Category Archives: Coping with loss

It has been a year.

A year ago today, the thirtieth of April 2016, just as the sun was setting, my beloved Grace slipped free from the boundaries of this world. Her three and a half year struggle against Ovarian Cancer was over and she was at peace. There would be no more pain and no more tears, at least not for her.

I’m still not quite sure what I felt. I think initially there was a sense of relief that it was over. Possibly as much for myself as for Grace. It is the hardest thing in the world watching the person you love die. Thanks to the wonderful care from St Raphael’s Hospice, Grace was never in any significant pain. But even so sitting beside her, reading to her, holding her hand, telling her I loved her and generally talking all sorts of rubbish, while her life force slipped away took it out of me.  So relief that that part of the journey was over, was, I think, my first emotion.

Then the tears came.

I sat with her for quite a while, crying, still holding her hand while I remembered the wonderful life we had together. After a while, probably about half an hour, it occurred to me that I had best tell the medical staff that she had gone. I pushed the call button, they came in and very gently did what they had to do. Someone got me a cup of tea. One of the nursing assistants asked me if I would like something stronger and I accepted a glass of whisky.

After I had drunk the tea and the whisky I was together enough to call the people who needed to know.

Two friends, who lived close to the hospice came round. I was grateful, but it might not have seemed that way to them at the time. They offered me a bed for the night, as did the hospice, but I thought that at some stage I would have to go back to an empty house and an empty bed, so it might as well be tonight.

I knew the house was tidy and that there was clean linen on the bed because I had done all that the week before, the day that Grace went back to St Raphael’s. After she was settled, I went back home to pick up a few bits and pieces that we had forgotten. I decided to change the bed linen and tidy the house up. I was feeling quite happy. Grace was in a safe place, where the people looking after her, unlike me, knew what they were doing. She would like the clean and tidy house when she came home…… then it hit me, Grace wouldn’t be coming home. In the whole three and a half years of hopes raised and dashed that was, for me, the worst half an hour. Worse than the day we got the diagnosis, worse than when I had to leave her when she had her surgery, worse than when the Marsden told us “Sorry , but we don’t think there is anything else we can do.”, worse even than the night she died.

Sheila and Christine gave me a lift home and reluctantly left me on my own. I poured myself another whisky and drank it. I thought about finishing the bottle, but decided that it probably wasn’t the best idea and went to bed. Tomorrow when I got up I would have to face life on my own.

That was a year ago. This past week has brought back the memories and the pain of losing Grace. The hurt and the grief are not as acute as they were a year ago. We humans are resilient creatures, we learn how to adapt. We learn to fill our lives with other things. Not, I think, to block out the grief nor to replace the missing partner. We do it to expand our horizons so that the grief and sense of loss are not the only thing in our lives.

I thought that I was going to have to face life on my own. That turned out to be wrong. Friends, family and even in their own way, the company I work for have rallied round. Little things, like asking me if I would like to go along to an exhibition or go out for a meal make me feel included. My sister flying down from Scotland they day after Grace died so I wouldn’t have to be on my own. My friend Toby volunteering to come with me when I had to register Graces death. They would probably say that it was the least they could do, but to me it meant everything.

So where am I one year on? I’m still standing. I am more and more grateful for the wonderful thirty and a bit years we had together. Memories keep popping back to make me smile, or cry, or more often both.

The current “Humus Crisis” brought back memories of the “Great Humus Disaster of 2007”. Grace decided that she would like to make her own humus. She blended the chickpeas, garlic and oil together. She removed the cover from the blender to add the tahini and inexplicably forgot to replace it before switching the blender back on again. If you look carefully at the kitchen ceiling you can still see the evidence.

I am gradually finding homes for her stuff. One of her keyboards and the PA equipment are being used by Oasis Church and the other went to friend who had moved to a new house with thin walls. Bashing away on his piano at 10 pm, he thought, might upset the new neighbours. So he now bashes away at the keyboard (with headphones). Her bike is currently transporting his daughter to and from school. I have kept her e-bike for when I am feeling lazy. I am also still pootling around in her Little Lilac Car.

I still miss Grace, I always will, but I am also seeing that I could have a life that is as wonderful as the one we had together, a very different life, but one that I can love.
On that positive note I’ll end.

I hope that today will bring back your joyful memories of Grace as well. It doesn’t matter if they come with a tear as well as a smile.

