2018. Where my life goes on, as do others’ lives. New lives come to be, and yet other lives endBy Emma Pearson
October 21, 2020
1st January 2018 – aka The first day of a new year in my lifetime with Mike not in it
I have been training people not to express frivolous platitudes such as, “2018 will be better than 2017”. I hate receiving memes and feel-good quotes and pictures of clocks wiping out 2017 with its “difficult” words like pain/grief/sadness/loss etc, then being replaced with a 2018 clock revealing love/light/friendship/peace/joy. WTF??! Just like that? Well, if it were that easy, I wish you’d told me sooner. (And tell a few political/organisational leaders while you’re at it).
Even “I hope 2018 is better than 2017” fails to hit the (my) mark. For a start, no-one knows what 2018 will be like – not even clairvoyants or futurists. And, (and I hold on to this as part of my story, Mike’s story, our joint story and history), 2017 had Mike in it. 2017 had Mike in it, and 2018 never will. So this particular New Year is not a relief, not a milestone to be got over. A change in some digits doesn’t make any difference – not really. Nothing gets lighter (except perhaps the constantly ON pressure of festivities that runs from 1 Dec to 1 Jan). No, there’s no taking away of anything, other than one digit that gets replaced with another. But psychologically there’s a massive difference. Mike is not in 2018. And that’s heavier. Not lighter. Sadder, not more joyous.
Every single month of 2017 was excruciatingly painful – those three and a bit months of 2017 where Mike was alive, then the 8 and a bigger bit months with him no longer breathing. Impossibly hard, painful and sad. Yet hard as all the months of 2017 were, Mike was still alive during some of them. And 2018 simply won’t have him in it.
So there is no relief at the arrival of 2018. Just ongoing pain and sadness, grief, tiredness and exhaustion. Perhaps if Mike’s decline had occurred over 18 years or months rather than 18 weeks I might feel relief at the turning over of an old year into a new one. Somehow I doubt it. The very hard memories of him being so ill, the emergency trips to hospital, the let downs and disappointments, have faded so quickly.
I am shaken over and over as I remember (or am reminded of) the pace of his decline. I just went back over some whatsapp “chats” with a friend who died himself just this week, 29 Dec. In March I wrote to this friend, “Mike va gentiment vers sa fin”, and I continued that while Mike hoped to die in Switzerland at the Maison de Tara, if we had another emergency it would be France and please could you find out for me what to do around ceremony and cremation around here since we live in the boonies.
In July this dear man attended Mike’s celebration of life. On and off over the months after Mike’s death, my friend checked in on me, inviting me for tea/coffee/beer/wine/moules et frites. In November I was in touch with him to see if he might take on some potential client work I thought he would be great for. He said he was feeling tired and having tests, and went to get his tiredness checked out. Diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer. A non-smoker. End December he died – at the same hospital he had taken my husband to, less than a year ago, for chemo when I just couldn’t manage it. Stuff moves fast. Mike’s decline was fast. My friend’s was even faster. I remember my GP telling me last Christmas, “this could be Mike’s last. Be present”. Wise words, but I didn’t really believe him. I did, but I didn’t really really. Though I did enough to make sure I made a memory of every single moment, even him being in bed most of Christmas day. Thank you Docteur P.
Occasionally I chance across some writing I did while Mike was still alive, keeping people up to date on his “progress”. It feels like another lifetime, another person writing, experiencing. Which tells me I have spent the year in shock. Shock protects. It numbs the fear and trauma. It allows functioning. Baseline functioning. A little like hibernation protects and allows baseline functioning. Perhaps spring might return, at some stage.
What has helped me keep on keeping on this year, even if it has been just at the “functioning” level? I wish I could say “friends and family” but it’s more complex than that. It’s less about relationship and more about capacity to “bear witness”. This bearing witness comes from total strangers much of the time – it’s nothing to do with history/prior relationship/family tree.
Just over two years ago I wrote about “Leaning In”, right here, in this same blog. (Weird that – It was also Ms Sandberg’s book title and she had just lost her husband, and has since become a notable voice in the world of grief support).
Back then, my version of Leaning In was about my challenge leaning into the pain of caring for Edward, my younger brother, as he faded into his final weeks and days. It’s hard work. It’s painful. It makes the leaner inner raw, scared, vulnerable, tense, anxious. Scared. Did I say scared? Never knowing how I would find him. Day to day. There, not there? Never knowing how I would react – centred, grateful, scared, petrified…?
