not the one that had to lay in bed contemplating that my life is soon to finish or the one who got up for a wee in the night and collapsed outright with nobody to hear their cry.

Of course one day, I could be either and that is the more powerful thought that keeps me pressing onward with a determination to grab this life by the scruff of the neck and deal with it all.
I don’t have to participate in anything this Christmas. Maybe that is the memory I need to create to put an end to the sadness of last year. 

I am caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. I need to find the courage to do it all or to do nothing. I want to participate if only I could find the courage.

But I am confident that whatever I choose to do, it will be the right thing for me.

I have much to look forward to in the new year so maybe I would be wise to focus on life after Christmas and just chill the f**k out. 

I know what my father would say… ‘It’s just one day Lizzie. After that, you have the rest of your life…and that is what is important…’

And Phil would say ‘I agree Brian. She is overthinking. She always does!’

For Phil and Dad: It’s alright boys! I have it all in hand. Sorry about the foul language Dad – it has been a tough year :) xx

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

The Identity Parade

Firstly I want to tell you that I am okay, I feel okay and I will be alright. 

The positivity within me astounds me to the core even now, 14 months almost into widowhood. 

I instinctively feel it when the freezing cold and all immersing waves of grief crash over me. They try to knock me off my feet. Occasionally those waves succeed and they feel stronger than my soul. And sometimes, when I feel that my head is so far under the water, it feels strangely comforting as I am transported into a moment where nothing else matters. Nothing at all.

I sit here night after night in the room where I shared so much joy with my husband. I remember this space being filled with the boxes of our existence, not quite 2 years ago when we moved to Wales with all the exuberance of a couple of young puppies. We bounded around this house, up and down the stairs, in and out of each room and despite the exhaustion of the previous 12 hours of loading the removal van and travelling the long journey here – we were full of life.

This is the room where we shared our dreams, our hopes and our ideas for the future. This is the table that we formulated our plans and then danced around to a carefully selected playlist that reflected our past and our present states of mind. Our youth, our twenties, our musical heritage.

This is the laptop that we created spreadsheets on and pinned maps to of all the places we would travel to in our lifetime. The eBay account that we racked up 350 plus sales of vintage jewellery and trinkets as we watched every Friday night with eagerness as the bids went up (or not as occasionally was the case).

I am sat in the place where I announced to the virtual world just how happy we were with our lives.  A photograph of 2 glasses of Tattinger with a caption ‘There is no place like home’. 

This is the room that we laughed so much in. A room where sometimes we would sit in silence together because we didn’t need to talk. I did my thing and he did his. It was enough to be in each other’s presence because that is what made us happy.

At the back of me is the staircase where one morning my Bebe sat down exhausted and told me that he didn’t know how much longer he could deal with the pain in his back. I tied up his shoelaces that morning and reassured him that the pain would go in time – if he went to the physio and took the painkillers that had been prescribed by the doctor.

This is the room where my sweetheart lay gasping for air in a hospital bed that was delivered less than a week before he died. It is where we spent our last night together in our own bed. After transporting it and rehousing it in here, I lay by his side - with him high on morphine and me in denial as I wrapped myself around him, cocooned in his smell and caressing his deteriorating frame underneath his favourite rock t-shirt. If I try really hard, I can remember that smell but I fear very much that it is fading.

This is the room that I fled when the undertaker arrived. I feared that it would never be a place that I felt comfortable in again. Someday I will leave here but for now I just can’t. As painful as it is to remember the final moments, I feel a comfort in knowing that the good times outweigh the bad.

This is the house that Jack built and then Cancer bombarded it with a wrecking ball. 
And so I sit here. Nothing has changed and yet everything has.

I am struggling with my own sense of identity.

In the beginning I found comfort with the nurture and concern that came with my birth into widowhood. I was not in a place to appreciate the love that was poured upon me by our friends and our families but subconsciously I was aware that people were looking out for me and I recall being overwhelmed by the sheer empathy of some of them, many that I did not really know.

