Photo credit: Rachel Wallace Photography

Day 271. Almost nine months into this new existence.

The last couple of weeks have been difficult. I’ve been feeling unwell, symptoms of a bad cold which are, apparently, also symptoms of someone double vaccinated who has contracted the Delta variant. A lateral flow test was negative at the beginning of the week, but the Zoe app instructed me to take a PCR test and isolate. So, I’ve been home alone. Wondering if I have caught covid again.

By Friday I had completely lost my voice and had to take part in zoom meetings using the chat facility and miming. On Saturday I discovered that as I hadn’t made a note of the barcode on the PCR test, my missing results couldn’t be traced so I had to wait for another test to be sent out. Dear reader, please make a note of your barcode if you take a PCR test!! This is not mentioned in any of the instructions, nor on the government website, but if your results don’t appear, without that barcode you’re back to square one.

So, I’ve had a lot of thinking time, between coughing. I’ve been trying to work out how I am at the moment.

Fragile, I think, is a good description. I’ve never felt fragile before, but I’ve been conscious of a gradually seeping feeling of anxiety edging up from my subconscious, an anxiety that now seems to be part of my daily existence. On the surface, all is ok, but the slightest stressful thing cracks that veneer and exposes frightening depths of fear and misery underneath. Waiting for the test results has been more stressful than I realised and losing my voice (on top of my ongoing loss of taste and smell since the last time I had covid) was horrible. Isolating again has been really hard.

It feels like I have no idea who I am anymore. Everything is so different now. The me who I used to be has vanished. All the foundations that my life was built on have crumbled and gone, and I don’t recognise myself. Thinking back, I marvel at how strong and confident I used to be, how fearless.

When Steve and I first met, I had built a good life after some difficult times. I had a job I loved, my kids were grown, and I had a fun social life with friends from all over the place. I dated lots of interesting men. I was busy and independent and happy. I wasn’t looking for anything, but then Steve crashed into my life and suddenly everything was in technicolour. I knew it was different at once. I felt completely safe with him, immediately, and that feeling never left me.

When we became a permanent item, everything felt complete. Together, we were so solid, so strong. He supported me in everything I did, he was interested in everything I had to say, we talked and talked about everything, and I only wanted to be with him. Our life together was completely enough, for both of us.

For all the years we were together (other than once, for a few weeks when circumstances were difficult and he needed to exorcise ghosts from his past) – all the rest of the time, those weeks and months and years together were completely immersive and nourishing for us both. We never, ever argued. He was mystified by this, and often wondered why not, but there was nothing to argue about. We were, he sometimes said, like one person in two bodies. Completely unified and solid and strong.

He totally had my back in everything, and his constant strength and love and support made me the best me I could possibly be. He encouraged me, and counselled me, and laughed at me and made me laugh too, and he was always, always there. If we were apart, we’d speak on the phone throughout the day, but mostly we were together as much as humanly possible. It was the easiest, most perfect relationship I have ever had. We completed each other. Constant, complete love. We occasionally appreciated just how lucky we both were to be experiencing so much security, so much safety, to be both adored and adoring, but mostly we just thrived and grew, separately and together.

With his grounding, I could fly, and I did. I became a stronger voice, a more determined advocate for what’s right, a better contributor to the discourse about the subjects I cared about. I could write and speak and lead, I became better known, better respected, just better generally. Always with his advice, his balanced Libran opinions in the back of my mind. I listened to him and tempered my more extreme ideas; I grew stronger and wiser. He kept me on track, but never stifled me. He was the perfect counterbalance.

And now he’s gone. The me that I had become, the me that had blossomed from the fertile soil of love and support and interest and generosity that he had poured into my growing – that me died with him last year. There is absolutely no way I can be that person anymore, not without him. I am left staring at the wreckage of my life, trying to find the bits that can be fitted back together in some resemblance of that person I used to be, knowing full well that it’s impossible.

This, I suppose, is the long, hard work of grieving. Of reassembling, re-membering who I am. Working out which bits of me still resemble the me I used to be and can be useful in the future, and which bits are lost forever. It’s difficult to get the perspective you need when you’re dealing with the ebbing and flowing of grief; self-analysis is difficult at the best of times, let alone when your heart feels like it’s shattered into a million pieces. I have to do it in dribs and drabs, noting when I feel like me (rarely), and accepting when I feel like someone completely other (the rest of the time).

I’m at my best when I’m assuming my old persona, when I’m working. It’s like putting on a familiar coat, being the Fran that people recognise. I can be effective and decisive and have opinions that I can back up, I can focus and pull things together like I used to do. But the minute I stop – and I can’t yet keep it up for long – the minute I switch off the computer or end the zoom call or hang up the phone, I feel the illusion of normality dissolve away, and the now familiar uncertainty wash back over me.

I can push it away by distracting myself too, by walking, by letting my subconscious thoughts surface as I go, my brain creating some order of the random memories and thoughts and fears. I can focus for a while on writing, or on tracing my family tree on, or on reading or baking or gardening or cleaning and tidying – all these things help a bit with managing how I feel. But there’s an underlying ache that never goes away. And none of my distractions help me piece myself together into the new me. I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know where to start.

I don’t know how to carry my grief into situations either. With people close to me, it’s not a problem. Steve is a presence in our conversations, despite his absence, his existence is acknowledged, and his importance is accepted. But with other people, people I know less well, I don’t know how to be, how to bring Steve with me.

He either becomes the central player in my tragic story of being someone who married the love of her life and then lost him to covid three weeks later, or an awkward unmentioned ghost who hovers over conversations until I invite him to join us by mentioning him – at which point the tragic story takes centre stage and changes everything. How do I introduce myself, trailing this invisible ghost with me? How do I navigate conversations when I know he’s there and the other person doesn’t? At what point do I detonate the hand grenade of the horror of what I have experienced and let the pieces of my story fall over someone I’m talking to? It’s too huge, too horrific, too difficult to precis into a sentence or two.

I’ve done this once or twice and it is gruelling, for me and for the other person. Ghost Steve is as big and strong as real Steve was, and once he’s involved in a conversation, he draws all the oxygen from it. He’s better contained when he’s pre-framed by my identity as someone bereaved by covid, in my role within the community and as a spokesperson of the campaign group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice. Ghost Steve behaves better in that scenario, he’s easier to accommodate and reference. I feel safer and more recognisable in that place too, with him pre-introduced. I am beginning to find whisps of my old confidence coalescing into the new, ‘tragic’ me.

So, when I’m working, check. When I’m doing something purposeful with my grief, check. The rest of the time, I’m fumbling along trying to look after myself and be patient. The only way to survive a loss like this is to keep going. Eventually, after enough time has passed, I hope that I will one day have gathered enough pieces of my old self together again to be recognisable to myself. I hope that I will have more time feeling strong and less time feeling lost, less time ambushed by the tears that well up unannounced, less time feeling stabs of envy at seeing couples together, less time feeling completely alone.

This week of enforced lost-test-imposed isolation has brought my actual real isolation into sharp relief. I am alone now. I am without my anchor. The rest of my life will be lived without Steve. I cannot fill the gap that he has left with anything or anyone. I have to grow the new me around the hole where he used to be. This is the most difficult thing I have ever faced, the hardest task I’ve ever been given. There’s no escaping from it, no other path to take. Oh, and there’s still a global pandemic raging. And a government seemingly determined to wash their hands of keeping us all safe.

I think feeling fragile is a reasonable thing right now.