Writing to reach you

A few days ago, a fellow widower asked me “I need to address a few things, I’ve shelved so many feelings of my wife’s death because I just don’t know how to deal with them,” “what did you do Mark?” I was so unrehearsed for this query, I realised I hadn’t even asked myself this question. I was even more off guard with it being off the back of our laid-back chat about Football. So, my reply went “Wow, that’s some question. I’ll tell you what, read my blog next week and I’ll try my best.”

I’ve thought long and hard about his query every day since he asked. With him being at such an early stage of his grief, I wanted to give him the one tool that helped me the most. I had previously done and strained so many different types of therapeutic practices around my own grief. After some deliberation with my past and present efforts; I now feel poised to give my best and probably my most obvious response.

Now, before I share this, let me start by just stating that my grief has been so overwhelming for me since day one. Whatever support or therapy I’ve received, I have never expected to just wake up one morning to realise that all my grief had just vanished into thin air. It will never do you any favours as it certainly doesn’t’ work like that. Instead, the reality is, it will continue to be a drain on you, but on different levels, as time goes by. Always remember, self-therapy will just soften your emotions and teach you to understand them.

Even as I pace through my third cycle since Katherine’s passing. I have found that early grief had always made me feel confident about my emotions at one stage and then desperately insecure with them in the next. Confidence may not be something that everyone associates with bereavement, but it’s something I have certainly felt more of as time has gone by. Maybe this is just how my therapeutic practice has helped me embrace my past and my future.  

So, if I could share some insight into my best emotional therapy. It would be this. I found and used a tool that we all have at our disposal. A very important tool that can potentially help any of us cope in any situation: writing.

Writing down my thoughts while grieving boosted my entire immune system and increased my emotional and mental health. This was even before I started sharing them on my blog. During the beginning, when I first started to document my thoughts. I noticed straight away that it triggered my strong emotions. I would even go as far as linking its release to the same sensation as crying or like the moments when I have felt extremely upset. It gave me a self-therapeutic benefit for just “letting off steam”. Especially when I didn’t want to speak to anyone about them.

I always had to remember that most of the people around me found it uncomfortable to discuss. Especially when it came down to the nitty-gritty details of Katherine’s death. My friends would talk to me about “getting through it” and “moving forward” and “healing.” They would shy away from talking about her actually passing, not out of cold-heartedness, but out of natural fear. I guess most people just don’t want to say the wrong thing; death is just downright scary overall. This made me understand why there is so much coverage of celebrity grief and movies about loss: they seem to create a public space where everyone can safely talk and feel something about another’s loss.

As the weeks and months went by, my writing was now the instrument of self-exploration, self-expression, and self-discovery that provided me with a safe space to simply be the grieving single parent widower I felt like. I didn’t need to attempt to talk to others as It was catering for all the things that were left unsaid, my unshared emotions, and those tricky questions for which I had no closure.

Of course, all my written efforts had to happen mostly in my head. Maybe this is one reason I wrote about my loss in real-time, so to speak. Writing seemed to help me puzzle through my bewildering change. It sparked my strength to let go of Katherine’s funeral and to help me bridge the stark boundary between my inner sorrow and my outer functioning.

I like to view everything that I’ve written on my blog as an internal psychological exploration of my grief. I have always felt that I wasn’t just writing about the loss of my wife and my daughters Mother. I was also mapping the intimate contours of this mysterious transformation I was experiencing. I even decided to share it with a lot of other people to, like yourself, reading this post now.

I’m no expert and I am not saying that writing is a substitute for professional therapy, it’s simply not!  It has just provided me with a pathway to explore and discover my journey and all the courage and strength I’ve gained to build myself back up again.  This was what I ultimately wanted, a more resonant description than any of the stages of grief could offer. One of the most beautiful things about it was the fact that no one could even judge me too.

While writing, I noticed that it became more of a ‘state of mind’ to address and reflect on what is actually going on, logically. Writing down my thoughts and feelings after I lost Katherine allowed me to express myself freely and safely. I had discovered a very rare and safe place to reflect on the meaning of life and death, which relieved me from my shackling thoughts and released a heavy burden in my chest.