Because we were only married for 12 days, I found the whole idea of being a widow most uncomfortable until I got to a place, quite soon after, to process that really this label is a question of semantics. I am eternally grateful that we married but spiritually, we always have been.  In my heart I knew that we had found a life partner in each other and I am resolute in my belief that we would have been together until old age – had cancer not had other ideas.

Recently I was in a bar where I witnessed the banter of strangers. I find myself increasingly aware of peripheral conversations these days and am fascinated by the views and opinions of others. A man in his fifties was talking about the woman in his life with a warmth and a passion that I found endearing.  Seemingly this guy had been a bit of a ‘jack the lad’ in his past but finally met someone who he wanted to settle down with. I asked him what it was that had made the difference and his reply was that he had been with many women in his life but this one was the first that he wanted to talk to and laugh with the next morning.

Of course this made sense to me. I had just never really thought about it in this way before. Isn’t that what we are all looking for? And if you are like me, is it not the immense source of our pain – that we haven’t got this anymore?

I do know who I am. I feared that I had lost all sense of this but ultimately, I believe that we return to our default state – even after immense trauma or catastrophic loss. The death of my husband has left a gaping hole in my heart and a bombsite of dust and rubble that I have had to pick over, sift through and step carefully across. 

By default, I am not suggesting that I am wholly the same as before. I am merely suggesting that there are some things so innately within me that even the worst thing I could never imagine or have imagined. lest tragically has happened, will still allow me to return to the person that is me.

I am adamant that widowhood will not define me. It is a label and one that which bizarrely given my circumstance I am grateful for because society although it struggles with it, does have some understanding of what that state may entail. 

But then I think ‘well widows are old aren’t they?’ A person who has lost their husband or wife must at least be in their fifties ( which is testament to the idea that at 45 I still think that I am young).

People don’t just die when they are 37. They surely have some kind of warning or chance at putting things right don’t they? Well the answer to that is no. Not necessarily.

For some of us, the succession idea doesn’t work. We hope with all of our hearts that we won’t get to bury our children and at the same time, we expect to have to deal with the death of our parents. I don't have children so I know I will never experience such tragedy but as my parents are getting older, I am increasingly aware that I will have to deal with losing them.

I had kind of got to the stage where I felt prepared for the loss of my parents. I know now more than ever that there is no such thing as being prepared for the finality of death. And in my new normal, without a significant other, I am also dreading the fact that I may likely face these eventualities without the support of a soulmate. This terrifies me.

We are all so busily wrapped up with those massively important considerations that we fail to consider the death of our equals, our friends, our contemporaries. Our life partners. Our spouses.

It is no wonder therefore, that young widowhood is even more shocking - no time to prepare or consider because in youth we feel invincible. Losing a partner doesn't register on the conveyor belt - Grandparents? yes Our parents? yes An elderly Aunt or neighbour? yes.

Like some sick generation game finale, with the grim reaper as a host rather than Bruce Fortsythe, we subconsciously see the way it is supposed to pan out but you don't consider your partner will pass by next to the cuddly toy or food processor. 

Suddenly I was  thrown into a group of people that I never thought I would meet. I say group but us widows have our own category.

I was irked when I went from having to tick boxes on a form that tipped me over the age range from 25 - 39. And having come to terms with the fact that I now have to place myself in a box where my age is 39 - 45, I have this year had to change my status from married to widowed.

It sucks to tick that box. I am too young. He was too young. He was younger than me by seven whole years -  I never worried about how I would cope after losing him as with those stats surely I would be the first to go?

Okay I get it. It's just a box right? I don't have to fit into it yet sometimes I do - in the same way it rips my heart out to update my next of kin details on the HR forms at work. My mother is my next of kin - when she is gone I am f*cked.

So it brings me to the question of how other people see me…

Do others define me by my circumstance? And does it matter if they do?

