I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie A Single Man. Directed by Tom Ford, it’s an incredibly stylish, well-acted film, which is quite deliberately thin of content, allowing the viewer to really concentrate on the characters. I watched it less than a year after my wife died, and it wasn’t until then – four years on from its original release – that I really understood why it carried that title.
George, the lead character, has a female friend (who used to be a friend with benefits) called Charley. The two of them slept together a few times before she got married and he fell in love with a man called Jim. George and Jim were together for sixteen years before Jim died in a car crash, leaving George’s status nothing other than ‘a single man’. The film depicts a drunken New Year’s Eve scene where Charley – still friends with George all these years later – blurts out something about his relationship with Jim not having been real. In a single sentence, she strips his love of any status once again.
The scene stayed with me for a long time. I was with the woman (who became my wife) for eight years but we were only actually married for 14 months. You might question, What difference does that make? Well, actually quite a lot. Ask anyone who has lost a partner, who they never called their husband or wife, if they feel their grief is marginalised compared to that of a spouse and I’m quite sure you’ll find your answer.
Death in marriage can highlight what some call the hierarchy of grief – a notion that promotes some to ‘top dog’ status while pushing others down to the ranks of ‘you’ll-get-over-it’. Watching the film made me realise that had Desreen and I not got married those few short months before, people would surely be asking themselves why I wasn’t over it just a few months after.
George’s story is an important one. It makes people take a closer look at the universality of grief. Sure, grief is personal and we all grieve as differently as we love, but it’s for no one to judge, rank or rate the depths of anyone’s feelings of loss.
That’s exactly why I wanted to get involved in a Lost for Words, a Royal London exhibition in collaboration with the iconic British photographer, Rankin. Having almost been swallowed whole by my own all-consuming grief as a husband, a father and a man, my gradual recovery has led me to a place where I’m much more interested in hearing other people’s stories than thinking about my own.
I was fortunate; I wrote my grief and my grief was heard and understood. Others won’t benefit from all that this kind of human connection can bring if their own unique stories aren’t afforded the attention and focus they deserve. We need to hear everyone’s voices in order to make us all better at holding this challenging and diverse conversation. Few things in life are more inclusive than death. That’s why we must ensure that the conversation goes beyond 2.4.
This films conveys this message beautifully. Featuring moving bereavement stories from household names including Gloria Hunniford, Ashley Walters, Konnie Huq, Jeff Brazier and Divina De Campo, the films draws viewers to a digital exhibition – now live on lostforwords.royallondon.com – that aims to inspire an open conversation about death, grief and how to be more prepared for it. A conversation and Q&A session with Jeff Brazier, Gloria Hunniford and Konnie Huq will also take place on the site on 25th November.
I also sat for a film where I explained how people can try to support bereaved friends, family and loved ones. It took me by surprise because it was the first time I had ever cried on camera.
The tears may have come because I effectively stepped back into my wedding day for this photo shot by Rankin. In the original my wife is looking up at me with a smile as I deliver my wedding speech to her and room full of all the other people I love. As she looked up at me in this shoot last month, she was still 31 and I was now 10 years her senior.
I miss her looking at me that way. I miss that way we could talk openly. Now I just want to make sure other people feel okay about speaking openly, too. About the things that really matter. About love. About life. About death. About how we can all try to help each other a little if we always aim to see the world through the eyes of others and not just our own.