After Life

January 14th was After Life 3 day.

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, After Life is a TV show on Netflix, what critics might call a ‘bittersweet’ dark comedy, written and starring Ricky Gervais who plays Tony, a man who has lost his wife Lisa and is struggling to cope. Set in the small fictional town of Tambury, Tony is an everyman whose life has been torn apart in losing the one thing that made him whole.

It’s a work of genius.

The first episode of the first series was released on March 8th 2019 and I devoured the six episodes with relish. Gervais has always had the capacity to pluck at the heartstrings – the Christmas party scenes in ‘The Office’ specials really resonated with me – and I was ready made for a story about a man trying to cope after losing his wife, seeing myself in so many of the scenes.

Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one who loved it and After Life 2 was announced soon after, premiering in April 2020. The day it was released I did something I’ve never done before. With it starting in the early hours of the morning, I simply cancelled the day and watched it all back to back throughout the night. I wasn’t disappointed.

I was so moved by the writing in the twelve episodes available from the first two series that I contacted Ricky Gervais to compliment him. How he could have written that without having had experience of losing his wife is testament to how skilful a writer he is. To his credit, he wrote back and thanked me too.

With After Life 3 I was a little more circumspect on my viewing, with the show being released at 8am I staggered my 30 minute sessions through the day making sure I had a lunch in-between. The final scene left me both elated and deflated in equal measure. Elated because the promising relationship between Tony and Ashley Jensen’s character ‘Emma’ did fizzle out denying us the happy ending the show really didn’t need but looked as if it might be heading toward, and deflated just because the show had finished and had given me so many poignant moments.

There will be no After Life 4 and I think that’s a good thing. The ending for 3 described by Gervais as ‘Well .. life goes on’ – not how I saw it but how can you argue with the man who wrote it? – rounds things up admirably I suppose but, and I have to admit here, there were elements of the characterisation and story around Tony that didn’t really work for me this time out and the last episode in particular seemed clumsy and ill-advised, trying to tie off things that could have been left. However, It was Tony I was interested in and his story arc is the only one that matters and, even if I didn’t interpret the end as it was intended, then that’s OK.

The key scene in the third series for me – one that made me stop, get a drink, swallow hard and think on before continuing – was the scene with the lemon. It really was superb. Throughout the series we’ve seen Lisa – excellently and poignantly played by Kerry Godliman – appear only in flashback on Tony’s homemade videos. In this particular scene, on Tony’s video you see him drawing a face on a lemon and placing it back in a bowl ready for Lisa to pick it up as she cooks. Seeing the face Lisa complains to Tony, as he laughs, saying that she can’t use it now because of the face, exactly the reaction that Tony intended. It’s a beautiful moment; a superb observation of the type of small detail you find in a good relationship, one which the people concerned know only too well but would probably never mention to anyone else.

The key part of this scene though is that, after we witness the flashback video, we see Tony has drawn a face on a lemon for his new prospective girlfriend Emma to find. “You’ve drawn a face on this” she says, saying nothing more before cutting it up. You know a decisive moment in the relationship has passed.

I realised after seeing this that I’ve had my own lemon face moments. More importantly perhaps, is the fact that those moments don’t have to be engineered. That horrible moment where you’re trying to get along but find yourself cut adrift by someone missing a point or not being what you want them to be is a horrible feeling because, of course, it’s not the other person’s fault they don’t know what to do with the lemon any more than you can help how you feel about it. The result is a hideous sort of desolation; the sure knowledge that everything you ever had is gone and can’t be replaced however much you might think you want it.

It’s not true that if life gives you lemons you can always make lemonade.

Christmas Just Ain’t Christmas

My fourth Christmas without Gail. It seems barely credible. I never knew how I got through the first one, yet I seem to have survived four. But then, of course, that’s what happens. You just keep going and going and suddenly you’re years away from the event, looking back wondering how you got where you are.

After last December’s pandemic lockdown difficulties, I decided to throw myself into the season. The annual hotel stay in London that used to do every year with Gail was back on, and I booked as many festive shows, films and events as I could reasonably squeeze in.

It was OK.

People still realise that Christmas is a difficult time for me and that’s nice. I’m always asked where I’ll be on Christmas Day, who I’ll be spending the day with and the answer is always the same, but that’s OK too. It would be wrong to say I actually enjoy it but then it’s not as bad as some seem to think either. There will be at least one time during the day when it all gets too much and I will breakdown for five minutes, but I understand that is to be expected and I just deal with it and the rising panic that comes for knowing that this is how it will always be.

The fact is I’ve always loved Christmas for the time it is. There’s that warmth and happiness that the season seems to engender, but there’s also a sense of melancholy and nostalgia that inevitably accompanies it. Over the years I’ve noticed differing personalities find more of one than the other but even now I find myself getting irritated by people who say ‘Thank God that’s over’ just as the clock ticks over from Boxing Day. Reasonably you might think I’d be like that myself, but I’m really not.

I think back to that first Christmas Eve that I spent with Gail and, in many ways, it just seems to encapsulate everything I’ve felt every Christmas before and since. There was happiness, excitement, anticipation and love, and there was sadness and loss, despair and anguish too. I can see and feel and smell that Christmas Eve as if it happened yesterday and the fact it took us six years before we spent one together, meant some of the feelings I’ve had every Christmas since 2018 have been feelings I’ve experienced before. The only difference is the hope then that one day they may be different; now, of course, I know they never will be.

