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.

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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.

 

Walk Like An Egyptian (16th Wedding Anniversary)

I covered the difficult time of our Anniversary, Valentine’s Day and my birthday with a trip to Egypt including three nights in Cairo and a journey on the Nile from Luxor to Aswan. It was part of my rough life plan – I loath the term ‘bucket list’ – to do what I might not have done had Gail been here. I took a virtual version of her with me everywhere anyway, so I didn’t feel alone. Well, I did – but you know what I mean.

I’d booked this trip the previous summer and after my father died was concerned at how my mum would cope if I was away for ten days. That concern deepened later however as, with her ailing health during early January, I thought I’d have to cancel the whole trip. My mum was adamant that I must go though; telling a nurse ‘I need to get well. My son has a holiday booked and he needs to go to Egypt as always wanted to go with his wife’. Not strictly true – Gail hadn’t shown any desire to go to Egypt (I thought anyway) – but it was nice to hear my mum thinking about me at a time when she was critically ill, fighting for her own life and when should have had other things on her mind.

As it happened, it made no difference. My mum died in the second week of January and, although it made it a bit tight to organise a funeral – something I eventually decided to postpone until I’d returned – it meant  not only could I go on my trip as planned, I needed to go somewhere to help me over the past two months.

Then something interesting happened. About, about six weeks after my mum died and two weeks after I’d returned from Egypt, I was going through a box of letters and keepsakes that I’d kept of Gail’s and I found a ‘promise’ that we’d made to each other in 1988 that we’d never kept. I’d completely forgotten about it and it made me sit up.

Gail Promise

Only after I found this did I  remember the conversation and the agreement. We’d never kept it because, at the time we were due to meet, I was living with my then wife and she’d married someone else a year earlier. I know I remembered the promise on that day in 1990 though; I wished I’d found this earlier so I could have discussed it with her, but I was also blissfully happy that I’d eventually got to see the Sphinx even if I was late by almost thirty years and wearing jeans and a Clash T-shirt instead.

It was a bit frustrating I’d not found it before I left, but it was a blessing in other ways. I know what I’m like. Had I found the note before I would surely have dressed as she wanted and fought Egyptian guards as I battled to stand at the base of a Sphinx you can now only see from a distance.

Still, on our Anniversary, I visited the Temple of Isis on Philae; Isis being the God of death, healing and rebirth, this seemed hugely appropriate.

With no time to have my mum’s funeral before I left for Egypt, the whole holiday hung against the backdrop of having one within a week of my return. I know my mum would have been happy I’d gone though, and I know she wouldn’t have wanted me to cancel so I could bring her funeral forward. In many ways the trip became a celebration of both the lives of Gail and my mum.

Elsewhere on social media I posted a photo that I’d found amongst my Mother’s things; a picture I hadn’t even seen before, of me and Gail at our wedding. There seemed a decent symmetry in this and I find these things seem to help me.

Fourteen years for you Pet, sixteen for me…and counting? We didn’t make a decision to finish it – as if! –  that disease decided it for us. As long as I’m around though I’ll continue to count until I hear again your first words to me. “Hello, it’s me again” .

Happy Anniversary Pet, from the banks of the Nile to wherever you are. X

Me&G at Wedding
Gail didn’t want a ‘boring’ wedding cake. She wanted a Barbie. When I went to pick it up I found the local Baker who we’d asked to  make it beside herself as we ‘hadn’t told her the age of the little girl’ for her to ice on the cake. Her face when I told her not to worry as it was for a wedding is something I will never forget. My guess is she tells the story to this day.

17th January 2020: Doris

I knew my mum was approaching the end of her life as the hospital were able to tell me that she had ’48 hours at best’. I spent the last night with her at her bedside, assuming I was to eventually be there for a loved ones final moments.