Bearing Witness and Leaning In: same same. Leaning in and bearing witness are hard for at least two reasons – one is that it requires that the leaner inner be present and listen and not talk about themselves just for a little while; and if they do say anything, to just say “yes – that bloody sucks”. Not to add a little bit about their own divorce/separation/job loss/job worries/ill health/or even their own loved ones deaths. Not quite now. Maybe in a little moment. Give me space please.
The other reason it’s hard is because it requires that the leaner inner not only be present and listen (hard enough at the best of times) but that, once they have acknowledged the painfully painful pain, they DO NOTHING. Wow. It’s so hard to do nothing. Not to fix. Not to try to make this ugly (to the witness) pain go away. Not to say, “things happen for a reason”; “you’ll meet someone else”; “at least you had almost 30 years”; “at least you had a good marriage”; “at least he loved you and you loved him”; “at least you have three healthy kids”; “at least he died quickly, but not so quickly that you didn’t have time to say goodbye”; “at least you still have the kids (some of them) still at home”; “at least you have professional skills and can continue to earn money”. Or, “you’ll find that time heals”; “the bad memories will disappear and the good ones will be all that remain”; “think of how you can use this experience with your clients!!!”; “you’ll become so much more grateful/compassionate/kinder”; “he’d want you to be happy”; and my (least) favourite, “he’s all around you”… (no – really – he isn’t. I had him flesh and blood and sperm and sweat and breath from 1987 onwards and believe me, there is a difference).
There is no solace, no comfort in those words. It just tries to take away the leaner inner’s discomfort, and teaches me, the person with the bad ugly uncomfortable distressing pain not to say anything, not to speak, not to teach about what not to say, not to ask for help, not to talk about the person most dear to me for so many years. Secondary losses. Extra weight to carry. Loss on top of the actual grief.
So back to what helped this year, because a lot did help (and in no particular order):
Taking 4 ½ months off after Mike died – not because I thought I would be “over him” or “through grief” by then. Because I wanted to be around for the kids. Because I needed not to add worrying about whether or not I was capable of doing good work to my long list of woes. And because I have the luxury of being freelance, with its many upsides and downsides, and this was definitely one of the upsides I was going to cash in on.
Sleeping in a lot – as in, not setting the alarm (at least once the kids were on school holiday). I didn’t necessarily sleep, but if I were awake between 3h00 and 6h00, at least I could just rest a little longer, and maybe sleep after normal getting up time.
Swimming a few times a week and just lying by the pool afterwards attempting – and failing – to get through a single book.
Walks and runs with the dog. And even more walks and runs without the dog. Lazy bugger that he is, especially in the hot sun and the cold rain. Which is fairly frequent around these parts. (He loves the snow though so we are good for now).
Choosing to leave the “hot water blanket” (as I call the electric blanket) on all night. I grew up believing that it was dangerous to be in bed with an electric blanket on (not that I had one before I was in my 40s); you know, fire hazard/electric shock hazard and all that. But the truth is that I sleep better with that extra warmth, and I need all the sleep I can get. It’s on all night at the moment. Safe comfort.
Forcing myself to go to the cinema alone again and again and again. For a period of time, when still in shock, I couldn’t cry at my life, but only at others’ – in film. Crying is good. Going to the cinema on my own is still miserable but I just do it. I take my flask of tea, my granny shawl and can quite enjoy myself.
Getting back into playing piano – if only once a month or so. Singing, playing piano, crying, drinking wine, all at the same time. It’s messy and, well, just messy. But I have ten fingers. And it does me good. Cello and saxophone are still to come. Too much effort.
Keeping active, still now, a Whatsapp group of local support buddies, set up when Mike was ill. It was for meals/pickups/emergencies and emergencies and just plain simple breathing space. I still ask for help on that group now, 8+ months later and people still bail me out for things like putting the ski box on the roof of the big car.
My work, my clients – what a precious group of people you are. What a privilege to work in a field where I can continue to bring my “whole self” to my work. Many of you even chose to work with me because of my impossibly hard year. Well, I wasn’t not going to talk about it was I? What kind of role modelling would that be?
My therapist and my coaching supervisor, keeping me more or less fit for human consumption (and any digressions past present and future are entirely my own responsibility).