Really though Christmas can be seen as the fulcrum of the year; a time when we look back and forward. I’ve done another one then, I guess and that’s probably the best thing I can say about it.

Our last Christmas photo

Words

I’ve always been fascinated with language. The ability to capture an emotion, mood, nuance or feeling in a song, story or poem seems to me to be the greatest thing. I’m also always astonished when I find a word in another language that doesn’t have an English equivalent. How does that happen?

This is the 3rd Anniversary of Gail’s passing and I’ve done what I’ve done for every other significant day and that is to get away and try to do something different. This year sees me in Portmeirion, a place I’ve wanted to visit since I watched the TV series ‘The Prisoner’ as a boy, more years ago than I’d like to recount.

I know some people see what I do as ‘making new memories’ but it doesn’t seem like that to me. I have to do something with the day; I can’t ignore it or work through it some way, and it just seems better to be able to associate it with something I’ve always wanted to do. Three years away and even during COVID I can look back and recount where I’ve been on each successive anniversary – be it wedding, birthday, ‘D’ (No word for the day of death?) or Funeral day – and that seems a worthwhile thing. Like Hong Kong in 2019 and Egypt in 2020 I feel as if she’d have approved at me trying to do things, and in a way I feel closer to her if I can do and see things for her. Wrapped up in that though is a curious consequence.

Although I don’t remember it ever being discussed, let alone dismissed as a bad idea, the fact is coming to Portmeirion with Gail would have been extremely difficult. Due to her Lupus her mobility was always impaired and although she successfully got around Ephesus as relatively recently as 2010, Portmeirion would have been far too much. Coming to these places then means I’m doing things I wouldn’t have done had she been here and it’s too easy to see that as, if not a exactly a positive, then certainly a light in the darkness, a sense I’m – please no! – ‘moving on’. I try not to look at it like that.

For me there’s not one single aspect of my life that is better without Gail in it. However, the fact is I’ve done things, seen things, met people that I wouldn’t have done had she still been alive. All those things I’ve done and everyone I’ve met have been positive experiences – even when they might not have seemed it later on – and I’m happy and grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to do them while wishing with all my heart that it had never been necessary.

Because I posted some photos of Portmeirion on social media, I got a lot of support and positivity from people – many of whom I have never met. In amongst the wishes was the inevitable ‘It gets easier’ or ‘Time is a great healer’. I used to wonder about that three years ago. What exactly was going to happen when that time came and how would I recognise it? Would I have days where I simply wouldn’t think about Gail and what would fill that void instead?

What I think I’m discovering after three years is that no-one has the language to adequately describe what actually happens. People generally are trying to help but, like those who tell me I will ‘see her again’ – something that rankles with me as it surmises a belief that shouldn’t be assumed – telling me it gets easier is just a collection of words designed to console. Those who tell me it gets easier are usually just a year or two or three further down the line or, as I discovered on one occasion, actually lost their partner more recently than me but just assumed it must be more recent because of the pain I was describing.

So let’s put this thing into some type of context. It doesn’t get easier, time isn’t a great healer, but what happens is it gets different. It isn’t more fun, you don’t relish the freedom, it’s not better to have an Anniversary meal on your own, you don’t think how lucky you are that you’ve now got the opportunity to visit this place you’d not have seen, you don’t count all the new relationships you’ve made.

What you do is the only thing left to you – you just get on with it and hope you find some nice times and thoughts to go with the ones you already had and lost.

So, a word for that please?

In Da Club

I’ve never felt any affinity with those epigrams that seem to be so popular on social media; those little smart comments and bon mots that garner so many likes. The fact I get so irritated about them when I could just as easy ignore them seems to say something about me though. I think it’s because I’ve always struggled with the concept of putting everything in a nice neat box. I’m guessing it’s probably something to do with the difficulty I’ve always had in dealing with groups and organised social structures.

It’s not liked I’ve not tried over the years to be become a part of something, join in more things, but I’ve always had this strange reaction where, as soon as I’m with like-minded people discussing something I’m interested in, I always try to find a way to subvert it. Then again, I’ve made a small side-living out of doing it, so I can’t really complain

Nevertheless, despite my dislike of a well-worn phrase I think the old Groucho Marx quote about ‘Not wanting to be part of a club that would have me as a member’ sums me up pretty well.

Which is why I find myself in an odd situation here in February 2021.

The UK is in full lockdown and I’m unable to get away for the holiday I like to take to cover the whole wedding anniversary / valentine / birthday thing. However, I managed to arrange some work either side of the days (and one in-between) in the West End of London, meaning I can get away in some small way by choosing not to travel home every night but to stay in a top Mayfair hotel.

The hotel I’m staying in is a prime W1 address and is right next to a place I used to work, the company I was working for when I first spoke to Gail, in fact. I always said I’d stay here one day. It’s not the full experience; there are few other residents, the bars and restaurants are closed and I’m having to order in every night and London of course, feels very, very strange, but conversely the memories of this will linger long. A walk around a deserted Piccadilly, Leicester Square, Soho, Regent Street, Oxford Street and Bond Street at 10pm is not something many people will have ever seen and – I’d like to hope – it’s not something I’d want to experience again any time soon either. But there’s no denying it is an experience.

