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.

 

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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.

reading from LAY

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.

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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Missing Persons

I switched the TV on the other night and there was Fern Britten in a pair of saucy white jeans, admiring the relative straightness of my Grandad’s runner bean. Which is odd, as my Grandad died over ten years ago.

Of course, on closer inspection it turns out that Fern was on an allotment and the runner bean grower was a bloke who looked just like my Grandad. But the Grandad I knew twenty years before he died, all round-chops and belly-laughs.

And suddenly, at that moment, I yearned for Grandad’s face. It occurred to me that I hadn’t seen it for thirteen long years, and I would never, ever see it again. I wanted to dance cheek-to-cheek with it to Rod Stewart’s ‘I Am Sailing’, like in the picture below.

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Sitting on that settee, lips locked round the side of a wine glass, I felt Grandad’s loss deep in my guts. It caused me to think of the other faces I miss. This one, for example. Grandma, who died five days before Mark, and consequently for whom I feel I have never mourned:

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And this one: Gran, who died almost a year after Mark:

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And Pomps, gone almost six months already:

 

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And then thoughts turned, as they always do, to the face I miss most. Occasionally, as with Fern and the runner bean allotmenteer, I think for one heart-thumping moment that I see it; on a train, in a café, lying on the pillow next to me in the night, surrounded by a fuzz of curly ginger hair.

But when the moment passes, and I’m left to think of it, or stare at it in photographs, it seems inconceivable to me that I will never see it again.

 

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It’s A Small (Small, Small, Small) World

My daughter and I have recently returned to the homeland after a trip to Eurodisney.untitled (10)

She, light of spirit. Me, light of wallet.

And of weight, given the amount of time I spent on various squatters, home and abroad, in a state of abject angst.

Everything represented a challenge to me, from the boarding of the Eurostar (now my only remaining route off the Island as flying, ferry boats and the front-crawl are out), to dining out.

Being on the Metro felt akin to being buried alive. I feared intruders in the night in our tiny, ground floor apartment. And those irritating little hairdryer-powered scooters they all skitter about on over there were like swarms of hornets out to get me and my child at every corner.

Fortunately we were in the care of an understanding and endlessly patient friend, who organised and ushered us around like a small but highly troublesome school party, and dealt with my sudden gush of tears on the RER with a deft wipe of a tissue and a rousing chorus of ‘It’s A Small World’.

And of course, being in Paris itself was a challenge. Mark lived there, studied there, flounced around its trottoirs wearing turtle-neck jumpers and smoking Gauloises with well-rehearsed Gallic insouciance. We loved, Paris, He and I, almost as much as we loved our Geordie homeland.

Time away is becoming more and more difficult since Mark’s death. Crushing transportation fears aside, the truth is, I simply don’t want to go anywhere. Coming home, to our little village, I feel a weight lift in my heart. It cocoons us, this place, and increasingly, I don’t want to leave it.

“You’ve got some help, mate,” my friend told me as we bade farewell at the end of our Small World weekender. “You’ve always been anxious, but it has reached a new level.”

The world has indeed become smaller. But at this rate, I’m worried it’ll soon end at my front door.

The Tao of Sudden Death

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Many years ago I worked for a well-known chain of booksellers. The shop was in an out-of-town shopping mall near Bristol, and I once served Colin Jackson. (He bought the Guinness Book of World Records. Presumably to prove to his mother that he really was holder of the title for ‘Longest Peanut Throw’. No really, he was.)

The sales counter was always festooned with those irritating little books of quotations that are apt to be bought and then immediately misplaced behind the settee, and as booksellers we were required to promote them with each sale.

It always confounded me as to why anyone would buy these books. They seemed to contain nothing but a selection of mawkish quotes about life and love and ‘self-realisation’. Yet they were in perpetual need of being restocked.

Since Mark’s death, I have turned into the sort of person who would buy one. I have become a consumer of quotes and affirmations, one of those people who retweets schmaltz written in dreamy script set against an image of a tranquil Scottish loch.

Because in trying to make sense of Mark’s death, of its brutality and its unjustness, I have sought answers everywhere. But really, no-one knows what to say.

For example, I asked my Dad one night: “How can I ever accept this?”

Dad thought about this and poured himself another whisky. “You can’t because it is unacceptable,” he replied.

This is a man with a PhD and a good line in advice, whose word I tend believe more than any other. Yet when it came to sudden death, he was as clueless as everyone else.

Quotations are comforting in bereavement, even the twee ones, because they are proof that someone has been there before; and by consequence reach out to those of us who are stuck for words.

I’ll end with one I retweeted this week:

I keep myself busy with the things I do,
But every time I pause, I still think of you.

Following behind with a defibrillator

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The auburn curls.

Everyone believes their spouse to be exceptional; as a lover, perhaps, or a parent. Or a bore.

My husband was exceptional in many ways, right down to the exceptional nature of the genetic affliction which eventually saw Him crashing out of life in an exceptional manner one unexceptional Saturday in February.

Genetic science has not evolved enough yet to understand why Mark’s aortic dissection happened in the first place. They’re saving His remaining DNA for a point in the future when somebody in a lab coat and big glasses is able to work it out. (The geneticist did explain it all to me, but my brain reacted as it always does when confronted with science – implement the shut-off valve and begin thinking about wine.)

The fear now is whether my daughter may have inherited whatever rogue element was to blame for her daddy’s death.

Most of the time, I am able keep my fears in check. I watch her running full pelt down the road and manage to stop myself from following behind with a defibrillator, ‘just in case’.

Yesterday though I had a moment of tear-filled panic. I was brushing her hair and noticed a couple of depigmented strands in amongst the auburn curls. Three or four white hairs, like lengths of cotton. I admit that I am apt to overact, but hear me out on this.

Mark too suffered from hair depigmentation – it ran in a line, starting in the hair on His head, down through an eyebrow, the wiry hairs of one nostril, on through His beard and into His chest hair. Use your imagination for the rest.

After His aortic dissection, the geneticist suggested this depigmentation might be significant in why it happened. A tenuous connection to the Neural Crest Mosaic, which links the cells responsible for the development of pigmentation and the aorta in a growing foetus. Or something equally baffling to a simpleton like me. It sounded convincing at the time though.

So yesterday, I found myself plucking the offending strands from my daughter’s head, examining them in the sunlight, placing them against my black jeans, mentally preparing a frenzied email to Mark’s geneticist.

My daughter is exceptional – to me, at least – but I hope to Christ this is one area she remains run-of-the-mill.