Monday, 9 February 2015

The Total Eclipse

I remember the year 1999 very well indeed. There was an overwhelming hype that the new millennium was approaching and plenty of talk about how the world of technology would cope at the strike of midnight as the media had gone into overdrive that the systems would not cope with the change over and we would all be sent into some kind of oblivion as a result.

My mother was sent into her own oblivion that year, when in June, her husband passed away.

My stepfather, whom had been a 'father figure' to me for most of my life, died within a week of going into hospital for an outpatient procedure that went horribly wrong.

I was 29 years old when I stepped into a role that was more adult than I felt capable of, as my mother crumbled into widowhood, just days before she was due to retire. I was so consumed in holding it together for her sake that I barely took stock or allowed myself any time to grieve.

That summer was the total eclipse of the sun. I made the journey down to Cornwall, my childhood home, to spend a few days with my mum. By August, she had already moved to a new home that her and my stepfather had chosen.

It was a cloudy day on the whole. The media had pitched themselves along several coastal vantage points and there were parties in full swing from early that morning. As the time approached, the commentary on the radio remained upbeat but the disappointment was felt by so many as the clouds were insistent on covering the disappearing sun.

My mother couldn't face the crowds that day, so we sat on deckchairs peering up at the sky in hope that we may witness something amazing. Firstly, the birds began to quieten and a stillness and hush filled the air. For a brief moment, that was long enough for us to appreciate, there was a parting of the clouds to reveal the last moments of the 'diamond' ring before the world around us fell into darkness.

'I can feel Daddy around us' my mother said, 'I know he is here with us.'

My mother had never referred to my stepfather as 'Daddy' before and it made me feel uncomfortable.
I had called him 'Dad' for as long as I could remember but mum in her grief had renamed him for me.

I am ashamed to say that I felt uncomfortable talking about someone who had meant so much. I didn't know how to handle the subject of his death and most of the time, I consciously dodged it by offering distractions and cliches. Had it been a friend who was grieving, then I am more ashamed to say that I would have avoided it altogether - except for the customary and polite acknowledgement.

But this was my mother. I had no choice but to listen at close quarters to what she had to say and I witnessed at equally close quarters how she handled herself in the aftermath of his passing.

I remember being shocked that she had cleared out his belongings in the process of the move. All that was there physically to represent that he had once existed was his cardigan and dressing gown. And a couple of pictures of him on the dresser. I also remember being quite horrified that she handed to me a briefcase with all his writing and memoirs in.

'What am I supposed to do with this?' I thought, 'It doesn't belong to me!'

Looking back, I held an opinion or a judgement on everything she did in those early days. I didn't share them with her but I held them all the same. And worst of all, I wished that she would finally stop talking about him or recalling every little thing he had said or done in their 25 years together.

He was dead. He wasn't coming back. And all I wanted her to do was to get over it and move on. It was easier for me of course because I could drive away - back up North to my cosy life and my husband who would console me and listen to me processing my grief.

And now I am where she was.

In my new normal I am fully aware that most people don't understand my needs. I already feel an air of impatience around me, whether real or imagined, that I really need to start talking about something different.

I have felt a tangible sense of avoidance from some people who, just like me all those years ago, simply don't know how to handle my soul mate passing. My own next door neighbour has never acknowledged that Bebe has died. She scuttles in and out of her house like it is some sort of covert operation and it has led to me doing the same thing. After more than seven months have passed by, it seems almost ridiculous that I dread to bump into her. But that is what death can do to you.

Death brings about almost complete isolation on a physical and emotional level. People who used to feel at ease in your company, make excuses about not being in contact or worse still, cease contact altogether. For a while, I was pleased that I was left alone but when the fog begins to clear, the social landscape is as dark as the day of that full eclipse.

Other people completely and utterly surprise me in other ways. They reach out and genuinely ask how it feels now Bebe has gone. Often these people are new friends that I have made either virtually or in real life as I moved into the new world that is secret to everybody except the grieving.

But sometimes it has been from the farthest flung territory of social networking where people have taken the time out to offer company through a message or a chat, regardless that they have sat on my friends list with no previous interactions for many years. These people are my unsung heroes. They do not know quite what to say and they know there is nothing much that they can do, but they step up to the plate and appear like figures in the fog of my grief to reach out and just connect.

It has made me wonder would I have done the same for them? I fear that I would not have stepped up. I fear that I would have been exactly the same as many others who, after the news of the 'blow', and the final farewells of the funeral disappear like the sun behind the clouds. Maybe I wouldn't have been like that at all - after all, we never know until moments in life present us with our chance to demonstrate our support and compassion.

As I look out of the window onto the landscape of my new normality, I have learnt that death is a test for the living. Death separates the living from the living - but it can also unite us.

But above all, I understand that there is no blueprint for dealing with the loss of your loved one. My widowed mother dealt with things her way and I will deal with losing my husband in the way that is right for me.

There is no blueprint for the grieving of others. Friends and loved ones of Bebe all have their own unique way of dealing with their loss and I respect this wholeheartedly. It is as unique as their relationship with him. It cannot be predicted or replicated by others.

I am grieving not only the loss of my soul mate, the future we had planned and the joy of our relationship. I am suffering other losses along the way, like friendships I expected more from in my time of need and the stark reality that my social circle itself will never look or feel the same again.

For Bebe: I understand that my relationships with people may change now that you are not here. I know your passing will isolate me from some and unite me with others. I promise that I will do my very best to communicate what this is like for me but also have the compassion to understand that many people feel a great sense of loss now that you have gone. And I will always leave the door open to those who have found this time difficult because one day they may need me to reach out to them.

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