Shorn of things to do I’ve spent most of the time walking, I’ve zoom called my children – something I’d probably not have done had I been away somewhere abroad – and I’ve also caught up with my ‘membership’ – which is really what this is about.

Because I’ve joined a Facebook group for widowers.

Nobody is more surprised about this than me and the fact I’ve seemingly embraced it has really shaken me to the core but the strange thing is I’ve found it rewarding because – even though the sense of unity only lasts a while – I’ve found I’ve been comfortable enough in this company to be able to talk about those odd things, those crazy things, that nobody else goes through – only to find that many are going through the exact same thing.

I’ve attended online a few support meetings built around various issues but the one that intrigued me the most was one of the discussions on ‘waves of grief’ and how people were affected by the most ludicrous things. I found the courage to tell somebody for the first time about a plastic tub of talcum powder that Gail bought on our last holiday in Marmaris, Turkey. For no particular reason, I can see us clearly in that shop buying several things including the talcum powder. I was going to say I don’t know why I can recall the detail of that small incident as well as I do, but the fact is that day is burnt into my memory as we sat in a gorgeous restaurant in Ichmeler later and spoke about coming back the following year both of us aware of what was hanging in the air but not accepting it.

The talcum powder was in the suitcase in the loft on the day Gail died. It stayed in the suitcase as it would have done anyway and, barely having any use on that last holiday, it had subsequently travelled with me to Hong Kong, Egypt, Madeira, Sorrento and various places in the UK. However, the talc was getting very low and ran out completely on the first night in the Mayfair hotel whereupon I – frantic with frustration and anger at myself – spent the best part of 30 minutes trying to prise the top off so I could refill it from another container because I simply couldn’t throw the empty Turkish one out.

In one of those moments where it’s as if you have an out-of-body experience and can peer down watching yourself doing something crazy, I considered a situation where I actually managed to prise off the top, filled the old container with new talc from Boots or somewhere and then pushed the top back on only to find on my next holiday that I opened my suitcase to find my bag overflowing with white powder. Why was I doing this? It was insane! But it made no difference.

Not only was I able to tell complete strangers this but those strangers fully understood and also had their own stories of being unable to part with inanimate objects. It seemed to me after that everyone is so busy discussing pieces of furniture, little knick-knack’s, clothes, keepsakes etc that nobody ever mentions the real things that drive you to despair.

There have been other discussions, of course. Things that will probably make more sense to those who tell you “I’m glad you’re speaking to people about it – it will help you” as those are the very people who can never understand your affinity with a plastic Turkish container – one that sits just a few feet away in my suitcase – but it’s that discussion that keeps coming back to me; that one discussion that made me think I might have at last found a club I’m comfortable being a member of.

In conclusion I was going to finish this blog with a photo of the talcum powder container. But I decided to go with the lockdown London 2021 instead.

It still makes more sense.

Oxford Street 10.30pm February 13th 2021
Piccadilly Circus 9.30pm February 13th 2021
Leicester Square 9.45pm February 13th 2021

The Bed’s Too Big Without You

I commemorate the big days – the birthday, the wedding anniversary, the D-Day – but I tend not to count the months. That way madness lies.

Having said that though, I notice as I type this that is has been exactly 30 months to the day I lost Gail. That’s significant. I understand a lack of sleep in the first year or so of grieving; I know how the mind races looking for answers to questions it can’t possibly find the answer to. But 30 months? Surely, in that time one or two decent nights sleep are not too much to ask for?

I’ve discussed this before (Sweet Dreams) but things seem to have gotten worse rather than better and I’m not seeing any real end to it. Lack of sleep, disquieting dreams, night sweats and awful, nerve shredding nightmares are one of the worst side-effects of grief. I know from speaking to others in a similar situation that they all suffer from them and all find them upsetting and bewildering but I rarely see anything written about it. I wonder why that is? The lack of acknowledgment is fascinating considering the surfeit of advice and self-help I’ve received for every other aspect of dealing with my life post-Gail.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, there’s a lot of well-intentioned nonsense to be had from others trying to console and encourage you as you attempt to recover from losing a loved one, in fact only today I was told I was ‘doing grand’ by someone I’ve not seen in two years. Depending on my mood, it can be very funny or faintly annoying; on a bad day it can induce Grief Tourette’s, but the only advice I’ve ever had on bad nightmares is ‘they can’t hurt you’. And there lies the rub.

Because for all the exercise, contemplation, meeting people, spending time on my own, going out, staying in, yoga, transcendental meditation – insert as applicable – that has been suggested for my wellbeing, nobody – and particularly me – has any advice on what I can instruct my head to do when I go to sleep. And, oh my God, it does some strange and terrible things.

One thing I think it’s vital to point out is that it never lets me dream about Gail as I knew her. Good or bad she is simply not there like that. This seems awfully cruel. After all, we’ve penning sonnets and writing love songs for centuries in which the protagonist gets to dream about his or her loved one. Poor Roy Orbison – and there was a man who had more than his share of tragedy – made a whole career out of dreamin’. I dream about Gail but never of her, she’s always on the periphery somewhere, usually somewhere I can’t get to her and I’m searching for her or just full of the knowledge that she’s unobtainable.