The Therapeutic Quality of Football

I have recently started to watch live football again. I did go along to watch Wimbledon before Grace became ill, but after her diagnosis, I stopped. Most Saturdays, if Grace felt well we would do something together and if she wasn’t then I didn’t like to go off and leave her for longer than it took to do the shopping.

I think I have mentioned before that this came about because my brother persuaded me to go along to watch Hibs on Christmas Eve. It is probably worth mentioning that I am a Hearts supporter (the other Edinburgh team). I enjoyed the game, and the thought occurred  that if I could enjoy watching Hibs then surely I would enjoy watching AFC Wimbledon even more. So I dusted off my old scarf, splashed out on this years replica top, and bought a ticket for the game against Oxford United on the 14th of January. Fortunately, it turned out to be a good entertaining game, with Wimbledon winning 2-1.  I have since gone along to a few more games, all of which I have enjoyed, strangely enough even the ones we lost.

I  know that football has helped me in the process of grieving. What I am trying in this post is to work out how and why.

Saturdays, especially during the winter had a tendency to drag. Because I went to working a three-day week after I turned sixty and because I normally do all the domestic stuff, shopping, washing and etc., on a Friday I don’t have much to do on a Saturday. Also on Saturdays most people (who work five days a week) are doing other things. Going to the football is an enjoyable way of filling that gap.

What I have found is that it gives me ninety minutes when the only thing that is important in the world is what is happening on the pitch. That helps. The feel good factor of winning helps as well. Strangely enough so does the disappointment of losing. Setting it against losing Grace, losing a football match doesn’t seem to be quite so important. Supporting the Wombles means that (unlike say supporting Chelsea or Celtic) losing a game doesn’t come as a surprise. I was going to say that no one dies, but as this is the twenty-eighth anniversary of the Hillsbourgh disaster we know unfortunately that occasionally this isn’t true.

AFC Wimbledon has given me something to be part of, something to love even. For that I can only be grateful. (So much so that I have invested in a season ticket for next year)

Moving Forward

We are now well into 2017. The first year I have had to face without Grace by my side since 1985. I know it is just a change of one number on the calendar but for me it felt more significant. I felt it as a signal to start moving forward. Moving to what exactly I don’t know yet, but I do know that I have to begin to create a new life for myself. I can’t go on living a pale imitation of my previous life with Grace.

The first time that I said the words “Grace died last year”, shocked me. I think that they brought home the fact that Grace is gone and that there is, much as I might wish it were otherwise, nothing I can do to change that. After I had let them sink in, I found them to be liberating as well. Not liberating in the sense of no longer grieving, but liberating in the sense of giving me some distance from the actual event of Grace’s death, freeing me to move forward and begin to reshape my life. Which I am sure she would want me to do.

Part of it is finding out who the new me is.
This is something I wrote back in July last year but never published:

quote_marks_941_166johnm55 was who I used to be, (as far as this blog was concerned) before I morphed into “A Scotsman in Suburbia” a couple of years ago.

There have been many adjustments that I have had to make to my life in the weeks since Grace passed away. Getting used to being on my own, cooking just for one, working out what to do with my time are some of them. The biggest one has been trying to find out who exactly I am.

When you are in a relationship, especially a long-lasting one ,there is a tendency to define who I am as who we are. I don’t think that is wrong. Grace and I did not live in each other’s pockets. We each had our own friends and our own interests. However there was a lot more that we did together. We might at times have been Grace and John, separate people, but even more so we were Grace&John partners.

I have never been in a relationship that ended before,(unless you count drifting apart and mutually agreed “It’s not really working” episodes with a few girlfriends thirty-five or forty years ago) so I have no experience to fall back on. Even so I suspect that the emotional impact of a long-term relationship that ends with the death of your partner is different to that of a relationship that ends in separation.

I’m still working on who I am, and what my new life might be, though it is becoming clearer. I’m building a picture of who I would like to become, or to be more exact some of the characteristics that I want to build into my life. I want to be a kinder person. Not just someone who tries not to hurt people, but someone who actively tries to make the world, or at least my small corner of it, a happier place.  Grace lived her life that way.

I want – need to become a bit more adventurous. I have always had a tendency to retreat to what I feel are my safe spaces. Even more so since Grace passed away. I need to break out of that.

I am discovering that not having to take into account what Grace would have liked or wanted opens up new possibilities. I don’t mean that in the negative way that it could sound. We made our decisions together, she would take my likes and desires into account as much as I would hers. Just two small examples of what I mean; the first is going to the cinema.