There is nobody in my immediate close circle of friends or acquaintances that has lost a soulmate. Therefore, I am fully aware that my husband’s death permeated the psyche of those that knew him, me or us to a level of unprecedented proportion. At the moment, I am aware that I am still ‘the one whose husband died’ in some circles. I cannot argue or take issue with it because it is a fact. 

If that doesn’t suit me then it’s tough but I have no right to argue the toss because in raw daylight, it is the case. 

If I want sympathy (and in the early days I did) or I want other people to have empathy (which is a rare but valued capacity) then I must learn to be comfortable with the label of a widow. I can’t have it both ways by expecting people to treat me like this hasn’t happened – after all, this is life changing – it is big school stuff – it is Oh My God with bells on and a stack of grief bunting.

It is my duty to guide people through this if I want them to stick by me. My friends and family are human, they are not saints. They love me as I love them – and just like me, they don’t always know what to say or how to behave. If there is no handbook for me then there is sure as hell no handbook for them.

And as I travel through the fog, lost in the forest of darkness then they are similarly feeling their own way through it in a brave attempt to find me. 

My grief has been selfish. 

It moved into my heart the day that my soulmate died and has been occupying me with an all-consuming passion. There were no house rules when it moved in. It strolled about the place as if it owned my soul and I guess that it did. It dictated when I ate, slept and cried. It actually decided if I ate or slept at all and I just did exactly as it directed. And the thing is, that I trusted it. I was right to trust it actually – even though I was angry that it had moved in without paying the rent, somehow I did not feel alone.

I am now in a place where I feel stronger. I am the landlady and grief is my lodger. We have some ground rules as I begin to understand how it operates. Sometimes I allow it the freedom of my soul and there are other times when I am learning to keep it in check. I realise that this attitude may be controversial but if I am going to move to a place where my widowhood aka grief does not define me then I need to co-exist with it and co-operate with it so that we can live in harmony.

I will not allow it to make me selfish any longer. Selfishness is not my default and I refuse to let my self-pity ride rough shod over the coals and embers which need to re-ignite.

When my husband died, grief fooled me into thinking that my life was over and that I had no choice in the matter.

The truth is that as long as I am living and breathing there is always a choice to be made. Being a widow is shaping me, I do not need to be eternally defined by my loss. I will never be exactly the same as I was before all of this happened but I do have a default – I am an open and free thinker who is full to the brim with gratitude for what I have, what I have had and what wonders I may uncover if I make the choice to value life and love.

For Bebe: I realise today that I am so very fortunate to be living in a society where I have the freedom to make choices in life. Although I am building my new life without you with some degree of success, I sometimes still sink into a depth of despair that I am grateful you have never felt.

 But then I remember that my worries about life must pail into insignificance in comparison to you learning that you were dying. You made the choice to grab every moment of joy that you could during that very limited time, despite the fear that you must have felt. I know I have choices ahead of me that I will need to make. I will value them rather than hide from them – and I will embrace each one, as and when they come my way.

Friday, 3 July 2015

The Parallel Universe

My husband died a year ago today.

I will not refer to it as an anniversary. To me, Anniversaries are happy occasions and to remember the worst day of my life and the end of his as an anniversary, does not sit comfortably with me.

Today marks the day that I entered my new normal. Today I ask myself who am I now?

It has been a year like no other.

The four weeks prior to my husband’s death had been such a whirlwind. We had experienced the diagnosis, the homecoming, our engagement, our wedding day and complete upheaval of our home as it effectively turned into a hospice.

Our home was filled with visitors, family and friends. And medical professionals.

I worked with love for 22 hours a day. I was a host, a carer, a pharmacist, a PA, a counsellor, a travel agent and a press officer.

I was a loving wife and best friend.

I don’t recall being frightened. I was organised, precise and focused. And I found patience within me that I had never knew existed. I felt such a tremendous surge of energy and capacity to do whatever was needed of me in any way that was necessary.