When morning came and she was still OK I decided I needed to go home, get refreshed, grab a few hours sleep and get back for later that day, assuming I would almost certainly need to spend another night with her. Of course, I could have slept a few hours in my parents home, just a fifteen minute drive away but I couldn’t stay in the house, let alone sleep in it. It had always made me feel uncomfortable – one for the Counselling sessions there! – and I needed to see my cats. Buzz, Ziggy and Gus in my own environment  and lose a little of that hospital feeling.

Considering I knew the odds of my mum passing while I was doing a 90 odd mile round trip were pretty good, you’d think I might have made a better attempt at saying goodbye to my mum. Of course, I didn’t because I was ‘only’ going home for a few hours; I’d have time for that when I got back. I was convinced that – as we’re often told – people slip away in the early hours.

I got the call at 4 pm. A couple of her friends from church had dropped in to see Doris and she’d slipped away while they were there, so quietly even the Nurse hadn’t realised at first.

My thoughts about that whole six week period from my dad passing to my mum following are muddled and confused. Once we had  gotten through my dad’s  funeral in late November we were both faced with that inexorable slide towards Christmas. I still have my own struggles with the festive period and warned my mum I could do little more than sympathise. She had already been hospitalised on one occasion before Christmas, and on New Year’s Day she became very breathless and I had to call out the ambulance although they let her out after an initial assessment. Then on the day we were scheduled to scatter my dad’s ashes, I had to call out the ambulance again and she was taken in and kept in. She never came out. Passing away just six weeks after my father.

During those weeks I knew my mum needed consoling and did the best that I could, but I’d needed something from my parents after Gail went and I hadn’t found what I needed from either of them.

Worse, on occasion, they – my mum in particular – had been particularly thoughtless and insensitive. “You need to pull yourself together” and “Why don’t you just bundle up all her clothes and take them to a charity shop?” were just two statements from my mum that will always remain with me.

Of course, I wasn’t going to use my father’s death to score some unsavoury points or make a cutting “Well, I told you what it was like” remark but I did find it hard to listen as my mum tried to make sense of that thing you can never make sense of. I also found it odd she found no solace in the faith she had practised so studiously for her whole life. If her belief was to be of any benefit to her, surely it had to be now? I found some of her words to me at this time so carefully chosen though, I did wonder occasionally if she’d come to realise what I’d gone – WAS going through still – and regretted how she’d behaved previously. I’ll never know.

All I can say is the difficulty I’ve experienced with my parents my whole life have pretty much covered every second of the conversations I’ve had  with my Counsellor, but everything still remain nebulous and strangely prosaic. Back in the summer before my dad had died, my mum had said to me one day “Your dad really misses Gail a lot. He sees something on TV and says ‘Oh Gail would’ve loved that, wouldn’t she?’ “.

I knew my dad loved Gail and I knew he missed her too, but what I couldn’t understand – and this will explain the complexity of dealing with my parents – was why I was being told how my dad felt by my mum in proxy. Why didn’t he tell me? Or both tell me? I’d have loved to have heard what they’d seen on TV that reminded them of her. I needed that. Not a pretence that nothing had happened and she’d just gone out of the room.

Some may find it strange that I’d already decided I needed to go forward with my plans to volunteer for Christmas, leaving my mum home alone on Christmas Day. I was aware I was becoming the Son to my Mother in avoiding those difficult conversations, but I couldn’t bring her to my home for Christmas as she couldn’t have got up the stairs, and I wasn’t going to stay with her for the reasons mentioned previously.

Fortunately, perhaps because I was volunteering to help those less well-off, perhaps because my mum wanted to be on her own anyway (I knew I had the previous Christmas), not seeing her on the day itself didn’t seem to be an issue to her. I’d seen her on the way up to the hotel on the 23rd and saw her on my return on the 26th so, in many ways, I’d seen her more over the Christmas period than I’d done for many a long year.

Beyond the festive period, there was some tentative talk with my mum about ‘difficulties’ I had with my father ‘when I was younger’ but she seemed reluctant to say too much about it beyond that. Mainly the six weeks between the two deaths was spent with all that practical stuff that I seem to excel at. It might be the old Project Managing skills I had years ago, but give me something to sort out and it gets sorted out with ribbons on.