Because we liked to go to the cinema together we would almost always choose a film that Grace would like. She hated violence or more than the very occasional four letter word. So it normally had to be a 12A certificate or better. For example T2:Trainspotting would definitely have been ruled out and probably Rogue 1. Just before Christmas I realised that I hadn’t gone to the cinema since Grace died, not because I hadn’t wanted to, but because I hadn’t seen a film that I thought that she would have liked. I decided that was being stupid, because our taste in films may have overlapped but there was a large section of the Venn Diagram that said John’s film choice that didn’t fit into the overlap. I have started going back to the cinema.

The second is bed linen. I decided that I needed some new bed linen last weekend. Normally that would have been something that Grace chose with little or no input from me. My theory was that it didn’t really matter what it looked like, because most of the time I wouldn’t see it because I would be asleep. I chose my new duvet cover with sheets and pillow cases to match. I like them. The cover is mid grey with thin satiny stripes with lighter grey sheets and pillowcases. Grace would not have chosen them. “Too dark” she would have said and gone off to pick something a lot lighter  and probably with flowers.  I realised that for better or worse that sort of thing is now my call.

Also while football (or sport other tennis) weren’t really Grace’s thing she didn’t mind me going along occasionally to watch AFC Wimbledon but she didn’t encourage it either. I stopped going completely after she became ill. If she was feeling well we would go out and do something and if she wasn’t I didn’t like to leave her. Thanks to my brother Jim persuading me to go along to watch Hibs, of all the football teams in the world, on Christmas Eve, and my finding that I actually enjoyed the game, I have started going along to watch AFC Wimbledon on a regular basis. It gives me ninety minutes of existential escapism. where – for that period of time – all that matters is what is happening on the pitch. It also gives a chance to connect with friends over a beer after the match.

Reading this article in The Guardian a few weeks ago nudged me along the way. The author (Adam Golightly is a pseudonym) lost his wife to cancer about the same time that I lost Grace. He is younger than me and has a couple of kids, so his situation is not the same as mine.  but never the less I have found his story interesting and helpful. One bit in particular jumped out and grabbed me;

quote_marks_941_166“You’ve been recalibrating normality – not just to a future in which you’re only OK without Helen but to the thought that you might have a new life as fantastic as the old one. The weight for you, mate, is not that the future could be bright but that you’ll feel guilty if it is.”

I stop chewing and stare at him, questioning but calm. To those unused to Pete’s caring nature, this link between Indian appetisers and my beautiful late wife might seem crass – but it’s the man, and doesn’t offend.

He munches on. “Also, your survivor’s guilt has been getting worse, not at being left alive but that you might waste that privilege. What’s happening now is these two forces are meeting with the fear of failing to create a brilliant new life for you all being greater than the fear of the guilt if you succeed.”

The sense that I will feel guilty if I do manage to create a new life that is just as wonderful as the life I had with Grace is real for me as well. Equally I don’t think she would want me to live a life where I am just OK without her. I don’t know what my future holds but I do know that I need to move forward into it.

Six Months On

Grace left us six months ago today. I’m still trying to come to terms with the fact that she is no longer around. To be honest I’m not sure that I’ll ever fully come to terms with that.

Looking back over these past six months, I know that I am not the same person that I was so what have I learned about myself and what have I learned about coping with losing the person I love the most?

What do I know? Not a lot but…..

