Celia Johnson

Features Editor

In January my partner died.  Well, that's not exactly true; he was my ex-partner.  Of nine weeks.  We separated with the intention of getting back together in three months to work out if the separation was final.  We'd meant not to talk to each other in that time though, of course we did, but we hadn't spoken for a couple of weeks when the call came.   We'd been together for twelve years.

The separation impacted on everything that followed and, especially, on the way I and my children have grieved.  They weren't his children, we'd not been living together and our relationship was, in the last couple of years, sometimes very difficult.  We'd broken up twice before in that time.  And though I don't know that, this time, we'd have got back together, I did love him, and my children loved him. He'd been  a constant in their lives since they were 8 and 11.  I met him when I was 40, when life begins again, and he'd been my partner through so many formative years (of theirs and mine).   Though it was right that we'd broken up, it hadn't been resolved and his loss has been, and continues to be, profound. 


I saw his body; I visited almost daily in the hospital and at the funeral parlour.  He was unmistakably dead, definitely not there, his body - that looked increasingly less like himself - was not him.  But, reminded of his physical presence, I could talk to him, touch him, even as he got colder.  There'd been no chance to say goodbye so perhaps this was my way of saying goodbye to him, or rather, to his body.  And it helped.  

So I know he’s gone, that he left his body behind, but I still talk to him (though not so much out loud),  I still feel connected.   I have no belief in religion but he was a Bahai and the Bahai belief in an afterlife was described to me as one in which the spirit is still present, around somehow, here but not here.  This narrative and the one told me by a Jewish friend whose mother died very recently and who described her as being ‘just in the next room' comforted me and has allowed me to feel that the conversations I have with him are heard.  But I don't feel he's gone.  And what does death mean anyway? I can’t conceive, or make sense, of something so huge, so unknowable.  He’s simply somewhere else.  In a parallel universe where, hopefully, there is good walking and great music.   And though he had so much more to do,  that somewhere else is an ok place to be.  I hope he doesn't miss us as much as we miss him - I hope it's harder for those of us left.

After disbelief and anger, there is bargaining, depression and acceptance; he died too quickly for bargains, and depression seems an entirely appropriate response to loss:  Sadness comes in waves now, there are good days and bad ones, and an ache, like hunger or fear, that comes into sharp, terrible, focus.  Then fades.  But I know I’m beginning to accept the way things are, it's just that the way things are are often overwhelmingly sad.  It seems to me that it's not just time that heals but also what Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet calls 'life's longing for itself' that allows the surprisingly simultaneous experience of joy and sorrow, the love of life that moves in one direction but has sadness hard-woven into it.  Though breathing has sometimes been difficult, it hasn't stopped, and I am incredibly lucky that I have completely wonderful children who, as Tottie beautifully says in her piece, " have already lost so much and who I love beyond measure" , amazing friends whose love has surprised and sustained me, and family;  that I'm not alone, that I love being alive.  

When those close to us die, the fragility of life becomes a certainty; it reinforces the terrible supremacy of change and our powerlessness before it.  Each death is different, nuanced by the relationship we’ve had with the person who’s died.  My partner’s death is different from that of my ex-husband six years ago.  The emotions that followed his death were conflicted, fraught, riddled by tides of regret and, sadly, some relief - his life was deeply troubled and complicated by addiction.  For me, the deepest tragedy of his death was of my children’s loss of a father, the loss of the hope for his recovery and for a future that included him.  My grief for him was strongest when, and before, we divorced but I still mourn him and our love, and the loss of the family unit; I still sometimes long to see him again and I don't really believe that I won't.

Few people of my age are untouched by death; I’m very aware as I write about my anger towards the people that have said nothing in the wake of my partner’s death, that before my ex-husband died I didn't know how to talk about death, that I was a bad friend because I didn't know how to be a good one. I thought it was probably best not to bring up pain (as if it can be forgotten or ever wished to be forgotten). I know I’ve caused suffering by not knowing that simply to acknowledge another's loss is a true comfort.  I hope I know better now.  