Doris – or Doll as I cheekily called her –  watched as I emptied and dumped most of the shed, ignoring my dad’s last wishes which told me to ‘get some wood and nails and hammer the door shut’. This joke from beyond the grave certainly showcased Bert’s warped sense of humour, but was impractical in reality and more annoyingly it was a job that could just have easily been done five years before, had he not been too stubborn to let me do it.

Ultimately though, sad as it obviously was, my feeling was that in only spending six weeks without my father, my mum had avoided grief that, approaching her 90th year she just didn’t need. Months later, of course, COVID19 had rocked the world and everything was on lockdown and I felt even more certain that she’d chosen her time well.

The fact remains though, that I’d lost my wife, both my parents and my eldest cat in less than eighteen months. And if you’ve not got pets and uncomfortable with me mentioning my cat alongside the other deaths perhaps this is the time to admit something.

I cried after losing Morris in August and didn’t cry again until the following April – Easter Sunday to be exact – a full eight months later during which I’d attended the funerals of both my parents and shed not one tear.

A suitable case for treatment, I think.

G&Mother at Our Wedding
My mum and Gail dancing at our wedding. A photo I’d not see before and found in my mum’s things after she died.

Christmas: It’s Back!

A second Christmas without Gail and I’d decided 12 months earlier that I was going to do something different. In my whole life I’d never, ever, not been at home on Christmas Day and that was about to change. This year I was going to volunteer.

Every year, when I attended the Carols for Shoppers concert at St James’s Church in Piccadilly they always spoke about their Christmas Day service and the fact they had their own Christmas dinner after, in which they opened their doors to anyone who had nowhere to go or who was alone for the holiest of days.

I wasn’t in the former category as I have a very nice home, but I suppose I could claim to be in the second category although conversely, I didn’t see myself like that. No, what appealed to me was that they were looking for volunteers to prepare, cook, wait on tables and feed those who came into the church. Perhaps comb the West End looking for homeless who could be provided with a meal.

Gail and I always visited London on Christmas Eve. The 24th of December was our day and going to the West End  was our thing. In the previous few years though, we’d questioned why we spent the best part of the day waking up, getting out and travelling to the West End. Why not just be there? So part of our later Christmas tradition was to stay overnight in a top hotel on the 23rd, wake up where we wanted to be on the 24th and spend the day in the City. We’d have a late afternoon / early evening meal and then travel back home to be in our own house on Christmas Day. It was magical.

My first Christmas without Gail had resulted in me staying in a hotel that I’d booked the previous January when she’d still been alive (Christmas Lights) but I didn’t want to stay in the same place as it would remind me of that first Christmas without her and I knew I couldn’t stay in any hotels we’d stayed in previously. However, there were enough top class hotels in the W1 area for me to choose from, I would stay in one close to the church, get there early on Christmas morning, prepare dinner, go to the service (I’m not religious I should point out but I just like church – particularly at Christmas) and then spend Christmas night drinking brandy and reliving tales of bygone years in a sort of oak-panelled, plush velvet emporium with no-one else but some visiting tourists and a suave barman, dutifully serving bar snacks and bon mots, as I stare disconsolately at a Dickensian style log fire. I have a vivid imagination. It doesn’t always serve me well.

Now to be fair, the hotel I’d stayed in that first Christmas and most certainly the last one I’d stayed in with Gail could reasonably have provided what I wanted for Christmas night. Sadly, although listed as one of the best hotels in the area; the one I actually  chose was bereft of Christmas magic. In fact, shorn of the large tree in the lobby and the people coming in wrapped up with gloves, hats and scarves, the hotel probably looked the same in June. The bar was uninspiring and lacked atmosphere. Worse though – and I didn’t even know this was a thing – it closed in the evening.