Ongoing personal and professional development. I love to learn, I need to learn, and I do that best in community. Family Constellations in Geneva; Systemic Constellations for Coaching at Lago Maggiore; Journey work at a retreat in Andalusia; Gestalt coaching in Morges, and (even though I am having to repeat the course), Systemic Team Coaching in London. Personal and professional development work are so intertwined for me that I know I benefit first before I can take anything to my clients and their organisations.
Lots of bottles of wine, beer, gins and tonics and (surprisingly, at least to me) a good number of cigarettes. I would have liked someone to share a joint or three with but I clearly don’t know the right people. If you’re the right kind of person and I didn’t know it, please make yourself known. (Well – if you’re local. If you’re not, that’s not much help now, is it?)
Crying on the kitchen floor, in my bedroom, in the lounge, in my car, in my office, out on walks – I have a mantra for when I cry which goes, “your crying will end and you will always cry”, which feels like a “real truth” to me.
Painful as it was, having Mike’s Celebration of Life in July did me good. I listen often to the exquisitely sad and precious CD of him telling his life stories to Trisha. Preparing his photo reel; and the 16 hour long playlist of songs that I remember him by. That’s a lot of songs. A lot of memories.
Climbing Snowdon on what would have been Mike’s 54th birthday – it was cold, windy, sleeting. It shouldn’t have been hard, a tiddly little mountain like that (“call that a mountain? THIS is a mountain!”); but it was because of the weather, because of our mood swings, and because of the date. But we will always remember that we did it. Hard hard hard and sad sad sad. And rewarding.
Visiting Montenegro with the kids, without Mike – a country new to all of us, and therefore not full of memories. At the time it was very very hard work, all the driving, all the booking of places, all the cooking (for a vegetarian, a carnivore, a pescivore and an omnivore (the omnivore being me); all the solo responsibility, all the “missing of my echo”… but in time I think I will look back on it as an important trip to do, a new place, our new family unit. Excruciating too. I cannot bear to do our photo album yet.
Wearing Mike’s wedding ring alongside mine for a few months, then, after losing it for a week at the swimming pool (a horrendous experience), and finding it again, choosing to get a lovely young jeweller from the Isle of Skye who we met on our final holiday together (not that we knew it was our final holiday), to convert both of our rings into a new piece of jewellery – five rings on a chain, to represent the five of us. Pain pain pain to not put on my ring each morning. But glad to be able to continue to wear something, when I choose to.
Discovering – so very early on – Megan Devine’s work, her website Refuge in Grief, her Writing Your Grief courses, the Alumni group (my “Tribe of After”), and her book, “It’s OK that you’re not OK”, in which I find myself described immaculately on every single page. Please buy it and read it. And put her recommendations into practice. You can practise with me.
My kids, my family, my friends who can sit with me, walk with me, be with me on this swampy, sticky, smelly, dangerous journey. Who all hate this journey as I do, as we do; who are scared, but who have joined me and us in it and who are still there. Painful as it is.
Who check in with me, and check again. And don’t send platitudes or “think positive” messages, but instead say things like:
“Emma…in your shittiness you still hold such grace and responsibility”.
Or, “My dear Emma. As 2017 closes and 2018 opens I know that you move towards the second anniversary of Ed’s death and that with a blink of an eye it will be the first anniversary of Mike’s death. I want to wrap you up and protect you from it all”.
Or, “I will continue to walk beside you and listen to you at your most down and out and still love you. I know it’s no substitute at all. I will never be able to experience your pain but know it’s there and it doesn’t get easier and at times like this it feels maybe even harder. I want to take it all away for you and know I can’t. I love you Emma Pearson…and I know that goes no way to lessening your pain”.
Or, “I’m so sorry it’s awful. It’s a deeply emotional time for you and each of your children ❤ holding you all in my heart. And Mike too”; and “Thinking of you and yours. And Mike. Lit a candle for him on the Christmas tree in Edinburgh”.
And just this morning, “Happy New Year Emma, Ben, Megan, Julia and Mike”.
YES! Please say Mike’s name. In writing. In cards. In words. In speech. Say Mike’s name and keep his name alive in conversation.
I would like to end on a positive note. It is after all a new year. People are turning pages everywhere. I am not sure I want to turn a page. But I will quote loosely from Megan Devine: “Sometimes there is no redemption; sometimes there is no happy ending”. “Grief is a reflection of love, and like there is no need to fix love, there is no need to fix grief”. “Some things cannot be fixed – they can only be carried”.
Thank you to all of you who carry me, who walk beside me, and all of us; and who work so hard to find ways to love this new version of me. I need you. More than ever.