The Tale of the Bieber-haired Youth

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Cool-parent nonchalence

A Bieber-haired youth knocked on the door last week, asking if my daughter was in. I gave him my best Kenneth Williams face – specifically, the one one above from Carry on Jack.

“She’s going out,” I replied. “Whom shall I say called?”

Bieber scuttled off on his scooter without answering (sans helmet, I noted – presumably to avoid squashing the coiffe.)

When I turned to go back into the house, my daughter was standing in the shadows of the corridor with that half-mortified, half-excited look of young love. Bieber, she informed me, was in fact called “Dean.” He was – is – her boyfriend.

I tried to affect the cool-parent nonchalance I had been practising for this eventuality, though I admit, I hadn’t expected to have to use it quite yet. Surely sixteen is the threshold for this kind of indecency? They’re ten.

And while they’re not exactly Rene and Renata (having observed them since, with my binoculars, from behind various bushes and playground furniture, they barely acknowledge each other – such is the complexity of young love) it struck me that this is the milestone that many blokes I know dread the most. Dad meets The Prospective Boyfriend is a well-worn comedy trope for a reason.

Mark died B was just three, so the only parenting milestones he bore witness to were of the first steps / ohmygodwhatdidsheeat,noYOUchangethefuckingnappy variety. How would he have coped this this one?

I’ve been mulling this over since. The answer is, I have no idea. My own response has surprised me. I had thought I’d be all Cressida from Viz’s Modern Parents strip, but in fact, I’ve gone more Cressida Dick from the Met – setting up a series of strategic command bases to check what they’re up to next.

Mark approached everything, even the most grotesque of nappies, with a playful, sidelong glance. How would he have approached the Bieber milestone?

Mark and Bea

When Mark met B. Not Bieber.

 

 

 

 

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Miss Marple and the Timeline for Good Grieving

Miss Marple

Last year I wrote a piece for the Telegraph in response to Sheryl Sandberg’s Facebook post about life after her husband’s sudden death. Sandberg emailed me personally afterwards.

“I thought what you wrote was the most uplifting thing I have seen,” she wrote. “Thank you so, so much.”

After I’d picked my chin up off the floor, I decided to reply. We exchanged a couple of further messages, and during our brief exchange, she wasn’t one of the most famous and successful women on the planet – she was just a regular young widow who had lost the love of her life in tragic circumstances like me.

Which is perhaps why I feel compelled to respond to the latest revelation in Sandberg’s grief journey – the fact that, ten months on, she is reportedly dating again. Wonderful news, right?

The self-appointed Armchair Arbitrators of Good Grieving (or AArrGG! as they are henceforth known) don’t approve. “Too soon!” was the declaration of one. “The love of her life? I don’t think so!” sniffed another. The dot-eyed denouncements reached a startling new low, with some AArrGGs going all Miss Marple and suggesting she’d bumped her husband off.

Ten months may not sound like long, especially if you’re a judgemental bully with no experience of devastating loss. When you’ve lost the love of your life, the days, months and years ahead without the prospect of your soulmate yawn forth like a terrifying chasm. Getting through ten minutes can be difficult enough, never mind ten months.

New relationships after widowhood are charged and complex things. Those who enter into them should not have to adhere to any timeline for grieving, especially ones laid out by anonymous keyboard commentators who have nothing better to do.

One of Sandberg’s friends said:

“Everyone is happy for her, because she deserves to be happy.”

Close the casebook, Miss Marple. That’s all there is to it.

 

Widowed and young. More fun than it sounds.

Last weekend, I was honoured to be invited to speak at the AGM of WAY Widowed and Young – a wonderful charity that supports anyone under the age of 50 who has lost a spouse or partner.*

(Here I am below, attempting to look intellectual.)

*more fun than it sounds. No, really.

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Reading from LAY at WAY

It’s not the first time I’ve done a public reading from the book, but arguably, if I was going to be slain by a crowd, it was this one: 100 widdas and widdawers, all of whom had been through their own personal versions of spouse-loss hell, all of whom were in the unique (and entirely unenviable position) of having a real insight into the issues raised in my book. The passage I read was about disposal of ashes, coffin choices and thrifty funeral directors named Dennis. I worried that they might not see the funny side.

(Fortunately, they did. In fact, for a bunch of bereaveds, we spent an indecent amount of time belly-laughing.)

Coffins, ashes and Dennis’ economic advice aside, the central message of my talk at the AGM was about the act of writing itself. I had been asked to consider how writing helped me after losing Mark.

Thoughts turned from my beloved husband to my beloved computer keyboard – the keyboard into which I had pounded grief, rage, loneliness  -the keyboard who, like every good friend, had responded by listening and offering me space and a conduit for reflection.

I concluded how I felt about writing and grief with the following:

Writing helped me to examine my grief, to express it in a way that I couldn’t manage with the spoken word.

Writing allowed friends and family to see how I was doing, without them having to bring out the platitudes.

Writing the blog turned into writing the book, which turned into a sort of therapy all of its own.

Writing saved me in ways that guides to grieving never could. I highly recommend it.