The day started well enough though. I’d worried that there might not be any Christmas magic; any of that Christmas Tree feeling. The atmosphere was great in the church though and it felt like being a member of  a secret club (Not that I know what that’s like, of course!) Everyone was there and pulling together, joking and keeping each other’s spirits up. I peeled enough spuds for a battalion and then started on the parsnips getting enough on to cook to allow me to attend the Christmas Day service without any anxiety. After, I helped put out the tables, laid them and began bringing the food up and waiting on tables. Many of the congregation stayed after the service with others, homeless or just looking for somewhere to spend the afternoon, came in after. Many had travelled miles – often walking – to get there.

I met and spoke to some lovely people; heard some tragic stories. I was thanked for my efforts by one Gentleman who asked why I’d offered to volunteer and was I going home after? I told him I wasn’t and I told him about Gail. He looked at me with sympathy before adding ‘I know how you feel. I lost my wife in October. Now I want to die’. It broke me up. I had to hurry away with a pile of plates to distract myself.

There was plenty to clear away, of course and the tables were moved and chairs put away while the Vicar – who’d started on a wonderfully poignant menu of carols and Christmas tunes on the piano – soon moved to Abba and Simon & Garfunkel hits. Everyone joined in and the gnawing pit of self-pity in my stomach began to feel a little less-hollow. The fact is though – although not a big drinker – I missed a glass or two of wine. And the Christmas dinner, superbly cooked and presented, wasn’t what Gail would have prepared. In truth, it wasn’t what I’d managed to cook myself the previous year either.

And then it was 4pm. It was getting dark, everything was away and it was time to usher out the stragglers and the lock the church up. Everyone was going home for their ‘other’ Christmas Day, so we said our goodbyes and I went back to the hotel.

It was there that the new-style Christmas Day I had prepared for – the one so many said was a wonderful and admirable thing to do – fell apart. I sat awkwardly on the bed trying to be entertained by Christmas Night TV desperately missing my Cats and feeling bad that they were having Christmas Day without me.

I couldn’t bail out. I had travelled up two days before by train so I couldn’t get home. I missed the house I’d shared with Gail. I missed her decorations that I’d put up again. I missed being with someone who loved me. I was disconsolate. I forced myself out and onto the streets, to Leicester Square where it looked as it did any other night of the year. But there’s a limit to what you can do in that area on your own, and wandering away from the bright lights and the tourists or locals meant empty streets and a desperate feeling of ennui.

I longed for it to be over and for it to be Boxing Day. Trains ran on the 26th and I could get home. I went back to hotel, drank too many glasses of wine and fell asleep on the bed, when I woke up Christmas night had gone so I went back to sleep to ease the pain.

The irony was the very thing I had gained from helping others had robbed me of the only thing that was keeping me sane – being at home with my memories of Gail and Christmases past. It seemed cruel that helping in the church and attending a religious ceremony on the holiest of days had precipitated me being at one of my lowest ebbs. If I volunteer again – and with the best will in the world I’m not sure I can – I will at least pay the exorbitant price to park my car so I can go home.

As it was my memories of my second Christmas without the love of my life are hideously painful. I didn’t think I could miss Gail any more than I did. I was apparently wrong.

DSCN0362
My Christmas Gail tribute in her dressing area. I know she’d have been impressed by this

 

 

My Friend Vinny

Former footballer and now Hollywood actor Vinny Jones was on TV this morning talking about losing his wife Tanya.

In a mesmerising interview on Breakfast TV, Jones spoke eloquently and movingly about losing his wife to cancer and how the grief following Tanya’s death hit him like a ‘sledgehammer’.

Jones had been married to Tanya for 25 years, marrying her in July 1994, interestingly for me, exactly the same time as I first moved in with Gail. It made the passage of time all the more prevalent.

Jones spoke for everyone grieving when he explained “The hardest part of all for me to adjust to is – even that day [she died] – was everybody’s life goes on. You’re looking around and you’re going ‘this is the biggest tragedy of my life and they’re still going to work, they’re they’re still queuing up for Starbucks.’ The enormity of it all is just heavy.”