For many nights I searched a theatre that I knew she was in, going up and down aisles seeing if I could see her. Often I’d return to an aisle where I thought I’d glimpsed her only to find it was blocked off. I’d awake from these dreams, stressed and anxious and deeply disturbed. They would impinge on my day and be difficult to shake and yet, of course, they couldn’t harm me, they were just my brain’s way of dealing with a situation. So what can I do to make my brain have ‘nice thoughts’ and give me a decent night’s rest? Well, there seems to a marked lack of advice on what I can do about that!

Strangely, the theatre dream disappeared after I told someone about it and I did briefly contemplate ringing someone randomly every day to tell them of last night’s dream in the hope it would expunge it from brain once uttered but figured what few friends I had might disappear altogether if I carried on like that. My current dreams often involve Gail’s ex-husband – a man I’d never met and not considered for one moment in 30 years (I knew her before him and she left him for me – long story! – so it’s not as if I’ve any axe to grind). They make no sense and I genuinely don’t believe I have or had any deep-rooted issue with the man; rather I think my brain is trying to tell me something or get something out but I can’t figure out what it is.

Just two months after Gail passed I bought a new bed. I couldn’t bear to sleep any longer in something that she’d been in and would never be in again, so I decided to make a wholesale change and sell the divan base as well as the mattress and just get new. I thought I researched it well at the time but I’ve began wondering if I was just so desperate to make a change that I made the wrong choice so, even though it’s less than two years since I bought the new bed I decided I needed to make more changes.

So yes, the big news is I have something new in my life now; something that is supposed to make my life better. I’m just getting used to it but the cats seem to have already decided and they are perfectly happy with the change. Allow me to introduce you to Emma. Emma Mattress. I’ll let you know if this is a match that is going to last.

The Long and Winding Road

It’s been over three months since I’ve last updated here, and I’m aware that’s significant.

It’s not through tardiness or waning interest in this project – far from it – but I will concede my criticisms of those blogs that have a one year timeline might have been a bit hasty. If you decide to chart your progress – or lack of it – by a period of time then you have some end to it. I’m worried some people might come here and think ‘Oh, he’s still rambling on, is he? It’s been x years now. Get on with it man!’

But then again that is what scares me; that circular concern that some people looking for some sort of solace from grief will think it either wanes after a period or, conversely, it never ends and there is no hope from it. I believe the truth is somewhere in the middle. Some find other things in life to focus on. Others find a way of working around it, while some are unable to move one iota and it lives on in them forever.

Someone I met this year – someone I liked a lot and wouldn’t have met had I not been widowed – described every day as like ‘walking through treacle’. I quite liked the analogy but being the awkward so and so I am I couldn’t help but put the analogy through its paces to see if it could keep up. I was wondering if you ever get free of the treacle and you move as you used to? Or do you eventually build up some strength through the constant movement and it makes it easier to walk? Or does nothing change and you just get used to walking through treacle? (OK too far, I know!)

It’s interesting how we are prepared to face some things in life but find it hard to accept the inevitability in death. For example, if a 60-year-old could run as fast as he could when he was 16 then that would be a wondrous thing – but he can’t, of course and wouldn’t expect to. It would be wrong to say we like that fact but we at least understand it and accept it; to do otherwise would be pointless. But surely that’s the same with grief? We can’t be like we were when that special person was around but somehow we refuse to accept it.

Anyway, a lot has been going on – although in many ways nothing has been going on! – in 2020 and it has affected me enormously. Since January, I have been emptying my parents home. I’m an only child and I can’t and won’t ask for help as I feel it is my duty and, in any case, any help will still amount to the same thing i.e ‘What do you want to do with this?’ I may as well keep it simple.

I won’t lie, there have been days when I’ve got a boost from achieving something over there, but those trips to East London are also mentally wearing, knowing I’ve done them at least twice a week since I left home at 21 and now I’m doing exactly the same thing but without having anyone either with me as I travel, or having anyone to greet me when I arrive. I had considered renting out the property but I realise now I can’t do that. It will tie me to the house and the need to revisit. I need to let it go.

And now it’s December, and the house that used to be baking hot with a roaring fire in the living room, smelling of Christmas as my father burnt chestnuts with regular abandon, is cold and almost empty. People I don’t know are walking through it. Last week, I decided to bury my parents’ ashes in the garden and I invited the Vicar to say a few words in front of a small gathering; my daughter and son-in-law were there but my son couldn’t travel because of the pandemic, a couple of good neighbours attended but we couldn’t hug or even stay close together. It summed up the grim reality of the year so well.

The rest of the year has been concerned with those highs and lows that everyone suffers. I know if I threw a stone down the High Street and asked each person it hit to come and relate their year then I would gather a wealth of different stories by the end of the day. Probably few of those stories would mean that much to the listener -though many might – but each will be important to the person telling it. So it is with me, but this is not the place for it. All I’ll say is I’ve been elated and battered in equal measure by something I thought I was looking for but now realise I can’t deal with. The result of that is has left me hurt and confused and not sure where I go from here.

My third Christmas without Gail approaches and I feel like the Page following King Wenceslas; treading in some deep, well-dug steps, trying to stop a battering from the wind and huddling behind something to stop me freezing but unaware of where I am going. And yes, I know that will get me a place in Pseuds Corner but I’d love that anyway, that is something that makes sense.