I understood my roles, my tasks, my timetables and my future. I didn’t know how long my future was to be in these roles – but I didn’t have the time to consider this.

The revolving door continued. The doctor, the care team, the cancer nurse and the overnight hospice carer. And finally the undertaker.

When all of my roles ceased to exist on July 3rd, just before midday, I was terrified.
My future had been obliterated.

Nothingness. A vacuum. Not even a landscape.


My cataclysmic plunge from the platform of a world that I knew to a world that I knew nothing about.

My mother and her partner had both been widowed. They understood my pain.
They cried for me and all that I had lost. And they cried for their own loss all over again.

‘You will get through this because you have to. And then you will get through it because you want to. You won’t believe us now and why should you? But I PROMISE your pain won’t always feel this raw’ said my Mother.

Of course I did not believe her.

One year on. I am not a better person. I don’t think I was too bad before to be honest, but one thing is for certain – I am forever changed.

I understand the uniqueness of grief. I no longer view it as a life sentence or something that I think might hinder my ability to live a happy and fulfilled existence.

I am not frightened by grief because I understand that it is borne from love. It is a gift that I treasure as evidence that the love we had truly existed. This is important because memories may fade in time but grief can live with me. It can ironically live ‘happily’ within me.

Before last June, I thought my life was sorted. My life was full of middle class ‘decisions’ like which hotel had the best spa for a romantic weekend away or wondering whether I should finally get around to learning how to speak Spanish.

I remember agonising over whether to purchase a beautiful dress in a posh boutique and after weighing up the pros and cons, I duly went ahead with it. Never in a million sunsets would I have imagined it would be the dress that I would wear to my husband’s funeral just a couple of months later.

My innocence has gone but it has been replaced with an acute sense and value of time that I have never had before. I try really hard not to waste my time. This doesn’t mean to say I live an action packed life but I am always busy in my waking hours – physically or mentally.

I go to work cheerfully on weekdays. I never realised just how much other people moan about their work and/or lives but grief seems to have awakened my senses and I tune in to the negativity of others. I don’t join in with the gossip and the complaining anymore. I am ashamed to say that I used to moan a fair bit about the politics and the red tape but now I just focus on the solution and let the rest of the crowd sweat the small stuff.

Strangely enough, the change in my attitude has brought about opportunity. I have been through the worst and this has totally recalibrated my idea of what a ‘bad day at the office’ really is.

Equally, my senses are tuned in to the pain and the suffering of others. Listening and empathy had never really been my strength but I feel a tangible awareness of my compassion and patience towards others who are struggling. I listen more attentively and with less distraction to those who share their troubled thoughts and I try not jump to judgement or conclusion as often as I used to.

I understand that sometimes I just need to listen and they need to talk. It’s okay if I cannot ‘fix’ things.

I don’t always get this right but I try and give more time to consider the evidence before I offer my perspective.

And sometimes I do not offer my perspective at all – I am understanding that so much of what happens around me is none of my business.

My address book has been rewritten. Contacts have been erased and new ones have been added. I have taken real joy from connecting with the new friends in my life and truly appreciated reconnecting with people that I had lost touch with or that I never previously ‘had the time’ to see or talk to.

There is a fundamental difference between ‘having’ time and ‘making’ time.

I still have work to do, but I have made the decision that I will not be ‘making’ time for people who have been mostly absent for the worst year of my life.

I want to ensure that I am in the best position to support those friends who have shown up should they need me to do the same. We live life in the balance. I knew this in theory but now I have lived the reality of the balance tipping so catastrophically and irreversibly in favour of tragedy I am fully aware that any one of us can have our imagined future destroyed in a moment.

We all live a life where unbeknown, we are dodging the invisible boulders that are being hurled at us. If one of my nearest and dearest gets hit then I want to be there for them and I am pretty sure now that I know who they are.

I am polite to people. Mostly.

By this, I mean that I am even more intent on treating others as I would like to be treated. I have tried exceptionally hard this year to lead by example but there have been (rare) occasions when this has been challenging.

