I wrote in my last column about moving house. I wrote about boxes, vans and packing – and I wrote about chucking stuff out. What I didn’t write about – and what I’m going to write about today – is what it’s like to live without all that stuff. What I didn’t write about was how utterly weird it is to have a physical reminder of your loss in everything you do; how bizarre and unsettling it is to have your whole life start to feel like a bad metaphor. What I didn’t write about was how to live with that.
“There’s something missing!” I find myself thinking, on a daily basis, digging through the bookshelves for something I know should be there. “It used to be just there! I used to have it, and now it’s gone!”
Somehow, this happens to me every day. There’s always something: there’s always something to startle you, once again, into acknowledging what’s lost. I move around the kitchen, reaching for things that have always been in my kitchen and now are gone: the drawer is full of the ghosts of knives. I don’t know what to do without the big cleaver I’ve been chopping herbs with for half a decade; I don’t know how to function without the ancient Magimix that was his 18th birthday present and that I had come to regard as mine, or rather – crucially – ours.
The day I moved into my new flat, I looked around and realised I was living in a house full of empty spaces. There was one solitary pleather sofa, like something in a waiting room, impossible to sit on without thinking of job interviews and bare legs sticking to warm plastic. There was a lone bookshelf hosting a single copy – oh, irony – of a popular neuroscience book. There was a small double bed without a headboard. Everywhere I looked something else seemed to me to be missing – and it was.
And this, I suppose, is always what it’s like to start again. This is what it’s like to try to live, after: you don’t have the things you’ve always had. You don’t have the life you’ve always had, and thought you’d have forever. You don’t have the love or the job or the kitchen knives. You don’t have the books or the Magimix or the husband. You’ve lost what you always wanted – and now you can’t even make dinner properly.
So much of the grieving process – whether you’re grieving a person, or a relationship, or a part of yourself – is a series of fleeting and unpredictable emotions you can’t really explain in words
It could have felt like rubbing salt in a wound – and yet, somehow, the more I thought about it, the more I found a kind of comfort in these physical absences. “Look,” I wanted to say, “something is gone and it’s not coming back! Look what I’ve lost! Look what’s gone!”
So much of loss is intangible. So much of the grieving process – whether you’re grieving a person, or a relationship, or a part of yourself – is a series of fleeting and unpredictable emotions you can’t really explain in words. To have that physical acknowledgement of loss was important to me – and so, I decided to lean into it.
I decided that the only thing to do – the only way to get through this – was to let myself feel absolutely everything I felt, properly. Without dissembling or pretending it wasn’t happening. Even the loss. Even the unbearable ache of missing something and somebody. I decided to lean in to the emptiness.
I threw out clothes that I associated with painful times; and packed clothes I associated with happier times into a little suitcase and slid it on top of my wardrobe. I packed memorabilia – the kind of memorabilia you acquire from half a decade of loving someone – into a wicker basket and put it up with the suitcase. I said a Marie Kondo farewell to the things that seemed to me to best represent that vanished place in my life. And I looked at the spaces I had been given – and had now made – for grief.
And in those spaces I found things; things I hadn’t realised I still had. This also feels like a metaphor; a better metaphor, maybe.
I still had, for example, a little green table lamp we bought together at a flea market. I still had a white enamel jug we used to put roses and holly in at Christmas. I had half-sets of books (he had the other). I had one ceramic tile (the one with my initial). I had a pink-and-silver spaghetti spoon. These things – some fragments of my old, beautiful life – were still here.
And I decided to use them. I set the lamp on the windowsill above the pleather sofa and filled the bookcase with the half-sets of books. I filled the jug with flowers. I put the single tile on the table as a trivet, and served spaghetti with the spoon.
I bought new kitchen things. Sainsbury’s do a decent three-pack of knives for a tenner and a little hand-blender thing that comes with three (three, count ‘em) different attachments. I was sceptical, but it works almost as well as the Magimix. TK Maxx sells everything in the world.
I’m not replacing the old things, really: how could I? The small losses – the knife, the mixer, the matching tile – are simply a reminder of the great loss at their heart. There is no replacing what I have lost. There is no replacing what’s gone. It sometimes seems to me unthinkable to buy new things for a new life – but I’m pretty practically minded, and I know I don’t have a choice.
And the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that it’s always sort of like this. The great loss; the small losses; the small saved fragments; and the new things all together seem to me to be just how it goes.
We’re making a patchwork of the griefs and the joys and the old things and the new things and the lost things, and we’re all doing the best we can, and maybe that’s the only thing we can do.
John and Ella have always been passionate supporters of Anthony Nolan and John's fundraiser is still active here.