I see him everywhere. Among his battered John le Carré books neatly arranged on the bookshelf. Between the cans of Guinness rammed at the back of our fridge. A toothbrush casually discarded by the sink. In his laundry – worn socks, treasured shirts, battered jeans – randomly intertwined with mine. A scattering of unremarkable objects that, on any other day, would go unnoticed and unobserved, but on this particular day, and from this day forward, serve to document the past like some kind of spectral crime scene. Scattered exhibits of a life shared, and a life lost. Random buoys that ringmark my drifting grief raft in the house we lived, the house we loved. This home we built together. Now a strange, unbearably quiet and dark expanse.
It’s been 52 days since my husband died in his hospice bed, while I slept restlessly at home. Six years since a world-leading neurosurgeon pointed his biro at an MRI brain image on his computer screen and circled the malignant dark matter, as I howled into my clenched fist. Visceral memories – like his clothes and belongings, the ones I can’t bear to touch – swirl around me at dizzying speed, even now, as I type. Which is why I’m typing. To locate my husband again amid the debris. To try and make sense of these leaden butterflies that lurch and jerk deep inside me. The anguish that washes over me in fresh tidal waves, day after day. I want to understand the lethargy, the shallow breaths and this panicked feeling that comes with inconceivable loss. The night terrors, back pain and this gravitational force dragging me slowly, slowly, down.
There is little grace to be found in the mascara-stained tears, the mucus, the invading thoughts and the shakes
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it,” Joan Didion wrote, after the sudden death of her husband, John Dunne, in her memoir, The Year Of Magical Thinking. “In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be ‘healing’. A certain forward movement will prevail.” In reality, grief – much like death – is none of the things we hope it might be. It is neither a romantic, opium-fuelled Coleridge poem, nor a beautiful and stylised Millais painting. Grief is messy and rough; it is unforgiving and cruel. An encompassing pressure that makes my head feel pushed and squeezed, compressing my everyday thoughts as though I’m permanently clamped in a vice. Like Didion before me, no one warned me about the primal physicality of mourning and the power it can wield over your subconscious. The way it ruthlessly inhabits and subverts you. There is little grace to be found in the mascara-stained tears, the mucus, the invading thoughts and the shakes.
George Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University who conducted more than two decades of scientific studies on grief and trauma, actually coined the phrase “coping ugly” to illustrate how grief can take many forms. It’s one of the few bereavement terms I can actually identify with, when I recall those first few days dangling in the abyss; my sweaty hands palmed on our cool bathroom tiles as I retched and spluttered on my knees. “There are no rights or wrongs and certainly no set order,” says Jacquie Leaman, bereavement co-ordinator at Marie Curie – a charity that provides care and support to people with a terminal illness and their loved ones. “People who are grieving often speak of having a broken heart, referring to the real physical pain experienced within their heart.” Leaman tells me that the experience of emotions such as numbness, shock, fear, anxiety, sadness, helplessness and anger are very common – as are feelings of worthlessness, guilt, jealousy, depersonalisation and, sometimes, even relief. “While I think we might believe we understand what these emotions mean, the reality and the accompanying physical symptoms [breathlessness, night terrors, hallucinations, anxiety, memory loss], which can be so painful, are often not fully understood until experienced,” she adds.
Grief patterns don’t follow a linear blueprint, this much I’ve learned. In 1969, the Kübler-Ross model identified emotional states experienced by terminally ill patients after their diagnosis, a theory that was eventually rolled out to incorporate those who grieve after a loved one’s death, too. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Since the 1970s onwards, these five chronological stages have come to define our understanding of grief and mourning – with little room for complexity, individuality and nuance. “The Kübler-Ross theory of stages was an attempt to help people recognise the range of different feelings they may experience in grief,” Leaman tells me, as we discuss the pressure grief theories can place on the mourner to process their loss in a neat way. “But taken literally, as a linear approach, as it is often portrayed, can result in those who are grieving feeling that they are not dealing with it as they should.” Leaman is quick to remind me that no two mourners experience all of the same emotions. Which is another issue with the Kübler-Ross stage theory and its neat stages. “This can lead people to question whether they are grieving ‘properly’, or feeling that they ‘should’ be experiencing emotions that they don’t have,” Leaman explains. “This, sadly, can put more pressure on people at what is already a difficult and stressful time.”
I was compelled by a primal ‘urge to search’ in the immediate days after my husband’s death. I searched for him in my dreams, only to awake on my hands and knees, frantically grasping at blankets and throwing back pillows, in an unconscious bid to find him amongst the bedsheets
More widespread, now, is the idea of grief manifesting itself in “oscillations” or “waves”; a nauseating mix of zig-zagging symptoms and emotions that can lurch a person – forwards and backwards, forwards and backwards – as if they’re stowed away in the deep bowels of a ship. It’s a narrative I’ve picked up in other writers’ exploration of grief. “I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow,” CS Lewis wrote, about the death of his wife in his landmark work, A Grief Observed. “Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history… There is something new to be chronicled every day.” In these early months, I’ve learned that this process is anything but vertical. There are no stages to be ticked off, only motion sickness, as you careen from one mood to the next, desperately trying to mimic some semblance of everyday life. Leaman tells me that modern theories, such as the Dual Process model (put forward by Stoebe and Schut in 1995), more accurately explore how a person processes deep loss – “The swings between the focus on loss and intrusion of grief, and the focus on restoring and rebuilding their lives – and how grief isn’t a process of neatly working through stages.” For Leaman, it’s surprising that our collective narrative, when it comes to grief, isn’t as enlightened as it should be. “It is a shame that other, more modern, theories, such as Tonkin’s – which looks at ‘growing around grief’ – are not more widely known,” Leaman tells me. “People are so keen to believe that time will heal, that one’s loss – which is so overwhelming and all-consuming at the beginning – will get smaller. I like this theory, as it recognises that one’s loss doesn’t get smaller, but that life grows around it.” In other words, time doesn’t heal, but it eventually gives us the space to try and rebuild.
