I haven’t been able to write. This particular post has been six months in the making and I kept adding bits here and there but it’s been really hard to find individual words or a flow of words to describe the processes I’ve been going through. I think it’s been more than that – I haven’t even wanted to. It’s disturbing enough walking through this mess of emotions without sitting down and trying to embrace them enough to name them and sculpt them into a format that gives credence to them. And I didn’t want them to be shared either. For some people sharing emotional hurt is helpful; for others it magnifies it and spreads it even further because then you feel like you need to deal not just with your own pain but also with the pain you’ve caused the other person by sharing it with them. Jane Austen said something similar in Sense and Sensibility, but much more eloquently, and it resonated with me so much.
Then I read “A Grief Observed” by C.S.Lewis – a book so raw that he didn’t allow it to be published under his own name – and I realised that his broken ramblings were actually helpful to me in my broken rambling state.
So here’s your choice now – to wade through these soupy depths and get an insight into how my grief has been in the last year, or to leave this post where it is and maybe skip to the next one when it comes, because I’m now trying to pack six months of the most complex emotions I’ve ever had into one blog post. But it does get better at the end, I promise you.
No amount of watching an illness doing its worst can completely prepare you for the moment when the life leaves the body of the person who your whole life has been revolving around. Something happens in that moment which is so massive and devastating that it takes weeks and months, maybe even a lifetime, to work through. Hope is such a powerful entity that it sustains you beyond anything you thought you could bear, and then in that final moment, it feels like hope has suddenly had enough, so it turns its face away from you, and leaves the room, leaving you devastated and gasping for air in its absence.
That shock lasted for weeks. The whole thing didn’t make sense to me. I had to tell myself over and over that it had actually happened. I dreamt over and over that he was still here, waiting in the hospice, wondering why I hadn’t been to see him for so long. I even dreamt that we’d ended up homeless because I’d gone and made all these financial arrangements too soon – like I’d pre-empted his death and now we were in trouble with the bank because he hadn’t actually died.
Shock is an incredible thing because it protects us from experiencing too much pain all at once. It feels to me like my shock has worn off in layers, peeling back each month to reveal fresh pain and making me wonder each time whether it would be the last layer or whether the wound would go deeper.
We’d done long periods separately before: sometimes I’d travelled somewhere with the kids and he came later because he was speaking at an event, or when he did his placement in Cornwall, or was away on a training weekend, or when we lived completely separately for five months while Daniel was in hospital because we swapped over twice a week and were never at home when the other one was. In general, he was an insanely busy person who worked long hours, and so I made everything happen at home and he was there for some of it and not for other bits.
So there was still a rhythm of life that worked without him. It didn’t feel totally unnatural, and that alarmed me more than anything. It turned out I could do all the things I could do before: get up, get dressed, do the school run, tidy up, go to see friends, plan a holiday, pack for a holiday, go on holiday, speak at an event, get through a family birthday, go to parents evening, laugh till my stomach hurt, go to places we used to go to together, listen to music we discovered together, raise children, lead church…. It all still worked. I tested every boundary and discovered that it’s true what they say – life goes on.
But nothing ever felt right. Now that I know, because I’ve tried, that I can still do everything I could do before, there is relief and disappointment mixed together. It can be done, yet it doesn’t bring the same sense of satisfaction as it did before. There is a hollowness to it all. Sometimes it’s just a slight echo but other times it is a deafening boom and I wonder if everyone else in the room can hear it too.
I have felt fragmented. Bits of me, like sharp shards which cut me by their absence rather than their existence, are missing, and rather than them healing, it has felt more like I have discovered new ones as each week passed. I wonder if they keep falling off or whether it’s just taking me so long to discover each one because I’m distracted by the pain of the previous ones I’ve already experienced. C. S. Lewis describes it like this:
“How often -- will it be for always? -- how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, "I never realized my loss till this moment"? The same leg is cut off time after time.”