  • I’m not sure whether it actually gets any easier, but the nature of grief changes over time.
  • I’m glad that Grace and I had time to say goodbye to each other. How people who lose a partner unexpectedly cope I have no idea.
  • I still sometimes expect/hope to hear the front door open and a voice to shout up the stairs “Hi Johnnie, I’m home.”
  • Sleeping is still a problem.
  • I haven’t got used to going to bed on my own or waking up to find the other half of the bed empty ; especially when I wake up at three in the morning.
  • I can find all sorts reasons/distractions to avoid going to bed, the internet is probably the best most effective.
    • Likewise box sets.
  • Cooking is very therapeutic.
  • Remembering what mum used to do, cooking four or six portions of something and freezing the surplus is just as easy, probably easier in fact; than cooking a single portion.
  • Remembering what mum didn’t always do, labeling what I am freezing avoids mum’s mystery soup roulette.
  • Big decisions can be made incredibly quickly.
  • Small decisions can take forever.
  • Changing the cover on a duvet is an awful lot easier when there are two of you.
  • Folding the sheets was more fun when I got a kiss when we brought the ends together.
  • A glass or two of wine can help take the edge of things.
    • Too much alcohol does not help at all.
  • Having been my only car for the past two months, I now understand why Grace loved her Little Lilac Car so much, and point-blank refused to even think about trading it in for something newer.
  • gracecar
    Little Lilac Car
  • Something about it brings a smile to my  face – maybe because it says “Hello, Happy to see you” when I put the key in the ignition.
  • Using a shopping list can sometimes prevent me arriving home with a basket containing beer, biscuits and crisps, but lacking bread, milk and toilet paper.
  • I still have no idea what to do with most of Grace’s things.
  • When I do find the right person for something of Grace’s it makes me extremely happy.
  • It took a while before I could go out and enjoy myself without feeling guilty.
    • That doesn’t mean that I don’t wish that Grace could be there to share the fun.
  • If the tears come, it’s usually because of a happy memory, and happy memories far outnumber any other kind.
  • While losing Grace was and is the central feature in my life, I have to accept that others, while I am sure they miss Grace, do have their own lives and priorities.
  • Probably only people who have lost a long-term partner fully understand what I’m going through.
  • I am glad that I kept on working part-time, even though I didn’t need to financially.
    • I can always give the extra money away
  • I don’t know if another relationship would be a good idea or not.
    • But definitely not at the moment, maybe in a couple of years time.

This is sort of where I am six months on. Life goes on around me, even if, at times I wish that there was a pause button that I could press. The only way  that I can see to get through all of this is to walk on through it. I don’t see any short-cuts or bypasses. I’m not sure that I would want them even if they existed. I cope most of the time. Being able to talk about Grace and write about Grace really does help.

How’s it going?

It’s a question that most of us get asked half a dozen times per day. The normal answer is “Fine”, “Not too bad” or a similar non answer. I don’t always find it an easy question to answer anymore. When someone who doesn’t know me asks I’ll still give the standard non-answer. It’s when someone close who knows my situation asks it I find it difficult, in fact, I find it difficult to ask myself the question.

It`s now just over four months since Grace passed away and the short answer I suppose is “I’m coping, but some days I cope better than others.”

It’s little things that throw me. Like, a few weeks ago. I had bought some flowers to put on Grace`s grave and the man behind me in the queue made a joke about “Had a row with the wife then?” All I could think was “If only” before dissolving into a puddle of tears. Or looking for something in the wardrobe and finding her “Huggy Bear” warmer, that kept her warm when she was putting up with the side effects of chemotherapy.

My birthday turned out to be surprisingly OK. Yes I missed being woken with a tickle, “Happy birthday Johnnie” a birthday card and present. Grace always planned something interesting and exciting for us to do, like a trip along the Regent’s canal on a narrow boat or a day trip to Paris or an art exhibition and lunch at the Tate. I missed all of that.

My friend Toby (aka Lord Wallington) and I share a birthday – though he will point out that he is eleven years younger than me. He and his family had a barbecue to celebrate and invited me along.  It turned what could have been a strange, sad and lonely evening into a very pleasant one. Good friends definitely help.

Family does as well. I am writing this on the train to Scotland to see my brother and sister. On the Saturday before my birthday my other sister, brother in law and my niece had a lovely day down in Brighton. One of Grace’s instructions to me was that I should take all of my and her brothers and sisters to her favourite restaurant Terre a Terre and that “she would pay”. We had a lovely veggie meal followed by a walk along the prom and the pier, where my adrenaline junkie niece wanted to go on everything but was partially dissuaded by her mum and dad.

So did being asked to do a Facebook #spousechallenge which involved posting a photo of yourself and your partner on your timeline every day for a week. I found going through all the photos of myself and Grace a cathartic experience.

So yes I’m coping, I can go out and enjoy myself without feeling guilty, even if especially, at Terre a Terre, we all missed Grace.  Sometimes the evenings can get a bit lonely. I will always love her and will always miss her and there will almost certainly be other unexpected things that will reduce me to tears, but that’s OK. I’ll cope.

Couch to 5k Day 11

tiredThere is a little bit more to today’s Couch to 5K post than just a record of my run. Today has been a hard day. I miss Grace every day, but today I seemed to be missing her even more than usual.

I have mentioned previously how grief or aspects of it sneaks up on you. Today was like that. I didn’t sleep particularly well last night, but that in itself isn’t that unusual. I haven’t slept well since Grace died. Also I have been told by others who have lost partners that it is common either to have difficulty in getting to sleep or as is normally my case, waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to get back to sleep.