Perhaps the biggest contribution that Jones’s interview made though was just to highlight his grief and see how raw and emotional he was trying to explain his feelings. As most know, Jones’ role as the hard man in Wimbledon’s ‘Crazy Gang’ team during his football days, transferred to the big screen as his film career took off, so seeing him crying on TV before 9am seems to have awoken some emotions in others that they might not have otherwise considered. The interview made the front page on many newspapers and was widely covered on the web and in social media. It seemed – for a brief while at least – everyone was thinking about grief.

Unfortunately, there were the usual comments associated after; even Good Morning Britain’s Susanna Reid praising Jones’s ‘bravery’. Everyone grieving knows that knuckle-biting pain of hearing someone struggling to find the appropriate words and coming up with something awful. I’d had the ‘brave’ epithet handed to me on a couple of occasions and it wasn’t one I could accept. “Going into a cave to rescue some kids, knowing you may die in the attempt is brave. Waking up and getting through a day isn’t”.

There’ s nothing brave about talking about your grief and there’s nothing brave about showing your emotion either; even if you do have a hard man persona and you’re crying on TV while most people are eating their breakfast. In fact, describing having your world crashing down and losing the love of your life as ‘brave’ just cheapens the emotional anguish.

Similarly, Vinny Jones trying to quantify the emotion of seeing everyone go about their normal life is understandable but also misleading. It’s when you’re ripped apart with grief but you yourself need to eat or get a coffee is when the enormity engulfs you. ‘Why am I hungry?’ ‘Why am I buying this vanilla latte and a shortbread?’. It’s something I struggle with still. Sitting beside Gail’s bed in hospital with hunger gnawing at you; wanting to stay and do the right thing but desperate to get home and just pop a ready-meal in the oven. Other people may not see it but in your own head you know.

Vinny Jones was able to be with his wife when she died. The fact I wasn’t and I possibly could have – had I been able to get out of the house – is an issue I’m now needing to address. Similarly, Tanya left her husband a video. It’s a lovely gesture and a nice ending that must surely help Vinnie Jones as he tries to negotiate the rest of his life. Sadly though, that neat gesture rarely occurs.

In fact, in fiction and in comforting news bulletins; people often slip away in bed, surrounded by loving family and passing on some kind words before leaving this Earth. Even in the otherwise excellent Ricky Gervais TV show ‘Afterlife’ – for those who’ve not encountered it it’s the story of a man trying to live a meaningful life after the loss of his wife (sound familiar?) – Gervais’ character Tony is comforted by a video his dead wife has left for him.

In reality, you’re more likely to find an agonising email or a stray Word document written when the person writing it may not have been at their best; perhaps written at a time when you may have done something or said something stupid to prompt them to respond. In life, you can file that away and forget about it but if someone is grieving and they find that thing it can completely destroy you.

But those are emotions and hurdles for later on. When even the first stage of grief is so misunderstood, its perhaps understandable that we shouldn’t try to run before we can walk. That’s why – and whoever thought I’d ever say this – Vinny Jones has my full admiration. On football field or big screen, it may be his best-ever performance.

 

Day After Day

I’ve noticed that many of the grief blogs I’ve looked at stopped after a year. It’s as if getting through 365 days is all that’s required. It’s not. In fact, after 14 months I’m starting to believe the second year may even be worse than the first.

Stripped of the opportunity to say ‘Well, this time last year’, I’ve found the days longer and lonelier and the nights darker and heavier, and while the movement of warm, sunny days to the chillier months of autumn felt somewhat in keeping with my general sense of ennui last year, this year they seem to have become more what the Germans refer to as weltschmerz; an increased world-pain and dissatisfaction. I have a growing sense that nothing I thought I knew applies anymore.