When I turn down a street in the town we live in and realise I’ve never seen it before, then realise that although we came here together and wanted to discover this town together and although we experienced so much of it together, I am now continuing to discover and he is not: it just doesn’t work in my head. How can the other part of me, who made all these huge life decisions together, not be here? I can’t remember now who made what decision at each point in our lives, because we didn’t do stuff unless we both wanted to, and so at some point we both decided, even if one got on board later than the other. And who was it that first found something funny? Because sometimes the laughter came at the other one’s reaction to the thing, rather than the actual thing, but the end result was: we both found that hilarious. So will I still find things funny without his reaction to them too?
I have felt afraid. I’ve been worried that the past will be lost, because there’s only me to remember it. When memories appear at different times, I want to scrabble for them and write them down immediately now, in case they get forgotten. I speak them out loud to whoever I’m with, just so I don’t have to carry the weight of them on my own, and by sharing them I’m helping to preserve them by imprinting them on someone else’s brain and not just mine. Sometimes I’m afraid to keep moving forward because I know how quickly memories fade and there never seems time to actually gather them and put them in a safe place before the new time comes along and fills the brain space with new thoughts and events instead. In a conversation with my sister-in-law, we concluded that it feels like we have two options: to press pause on life while we grieve, or to press pause on grief while we live. There never seems to be time enough for either.
I have felt depressed. This is not new, it is an old feeling that waits for opportunities when I am weak, and likes to take up residence in all the broken parts of me. It won’t be staying, I’ve never let it stay before, but while I’ve been in this place I knew it wasn’t time to fight back yet. It’s told me all sorts of lies. That there’s no point. That soon we will all be gone, so why bother to do anything? That I am incapable of doing the things I want to do. That life would be so much easier if I threw off every responsibility and just left everyone else to their own problems. To just curl up and let life pass me by. Every one of these lies has felt completely valid in that moment. The trouble with depression is that it turns your perception upside down and makes you feel like actually it’s the rest of life - when you only function in the here and now and choose to enjoy where you’re at - that’s actually the lie. That you and everyone else have been going around in a foolish deception, unable to see past the nose on your face, pretending to be happy and ignoring reality. Then gradually you start to see beyond all that, and you look back onto the whole of your life previously, and all the potential of your life in the future, and the patterns of the whole world around you, and you feel like the deception is broken and you’re looking out into the futility of it all and some kind of tragic, useless enlightenment has come upon you. You look at the same thing you’ve always looked at, but instead of substance, you see holes; instead of purpose, you see obstacles; and instead of the moment, you see ghosts of the past and fears for the future, like you’re looking straight past the thing to all the space above, below and around it.
I have felt anxious. This is new. Despite five years of hospital activity and juggling the needs of the whole family, and extremely uncertain times, anxiety didn’t bother me. Now I can be sat doing nothing or waking up with what I think is a clear head, and my whole body starts racing and turning in on itself to attack. On some days I have not been able to see individual actions separately – they are one big overwhelming surge of problems that threaten to drown not just me but everyone else around me. Lists of things I want to do race through my mind over and over again and I forget that all these things are voluntary – I don’t have to do them, but I feel like things will get worse if I don’t. More lies. Anxiety stops me from finishing one thought process before I start another. It stops me from discerning the urgent from the unnecessary. Everything feels like it should’ve been done sooner, better, and with no excuses. Nothing is good enough, and everything rests on my shoulders. If I mess up, I’ll take everyone else down with me. (Ha! Of all the things, this one is the best one to see exposed as it’s written down. Totally ridiculous, yet it feels so true when it’s swirling round my head.) I think so much of this comes from being with someone who was a born problem solver. Although we all knew it might be a stressful, dramatic, messy process, he never came up against anything he couldn’t work his way around and find a way to tackle it to the ground. I just had to stay alongside, hold on for dear life and clear up the mess left in his wake. Now it feels like I’m stood on the front line of the battle, without my commander, trying to work out how the heck to make it all work, and realising just how sheltered I was for all that time as he took all the hits for me.