With this massive release, it has been a lot easier to not only make it through the day but the weeks and the months. Easier, in the sense that I have full acceptance in the way everything in my life is now. Most of the ‘head banging’ questions have gained some much-needed closure too. 

I guess if I hadn’t documented my grief I could have possibly been left slightly paralysed, muted and unable to comprehend my loss. Yet, I am now able to speak — to breathe, to sleep, to eat, to go for walks in the sun, to find myself laughing with my family and friends — to fall in love again — to even marry again.

Embracing Love again. Me and my beautiful wife, Nicola. (June 2019)

So, maybe you’re thinking of writing about your grief? I’d say go for it, or even just give it a try?

Here are some concepts I used. Maybe they might help you if you don’t know where to start:

•    Always write down thoughts and feelings about yourself and the one you’ve lost (Carry a pen and paper with you or use your phone). 

•    Try to sort and list any conflicting emotions.

•    Develop an understanding of things that have been suppressed inside.

•    Make room for other thoughts and feelings.

•    Try to be honest and think deeply about what you would want your loved one to know and acknowledge.

•    Always express your regret as a way to bring closure

•    Respect any change of thought and feeling you have about death and yourself.

•    Reflect and understand yourself in a new light.

•    Simply just be yourself. Remember your words will remain private and confidential and wouldn’t be published for public consumption. Unless you want it.

Shock

Katherine’s death was sudden: In a second my life went from everything I’d dreamed of to darkness and chaos.

From the beginning I was so overwhelmed, the feelings of bewilderment, anxiety and self-reproach had their sights locked onto me like a pack of wolves. The capacity for me to cope naturally diminished instantly when dealing with her passing. Little did I know my body had already called in the cavalry; SHOCK! I had no preparation and no time to gradually absorb the reality that my world was about to change. My loss was so disruptive, all my adaptive capacities had been severely assaulted.

For the first 12 months, without me even knowing, the shock had absorbed everything I should have been or should have done. I lost all control of my world and my expectations had experienced a major violation. I had to face the massive gap between the way my world should be and the way the world is now. The only thing I could manage was the day-to-day care of my 9-month-old daughter.

When I look back, I often feel ashamed in the way I did things and acted. I’ll always regret never becoming the grieving widower at the start. Unconsciously, from the beginning when Katherine passed, I became this pillar of strength to everyone and everything. Though I presented myself as the superhero dad, doing everything by the book. Deep down I just wanted to crumble and be dragged down into the pits of emptiness, sadness and pain. These feeling were now squatting deep within my ego, waiting to emerge when the time was right. Almost as if the shock had engaged some sort of masculine centred autopilot which had total control over my being.

The loss of my wife didn’t make sense, it still doesn’t. At the time my understanding of what actually happened was missing. For a period of time, the shock made it very difficult for me to accept that Katherine’s death occurred, and it became inexplicable for a long period of time. I repeatedly went over the series of events in my head numerous times each day, as it had no understandable context.  For logical progression I found myself making the situation more manageable by looking back at the time leading up to her cardiac arrest in search of clues that could have indicated what was to come. Reconstructing every event in my mind in order to find some anticipation of her death. It drove me mad!

My next chapter of shock came in the form of responsibility. I started to hold myself responsible for not perceiving clues and for my actions before and during her cardiac arrest. I felt some levels of inordinate guilt for a period of time.  Of course, I understand now I would need to be a physician and to have given my wife an electrocardiogram (ECG) test to have known anything was wrong with her. Reflecting on this now, I was demoralised and trying to cope with my drastically altered world. I felt a lot of anguish for the first 12 months, I just wanted to say good-bye – I needed a positive close. I wish I could have had one brief moment with her to say how much she meant to me and how much I loved her. Just one more time!

I understand that I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. Shock is a traumatic stage of losing someone suddenly, you won’t admit or notice it at the time. Friends and family won’t spot it either. Having this awareness now enables me to look back on how I acted and the things I said without negativity. 

Over a period of time, it has been quite an ironic but positive consequence that the shock from a sudden death made me audit and identify my state of mind more than ever. Working professionally within an academic environment I’ve always been a reflective person. I’m not saying I’ve pulled something meaningful out of my tragedy. I mean this in the way that when we experience bereavement, we change and become something new. I’ll share my experience on this topic in my next post.