White Feathers. Painted stones © Natasha Newton 2015
I've been thinking about writing this post for a few weeks now, but my reluctance to write about my life publicly in a very personal way (as I discussed recently here) has stopped me from getting any further than the 'draft' stage. But a couple of things have happened that have helped me to realise that sharing my thoughts on this subject may be useful or comforting to other people, so let's see whether I can write about this in a more general, rather than incredibly personal, way.
One thing I've realised since Leon died has been the importance of friends. Not that I didn't realise it before, but I think that - like many others - when I was in a relationship and in love, my main priority was Leon. Whether I was in Paris with him, or he was staying here in Suffolk, or we were apart - as we often were for weeks and sometimes months as part of a long distance relationship (by the way, this article describes LDRs very well!) - we were in almost constant contact with each other. Skype, FaceTime, iMessage, phone calls, email - we would message and speak several times a day. He was always there for me, as I was for him. It was comforting and reassuring. Any spare moments we had would often mean we were talking and making time for each other. I'm sure that those of you currently in a romantic relationship, whether it's with a husband, wife, boyfriend or girlfriend, know at least a little of what I'm talking about.
Now imagine that, one day, that just stops.
Imagine that person just not being there anymore. The person you loved so much and couldn't imagine being without; who you confided in, who was there to laugh with you when something funny happened, or who you knew would be there when you'd had a bad day and would make everything so much better. The one you went on holiday with, who accompanied you to events, dinners, weddings, or even just a Sunday afternoon walk ending up in a cafe or pub. The one you slept next to at night and who was there when you awoke in the morning. And so many other things besides.
When that person dies, you are left with a huge void. I don't know about you, but most of my friends (who tend to be in their 30s or 40s) are in a relationship or married with a family. I know very few single people. So while your friends' lives carry on as normal, filled with all sorts of relationship or family activities, yours has changed enormously. Your life was once like theirs, but now there is a huge, aching, empty space to be filled. I can't even tell you how sad and awful that is; we won't go into that in detail today because I don't even want my mind to go there.
To go back to a more general way of speaking (as I already feel that this is getting fairly personal again!), what I've found in the year since Leon died, is that I've learned so much about human nature, both through personal experience and by talking to other people who've lost someone close to them about their grief.
I don't want to use her name, but a lovely online friend contacted me while Leon was going through his illness, offering support because she knew what it was like to be in my situation. Her boyfriend had also had cancer and passed away a few years ago. She's now happily moving on with her life; she has a successful career and is in a serious relationship, but for quite a while after her boyfriend died, things were incredibly difficult for her. When Leon passed away, she told me she was there if I needed her, and I really appreciated that. We've messaged back and forth a few times, and I always found her advice and comments helpful and reassuring. She said that dealing with the death of her boyfriend was hard enough, but the fact that shortly afterwards she lost three close friends was something that affected her greatly, and she fell into a period of depression. When I say that she 'lost' three friends, I mean that their reaction to her boyfriend's death was such that she couldn't continue a friendship with them. I have since heard exactly the same thing from other people who have lost someone close to them. To be clear, I do not mention this to be judgemental. I can completely understand how hard it is for some people to deal with death; they don't know what to say or do, they're often frightened of saying the 'wrong' thing so they say nothing at all or even avoid the bereaved person, and sometimes people just don't want to think about the possibility (inevitability) of death. I guess that seeing you grieving for the loss of your partner makes them realise that the same thing could happen to them, and that's just too awful or scary to contemplate. So I get it. I really do.
On the subject of being judgemental, the other problem the bereaved person has to deal with is actually judgement from other people. You're told you're not grieving in the 'right way' (newsflash: there is no 'right' way; everyone has different ways of grieving and when you lose someone you realise that - you do whatever you can to get through it, and what is right for one person can be completely wrong for another). If you appear to be getting on with your life, people think, "Well, he/she got over that quickly!", but if you're seen as not moving on with your life, there's the judgement that you "should be over it by now" and you're just wallowing in your grief. Somedays, you can feel that whatever you do will be judged. Second newsflash: just because someone has the strength to carry on working, go out, go on holiday, sit and talk and laugh with you etc. doesn't mean they're not feeling completely heartbroken and lost inside. It also doesn't mean that they haven't just spent yet another sleepless night in total sadness and anxiety, replaying images in their mind they'd rather not have witnessed in the first place and that they really wish they could just erase from their memory, and so much more.
Anyway, I seem to have gone off on a tangent, as is usual with my longer blog posts. Let's get it back on track...
The fact is, as someone else so succinctly put it, after you lose your partner you will quickly find that the position you're in can "separate the wheat from the chaff". This can apply to situations in your life as well as the people you choose to surround yourself with. It shakes your whole life up; you start to question the way you live, what you want to be or do, your future, your past...and you will find that some things fall by the wayside during this 'shake up' period. You'll also find that as you gain wonderful new friends, you'll lose some older friends along the way too. You may find that the people you expected to be there for you (indeed, some of the ones who said they would be and who were the most vocal about it) are actually the people who just aren't, and the friends or acquaintances you didn't expect anything from are the most supportive.