A Walk On The Wild Side

Today is the second anniversary of Gail’s passing and there’s little to add to what I’ve already written. I find these significant days are ones on which I need to do something life-affirming or something I’d maybe not do if Gail were here. Consequently, I find myself in a hotel in Cheddar, Somerset having climbed the 274 steps of Jacob’s Ladder and walked the Gorge Route; a not inconsiderable 4 mile walk with steep climbs and rough walking.

Walking and thinking are good for the soul, it seems and I stopped at one point, pulled up Spotify on my phone and played ‘Sign Your Name’ and ‘You To Me Are Everything’ while admiring the stunning view.

It’s OK. It seems to work for me. It takes the weight of the day and moves it elsewhere, and I’ve been sadder and more upset at other, completely random, times. But then again, grief can slap you round the head when you’re least expecting it.

So back in the hotel I though I’d tackle the long-delayed subject of my counselling which I spoke of in To Cut A Long Story Short  and Sweet Charity. It will give me something with which to mark the anniversary.

I think part of my reticence in speaking of this is the embarrassment of what eventually brought everything to a head and ended the sessions. As mentioned previously, I’d decided that if I was going to get anything out of this exercise, it made sense to pay to see the leading Psychotherapy Counsellor available. This Counsellor – let’s call her Sarah –  a leading advocate of psycho-dynamic therapy certainly wasn’t cheap and it was made clear to me at the start that ‘all sessions needed to be paid for’. This seemed reasonable enough but I did explain that as I had my own business it wasn’t always possible for me to attend every week, but I would give at least a week’s notice should I not be able to attend, a period mirrored by Sarah should she – as happened on several occasions – not be available.

Quite how the situation arose that caused the issues, I can’t say for certain but I know if Gail could read this she’d be astonished. She was long frustrated by the sight of me getting out my cheque book and the rattle of the printer as I ran off my bank statements “Oh no, it’s not that time again, is it?” she’d say before making plans to leave the house.

You see, I’m fastidious, in an obsessive compulsive way, about checking my bank balance against my cheque book ,and have been known to sit for hours ensuring that nothing had come out of my account I wasn’t aware of, often looking for a cheque stub error – always of my own making.

Now, this attention to unimportant details – not exactly re-arranging pillows on the bed but very close – was the very thing that was taking me to the Counsellor in the first place. When she was here, Gail would end my frustration with a simple ‘Come on Fanny*, put that  down / stop doing that, we’re going out” (* Her stock phrase for when I was ‘fannying about’) but, without Gail, I’d lost that driving force in my life and I was concerned at often finding myself not being able to leave the house, bogged down in some meaningless task while something important was left.

At the time I booked the sessions, I was trying to get care arranged for my parents and I’d often delay contacting social services or speaking to the local council while I got embroiled in a pointless debate on Twitter or something. I was frustrated and helpless and I genuinely felt I needed help.

Before I explain what brought the sessions to an acrimonious end though, I should explain both the benefits and the difficulties with the sessions themselves.

Firstly, it has to be said, the benefits of just talking to someone can’t be underestimated. I’d often leave sessions feeling elated because I’d just been able to get so much off my mind. Sadly though, I realised later that much of what I’d really wanted to say had been left unsaid but I’ve come to think that is the failing with therapy; you can only reveal that much of yourself you decide to reveal.

I was then surprised by how often the sessions fell into what I perceived as cliche. Endless questions about my childhood and the fact that I’d chose to write under a pseudonym were seized upon and disassembled in a manner that I didn’t think they warranted. What certainly emphasised the issues though was that during the therapy, I lost first my Father and then my Mother. Sarah attempted to make much of this when the sessions ground to a halt, and it would be disingenuous to pretend my life unravelling in real time didn’t bring a focus to events, but the fact remained I didn’t see my issues were anything to do with those things and I started to resent the pointless returns to meaningless events as a child.

Then the silences began. The first was just after my father died in November when a conversation we’d been having came to a natural end and Sarah took to looking at a point on the floor, not speaking. At first, I wasn’t sure what was happening and wondered if I should break the silence but I wasn’t sure of the protocol. I started to inwardly panic – was this panic part of the therapy? Was this a test to see if, uncomfortable with the silence,  I would speak? I decided to say nothing and the session ended 15 minutes later. “Do you feel I should ask the questions?” Sarah asked. I felt like a schoolboy having a question fired at him by a teacher; one of those where you sense that whatever you say will prove to be the incorrect answer.

The sessions continued normally for the next few weeks and then the week before Christmas Sarah did it again, this time at the very start of the session. That look sideways at the point on the floor and I knew what was happening. Again I started to panic but decided I wasn’t going to break the silence. As anyone who has followed this blog knows, Christmas was ‘our time’. I was approaching the second festive season without Gail and I was weighed down by grief. Gail was filling my thoughts and I had no time for tedious analyst games. Time went by, the room deafened by the lack of noise. I started to just remove my mind from a situation I felt wholly uncomfortable with, and I began to drift with Gail, to talk to her, to tell her what was happening here. I could almost hear her  ‘For fuck’s sake, this is bollocks’. She was right. I realised later I’d actually fallen asleep for a good ten minutes. Then the session ended and Sarah and I  hadn’t spoken for the whole period.