Now the difficulty I have in keeping this blog now is that I am now wandering dangerously into that territory that everyone always asks about but only those that are grieving can comprehend.

I’ve already mentioned elsewhere that I hate terms like ‘moving on’ or ‘going forward’. Not only do I not find those type of things relevant or helpful, I also believe there is an implication in the phrases that the words don’t actually possess.

Take ‘moving on’, for example, taken literally it’s barely worth saying – I mean, if you’re alive and not suicidal, then what else can you do? By dint of waking up every morning you’re surely moving on? No, what people really mean when they ask you that is, ‘Have you met anyone else yet?’ or, at least ‘Are you thinking of going out to meet someone else yet?’. For ‘moving on’ insert ‘moving upwards’; if not intentionally upwards from the relationship you had previously, then at least upwards from where you’re perceived to be in the dark pit of grief.

Now a lot of this I’ve covered in previous blogs and I don’t want to reiterate it again now, but you can always laugh at something again, have nice holidays, good days out, meet different people, see and do things you may not have even done had your loved one not passed away. (N.B. Note it’s 14 months but I still can’t use the D word!). If you live then, by definition, you’re moving on.

But that’s not what we’re talking about here, is it? We’re talking about opening yourself up to the possibilities of meeting someone, finding another relationship, and perhaps loving again. I know people who’ve done it, some of you reading this may do too. It happens. We’re talking about – arghh! I hate the word – dating.

Now we’re back with someone I mentioned previously in  My Precious – Part One the Television Presenter Simon Thomas, who gave a voice to grief when he tragically lost his wife to Leukaemia in 2017. Just today, I saw an interesting article about his new relationship and finding love after grief. In a piece in which he thanks his new girlfriend, Thomas is quoted as describing her as ‘A woman of boundless love, kindness and compassion who has loved me when I was hard to love, picked me up when I was in pieces.’ It’s touching and it would be a mean-spirited person who would deny him his happiness.

Interestingly though later – and I only saw this after I’d started this blog – I note he ‘struggles to describe his new relationship as ‘moving on’. ‘We only have two choices’ he says. I’d love to meet Simon; I’m sure we’d have some fascinating conversations.

My difficulty here though is how far I can take any experiences I have personally regarding – I’m sorry! – dating and correlate it with my grief. Has one anything to do with the other?

Just to explain this fully, I had occasion to speak to someone last week who had gone through a hideous divorce. Unable to cope with the situation, this person had eventually decided to get some counselling, and was astonished to find, in the course of his sessions, that he was diagnosed with several personality traits / disorders that meant his inability to cope with the collapse of his marriage wasn’t entirely down to the divorce itself and, in fact, these very traits, led him to discover things about himself that may even have led to reasons why his marriage didn’t survive in the first place.

While I’ve not gone the grief counselling route yet – although if things continue as they are I may well still try it – I am concerned that I may well find out things about myself that are affecting the way I think now. Frankly, it wouldn’t be a major surprise. In turn, if that does occur, then anything gleaned as a single man trying mature dating, may well say more about me and how I perceive myself, than anything to do with – look, let’s just go with once, eh? – moving on.

There is a serious danger that certain circumstances may move this from being a grief blog to one about senior dating, and I don’t want that. I’ve also not even covered the part that leads to these first steps anyway; the loneliness, the need for female company and, hell yes!, the need for sex. My parents, friends, family or my children could read this. Do I want that?

You can see why this blog took the best part of two weeks to complete. I’ve got a bit to think about here…

Morris

The trouble with grief is that it seems to make everything prescient.

Morris was our second cat, he moved in with us when our first cat Puss-Puss brought him back one bright summer morning. I can see that morning as if it was yesterday; Puss sitting stock still in the middle of the garden and looking at me in an odd way and, when I asked him why he was acting so strangely, he simply turned his head to the fence where a smaller black cat peered back nervously. This was Morris.

