Anton died in the wintertime.
December 18th 2019.
That first cold season passed in a blur, my shock-addled brain functioning only in the very simplest, most basic way.
I stumbled out of bed each day, following a routine of sorts: making tea and coffee, feeding the dog, walking the dog, washing the dog (how would we have survived without the dog?) preparing meals, forcing myself to eat, watching mind-numbing TV, then back to bed again, desperately hoping for the temporary respite of sleep. The days followed one another and the weeks eventually became months. I remember very little, looking back.
Since then, three years ago, I can see that things have definitely shifted, though certainly not in any sort of straight line. Christmas 2020, arriving at the end of a year of shock and grief, was utterly abysmal. Lockdown had descended again, destroying our chance of getting away for a few days with our youngest son. Everything was cancelled. In 35 years of marriage Alek and I had always hosted Christmas for our family; that year we spent our first ever Christmas alone. We got through the day as best we could. I recall that when we walked Frankie that Christmas Day morning the weather was beautiful, with clear blue skies and bright sunshine. I remember that all the people we passed called out Merry Christmas! And we dutifully replied, smiling, whilst silently acknowledging that there would never be a time when Christmas was merry for us ever again. And I know that as we came home a dense black fug descended and didn't leave me for a very long while. As well as this terrible sadness, I was filled with a profound anger and a huge sense of outrage that this devastating tragedy had happened to us. It just felt so terribly unfair.
Thoughts of Anton are always with me and my heart never stops aching for him, but from April to September 2021 (Year 2) it felt as though my head was above water at least some of the time. I found myself in restoration mode for longer episodes, and I was better able to function. This was even more true in the spring and summer of 2022. All too soon though, September’s shadows lengthened, and then October infused its sharp chill into the wind. The nights grew increasingly longer and colder, and the skies turned inevitably greyer. With the return of the cold and the dark came the fresh realisation that winter now presented huge challenges in managing my mental health. As it began to creep ever closer, I felt depression creeping in alongside it, and found myself fighting a constant battle to keep from sinking into the black hole.
For the past two years Alek and I have escaped the worst of winter's bleakness and the anniversary of Anton's death, as well as all those happy, painful memories of family Christmases, by heading off to southern Spain in our van. We simply ignore Christmas altogether. This is a lot easier to do in Spain because the commercialisation of the festive season is fairly low key, and with the sun shining most of the time your brain can even be fooled into thinking its June. I know that for many of you, work and family commitments would mean that doing something like this is not even a remote possibility, and that we are extremely lucky to be able to go. And it does help me get through the worst of the darkness.
But this 3rd anniversary in December 2022, coinciding as always with the Christmas period, I became very depressed. It started slowly in the autumn as usual and gradually worsened, and even going away to the sunshine in Spain did not ease it. This year I felt as low in December as I have ever done since Anton died. For weeks I was reliving the loss, over and over, every day.
Clear memories of Anton eluded me for many, many months after we lost him. I think this was an unconscious, self-protective measure that allowed me to pretend on some level that he was still with us. I know I felt unable to open myself to memories, because I was terrified of the depth of pain I would feel if I let them in. He appeared in my dreams occasionally, and these were somehow softer versions of the memories I would have had if I'd been awake. I think this was my mind's way of allowing me to slowly accept, little by little, that he is gone.
I recall telling my therapist perhaps 2 years after his death that I could not feel him. I was able to evoke snippets of him: his clear green eyes, a glimpse of his face, his voice, the sound of his laughter. I could remember how it felt to hug him or to hold his hand in mine. But I could not summon his whole being, his essence; what made him Anton. This evaded me for a very long time. It was almost 3 years before my mind allowed me to remember him more fully, and even now, I am not able to do this very often.
One evening last November, a few weeks before the third anniversary, for no particular reason, and with no conscious trigger, I suddenly felt I was drowning in grief, loss and longing for my boy, this missing part of me. I was plunged into a sobbing frenzy for several hours, in a way I hadn't experienced for over a year. Tsunami is the only word I can find that comes close to accurately describing this form of deluge; it can feel as though I am being dragged beneath the waves, unable to catch my breath, desperately trying to claw my way to the surface. Sound familiar?
I found this poem during the first months after Anton died. It feels so apt, and I have kept it on my desk ever since.