By this time, I was Googling ‘Silence in Psychotherapy’ and felt I was ahead of what was expected of me. ‘The use of silence within psychotherapy for attentive listening, observation, self exploration and creating a holding environment is well documented’  I noted though the advice to the Therapist was to ensure that their client was comfortable, some finding the experience ‘frightening’ and providing a ‘horrible emptiness full of suspicion, hostility, rejection and aggressiveness, a silence which blocks progress’. I certainly concur more with the latter view.

And then my mum died in early January and the ‘how do you feel about that?’ questions came. My head was all over the place by this time and I seized on the one thing my mum’s passing had enabled me to do; a holiday I’d booked to Egypt that I’d thought I’d have to cancel, could now go ahead with mum’s funeral taking place when I returned.

By the time I’d got back we just had time to have the funeral before the COVID pandemic became world news and it was obvious I wouldn’t be able to take up any more sessions. Sarah offered me a Skype session but I wasn’t going to do that and made it clear that if there were no face to face sessions then I wouldn’t be continuing.

Sarah reluctantly agreed and gave me the invoice for the past month; a month in which I’d missed three sessions due to my trip to Egypt, the only one held being the day after the funeral. I queried the bill at first as I though there was a mistake. And then the full magnitude of it struck me. When I’d read ‘all sessions must be paid for’ I’d seen exactly that; a ‘session’ being an hour in the Centre with Sarah. But that wasn’t what it meant. In fact, a session was every Tuesday from the first one held back in October right up to the start of the pandemic! This didn’t include those that Sarah cancelled – about three – but that just made it worse.

And that’s where the aforementioned embarrassment came in. After years of driving Gail to distraction with my fiscal obsession, I’d abandoned it when I’d most needed it. The situation with my parents and, in truth, the extra money that had come my way as I’d gained first my father’s estate and then my mother’s meant I just hadn’t bothered checking the bill and adding up the weeks. In fact I’d paid for about five or so sessions I’d never actually had as well as the two silent ones. I was mortified, angry (with myself certainly) but also with the whole scenario and, in all honesty, with Sarah too.

I made it quite clear to Sarah that I believed that the wording of the document I’d agreed too was ambivalent to say the least, and it wouldn’t have done any harm to emphasise that by ‘sessions’ she’d actually meant weeks even if there were no sessions. Her response? ‘You seem to be angry with me for some reason’.

That was back in March and I’ve not heard from Sarah since. She wanted me to have  a closing session but I pointed out that I didn’t think that would be beneficial for either of us. I don’t believe I got anything from the whole experience bar an initial surge at getting things out, but I’m fully aware in over three months I never touched on the very issues. that had driven me to try therapy in the first place.

The whole experience had been a dispiriting exercise; a waste of time but, more importantly, a colossal waste of money. I would have felt uncomfortable had I paid for all the sessions but the fact I paid for not being there and for the interminable silences just makes me all the more frustrated.

A suitable case for treatment? As Gail would have said ‘That’ll larn ya’

G_Flatford Mill

 

A Very Merry Unbirthday

Bad news here, I’m afraid.

Twenty-two months in and the pain is no better; in many ways it’s worse. I apologise for anyone visiting this site and looking for stories of a quick fix, but I can only sadly say there isn’t any.

I know, it’s crap isn’t it? Sorry. You can claim your refund at the box office.

Today was the second of Gail’s birthday’s she has missed, a kind of Unbirthday if you like or, as a similarly grieving friend neatly put it, an Anniversary birthday. I like that and have adopted it.

As I’ve mentioned before, there is nothing you can do with these days. You can’t ignore them – or at least, I can’t – but you can’t really celebrate them either.

Up until today I’ve practised diversion therapy; I’ve either been away for the event or I’ve organised something life-affirming or something I’ve always wanted to try. Stuck in COVID19 lockdown though, it was depressing to see how many things I did this time last year that are unavailable to me this. I could get to London still, but the restaurants are closed, so are the bars, the hotels and even the church. I couldn’t even light a candle today.

Not that that would have been an issue as I’d decided to leave the country instead. I’d booked a short break in Porto but Coronavirus put paid to that though, and I was left twisting in the wind, trying to decide what to do.

The problem was that the dark pit was looming and I knew I had to get out, so I did. I even put her ashes in the car, something I know a lot of people baulk at but she specifically said she wanted to remain with me, so I just can’t get my head round to treating them like a pile of dust. If she wanted to be with me then that’s her, which, strictly speaking, it is anyway, even if some are uncomfortable with the idea.

Anyway, when we first lived together we moved into a new flat in a place called Southend – a coastal town in Essex for those unacquainted – and that was where I went back to today. Our flat was handily placed, not in a great area in terms of silence or salubriousness, but useful for a ten-minute walk that took you down to the sea in one direction, the town shopping in another and – important factor here – a rather lovely park in another.

Gail loved this park and could often be found there on a warm afternoon or a summer evening. Sometimes she’s ring me from work and say ‘Guess where I am?’ and it was usually the park – although there was a really nice pub (sadly long gone) in the other direction! Surprisingly, I found our old flat was empty and I was able to peer in through the window. Seeing the flat exactly as I saw it when we went to view it together another lifetime ago seemed heart achingly poignant. To make things worse as I tried to move away I found the branches I’d leaned over that were covering the lower half of the wall  were actually thorn’s. It took me several minutes to unpick myself. To see the real irony of this, you’ll have to do some homework.

I’ll leave it with you.

