Back in October – how far away that seems, somehow – I reflected on six months of widowhood, and there I quoted the poem I use in the headline here and said:
To take the sun in my mouth is an act of daily defiance; it is my still unshaken belief that it is a good thing to be in the world and of it, to put myself into the ripe air and perhaps, one day, set my teeth in the moon.
I still believe that. This December, though, has proved so far to be a time when such large acts as swallowing the sun and dashing myself against the darkness is too much.
I am struggling, a little. I think it’s fair to say that. I do not think of myself in any danger; if there’s one thing the last year has shown me, I am very good at doggedly swimming forward even when I cannot see the shore. But it has been a very long year, and this is a very long swim.
One of the most exhausting things about grief is that you don’t get to have a break from it. Even the back-breaking work of having a tiny infant was something I occasionally got a break from; I could set my small daughter in someone else’s arms and leave the room, and even if I left half my heart behind me with her, it was possible to rest, and to come back to some degree refreshed.
My grief is not ordinarily overwhelming any more. I think I am in a bit of a dip at present, where everything feels raw; this isn’t really surprising, given that I love Christmas and that Kieran and I had a lot of rituals associated with Christmas. Every day there are reminders of how different things are now. I do feel resentful that this year my gladness over Christmas is muddled up with dread. Of all the things I could be angry with Kieran about, it seems absurd that I want I really want to shout at him is you’re fucking up my festive season. But I do. Beneath that, of course, is a whole tangle of other pain, one that I am painstakingly working through by myself and with a counsellor, unpicking and unpacking what I can hold, what I can let go.
So if I don’t get to put grief away, what can I do to make life easier for myself? I’ve realised that often at this time of year I struggle a bit with my mood anyway. I think I have a mild case of SAD; the long nights and gloomy days sap my energy and leave me listless and a little blue at the best of times. I have a SAD lamp, which helps a bit with the energy though not so much with the mood. I have prescription drugs which help keep my mood on a more even keel.
But all of this is a reminder of why my union, UCU, have recently been on strike and why we are engaged in industrial action. In academia at this time of year, even people with near-perfect private lives tend to look haggard, their nerves strained, their sleep disrupted. Everyone rushes frantically to clear their desks in the (often vain) hope that they can do nothing over the Christmas holidays. I only work part time at my institution, but as I say here, despite the financial implications for me as a single parent I’m relieved, because the workload of the typical higher education employee means a full time job spills out well beyond 9-5, and it just isn’t possible for me to look after myself and my daughter and do a job that demands 50+ hours a week.
What I am thus choosing to do, and I encourage any readers who are similarly doggy-paddling endlessly across the sea of grief, is to reduce any other obligations that do not directly benefit me or my daughter or are an essential part of my job. That is partly “working to contract”, in union parlance, and partly a genuine form of self-care that goes beyond bubble baths. I will spend what limited energy I have on things I must do, and then on things I would like to do. Other things shall have to wait.
I hope that in this festive season I do find some joy, even while I anticipate pain. I have bought a wonderful rainbow Christmas tree, as I couldn’t bear putting up our big tree with all its carefully collected ornaments that remind me of honeymoon and the first year we were parents. Instead I have an assortment of ornaments lovingly bought by various friends and family members that collectively give the impression that I ran drunkenly through Paperchase and bought whatever made me laugh rum and coke out of my nose. It is, I think, my masterstroke in this time. I cannot avoid pain this December, and I also won’t pretend I don’t feel it; but I will strap my wounds up with tinsel because if I’m going to keep bleeding all over the place I can at least do it in style.
If you enjoy my work and want to wish me a merry Christmas, you can use the tip jar here. Thanks to everyone who so far has contributed to my sequins-and-tiaras fund.