So by the same token, I politely speak my mind where possible.

And occasionally I just speak my mind.

I have the confidence to choose which approach is necessary.

I take more care of myself. I value my life. I eat a healthy diet, take more exercise and consume less alcohol.

I need to organise my sleeping patterns and I need to stop smoking cigarettes. These will be the last of my demons to exorcise and I am increasingly confident that I will win the battle.

I have realised that there are some things in life that you cannot escape. When I have suffered tragedy or loss, or had a spell of restlessness in my life, I have had an overwhelming desire to cut and run.

I considered doing that just after losing my husband. I was teetering on the edge of booking a trip to Australia but in the same sentiment as ‘same shit, different day’ I concluded that this would just mean ‘same pain, different continent’.

I realised that I can’t run from myself. I needed to sit this mess out and stick close to home. For me, this was the best choice.

I am building my new life at home and have forced myself to feel the intensity of living alone with no escape plans. I am ready now however, to think about booking a proper holiday.

I have spent more time with my family. I am lucky to have good relationships with them all but I have rediscovered the value of investing in these. I have made time. I know this time is precious and will mean that I have no regrets if I suffer another loss.

I have battled with the idea of having another relationship. I know I have the capacity to love again and I believe that I am capable and worthy of giving and experiencing unconditional and all-consuming love. But I am wary about how this may manifest. I may already know this person or it maybe someone I have yet to meet.

I firmly believe however, that I will know when the time feels right. And most importantly, I will know that it is worth taking the risk of losing them and feeling this kind of pain all over again.

I certainly know that I brought much joy, fulfilment and happiness into my husband’s life as he did mine.
I am not bitter or possessive and I know what love should look and feel like.

I am grateful for that because it means that I remain optimistic about relationships. I do not believe that we only have one chance to get it right and I hope that another chance may come my way.

I am a grounded, loyal, supportive and loving woman.
I was not hurt by love. I was hurt by death.
Big difference.

I have always worried a little too much about what other people think of me. This has been an additional struggle in a very difficult year because my grief has played out publically and at times I have had limited control in how I have managed the depth of my despair.

I wonder if people in the office secretly pity me for example, or if they talk about me behind my back. I expect that people may talk behind my back if they don’t like a work decision I have made but I am okay with that.

But it’s a horrible feeling wondering how I have been perceived in terms of ‘the woman whose husband died of cancer’.

This feels particularly difficult if I have found myself sharing a joke over lunch or laughing at some random observation about life. Do they think it is acceptable? Should I be more subdued? Should I feel happy, even for a brief moment?

But lately I care less about what other people may think or what they may say. It isn’t my job to second guess their thoughts or try to understand them. I am done with trying to grieve and behave according to anybody’s expectations.

Their business is none of mine – and my business is none of theirs.

I am still angry about what has happened. I don’t take my anger out on others like I did in the early stages of my loss – and I am certainly not angry with myself. But suffice to say, I am still very much pissed right off with the fact that just as we were really starting to gather speed in the next part of our life together – at a point where I can pretty much say we had reached momentary perfection – it all came crashing down.

I have aged. My hair is greying, my skin is wrinkled and I doubt much if the dark circles under my eyes will ever really subside. My relationship with Clarins, Yves Saint Laurent and L’Oreal is as solid as a rock these days.

But you know what? When I look in that mirror, I like who I see.

I have laughed this year. I never thought my humour would get out of this hole ‘alive’ but it has. As a matter of fact, it was the saviour that clung on and insisted that I wasn’t actually dead. I have realised that laughing is as powerfully cathartic as crying. Laughter was commonplace in my old world and I am delighted to report that it has survived the move.

Of course I am a solo act more than a duo now but even in the depth of despair I have been surprised at my capacity to entertain myself with witty monologue. And believe me, when you have been widowed – there is no shortage of idiot comments that fuel my act.

I take time today to consider what I have actually achieved. My first thought would be not a great deal.

