This 'Christmas Tree' symbolises the way grief ebbs and flows. Starting at the bottom of the image, and moving up towards the tip of the tree. Those periods of raw, agonising pain, so protracted for many months, gradually become a little shorter over time. I have left a sort of sharp tip at the top on my drawing because I know there will always be one there. I wouldn't like to say how far up the tree my grief has moved. Maybe someone who has been bereaved longer than me would have more of an idea of how this works long-term.
I find imagery so valuable. I think its because it attempts to impose some sort of order on the emotional chaos. It gives me a sense of understanding, and positions my location on a map, which may be filled with deep black holes and jagged rocks, but at least it exists somewhere as a recognised place. The fact that so many humans have travelled this path before me, giving rise to attempts at explanation and illumination, rationalisation and organisation, via theoretical underpinnings, models and images, is a comfort in itself. To me it spells hope.
I hesitated a long time about including this post, but in the end I thought it might help some people to get an idea of how the passage of time has changed things for me: what I have been able to newly tolerate and what I have been newly capable of doing at different points in my grief journey. I do feel 'journey' is the right word for this. Yes, journeys generally have an end... well, the end of this journey will be at the end of my life.
If you're grieving I can't emphasise enough that we are all so unique that our timelines will inevitably be hugely diverse, and indeed yours may bear absolutely no relation to mine. I simply offer my own in an attempt to inspire hope in any of you who are more newly bereaved that your story too, will change over time.
On Friday 17th July 2020, seven months almost to the day after we lost Anton I started a journal. That is how I know what changed and when. During the preceding months I hadn't perceived anything by way of change. I was either at the bottom of my black hole or drowning in a tsunami of raw terror. I felt unable to think, let alone write; I just stumbled and staggered through the days.
It was fury that propelled me to start writing. Here is an extract from my journal that day:
I am so fucking angry with you Anton!!! How dare you throw away the life I gave you? How dare you toss it aside as though it were nothing at all? How dare you? After all the years and years of love and care I invested in you? After all the times I laid awake and worried about you? How could you do this????
You have ruined my life. You have broken my heart. You have destroyed my peace of mind. You have left me to rot in a hell of your making. You have condemned me to a life of pain, a joyless existence. A life of no life at all. A life without you. A life in which I pray to die every day. A life which is not a life at all, only a survival of each dreaded day. A life in which I can only hold on, trying to withstand the storm, the pain, the agony of losing you.
As I read this today I find it harder to connect with the rawness of the anger, but I clearly remember writing this passage. Writing it was my way of finding an outlet, a way of putting words to what I felt; expressing it. Although nothing could have eased my pain in that moment, there was a small satisfaction to be gained in seeing the words upon the screen. I can see too, as I read these words today, how I was violently protesting; fighting against the sheer, brutal sense of anarchy rendered by the traumatic nature of my loss. In doing so, I was attempting to impose some form of order on the confusion and madness of grief.
Thankfully, I can also see that much has changed in the two years since I wrote this. I am far calmer, much less distraught, more emotionally solid. I no longer dread the days. I am even able to find moments of joy.
There was no time at which I could have said that things were better, but there were signs of small improvements along the way and I began to try to record these, to give myself hope. When we think about how we are, its tempting to say that nothing is any different, because the blackness of grief can still feel all-consuming, but there are sometimes little clues that tell us an adjustment has occurred, no matter how miniscule that change may be. I would definitely recommend it as an exercise.
6 months - 1 year after loss: Temporary Respites from Drowning I can be absorbed temporarily by a book, a poem or a TV show/film.
I send a message to close friends telling them "I whisper this very quietly, because its as fragile as a gossamer thread; but I had a few moments of peace today".
I am able to think about ways forward without Anton in my life, though its more a case of grasping an overhanging branch as I'm being dragged downstream and under the water.
I can think a little about the year ahead.
I can think in terms of weeks or months rather than minutes, hours and days.
I start volunteering during lockdown; shopping, prescriptions, taking people to appointments. I feel useful again.
