DIFFERENT THAN BEFORE: RELUCTANT ADVICE FOR THE BEREAVED

I started writing about grief almost as soon as it came into my life six and a half years ago. My 33-year-old wife was struck and killed by a speeding car; our son had just turned two. The whole incident drew a lot of attention. I suppose through writing about it so openly, I did too.

A week or so ago, I realised that I stopped writing when the pain began to get less intense. Before that, I think that grief all but wrote the words for me. It possessed me. Never much of a writer before, it was as though I was nothing more than a conduit for an unfamiliar language of pain.

And how the demons of loss indulged. I couldn’t run a mile without stopping to spill out my soul onto a page. I could paint sunshine black with my immovable melancholy.

And the worst part was, no one could help. Kind comments were invariably received with bitterness. Well-intended words of experience fell on deaf ears. How could anyone understand my pain even if they had only experienced their own? This belonged to me. I belonged to it. I found the goodwill patronising, hollow and entirely subjective. Until last week.

Right after my wife died, I wrote an article for The Guardian entitled, ‘How do you tell a toddler his mummy’s dead?’ When I first shared our story, I felt totally enveloped by grief and unable to imagine a time when it would let my son or me go, even for a minute. But when I read it just a few days ago – and I’ve no idea why I even did – I realised that it had let me go. Not entirely, I don’t think it ever really does, but enough for me to no longer feel like I was simply occupying its oppressive shell.

I realised that I’d shared the darkness freely but resisted sharing the light. Perhaps I felt more comfortable displaying my discomfort. This sorrow had overridden me without remorse or restriction after all, I was simply writing with the same lack of restraint.

What didn’t overcome me, however, was recovery. That, I discovered, didn’t come in crashing waves. I didn’t experience random moments of unexpected joy at my desk as I tried to work. I don’t ever remember nodding furiously as I read about the horizon of another person’s grief suddenly breaking into an instant and glorious sunrise. Recovery, unlike emotional injury, was almost unnoticeably gradual.

I understood that my experience of grief was mine and mine alone, so who was I to tell anyone what to expect of what came next? Today, I realise I will never tell another person either how to feel or what they’ll feel in future. It’s neither my right nor within my power. But I suppose I can share a few lessons learned. Some little things that have helped me back on the slow road to recovery. Some of the things I may well have been able to tolerate from others at the time.

Seek peace. Wherever and whatever it may be. In solitude. In company. In silence. In noise. In exercise. In stillness. Your peace may change every day. And that’s okay. It’s yours after all.

Seek meaning. In family. In children. In friends. In helping strangers. In dogs. In goldfish. In work. In words. In charity. In understanding what motivates you in this life that you still have to live. In striving to be a better person than you ever knew you wanted to be before.

Seek adventure. In things you’ve never done before. I things that separate you from your old life. In ideas that scared you until you realised that fear was nothing like as debilitating as pain. In places you never thought to look. In the things you might not have been able to do before. In the youth you thought you’d left behind.

Seek distraction. In language. In travel. In sport. In blue skies, green grass or sand between your toes. In listening to nature. In mindless television or incredible literature. In the occasional indulgence. In meditation. In the bass of a speaker in a dark nightclub where it’s easy to disappear into the crowd.

Seek energy. In the spaces between complete fatigue. In the opportunities to use rest as your friend. In pushing yourself a little further past the wall. In new behaviours. In putting old ones to bed.

Seek wisdom. In the thoughts and feelings of others. In poetry and in prose. In the experiences of people older than you. In the naive profoundness of the things children say. In yourself.

Seek healing. In understanding that pain often surrounds you but doesn’t entirely own you. In remembering that you were someone before grief, and that you can be someone again. In allowing yourself to be a different you. In not reaching for someone you might not be fully able to be again.

Seek relationships. In new friends who can’t judge how you might have changed. In old friends and family who still love you even if you have. In people who can offer empathy, and to whom you can return the kindness. In romance if you want. In love if you’re ready. In your own time. In the knowledge that it’s your choice and no one else’s.

Seek yourself. Find out who you are now or think about who you might want to be. Take your time to accept that life has changed. Think about how to make peace with letting go of the things you feel you can no longer be. Remember the good times. Strive to make new memories. Try to believe that you still have a life ahead. Change can be hard. Life can feel like a mess. But it can still be so many incredible things you might never have expected. Just keep going. You’re there somewhere. You’re just different than before.

4 thoughts on “DIFFERENT THAN BEFORE: RELUCTANT ADVICE FOR THE BEREAVED

  1. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and what you have been through. I lost my husband four years ago and I find that no one really does understand unless they too have lost their someone too. Even then sometimes it is difficult to relate as most people I know who are widowed are older. I was 39 and my husband was 38 when he passed, and our daughter was 8. So being able to relate to a younger loss is quite helpful.

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  2. i was trying to reply to yesterday’s post on lifeasawidower about the very personal desire to write and sharing and not sharing. i agree the whole thing is down to the individual whether you do or don’t and how you deal with grief. i realised i couldn’t get the words out right yesterday but here i’m trying once more.
    i too wrote a lot – only for the first few months and then when i wanted to intermittently. i didn’t want to feel like i had to. but then id get occasional pangs of guilt for not having put pen to paper (yes the old way). but i’m interested to know when you decided to write a book / to share – more to understand what motivates making such a big change. i know for me it’s about what feels right but something as big as sharing your personal thoughts with thousands as opposed to just doing it to salve your own pain is pretty significant…
    other things of similar nature would be moving away from the house you love and bought for your future together, possibly changing a career long vocation… not about whether to go to yoga or not (that’s always a yes btw:)) – did you set out to write a book or did you decide later and if so what compelled you? even if it had a natural momentum there must have been a point where you said yes and the motivation overcame any resistance. does that make any sense? maybe i’ve answered my own question – ‘because it feels right’. but hey, i’ll ask anyway 😊

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  3. It is great to be able to read your thoughts again Ben. Your insights in relation to giving advice to people who may have gone through the same experience like our own is so helpful.
    Yes the experiences may be same but because we are all different how we will deal with the experience will never be the same. Your 9 Ss are brilliant people can use them in a way that suit them best. Thank you a very insightful post.

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  4. Ben, you were there for my son Tim Cook and it was so important for us to grasp at anything at that time.
    Your words make good sense as this journey continues. We are now 5 years on.
    We wish you well.
    The Tories seem to have swept their vicious cuts to bereavement payments under the carpet. Teresa May I think said it was “fairer for tax payers”. What a despicable shower this batch of politicians are.

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