It transpired that Morris originally lived at No: 1 in our road but the owners bought a dog so Morris moved out, made friends with Puss – in itself an odd event as Puss wasn’t a cat that suffered other feline company well – and first appeared in our garden while Gail was away with a friend in Turkey. I rung her to tell her we had someone new coming in and she insisted it was something to do with her Grandfather passing away earlier that year. Gail was one for things like that.

It took a battle with the original owners but it was clear Morris wasn’t moving out and when a neighbour reported that ‘our cat’ had spent a week living in our front garden while we was away on holiday, I realised we had to do something. Reluctantly, the original owners – who still insisted Morris was eating food from their house even when I knew he’d been asleep on my bed all night – relented, passed over his papers and we registered Morris as our own. He lived with us for all bar his first four years.

Morris had a good life with us but developed hyperthyroidism later, he lost a lot of weight and had to go onto a constant diet of tablets. This prompted Gail to respond to questions about our cats – by this time Puss had sadly passed on and he’d been replaced by three others in an effort to fill the gap he’d left – by replying that “Morris is dying”. This annoyed me intensely and I always responded “We’re all dying Gail, Morris is just getting old but he has a few good years left him in yet”.

He did indeed have a good few years in him. Morris lived with his thyroid condition for well over four years and, in a twist of fate, eventually survived Gail. It prompted friends to say “I can’t believe Gail has gone and Morris is still here” and, in truth, it was something I was only too aware of. I had to speak to Morris about it – at the time of Gail’s passing he was already 18 – and explain that, whatever happened, I needed him to live ‘at least another year’. The idea of losing my oldest pet so soon after Gail would have ripped me apart, and so it was I set about trying to keep Morris alive for as long as I could.

Many people don’t understand pet grief but all anyone needs to know is that a pet is part of the family dynamic. You talk to them, interact with them, respond when they want to sit with you or demand food from you. Morris, for example, was my lap cat. After Gail passed and on those long nights when I couldn’t sleep or I’d woken and couldn’t get back, Morris would simply curl up on my lap and I’d be asleep in minutes. I can’t calculate the extra hours sleep I must have got purely because of Morris in that first year. But he, along with my three other cats Buzz, Gus and Ziggy, kept me sane in the months after Gail passed.

Morris did indeed survive the year and, although obviously frail and – judging by the way he ignored the Dyson – totally deaf, he was a functioning member of the family unit until 48 hours before I was due to go on holiday with my Son and Daughter-in-law. With horrible timing and with me due to fly out on Friday, Morris started to deteriorate on Wednesday, I prayed he would at least last until I came back from the holiday as I couldn’t afford to cancel it and, being a teacher and consigned to specific times of the year, it was the only week my Son could make. You can read too much into these things but I think Morris may have spared me the pain of holding him while watching his life ebb away. As it was, it was the Cat-sitter who had to hold Morris as he was put to sleep with me watching on Skype 1500 miles away, sobbing my eyes out at a hotel pool.

By the time I got back, the Cat Sitter had retrieved Morris’ ashes from the vet and placed them with some flowers and a card next to a photo of Gail. It was a lovely gesture and it was nice to open the door after returning from holiday and find Morris’ little casket. I’d hoped I’d be able to shed some tears however they wouldn’t come. Apart from the morning I sat in swimming trunks by a pool in Madeira, watching on a Samsung Notepad as Morris had his injection, I’ve not been able to cry.

I’m upset, of course, but it seems as if the intensity and upset of the last year has become so all-pervading that I don’t have any tears to give. Either that or I’m subconsciously bottling it up and there will be a major meltdown. On the other hand, I’ve never felt I cried enough for Gail either; for someone who gets as emotional as me with books, films and music, this seems strange.

I’m wondering if I use or lose the emotions in the persuasive way I throw myself into mundane tasks and, with the first anniversary of Gail’s funeral approaching and another day I have to set aside, I’ve decided I need to see if I can find out. I’ve strenuously avoided it so far but I’m thinking it might be time to see a Counsellor.

Morris