I watched a documentary recently about a young woman who'd suffered an almost fatal head injury in an accident. She talked about the difference between the people who were there for her at the beginning, as she hovered between life and death and during the very early stages of her recovery, and the people who are there for her now, two years later. The interviewer asked her how many people had sent messages of support at the beginning. I believe she said "170" or something like that. She was then asked how many of the 170 were still there for her now, a couple of years on from the accident (she's made an amazing recovery but is still dealing with the after effects of such a traumatic injury), and she paused before answering, "three".
You will find that it's the same when you've lost your partner. So many people are there at the beginning, offering help and support ("If there's anything I can do, just let me know" is a familiar phrase in the early days, and it's always appreciated). You're surrounded by people wanting to see you, meet up for coffee or take you out, which is wonderful but can be somewhat overwhelming when you're in the first throes of grief. I was so grateful for the support I received that I tried to respond to every message - I had so many I actually have no idea of the number. It took several months to get around to responding to some of them as I was only able to mentally or emotionally deal with a couple each day, and sometimes none at all.
Naturally, over time, you will find that most of these people fall away. Some will stay and check in with you every now and again, which is lovely and I'm always grateful for it. But strangely, just as the people are falling away, you'll find that you actually need people to be there for you more as time passes. This is the weird thing about grief. It doesn't just miraculously get better or easier with time. I didn't hit the six-month or one-year mark and think, "Wow, I feel so much better now!". It just continues on; the sadness, the loneliness, the enormous sense of loss that only grows as time goes by. Think about it: you haven't seen that person you loved for a year now - it's no longer just a few weeks or a couple of months. That doesn't make it easier; it makes it harder. In a way, as time goes on, you miss them more, not less. You need friends around you just as much, if not more, than you did at the beginning. Just like the girl with the head injury who still needs support from her friends, but only three have stayed the course. And this is no reflection upon her or her personality - she was an amazing girl, so full of courage and strength, who was determined to get better and not sit around feeling sorry for herself.
Even though time has passed, often to the bereaved person it feels as though it hasn't - in their mind everything is still very fresh and raw.
I've had a couple of amazing friends who told me - upon finding out that I would often wake up in the middle of the night consumed with sadness and anxiety - to call them at 3:00am if I needed to. And I know these people meant it, rather than just saying it. I often felt like doing so, but to date I never have. I'd have to be in a pretty dire state to wake someone up in the middle of the night, even if they'd offered! Throughout all of this, I've tried to respect my friends' boundaries and their time, even though they've offered it to me. I've never wanted to become a burden, so I've actively tried to avoid becoming too needy, clingy, or too much of a pain in the butt. So much so, that I think I've gone too far the other way, and they think I don't need them when I really do! But the thing is that just knowing the offer of a phone call in the middle of the night was there if I needed it was enough. Knowing that they were there helped enormously. I didn't actually have to pick up the phone and talk to them; the offer was enough.
It's the same with text messages. When I'm having a particularly rough day, but a friend takes the time to quickly text me with a message saying, "I was just thinking about you and wondering how you're doing?" or, "How are you feeling today?"...well, it makes that day infinitely better. Isn't it funny that something that takes literally a minute to do can have such a profound effect on someone's day or state of mind? But it does, trust me on this. Knowing that a friend cares can make a huge difference to someone, and sometimes that's all they need. We don't need huge emails or long phone calls (although those are nice too sometimes!) but just a quick check-in every now and then can make things so much better.
Lastly, I wanted to tell you about a video I watched on YouTube the other day, where two friends were talking about friendship and about how one of them was there when the other went through a devastating break-up with her boyfriend. The girl who'd spilt up with her boyfriend would often drive around in her car for hours on her own, ending up at her best friend's house, and sleeping on her couch because she couldn't bear to be alone. When apart, they'd have hours-long phone conversations, where her friend would cry down the phone to her, and talk over and over about her ex-boyfriend. They both got quite tearful when thinking about this period in their lives, as it was sad and traumatic for both of them. The first friend didn't like to see the second friend being treated so badly (her boyfriend had cheated on her and lied to her repeatedly) and she said something like, "It was awful; you were just such a sad little thing". Then the second friend talked about the long telephone conversations they'd had and about how important it was for her that the first friend was there for her during that time. You could see she was visibly touched by the appreciation of her friend, and then she laughed and said, "We'd be on the phone for hours and I'd just let you talk while I got on with doing things around the house! Because I knew you didn't really need me to listen to everything you were saying or to respond to it; you just needed someone there to talk to, to let it all out". Her friend saw the funny side of this and they were both laughing, and then the first friend said something really very true (I'm going to paraphrase slightly):
"The important thing when a friend is going through a terrible time is just to be there for them, and be consistent. Just listen and be there for them, even if they go over the same subject again and again. Don't abandon them; they've already been left once, and all they need is for you to be there to help them through it".
I couldn't have put it better myself. So, if you're lucky enough to have friends like that, treasure them and let them know how important they are to you. And if you have a friend who is going through a difficult time, however long that difficult time lasts, just be there for them consistently, check in with them to see how they're doing, give advice when and if you can, or just listen and give them a hug, because sometimes that's all they need.