I have felt selfish. One of the beautiful things about moments of family crisis is that you stop thinking about how you’re feeling and what you want to do, and you just drop everything and do what needs to be done in that moment, and you soak up the moments together in the process of doing so. You are free from self-analysis: you just need to get by that bedside, or process the medical information together, or change around everything in the house just so it’s possible to get them home again. That’s all. Everything else can wait. And then one day they’re not there anymore, and it all becomes about you. How are you feeling? What do you want to do? What’s right for you right now? And I’ve had no answer for those questions. Parenting pre-schoolers and being a carer of sick people means reacting to needs, and when they are suddenly all taken care of, you have to start looking at yourself. It’s horrible and unnatural and not the way we are supposed to live on a permanent basis. Thinking about your own feelings all the time is the fastest way to misery, especially for an over-analyser like myself. But I know right now I have to do it. If I don’t, I won’t heal, and I’ll just have to go through this process in five years’ time instead of now. (NB - please don’t think I’m being rude if I answer the “How are you doing?” question with simply “Fine,” because although occasionally I do welcome the opportunity to debrief my thoughts with someone who knows me well, most of the time I’m sick of the subject of my feelings and would love to talk about something else).
I have felt unstable. Some days I want to embrace life more fully than I ever have before, because I’ve seen so much sickness and death and it makes me want to run and engage and seize opportunities. Other days I want to do nothing, go nowhere, and disassociate entirely from my own life. Sometimes I feel a greater compassion for my fellow humans because of my deeper understanding of suffering; sometimes I feel way more intolerant than I ever have before because some problems seem so ridiculous to me. I always want to laugh because I find it a better release than crying, but I worry about how people may misinterpret that. I avoid certain situations because I know they will lead to awkward conversations but welcome other challenges that many people would find terrifying. I now have emotional triggers that I can’t explain: someone will say something a certain way and it will flare up anger or distress in me but I don’t know why and I will have to distance myself for a while from them until I can work it out. I don’t want to be like that. I’ve always been such a pragmatic person who has worked out her decisions based on what’s best for everyone in each situation, rather than on a gut reaction of fear or irritation.
And on top of all that psychology and the reactions that go beyond logic, there is just the plain old feeling of missing him. I wish it was just about the missing him, because that’s the bit that makes me smile and helps me cry freely, with warm measureable tears. I just miss him. We laughed so much, about everything. We could find humour in every single situation. And later of course, we cried about the same things. He walked the same road as I did through the loss of our son, and it is so ginormously different grieving something together than it is grieving it alone.
All the stuff we did together, from conception to birth for each of our children. I can tell you the date and the place we found out about each pregnancy and how I told him. All the scans and the appointments. The holidays and the flights and the long car journeys. The houses we looked round together and the way we made them into our homes. The moments we made momentous decisions – about moving house, or going to college, or giving up a job, or taking a child back to hospital when he didn’t want to go. The tears of diagnosis and the frustrations of tantrums. The sharing of bad news with one another and the strategizing of how to deal with the most recent phonecall. The excitement of a new person at church and receiving happy family news.
And the arguments. I can’t believe I actually miss the arguments. I hated confrontation and got so weary at emotional overreactions. And yet – how do you resolve the stuff going round in your head unless you have someone to throw it about with? How do let the ugly out unless you have someone who won’t be shocked by it because they already know all the bad stuff about you? How do you get over your haughtiness or incorrect assumptions about other people unless you let them pass your lips and you can hear yourself saying them and have to take ownership of them instead of allowing them to stay festering in your brain? How do you spill out your emotions and frustrations then pick through the pieces of them to work out the truth from the lies and the helpful from the destructive, all on your own? I know it must be possible, because there are thousands of people who do it on their own every day, but I haven’t yet learnt how to do it. And I don’t want to either.
I’ve missed helping him. I’ve missed having someone else to clear up with. I’ve missed looking after him and wanting to do things that made him happy. I’ve missed all the stuff he bought me that I didn’t want and made him send back. I’ve missed getting cross at him telling me not to spend extra money when things were tight, then getting cross again when money had come back in and he’d gone and spent it on buying us something we didn’t need. I’ve missed sharing every bit of news with him. I’ve missed him being the driving force and me being the brakes. I’ve missed him doing all the work of inviting people over and cooking an amazing meal for them, then tuning out of conversation as the evening went on and letting me carry the conversation on to deeper things while he started to get distracted with his phone. I’ve missed – we’ve all missed – ten phone conversations a day that all begin with huge complex ideas that demand an immediate response, and end with “I’ve got another call coming through – gotta go!” And the list goes on and on and on.