I can remember some happy memories occasionally.
I'm less anxious; I'm no longer having panic attacks.
I’m angry less often.
The yearning for Anton has been replaced with periods of some sort of numb acceptance, though I know I'm still in shock.
1 - 1.5 years after loss: Sad but Surviving I can be in a car as a passenger or driving without listening to Radio 4 to distract me from my thoughts and prevent me from crying.
I no longer believe I will lose my mind from grief.
I have more of an appetite, at least sometimes.
I can allow myself to just be, without having something specific to do, for short periods.
I am thinking about work and planning to start again soon.
I can tolerate not seeing or hearing from my youngest son Stef for a few days at a time without panicking that something terrible has happened to him.
I no longer cry every single day.
I am able to plan a trip away with Alek to escape Christmas.
I have become more comfortable with being in Restoration Orientation when I'm less connected to the pain of loss.
I have stopped visiting the churchyard and lying on the earth with my body curled around Anton's grave, weeping for hours.
1.5 - 2 years after loss: Semblances of a New Normal
I start work again as a psychotherapist, in a small way, and I cope.
I’m not worrying about Stef so much, I’m more confident that he’ll pull through.
I have longer periods of Restoration Orientation between bouts of Loss Orientation (see Dual Process Model post)
I’m not explicitly angry with Anton very often any more.
I feel more stable emotionally, and depressed less often. I am less anxious generally.
I’ve thought about the night Anton killed himself, his possible state of mind; I’ve faced the narrative my mind has written. It was so hard, but I did it, and it no longer exerts so much power over me.
I remember Anton's life more fully (not only his death). I am able to access some happy memories.
I can think about never seeing Anton again and it hurts like hell, but I can do it (sometimes).
I can think about him with huge sadness but with less anger and fear.
I have moments when I enjoy cooking for friends and family.
I recover more quickly from bouts of raw grief.
2 - 2.5 years after loss: Step Back and Re-assess I stop working again, because its too exhausting. I do it to look after myself.
I start volunteering, teaching English to refugees instead.
I can tell people about Anton without breaking down in tears.
I have my first belly laugh, with my grandson, aged 2 and a half.
I can walk the dog on my own without crying.
I have a thought one day "I am living; not just surviving".
I am able to laugh off an everyday stress instead of getting upset about it.
My sleep has mainly returned to the way it was before we lost Anton.
2.5 - 3 years: Learning to Live Without Anton
I invite all his close friends for a series of lunches, and we talk about him so much, it hurts and yet its wonderful to hear his name again. It almost feels as though he is here with us.
I am able to sort through Anton's boxes of belongings with Stef and Alek. One of the hardest things I have ever done; it brought the return of raw grief - but I recover fairly well, I feel calmer the next day.
I start looking forward to things a little.
I go out one evening for dinner, and I actually enjoy it.
I have a lovely morning teaching English to refugees, with a lot of laughter, and I feel lighter than I have in a very long time (then I burst into tears).
I'm eating normally now.
Anton is no longer my only thought when I wake up; though he's never far away.
Things that are still too hard for me, 2 years, 9 months after loss:
I can't think about Anton for any length of time; my mind just won't stay with him, it still demands to avoid the thought that I'll never see him again.
I can't remember him fully, re-experience the feeling of him when he was still alive – my mind and body won’t let me go there yet.
The dark hole in my heart and the hard knot of fear in my stomach is still there, though less so.
I still can't look at the cookery books he bought me for Christmas just a few days before he took his life.
I can't listen to music that I loved, or shared with Anton. I can't sing or dance. These joyful experiences no longer fit me.
My therapist once asked me to describe myself before I lost Anton; these were the words I used, in this order: joyful; hopeful; enthusiastic; excited; optimistic; curious, interested; passionate; energetic, busy; loving, caring, compassionate; forward-looking. If I look at this list now, I can see that I have mostly regained the last seven qualities I described but not the first six I listed. I don't know if they will ever return, but I live in hope.