I lay in bed about four in the morning wide awake and all I wanted was a cuddle. Not a hug, I needed a cuddle. Don’t get me wrong, hugs are great and you can give me as many as you want. Hugs are what you get from friends and family, but only your lover can give you a cuddle. That was how my day started.

One of my jobs this morning was to inspect the boilers in a nursery school. Walking in there with a load of bouncing four-year olds asking me who I was and what I was doing took me back to the days when Grace was still teaching. The only person more enthusiastic than her kids was her. She would be reading stories, showing them how to play tunes on old pots and pans and always encouraging them to work together and share. It wasn’t the school she worked at, but she would have loved the place. It was a happy memory, but still one that I needed five minutes on my own in the car to get over, before I could move on to the next customer.

Eating my lunchtime sandwiches in the park helped lift me slightly. After visiting the final client for the day, I thought it might be good to go and visit Grace’s grave. When I arrived at the cemetery there was a rather large funeral taking place in the same section that Grace is buried in. It just didn’t seem appropriate to go and have a talk to her. So I came home not feeling too great.

What I want to talk about though is the uplifting effect of running and talking to people. Just as I was about to set off my next door neighbour, Jackie, spotted me going out ( it wasn’t difficult I was wearing a fluorescent orange running top). So we talked for about half an hour before I set off on the latest run/walk/shuffle.

The programme has stepped up another gear. It now consists of a three-minute run followed by a two-minute walk, then two five-minute runs with three minute walks, finishing off with another three minute run. I am managing it so I guess that it proves yet again that the gradual increase in intensity is about right.

As I was finishing the run I was going past an older gentleman (probably not much older than me to be honest) taking a pre-dinner walk when my Californian Motivational Lady said something like “Awesome!!! You’ve done it!!! Cooldown walk for five minutes then Strreeeettcch!!!!” . Which caused him to look across in my direction. I explained what was going on and he nodded. His walk was taking him in the same direction as me, so we had a pleasant chat until we arrived at our house.

I arrived back home in a much better frame of mind than I had left. Running and interacting with people it’s worth remembering.

Coping with losing Grace

GraceTrain
I know I have said that I don’t want to turn “A Scotsman in Suburbia” into a coping with grief blog. However coping with the loss of my partner Grace is unfortunately the biggest part of my life just now.

It is now five weeks since Grace left us.

I’m sure that you will believe me when I tell you that the last five weeks have been the hardest five weeks of my life. The first week after Grace died kind of passed in a blur. There were things that had to be done, like registering her death and organising the funeral. I suppose I went through them on automatic pilot. My sister flew down from Scotland the day after Grace died, that got me through the day. Various friends helped me through that week. In some ways the first week wasn’t too bad. I had things that needed to be done and to a degree Grace’s death hadn’t quite sunk in.

Five weeks on I am functioning, in that I get myself up in the morning, get myself out to work and I am eating reasonably well. In fact probably eating better than I have been for quite a while. This I think is due to the fact that, especially in the evenings, I have quite a lot of time to fill. I am quite a good cook and I enjoy cooking. I have found that planning, preparing and eating my evening meal is a pleasant distraction. I am eating fairly healthily and generally getting my “Five a Day”.

I have good days and bad days. Sometimes the difficult days are easy to spot in advance. Grace’s birthday was one. It doesn’t mean that it’s not going to hurt, but knowing that it will be a hard day to get through at least allows you to prepare yourself. Other days things sneak up on you.

Apparently “Denial” is one of the first stages of grief that you go through, and having to face up to it is hard. Normally I get back home about three in the afternoon. I usually still have about two or three hours work, writing reports, making phone calls and answering emails. It was not unusual for Grace to be out when I got home. Right up to the point when her body started to give up completely, she led an active social life. The expression “ladies who lunch” was coined especially for her.

Last week, I was up in the spare room that I use as an office, typing up reports. I had the feeling that I was waiting for something, but I wasn’t sure what. Suddenly it struck me, I was waiting for the front door opening. Some how I had decided, at least subconsciously, that Grace was just off somewhere, out to lunch with friends, or away at a conference and that she would be back. It was then that I realised that, no, she wouldn’t be back, not now, not ever. And that hit me hard, really hard. Even as I am typing this I am half expecting to hear her say,
” Johnnie, turn that blooming computer off and come to bed, it’s gone eleven o’clock.”
But the voice I hear is inside my head.

Actually I should listen to it because I really should be getting to bed.