There are some days
I'm surviving without you
and on other days
the waves of you
come crashing down,
hard upon me and I am
in the sea of your memory
Looking back, I think that during the previous winter of 2021, Year 2 after we lost Anton, I was still, to a large extent suffering from the anxiety and shock that trauma leaves in its wake, and which can prevent or delay the emotional processing of loss. This didn’t really abate until recently. But of course, its not a linear process; during the past three years there have been times of shocked numbness and times of acute rawness interspersed with every other possible emotional state in between. All I can say is that I've noticed since Year 3 that there are more frequent, and longer periods when the trauma, anxiety and shock is less apparent. During those times, I am often in restoration orientation and this brings calmer moods, focused activity, and even occasional joys. But at other times, in loss orientation I begin to truly comprehend with more clarity the colossal depth of my loss. I can recall Anton in more detail. I realise with more conscious awareness (and with devastating lucidity) exactly what has gone from my life. He was my sunshine boy. He was funny, he was warm, he was kind, and generous and loving. In these periods of clarity I am able to feel these things, viscerally, and with every fibre of my being. I’m able to recall him in his entirety, and I yearn for him all the more, and I miss him so terribly.
And yet, despite the pain it brings, I welcome this. The fact that it is happening tells me that I am growing in strength and fortitude, and that my mind is more able to bear the unbearable knowledge that he is forever gone from me.
Over many years in my work as a psychotherapist I often found myself explaining to clients suffering from the impact of trauma, that our minds can protect us from what we are not yet ready to know. This can be particularly prevalent for those who have a history of chronic trauma, such as childhood abuse, because the awareness of what has happened can be so psychologically damaging, even catastrophic, especially to a child, that the child's mind may not allow them to consciously know the truth. Trauma memory is frequently fragmented and piecemeal, and sometimes remains that way; the detail can even remain hidden forever. Its not necessary to be able to recall everything about a traumatic event, but it is generally accepted that if and when the mind is strong enough to acknowledge the trauma, so that it can be experienced emotionally, the healing can begin.
You cannot heal what you don't feel
Allowing ourselves to acknowledge the worst thing that our minds can possibly imagine is extremely psychologically and emotionally challenging and takes a great deal of courage. It makes sense that this is done in a gradual, piecemeal way, giving us the chance to absorb and acclimatise to our loss slowly and in small fragments, in between periods when we focus at first on surviving, and eventually on living alongside the trauma. This process in grief has been called Dual Process Theory. Little by little, our brains process the knowledge that threatens to tear our world apart, and over time, we inch towards it, until we eventually become adjusted to the horror of our new reality.*
Since reading Max Porter's fascinating book Grief is the Thing with Feathers I sometimes visualise my own Grief as this hated, terrifying, unwanted visitor that I have been forced to accommodate in my home over the past three years; it is here all day every day, but I don't always speak to it, or listen to it. When I do acknowledge it, sometimes its just for a few moments, sometimes for several hours at a time.
Gradually I've got to know Grief a little more during each visit, allowing it to stay a little longer before I just cannot tolerate it any more, and I throw it out and slam the door. Until the next time it comes calling, and I feel its cold, steel jaws around my heart, I smell its foul breath on my cheek, and I am freshly horrified. And I want to run from it. But I cannot run. It is part of my life now, this feared and unwelcome guest; somehow I must make space for it to live with me. Perhaps I must even eventually make friends with it. For now, I certainly am no closer to welcoming Grief, but I can say that three years on, it is a huge part of my life, but it is no longer my entire life. Its grip has loosened, and its presence generates less fear, more resigned acceptance, for much of the time. And I have begun to grow a garden of hope around the black hole.
To help myself during times of excruciating pain I often think about the common humanity of shared loss. Everybody suffers; nobody will escape this human condition. If we love, we risk the pain of losing someone we love. And of course there are so many forms of loss, other than death; such as the loss of our physical or mental health, loss of work we love, loss of a treasured relationship to separation or divorce, loss of faith, or status. Knowing that others have suffered, still suffer, will always suffer, somehow lessens my anxiety and my pain. I am not alone. I am part of this common humanity to which we all belong. In the beginning I needed to know that others had survived what I had to survive; now I find strength in the knowledge that all of us are still here, still surviving the winters, and finding some hope in the forthcoming spring.
It's up to you, every day, what you choose.
Because life is just one day; the morning sunshine doesn't come back.
*See also my post on Traumatic Loss