The people who, for the most part, can listen to tales of grief with compassion are those who've experienced similar sorrow.  If every minute in England and Wales someone dies, then every minute the people closest to them are thrown into despair and begin the process of grieving.  If only they could wear an armband, an interesting hat, a mark.  So the rest of us would understand that they are sad, could say we are sorry for their loss, and let them cry.  Or speak. Or simply be.

Perhaps if we talked more about death, its ordinariness (as well as its uniqueness) could be better understood and sadness - our own and others - less feared.

The personal stories in this issue are shared with that intent, and because we don’t stop wanting to talk about someone we’ve loved just because they’re dead.  Why on earth would we?


Between Despair and Distraction: Narratives of Grief

These words and all the words that describe loss are inadequate; but often they are all we have by which to navigate our emotions and connect with others.  Sometimes we long to speak and can't.  We don't have the words or are terrified to say them in case they unravel us.  I've felt silenced by the expectations and assumptions of others, by the requirements of normal life - of working in a community that (apart from my closest colleagues) has felt cruelly uninterested, uncaring.   And by my own vulnerability. I've divided myself, knowing the unhealth of it; watching my own manic performance and feeling a crazed separation, the closeness of madness. Existing between despair and distraction; endlessly waiting to be alone, to sit with the pain and properly feel it.  Sometimes (well, often) to drink, and fall asleep - to get through the day.  I've listened to my own careful speech and heard a shrill screaming below, like tinnitus.  I feel like I could light a city with the energy it has taken to keep an unwanted conversation going. ​​

At work my memory has been shot and I struggle to hold on to facts.  I shouldn’t be here. I understand that I'm considered dippy.  A colleague says he's my memory now and I'm not completely sure he means it kindly but it's what I need and I struggle to keep back the tears.  I apologise and say (dippily) that my brain's a colander but its not - its full up. There is no space.  No room for anything beyond this grief and the needs of my family; I feel like the Thames Barrier holding back this force of emotion.  And I'm exhausted.

How do we do this in times of extreme stress, hold it all in?  Pass for normal and not hate ourselves for doing it?  Raw for a kind word, I hear myself say I'm fine as if there's some shame in being otherwise or because I'm just too tired to speak. The need to protect others from the powerful emotion of grief is immediately understood by the bereaved; who do you trust to let you fall down close to them?  What if you couldn't get up - who'd carry you? It's terrifying.  

And I'm not alone in these feelings. I begin to wonder at the people I pass in the street:  Who else is feeling like this?  In England and Wales, someone dies approximately every minute and, unless they die without family or friends, at least one other person is bereaved.  I am bereaved but I appear normal: there is no visible mark on me but I don't like to go out on my own, looking like this. People will think that nothing has happened and I don't want to be treated as if nothing has happened, as if I am what I was before, that this is nothing big.  I don't want to talk to people who don't know. I don't want to see people who know me, who knew us, and say nothing.  I feel something beyond anger for those people who know and say nothing at all; it feels unbearably cruel: Do they think this is nothing, this loss?  

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in On Death and Dying’ in 1969, identified anger as the second stage of grief, after disbelief or denial.  Six months on, I'm still furious: Furious with my partner for being dead, for dying before we’d finished the conversation, before I'd even begun to grieve the end of the relationship. Furious with the doctors who, twice in A&E the year before he died, said he was fine and sent us home.  Furious with the people I work for; furious with people who've said nothing to me or my children; furious sometimes with people for simply being alive when he is not.  Anger feels like fuel and ballast.   It keeps me going.  It steadies me.​​

And I still don't believe he's not here.

Anger feels like fuel and ballast.   It keeps me going.  It steadies me.​​

      I know I’ve caused suffering by not knowing that simply to acknowledge another's loss is a true comfort. 

I had never lived on my own before and it terrified me...

I felt an awful anxiety, a deep and horrifying insecurity...

I thought that, like in the movies, everything would be said...


Death changes everything
And yet nothing has outwardly changed...

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