After I went down to the park; a place where Gail spent many hours, sitting reading on a bench, feeding the duck or – on a really good day – watching the Terrapins that came to bask on the side of the lake. She had names of all of these and would often ring me at work to tell me ‘they’re here’ meaning I would know instantly where she was. I loved the childlike excitement she got from seeing these creatures and  I wondered if I might be lucky enough to see them. I needn’t have worried. The terrapins had obviously entered their own breeding program since the days we frequented the park and I counted nearly a dozen including some small ones. She’d have loved it.

I sat for several hours on the bench, having lunch and just watching the lake. The distraction almost worked but floundered on the difficulty of extending the day further. Although lockdown had eased, there was still nowhere to go after, our favourite Greek restaurant was still closed and the seafront coned off to stop people parking. There was nothing to do other than come home and face what I know will be a difficult evening.

========================================================================

In fact, it turned out to be far worse than anything I’d imagined.

I’d being feeling unsteady about the anniversary for a couple of days prior to the park visit, but put it down to just the rising tension of the expectation of the day. Afterwards I saw it for what it was, realising I’d had a full meltdown. During that time,  I was either on the verge of tears or actually sobbing, I was utterly depressed. It was the only time since the previous January, when I wished I could have called my mum.

I talked it through with a few souls who understood but I was extremely low for well over a week. This was more than a general sadness or realisation that all the things I wanted I could never have again. This was dark and dangerous depression and I would say, in retrospect, that I was as low as at any point since Gail passed.

There’s nothing else I can say about it but, in terms of the reason for writing about this whole horrible experience it’s worth remembering that there’s no time-limit on even the smallest part of grief.

Sweet Charity

All charities are suffering under the Coronavirus lockdown, so it was no great surprise when I got an urgent appeal through from the Hospice who provided counselling to me last year.

I’m happy to help obviously and I have several large bags of clothes they can have too when this madness ends. In the short term though, they have suffered a devastating loss of income recently and I feel it’s only right to donate, particularly as the six sessions I had with this Hospice were completely free. The centre helps people facing incurable illness and bereavement, providing support for them, their families, friends and carers, visiting them in their homes and providing 24/7 advice and care. It would be churlish not to support them.

That being the case though, it’s quite difficult to write about my own experiences with them. Having tried Psychotherapy after, I was asked on one occasion by my Counsellor there  ‘What did I expect to get from the sessions?’ and I found it hard to answer. In essence I suppose, I expected to get something I wasn’t expecting; some insight into bereavement that I hadn’t considered, something that might make it easier for me. In real terms, of course, this meant I couldn’t truthfully answer the question; how I could describe what I wanted when I didn’t know what was on offer? Frankly, six months after I’m still really not sure what I made of it.

I’ve spoken of the circumstances of what happened in Cut A Long Story  and in terms of fairness I need to deal with the two sessions separately. So the charity first: Well, in real terms, this just seemed like to somewhere to go for a chat and talk about Gail with someone who had never met her. I felt like I spent the six weeks explaining why she was important to me but didn’t get any further than that.

When I’ve seen therapy depicted on TV or in books, the therapist usually asks pertinent questions designed to encourage the patient (is that what I would be? ) to open up and expand on things they may have difficult confronting. But my Counsellor didn’t seem to say anything and I found the whole transaction emotionally draining (Or is that the point perhaps?). I feel I should have something to show for the experience but other than a poignant memory of the sessions themselves, I can’t seem to recollect anything said either way. To be perfectly honest, at the barrel of a gun I couldn’t even tell you the name of the woman I spoke to for six weeks. That may be my failing, of course. Who can say?

There must be more to doing the job than just listening though or surely everyone could do it? I didn’t feel it was enough to pick up on what I was saying and feed back the usual platitudes that you hear when you’re grieving; I’d heard them all and I needed more but wasn’t sure what I needed more of.

My overriding feeling about grief counselling was it was somewhere to talk about Gail for six hours in that difficult period leading up to Christmas. It was nice to talk about her and I did get upset and release some pent-up emotion during it, gulping back air and swallowing something hard and jagged on occasion, but I never released the wracking sobs and tears of frustration I felt inside. I did get some immediate relief – a slightly euphoric feel just after leaving – but it didn’t last long and I become frustrated by what I wasn’t saying.

Perhaps I spoke too much? I have wondered. At a party last New Year someone was talking to me about Gail and then suddenly stopped, held a hand against their throat and whispered “I’m so sorry, do you mind if I talk about her?”. The dramatic gesture made me laugh and I had to explain that talking about her wasn’t the issue, it was NOT talking about her that caused me problems. So perhaps that’s it? The counsellor maybe didn’t get a word in or thought it best to allow me to keep talking? I don’t know.

In many ways I’d have quite like to have got some appraisal at the end. You know the type of thing: ‘This gentleman obviously loved his wife but seems to have had trouble recognising his failure in dealing with her illness and I sense his feelings of loss mask inadequacies in his own life’ or something like that.

So, helping out an admirable establishment at  a time of crisis? That’s fine. But hand on heart I would have to say I would have been very upset if I’d actually paid for the sessions.

Which brings me to Psychotherapy.

To Cut A Long Story Short

As I said at the start of it all, this is a blog about grief. Something to find and dip into, think about perhaps, dismiss, laugh at, cry over, love or plain hate. Whatever you get or don’t get from it isn’t supposed to impact on anything else; it’s not date-stamped with reference to the outside world.

