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Stuff

In amongst all the swirling newness of life without Steve, there is also an extraordinary amount of stuff that sits silently waiting to be attended to. The stuff that he accumulated in his life.

Mostly, it’s his clothes. Clothes are hard. Clothes are memories, of where they were bought and where they were worn and things that were done while wearing them. Clothes feature in precious photographs, linking the garment in your hands to the moment the camera captured, however long ago. Clothes absorb something of the wearer, they carry a lingering scent. Steve’s clothes carry the scent of him. I can’t smell anything at all with my post-Covid sense loss, but I know that his scent is still there. I long to smell it again. But I’ve started packing away his clothes very gradually for donating to a charity shop. I find it’s taking me far longer than I thought it would.

Some things are easy. Some things are associated with his cancer, and I don’t want them around to remind me. Pyjamas and slippers bought for hospital stays went straight into one of the first charity shop bags. All of the other things that were connected to his increasing pain and indignity went into the bin the day after he died, I needed to get rid of them, they affronted me with their existence and the fact he had needed them, and I bundled them up and out in a kind of controlled fury.

Other clothes belong to the far distant past or were easy to make instant ‘keep or throw’ decisions on. His suits, from the days when he was working at the IAM, more than a decade ago – they might find a new owner who needs to dress smartly. A ridiculous number of ties. His work polo shirts, complete with company logo – I doubt anyone will want them, but you never know. I found I could be quite pragmatic about these clothes; they weren’t strongly associated with him, with us. Shoes were easy too. What would I do with his shoes? The only ones I have kept are the ones we bought together for him when we went shopping for our wedding, beautiful, blue suede, Hugo Boss boots.

So now I have nine bags full, ready to go to the charity shop. In amongst Steve’s suits and shirts and jeans are also clothes of mine, clothes that I won’t ever wear again but had been keeping ‘just in case’ – for a future that now isn’t going to happen. Evening dresses, and cocktail dresses and smart stuff that I might have one day worn to go somewhere with him. Clothes that are too big for me now after the strain of the last year – bought when we were ‘fat and happy’ and oblivious to what was coming. Beachwear and bikinis that I wouldn’t be comfortable wearing now, without his approving and protective presence saying, ‘Who cares? You are gorgeous’ when I wondered whether it was appropriate to be parading my almost 60-year-old body on the Portuguese beach we loved so much. High heels. He loved me in them. I’m not wearing them again, not now he’s gone.

And I’ve kept just a few of his clothes. Carefully selected because they are just so him – his beautiful Jaeger black cashmere coat. Some of his linen shirts, because I’ll wear them. The jeans and shirt he wore for our wedding. His black leather jacket that he was wearing in the photo on the front of the order of service for his funeral – the order of service that wasn’t an order of service at all, just the lyrics from the music he’d chosen. His dressing gown. His T-shirts. I hope that if my sense of smell ever comes back, I’ll be able to smell his scent again on his T-shirts. His Blue Knights waistcoat that he carefully pinned all kinds of pins to, including a little prostate cancer man pin. His biker jacket that I wore to ride pillion with Lucy on the motorcycle hearse, next to his coffin. Important clothes that carry embedded within them moments to treasure and memories to cherish.

As far as the rest of his stuff, I think it will take months to go through and re-home. He has more tools than anyone I’ve ever met, and that’s without the contents of the three garages he rented. With heroic effort from Steve’s son, the ‘stuff’ that he’d accumulated and stored in the garages has now been reduced to fill just one.

The house is full of his things, bits and pieces that caught his eye and that he bought from antique shops, things that belonged to his parents, books and albums, memorabilia from different eras in his life, framed photos and pictures. Everywhere. I can’t even begin to think what’s up in the loft, I just have memories of handing him bags and bags and boxes that he squirreled away up there when we moved back here.

Group photos from his police life, the life before we met, had been hung in pride of place in the living room. He wanted to feel he was at home here, in my old family home that we moved back in to together in March, just before the first lockdown was announced, and creating a ‘Steve’ corner meant a lot to him. After he died, they seemed somehow out of place. He didn’t need them to be there anymore. And I didn’t need to be looking at photos of the young Steve amongst all those long ago, unknown fellow officers. There was nothing in them that spoke to me. I took them down, before the funeral, and replaced them with a beautiful copper coil clock that we had been given as a wedding present by Lucy – the funeral director who looked after Steve when he died. That felt like the right thing to do.

All the guidance on bereavement and grief tells you not to make big decisions during these early weeks and months after a death has occurred. But I think, for me, I am ok to be deciding on what is surrounding me. I’m trusting my instincts as I work my way through the days, and I instinctively feel that making space is what I need – in order to feel him more closely.

If there isn’t a strong resonance with him – his memory, his energy – when I pick up a piece of clothing or a book or a picture, then I know I can let it go. I intuitively feel that if there is less of the unimportant stuff of his imposing itself on me, then the pieces that I choose to hold on to will be even more precious, more meaningful, more important to carry forward. That won’t be the same for everyone, but I feel like it’s right for me. And I feel like it’s the right time to do it now. Now the charity shops are opening here again, I’m starting to clear the space around me. And that feels like a good thing, in this strange new place I am in. I feel I can breathe a little more easily.

            

The sun keeps rising

I took this photo on November 4th, the morning after Steve’s funeral. I was out walking before sunrise, on my own with my thoughts.