The whole thing is wearying, and depressing, and crushing.
Because death IS the most powerful force of this earth. What else is there that we can ever experience that is as permanent? Anything else we have had or have known can be taken away – love, confidence, hope, sanity, prosperity, health – it can all come to an end at any moment and it can all come back to us at any moment. Death is like a severed limb – it can never ever be reversed or changed. Once it’s happened, it is the end of that thing – the dream, the marriage, the hope, the person. It’s so massive that we cannot even comprehend it in one moment – it takes days then weeks then months for our minds and hearts to actually accept that it has actually happened and will never be undone. It’s like a perpetuating wound that is struck with unmeasurable force in the first instance, and then just keeps striking over and over again without warning or a recognisable source. It just keeps coming and coming.
It affects every part of who we are. Our view of the world is made up of our experiences. Our experiences come from what has been provided by the people around us – explanations, images, journeys, stories, jokes, ideas, significant moments, physical interactions, problems, challenges, encouragements, touch…. So when a person has been involved in almost all of those experiences, either directly or through the retelling and sharing of them, and has helped you formed your view and feelings of each of those things, and that person is suddenly not there anymore, what then?
It wrecks you.
It shakes you to the core.
It makes you feel like you’re going insane, because the world you built for yourselves no longer exists, but you’re still living in something that looks exactly like it.
It’s all wrong.
And that’s the point. It is all wrong. We were never designed for death. It’s not something we were supposed to experience.
We were made to live. We were supposed to live incredible, perfect, fruitful, fully contented lives, walking in step with the one who created us.
When the plan got messed up and sin came into the world, everything around us, including our own physical bodies, became temporal and breakable, except for one thing….
Eternity is still set in our hearts.
That’s not a cheesy, kids movie type line. It’s biblical, and it’s the most powerful urge that we know, and everything we invest our lives in – family, relationships, creativity, productivity, fame, recognition – is all geared up to try and reach that complusion that we have for significance and permanence.
That’s why death is the worst thing we face. It’s why grief is the most crushing, debilitating, tortuous, perverted force we have to deal with. It’s why it takes the life of not just the person who has physically died but, temporarily, the life of those people close to them too. It doesn't fit.
We cannot explain our reaction to death in physical terms, any more than we can explain love. It doesn’t make sense scientifically or humanistically. It points to something beyond our understanding and unearths deep longings and feelings that can’t be reasoned or explained. It strips us of peace no matter how logical the conclusion is: that at some point, we will all die.
That in itself, having been laid waste to it twice in such a short space of time, is enough to make me more certain than ever before that God is real, that what the bible says is true, and that this life is not, cannot be, definitely isn’t, all that there is.
That’s not all.
My depression would have full validity if that was the whole story – suffering through this life in order to limp our way through to the next one.
Because it was defeated.
Death has been defeated.
But God released him from the horrors of death and raised him back to life, for death could not keep him in its grip. (Acts 2:24)
We are sure of this because Christ was raised from the dead, and he will never die again. Death no longer has any power over him. (Romans 6:9)
but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. (2 Timothy 1:10)
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14)
A few months after losing Richard, when grief had begun to get its tightest grip, I went to a training day at a church that had been significant to both of us for a long time in inspiring and teaching us. I couldn’t get over being there without him, and the loss of our hopes and ideas together. In particular that week I was dogged by that image of him right at the end, and the shock of him disappearing in one moment. Death was so big and powerful in my head, and had cheated us of so much.
Then we began to sing this song, and a real deep knowing hit me right where it needed to. That moment where I felt like hope had walked out of the room the day he died was an illusion. Richard hadn't been abandoned, and neither had I. Jesus had already gone through that on the cross. He’d faced that so we didn’t have to. Richard had gone straight on to victory in that moment. I kinda knew that, but in this moment, with this song, I really and truly knew it. And while I keep living in this life, though I have to experience and wrestle with all the stuff I wrote above in the short term, that stuff – the impact of death – doesn’t have the last word over my life.
And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. (Romans 8:38)
Remember I said I that I love to laugh?
Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)