Fellow WAY member and BACP-registered counsellor Nicki Walker and I are now running Writing Grief, an expressive writing course for those dealing with loss. It is fully-funded through the generous support of Tyneside Mind and the Linden Family Trust. Visit us here for further information.

Woman v G-Force

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Six months after Mark died I attended a course entitled “Overcoming Grief.” From the outset it seemed to me to be fundamentally flawed. Could grief really be overcome, like a dose of the flu or a profound dislike of Steve from Accounts?

I mentioned this to the course leader. She was such a lovely woman, what with her cupcakes and her clip-art, that I felt bad afterwards. And actually, whilst the course didn’t solve the issue of, you know, the death, it did help to move me along.

Below are some of the many attempts I have made at ‘overcoming’ my grief since. Perhaps reading them will make you feel less alone, or, if nothing else, give you something to fold your arms ‘neath your bosom and have a ‘tsk’ at.

I have tried writing my way through it. Drinking my way through it. Fucking my way through it. Drugging my way through it (prescription of course). Talking my way through it. Laughing, crying, bluffing my way through it. Buying my way through it (net result – cupboard full of fabulous shoes!)

I have tried apportioning blame and getting angry; I’ve tried telling myself how fortunate I am to have His child, for the happiness He brought to my life, for the fact that He died in my arms, unwitting, not frightened or alone. I’ve tried remembering the atrocities that are happening every day all over the world, being thankful for my family, friends, my home and my health.

It’s almost three years since Mark died, and despite my tireless wrestling and negotiation with grief, it still sometimes hits me with a force to make my face go like Clarkson’s (above).

Tomorrow Mark would have turned 40, and Grief Force has got me.

Warm milk and an Oreo

It’s taken me eighteen months, several hundred bottles of red wine, counselling, pills, the support of friends, strangers and a spirited editor at Virgin to try to articulate how it feels to have lost Mark.

It took my daughter thirty seconds, a cup of warm milk and an Oreo to sum it up last night :

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Letting Box go

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Mark’s cherry twig

The prospect of interring your spouse is a bit like being asked to sleep with Prince Charles. In a way, it should be a great honour, but you’d give anything not to have to do it.

Regular readers of this blog know that we are engaged in a kind of stand-off, the Box of Ashes and me. We have spent the past 32 months eyeballing each other across a no-mans land of fury and disbelief.

What are you going to do with me now then, eh?” Box seems to taunt, and I, and I…I simply close the wardrobe door and walk away.

For this is about more than just putting a box of dust into the ground. It marks The End in so many more ways than one. Interring the ashes is the interment of dreams, of a future planned. It makes the truth indisputable – He is well and truly gone.

A few months ago, I bought a plot in a woodland cemetery. The nice man met me there and by the end of the conversation I was so enthused by the idea of becoming part of ancient woodland, of the ongoing cycle of life, that I could barely wait to get in there myself never mind bury my husband. I whipped out my chequebook and reserved our spot there and then.

But when I returned home and opened the wardrobe, the sight of Box undid all of the good work of the nice man. Letting Box go felt like…well, letting go.

On Saturday I visited the plot for the first time with my daughter. We planted a tree – a wild cherry, symbolic of Mark’s love for the cherry blossom of His days in Japan. It is nothing but a thin twig at present, but it was lovingly allotted and bedded-down by my daughter’s welly boot and will flourish and grow along with her. And sure enough, during the ceremony, amid the mud and the mizzle, a sensation returned. Irrefutably, there it was – a feeling of oneness and peace.

Box still taunts from the wardrobe, but my feeling is his time may be up.

Survival of the Unfittest

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Paris, August 2014. This is the part of me – and Mark – that survived

I’ve never been much of a sportswoman.

The subs bench of the netball team was about as far as my career in Phys. Ed. went – shoved reluctantly on court when the regular Wing Defence was off playing first team hockey. I blame my low centre of gravity and the fact that I am a lover not a fighter (give them a bib with letters on and women turn VICIOUS).

It continues today – I’m the one in the swimming pool who does two lengths with a pinched expression, then gets out with entirely dry hair.

As an evolutionary theory, ‘survival of the fittest’ is open to interpretation, but if it has anything to do with physical prowess, I’m done for.

Imagine my surprise then, two years and seven months post-sudden death of husband, to find that I have survived. But not just survived. From the broken pieces, regrowth is underway.

Grief textbooks tell us that the success of our ‘recovery’ depends on many things – support networks, family, friends  – and our individual ‘inner resource’. The latter is an elusory concept; you don’t know the depth of yours until you are required to plunder it with your bare hands.

I continue to plunder mine; I still haven’t reached the bottom, thank god, for whilst I have survived and flourished up to now, I am only too aware of the duplicitous nature of grief. It could have me back on my withered arse tomorrow if it so desired.

But when I reread the desperate diary scrawlings of two years and seven months ago – the diary entitled ‘Random Ruminations Since We Parted’ – I feel a distance from those thoughts. I still recognise them, but they don’t stoke the fire in my heart in the way they used to.

In fact, if the fittest are the ones who survive, then I consider myself the Jade Clarke of the grief circuit. (That’s British Netball’s Wing Defence and Captain to you).