I haven’t gained a qualification or swum the channel. I haven’t moved house or travelled abroad alone. I haven’t learned to scuba dive and I haven’t managed to do any fundraising.
For me, it just hasn’t been that kind of year.

But. I am happy. I am sad and I am happy. Mad as it sounds – I am both.

I have a job that I love, fantastically sensitive and often very funny friends, a crazy but wonderful family, a social calendar that is limited only by affordability at times, a fabulous support network that is focused on creating a positive outlook and a singing, dancing, talking, playful and very mischievous pet parrot.

My goal this year was survival. In reality, I have done much more than this.

So this is it. A year without him.

Do I get a medal? Do I get a lollipop?

People say I have done well and that I have been brave and strong.

When I was a kid at the dentist I was brave and strong. I used to get a sticker then.
I suppose brave and strong are all relative to the situation.

I am not brave for I have felt fear like no other. I have been terrified and tormented with pain.
I am not strong for I have crumbled and collapsed in a piteous heap often, and behind closed doors alone.
I am not super human. I have made plenty of mistakes this year. I have felt anger and bitterness and jealousy. I am graphically aware of my own mortality.

There are days that I have deliberately smoked so many cigarettes in one day just to feel alive. The tightness in my chest and the whistle in my breathing were macabre reminders early on that I did actually have some control in what was happening to me.

I have on occasion, drank so much alcohol alone that I have passed out beyond caring.
I have been drunk publically and probably behaved in an inappropriate way.

But I am here, one year on and still standing.
And I am here to set the record straight.

My husband died of cancer. I had no other choice but to deal with it.
I didn’t select the ‘brave’ card or the ‘strong’ card from the deck.
I didn’t conjure up the ‘joker’ to give me an extra whoosh of invincibility.

Dealing with my loss does not make me amazing. I am just an average Joe that has had to get on with it. There are plenty of us about. Some 60 of my new friends are proof that bad things happen to good people. They have all lost their life partners – many of them under 45 years old. And they have just got on with it too.

So reflecting on the words of my mother, the widow:

I kept going because I had to.

I keep going now because I want to.

I have smoked, drunk, cried, starved, shouted, sobbed, danced, worked, laughed, blogged, swam, bargained, kissed, doubted, screamed, pretended, denied, accepted, connected, frolicked, read, dreamt, panicked, ached, hugged, hoped and bloody well bollocked myself through this year.

It has had less to do with strength and bravery but more to do with a gigantic kick up my own arse to get on with the business of living. 

I remember asking 'does this get better?'
The definition of better is: a state that is more desirable, satisfactory or effective.

Compared to one year ago, in those darkest days of rawness and grief? My life is better. 

Shit happens. I’m not being flippant, I am being pragmatic.

I have travelled so far away from a life that once was, and yet the life I have now is beginning to feel like mine.

Sometimes it feels that I have slipped into some kind of parallel universe – with new people, new opportunity and untapped potential.

Maybe I have?

Perhaps in another dimension, we are driving home from the hospital and singing along to some indeterminate tune on the radio, his hand reaching over to mine and lovingly squeezing it with a playful relief that it had all been a fuss over nothing.

Life’s a bitch and then you die.

I can’t help but think that Bebe could have used that quote in the most literal sense. But he never did.

And boy do I miss him.

For Philip David Riley: I am acutely aware that the journey of ‘without you’ will never end.
There is no medal or special accolade for getting through this past 12 months but I know that you would be so happy with my progress. You would be so proud that I am trying to be the best I can be, and that I am working really hard at living the best life that I can. And that is powerful motivation for pressing forward.

For Un-named Widow: Today you will create a true and happy anniversary date. We met last year when I was only a few months on this lonely road. Our loss felt similar and we connected in our grief. Today you get married to your new soulmate on this earth. What a joy to know that you have found another special man in your lifetime. Wishing you a wonderful wedding day with a lifetime of happiness together. xxx