Nearly two years ago Kieran ended his life; it will be his anniversary on Monday.
But this isn’t his story any more, so let’s begin somewhere else.
Eight weeks ago I lay hunched up in the dark, with abdominal pain that was worsening, moving from something horrible but bearable into something terrible, a pain that lies on another side of a dark gate. Some time in the small hours, not long before deciding I would call 999, I thought: why would I bother loving someone again when they could just leave me to this by myself?
Healing isn’t a straight line, as the crow flies from point A (little broken) to point B(etter now). This is true physically, as I struggle slowly to recover from sepsis brought on by acute diverticulitis, and it’s true of the soul, too.
Two years on from sudden bereavement, how’s the state of my soul? Well, that’s too much to share in detail, even for someone who has regularly bared their heart for all of you. But in general I think it’s good. Much better than it was, and that’s largely because I’ve done a lot of work to get here. Some of it has been very deep work, going back into childhood, into understanding not only my grief now but how I’ve responded to it because of things I’ve learned in my life. (Hooray for EMDR!) It’s work that’s left me tired, alongside the fatigue of being a single parent, sole earner for our household, of having to adjust my life and thinking in multiple ways. And now recovery from sepsis. No wonder I’m exhausted.
But all the same, despite the pain – physical and mental – it’s all a lot better than it was two years ago. Again and again in grief communities I’ve seen Lois Tonkin’s theory about grief shared. It’s the one that says grief doesn’t get smaller, but your life grows bigger around it.
I hate it.
I know it comforts people, often when they feel consumed by grief, and want to feel that that’s normal. It is normal, at first – and at first can mean a really long time, especially if you have a complex or traumatic bereavement. (Most bereavements are traumatic to a degree, but some are traumatic in ways that are – well, like the other side of a dark gate.) But I think of how it frightened me in early grief, along with all the warnings about suicide bereavement that often the second year is worse. I thought of how unbearable it sounded to carry this great and terrible weight along with me forever, and somehow still have to find the energy to, what, balloon my life into something wider and brighter? That sounded to me not inspirational but unbelievably cruel.
So. For me, the pain has got better. That’s not about loving Kieran less, but it is about healing. Have I grown? I think so, but I would have grown if Kieran hadn’t died, too. That’s part of being human, or at least a part of being a human who wants to keep becoming rather than staying still, and I’ve always been that kind of person.
If you’re reading this and you’re suffering, I suppose I want to tell you that it can get better, and it’s very likely it will. And yes, you will have to carry this forever and I’m sorry – for you and for me – but that the burden does become more manageable, in time. But also to know that it’s a slippery thing, not a linear shrinking. Last year I met the first anniversary of Kieran’s death in exhausted sorrow, but it wasn’t as bad as I feared. And then a month later, haunted by compulsive wondering about the moments before he ended his life, I felt close to breaking. I dug myself out of that hole by finding a trauma-experienced therapist, but I know that’s a privilege. I know that finding help via our broken NHS isn’t easy. Suicide and Co and Cruse Bereavement Support both offer free counselling. If you feel stuck in your grief or like it’s getting worse, please don’t just accept that this is how it has to be. I’m wary of pathologizing grief in a culture that still wants people to have neatly packaged experiences of bereavement, but complicated grief can need more specialist help. It’s nothing to be ashamed of if you do.
I said at the start that this isn’t Kieran’s story, and I recognise in that both a truth and an anger, because I am angry with him, sometimes a lot and sometimes not very much at all. The anger provokes a kind of flinching away in me from letting him set the terms of the narrative even after he’s dead. But of course he is a huge part of my story, and death doesn’t change that. When I wrote the anecdote at the start I worried that readers would fixate on the least important part, the idea of me finding romantic love again, rather than the deeper truth: that I was terribly wounded, but I was still ready to fight. That night anger propelled me as much as fear to phone 999, and strangely I think Kieran would have been proud of that. He always said I was a lioness. I’m not sure about that, but what I do know about myself is that within me there is still, yet (and God willing, always) an unconquered summer, and I can find my way back to it even through a terrible dark.