As the inky blackness of the night sky gradually changed and lightened, and the orange tint of sunrise spread across the horizon, there was something so reassuring about the rising of the sun. The symbolism of light overcoming darkness and a new day beginning seemed poignant and pertinent as I walked over the frosty fields, trying to sense how I felt.

Before Steve died, I had worried about what it would be like, in the days after his death. We’d known for some months that he had terminal cancer, and I had been occasionally allowing myself to try and think ahead to what life would be like when he eventually succumbed to it.

I was afraid that, when he was dead, I would wake up thinking for a split second that he was still alive, and that I would have to remember each day that he had died, but this hasn’t happened. It seems that while I’m asleep, my subconscious doesn’t forget that he’s gone, so I don’t have to go through that re-remembering. I really hope that this continues. It’s a relief not to have to consciously remind myself of what has happened.

Walking the dog before the sun comes up has become something of a habit in this new, bereaved existence. I am waking really, really early, often 3.30 or 4am. This is a new thing. No matter how late I’ve gone to bed, nor how tired I am, whether I’ve had a drink the night before or not, I wake up with a start, and that’s it, my day has begun. I’ve learned to get up and get out and walk, early, before the rest of the world gets up.

I’m blessed to live in a semi-rural location, so there are fields and woods and footpaths all around. Within five minutes of the house, I can be walking along the canal or across the golf course, with just birdsong for company, and Juno, our rescue dog (who belongs to my son but who has become my surprised but delighted early morning walking companion).

We walk for miles, returning home as others, who keep more normal hours, are setting off for their morning walks. This suits me absolutely fine; I’ve found I don’t want to get chatting to anyone at the moment. If we do meet another early riser, smiling and nodding seems to be enough, early morning people seem quite undemanding of social niceties.

I am finding that walking moves me forward in more than just a physical way. Emptying my mind and just keeping putting one foot in front of another as we wander different routes each day creates space for the jumble of feelings and emotions to order themselves. I noticed this, that first day after we buried Steve’s body. I realised that I needed to keep giving myself this time on my own, moving my body but letting my mind rearrange itself as it needs. As I walk, I feel lighter, less dense, less contracted into painful and hard-edged grief.

Sometimes, tears stream down my face, as the deep sadness of being without him wells up and overwhelms my thoughts, but as quickly as it comes, that sadness passes, and other thoughts and memories take its place. I just let them all come and go, like bubbles drifting in the air and then vanishing. I have learned to do this. It’s instinctive and yet unfamiliar to me, but I know it’s the right thing to do, to just allow feelings to drift in and out of my mind.

This solitude is something I need, almost crave, while at the same time I need company, and distraction. I’m trying to ensure I get adequate of both, although I haven’t got the balance right yet. And I don’t want to be far away from home, I feel I need the sense of safety and security of familiar things around me, to be safely tucked away from other people, to be able to pick up and put down things as I feel inclined, not to have to talk to anyone if I don’t want to. It’s an effort to make myself go anywhere at the moment, but walking in the early morning feels like a good habit to form. Silence and birdsong and the sound of water are strong medicine. And watching the sun come up on another day reminds me that every day I am alive is a gift.

Absolute Beginner

A personal story of grief

There is a beautiful little book by Baptist minister Richard Littledale, called Postcards from the Land of Grief which my friend Clare mentioned to me a few weeks after Steve died.

I recognise that description, with a jolt of familiarity – ‘the land of grief’. This is where I find myself, a new arrival in an unfamiliar place, where the language, the sounds and the sights and the scenery are all unknown. (Probably the scents and the flavours and tastes are all new too, but thanks to Covid, I can’t yet detect them.)

And in this new landscape, this new land, I am on my own. Despite the constant envelopment and surrounding of my family and friends, despite all the love and support and kindness I am having poured over me and into me, somehow, on a very elemental level, I am elsewhere. Alone.

The person I love – my partner, my soulmate, my lover, my best friend, my husband – the man who walked through life alongside me, isn’t here. He’s gone somewhere else completely, without me, and he’s not coming back.

His going is what catapulted me here into this new land. And this is where I now have to make my home forever. This thought is too huge to allow myself to think for more than a second or two. I feel unanchored and unsafe, and unsure of who I am or how I am, or how I will be. I’m adrift in a strange sea, without any idea where I am, or where I’m going.

And yet, instinctively, I know that to settle here and to find myself, to find the person I will become, I need to articulate my experience. I need to write. I need to share this with other people, because there may be something, just one small thing that I describe, that resonates with someone else, someone who is also wandering, lost and alone, through an unknown landscape of bereavement.

With the blessing of my fellow directors of the GFG, I am going to start a series of personal blog posts, which will appear here on the GFG Blog. I’m going to write about my journey in this alien new world, chronicling my thoughts and experiences as I work out who I now am.

I’m going to write, not just for my own benefit, but in the hope that I might maybe help others catch something to hold onto.

I’m going to write because that’s all I can do, describe and articulate being in this strange new world. Perhaps, in doing so, I can help others who will find themselves here one day. Perhaps something in my writing might be a way-marker that hints that another has passed this way ahead.

The series will be called ‘Absolute Beginner’, because that is exactly what I am. Despite all my knowledge of the theory of grief and bereavement, this is the start of my own personal journey, my learning of grieving though living it. I am an absolute beginner at this.

And the subtitle will be ‘A personal story of grief’, because that is exactly what it will be. This is my story, my personal experience, and I am hugely grateful to be able to share it on this platform.

I hope that when the words come, they will be good ones.