“Do not think that grief is pure, solemn, austere and ‘elevated’ – this is not Mozart’s Requiem Mass,” Joyce Carol Oates writes, unflinchingly, in her memoir, A Widow’s Story. “Think of crude coarse gravel that hurts to walk on. Think of splotched mirrors in public lavatories. Think of towel dispensers when they have broken and there is nothing to wipe your hands on except already-used badly spoiled towels.” Like a thirsty nomad, I lapped up Oates’ writing in the weeks following my husband’s death. Didion’s work quickly followed, as I turned to septuagenarian widowed writers and academic books to soothe the judgemental voice in my head that told me I was doing it wrong, grieving badly. I sought reassurance in the things I was never told. On a rainy afternoon, surrounded by medical books at London’s Wellcome Library, I uncovered tales of Native American women, widows of the Hopi Tribe in northwestern Arizona, who have been known to experience spontaneous hallucinations of their dead husbands as an expression of unresolved grief. I read stories of dolphins carrying their dead loved ones for days, refusing to eat or sleep; I found strange comfort in the idea of “grieving geese”, who have been known to withdraw socially and lose weight after the loss of their mate.
Like the Hopi Tribe women I read about in medical journals, I, too, was compelled by a primal “urge to search” in the immediate days after my husband’s death. I searched for him in my dreams, only to awake on my hands and knees, frantically grasping at blankets and throwing back pillows, in an unconscious bid to find him amongst the bedsheets. In 1917, Sigmund Freud published a paper that compared mourning and depression, proposing that both [Bonanno quotes Freud in his book, The Other Side Of Sadness], “involve a longing for something that is lost”. Although I remain sceptical of Freud’s loose psychological comparison, his summation of grief took me back to our bed; back to the shock. Something that is lost. It would take me 30 seconds, in the strange blue light, for my brain to catch up with my body. For my mind to inform it, like a frightened child in the dark, that my husband wasn’t under the bedcovers. He’d gone, passed somewhere beyond me. Somewhere unfathomable, unreachable. But, where, a tiny voice asked me, desperate for answers. But where?
A few weeks ago, I opened up his hospice belongings and, overwhelmed by the smell that permeated from his dressing gown, placed my head between the plastic, shut my eyes, and closed the bag tightly around me. I breathed him in, I breathed him out
“Death is the last great taboo; and the consequence of death, grief, is profoundly misunderstood,” writes Julia Samuel, a psychotherapist specialising in grief, whose book Grief Works examines bereavement and loss. It is, she furthers, “an intensely personal, contradictory, chaotic and unpredictable internal process”. Samuel likens this anarchic process to an iceberg viewed above the waves. “What we see above the waterline – our words, our appearance, our expressions – is only a third of the whole,” she writes. Perhaps that’s why I turned to dolphins and geese – and even a 61-year-old Christian theologian and fantasy novelist – in order to make sense of the things that lurked inside myself, underneath the water. “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear,” CS Lewis wrote, as he battled to make sense of it 60 years ago. “The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning… At other times it feels like being mildly drunk or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between me and the world.”
On my darkest days, I read and re-read a simple email that Joyce Carol Oates’ friend sent to her in the immediate days after the death of her husband, Raymond Smith – and included in a memoir that chronicles her grief. “Suffer, Joyce,” she wrote. “Ray was worth it.” There is strange comfort in these words. Sometimes, they bring me back to him – back to the last meal I cooked for him in our kitchen, as he sat at the table, typing at his laptop. An hour later, a second stroke would render him motionless on our hallway carpet, but in this moment, this one golden moment, we are suspended in time. I sang along to Paul Simon and stirred the bolognese; he smiled and told me he was happy to be home. How strange that certain memories can bring us back to the place we belong. A few weeks ago, I opened up his hospice belongings and, overwhelmed by the smell that permeated from his dressing gown, placed my head between the plastic, shut my eyes and closed the bag tightly around me. I breathed him in; I breathed him out. I breathed him in; I breathed him out. Hours later, I put on the same Paul Simon record and sang the words – I sang them loudly; I sang them for us.
Suffer, Kat; he was worth it.
The waves keep coming. I am homesick for him.
If you are coping with bereavement and need to talk, the national Cruse helpline is available on 0808 808 1677.
Kat and her family are raising money for St. Christopher's Hospice, who provided essential care and a lot of kindness to Pat this summer, and for UCH Cancer fund. Should you feel inclined, you can donate here.