Having said all that I need to place a reference here.

Regular visitors to this site may have become confused by some posts appearing in the timeline where they hadn’t been previously, while other posts have appeared and then been deleted. I feel the need to explain.

Following the Vinny blog in October, I wrote nothing else for over five months until a blog I entitled ‘A Reason To Feel – Part One’ (for reasons I will explain later ) that has subsequently been deleted. This blog explained why I hadn’t written anything and why I had, effectively, gone against my own protestations about blogs that only went on for a year and then ended; as if grief only had a shelf life of twelve months.

The fact was I’d been undergoing grief and psychotherapy counselling during this period and, frankly without even thinking about it, it had somehow dulled my appetite for writing about things. This is pretty surprising – astonishing even! – considering what had happened to me personally during that period. Then COVID19 appeared and the world turned upside-down.

I tried re-editing  ‘A Reason To Feel – Part One’ numerous times but it become a mess, mainly because what I was trying to explain was a precis version of an event that shapes everyone’s life – the death of your parents. I eventually decided that, for my own peace of mind even if for no other reason, I needed to go back and re-live the six months where I hadn’t been writing and insert them into the blog in chronological order.

Once I’d started writing again, I felt awful about what I had missed, as I  covered the death of my father; the brief period when my mum was a widow before she followed my dad just six weeks later, my second Christmas without Gail and my failed attempt to change things, and then my visit to Egypt to cope with the triumvirate of Valentine’s, what would have been (was?) our 16th Wedding Anniversary and my birthday.

Why this should be the case is something I am still struggling through, and it’s significant that this hiatus in my writing should coincide with a six month period of counselling. It’s also significant that the cessation of counselling – due initially to the COVID19 lockdown – should open up the blockage.

Whatever, I think it’s important in terms of why I started this blog, in processing my grief and getting counselling, to let anyone interested know how it affected me and to understand that the previous four blogs to this were written months after they occurred.

So: about counselling.

A month or so after I lost Gail, I thought I’d contact a local charity to find out about grief counselling. They were solidly booked up but said they would add me to their waiting list. Not knowing what else to do, I turned more to social media and found the support I got there helped me, and I began to dovetail it all with this blog.

Fourteen months later and urged on by some people I knew and some I didn’t, I began thinking perhaps I should really consider counselling again; not necessarily to directly help with the grief aspect – although that was still prevalent – but also because what I knew to be my worst excesses, kept in check by Gail when she was here, had now lost their natural barrier. I feared for where my head was going. Not having heard from the local charity still, I set about finding some other support. I didn’t have to go far.

In the town centre is one of the country’s leading private counselling & psychotherapy centres; a centre that conducts its own national workshops and seminars and whose own counsellors provide expert advice to other practitioners around the country. Also a place I’d already visited a few years back – but I’ll park that for the time being if you don’t mind. I rang and was given a list of available counsellors.

Now I’m not lighting cigars with fivers here but I figured I could afford to budget a certain amount of money to this exercise and, working on an estimated number of sessions, decided I could – and should – pay to see the leading Psychotherapy Counsellor available. This Counsellor, a leading advocate of psycho-dynamic therapy – a word so improbable it shows up as an error in my dictionary – was not cheap, but I didn’t want to waste time and money seeing someone who didn’t help and then regret it later.

Inevitably of course, as happens in these things, the day after I booked my first session, I got a call from the local charity to say that a place had come up in their grief counselling and did I want to take it? I decided to run both together and see what transpired.

I began both sessions in early October explaining in both how the grief over the loss of Gail ran parallel with an unwanted resentment that my elderly parents were alive while my wife wasn’t. Outside of this and in exactly the same way that I had been doing since losing Gail a year earlier, I was still nominally running my business – although I had cut work back to an average of 2/3 days a week – while caring for my parents; trying to juggle the myriad of things to put in place to provide them with social care in their home and visiting them as regularly as I could to make sure they had everything they needed.

Then about four weeks after I started counselling, my father died. I was too busy dealing with funeral arrangements, trying to sort out all the complexities of  contacting everyone, dealing with banks, Solicitors etc while – pretty unsuccessfully – consoling my mother (The temptation to say “See I told you what it’s like” was overwhelming but successfully resisted), to think how this would reflect in the counselling, but I realised six months later this must have been fascinating to see this development in my personal circumstances in what might be described as ‘real time’.

I’d barely got through my second Christmas without Gail and the first without my father – my mother suffering the cruelty of the first Christmas alone; something  I afterwards wished she hadn’t had to tolerate given what was to happen – when my mum went into hospital. She was taken in on New Year’s Day, came out briefly for a few days then went back in and never returned home, passing away in the second week of January barely six weeks after my father.

My charity grief counselling had covered my father dying, but the maximum six sessions finished just before Christmas. The centre counselling continued however and ended acrimoniously – and yes! I’ll cover this later too – when the lockdown for Coronavirus occurred in March and I was asked to continue session via Skype – something I wasn’t prepared to entertain.

So this is where we are now; six months from the start of counselling with one lot of sessions completed and the other nominally continuing (although I’ve decided I won’t return) during which I’ve lost both of my parents and am now in solitary isolation from a threat the world hasn’t seen the like of in over a century.

So plenty of time to think and write, I guess. And catch up.