A story of grief by a man and a boy

lost intimacy

‘Make sure you look after yourself too’, people keep telling me.

Perhaps it’s something I’ve never really done all that well. Sure, I exercise and I eat more healthily than lots of people my age, but I’ve always been a person who preferred to look after others. I’m what you might call me ‘a pleaser’.

So I’m probably finding it difficult to look after myself because I’m no longer looking after Desreen. I’ve suddenly realised that she was the driving force behind our well-being. Her optimism, enthusiasm and determination to make us both the the best versions of ourselves possible, made quinoa taste good. It made us enjoy drinking white leaf tea, which has no flavour. It made me get out of bed at 6am to make hot water with lemon to kick start our digestive systems, make smoothies from scratch and prepare breakfast and lunch for us both, because we couldn’t buy the kind of food we should be eating by work. All things that would make my body feel better right now but that don’t make sense without my wife. Things that sometimes knocked me sick but that I could still stomach because, without even knowing it at the time, every mouthful was taken with love.

But looking after myself the way I once did comes with no sense of reward. No one marvels at my ability to turn organic almonds into lactose free ‘milk’ and it simply can’t be worth doing that kind of shit without the promise of a prize. I don’t even get the guarantee of a good wedding at the end of my liquid-based miracles.

But the rewards I used to receive were never spoken nor spent, they were simply given. The brush of a arm as she would lean in to steal something from the chopping board. The unnecessary but unavoidable urge to squeeze me into the kitchen units as she walked past (as if our kitchen only accommodated the width of one person). A kiss out of nowhere. Bumping into one another in a rush but then taking the time to slow things down for a hug.

All gone now.

This only really occurred to me last week. Doubtless intimacy sounds like the most obvious outcome of the loss of a wife, but when your brain protects your mental state by only issuing this trickle of understanding a little at a time, it can take ‘obvious’ a while to catch up.

It came as someone innocently and perhaps accidentally brushed my arm. It sent a shiver down my spine. I realised that I hadn’t been touched for months. Hugged, yes. Smothered in kisses by my son, constantly. But brushed or bumped without apology in the way only the person with whom you share your life, your body may, no. My head finally told my heart it was over.

Yesterday I decided I’d try to look after myself. I booked a massage, mostly just to force me to lie down for an hour without any distractions. The truth is I can’t really stand it when strangers poke and prod me, but I’d pay almost anything for a little rest right now.

But I left feeling nothing. No sense of relief. No sense of release. The emotional and psychical pain didn’t shift from what my wife would have called, ‘a good rub down’, a cheeky grin spread across her face.

As I lay on the table in the middle of a softly lit room, I fell asleep. I’d usually have paid attention to the technique so I could practice it on my wife, but with no point I just let myself go under. It was such a light sleep that I couldn’t decide if I was dreaming or speaking. I kept almost apologising to the masseuse for talking too much about my feelings and then realising it was unlikely I’d reveal so much to someone who I’d never met, at least not in person. It also struck me that even if I had, I wasn’t actually sorry, just very British.

But the light dreams were so hard on my soul even the most gifted hands couldn’t have softened the soreness.

Suddenly, lying on that table relaxed in an unfamiliar room and covered in towels, I was Desreen the last time I ever saw her, shrouded in the chapel of rest. I talked through a thousand feelings without actually saying a word. I left in silence.

And then, turning from alternative to retail therapy, I realised that this lost intimacy and sense of personal reward has also stolen my ability to reach even the most simple judgments. Holding a jacket I would usually have just bought with little thought, I was paralysed by indecision, wondering whether my wife would approve.

This is something that is happening more and more. Would she have chosen this or that? What would she do?

Reality tells me her approval has never been less relevant than it is now, ‘yet still never more so’, says my heart.

12 comments on “lost intimacy

  1. Aleta
    March 5, 2013

    You perfectly express the intense pain of loss. My husband died almost two weeks before your wife – your writing is an inspiration.

  2. Tricia
    March 5, 2013

    You have hit the nail on the head there, Ben. That’s what I miss the most about my husband – the ‘lost intimacy’. It takes so much to get used to being completely ‘alone’. No one to share a joke with, hold hands, kiss or hug. Even after 8 months I still find myself wondering what John would have said about this or that……

  3. Lucille
    March 5, 2013

    Ben, this is one of your most heart-rending posts. I’ve experienced similar sensations following divorce. In my case, it was choice to lose that intimacy in order to find my true self. I hope you publish this blog someday; it will touch many a soul as mine has been,

  4. Anne
    March 5, 2013

    You were much loved and this part of your loss will be very difficult. Talk, talk and talk some more to people who have been here, ask what to expect so you don’t think you are going mad. There may be tantrums, hot tears, the throwing of objects and “it’s not fair”, you may feel very much like a small person. Your, I have no doubt, cool sense of fashion and co-ordination may go down the toilet pan but….it’s part of it all. I am sure you will be alright so long as you know its alright to think and feel the way you do and don’t stop doing all the healthy stuff, it was what you wanted too and you opened each others eyes to all good things, keep it up, do it for you, your body will thank you down the line. xx (((hugs))) lol

  5. Ben, The intimacy you describe was something that I missed after my wife died. You mention talking to strangers about personal things and intimacy and how you wouldn’t do that with someone you had never met. For many months after my wife died I had this urge to rush home to tell her who I’d met and what I’d done because only she would know what I was talking about or referring to. For a fleeting moment that urge would be very real, before being shattered just as quickly by the realisation that I could no longer do that; that she was no longer there as my ‘confidante’.
    The aspect of ‘looking after yourself’ takes many forms. I wallowed in guilt and self pity (privately) for several years. The family home became neglected. I wasn’t motivated to do anything about it. After all, with just me rattling around in a big house, I had no one to do it for. My wife, I realised, was the reason for most of the things I did. She would encourage, praise and criticise in equal measure. My perceptive daughters advised me to move house; leave the past behind; the memories of sickness and death. Instead I redesigned the house; repaired my surroundings. Yes, the memories, good and not so good, remain, but they are packaged differently, metaphorically speaking. Now I’m happier to come home. No need now for anti-depressants or other similar ‘crutches’. It has been part of looking after myself. Look after yourself Ben. Nick

  6. macrothings
    March 5, 2013

    I read a few lines by Esther Ransom in the Times recently, although I’m probably miss-quoting her it went something like; You can always find acquaintances to do something with, what you can’t do is someone to do nothing with….

    All the little things that meant so much.

  7. John Woolner
    March 5, 2013

    OMG, how true

  8. Paul R
    March 5, 2013

    I think this link also speaks to intimacy:

    While he talks about Soul Hunger, I would also add skin hunger. The desire for touch from the person you have shared your soul with.

  9. Leanne
    March 5, 2013

    For the last two nights I have read your blog from beginning to end. It has given me such an insight into the depths that grief runs. Having lost my best friend recently, I have been floundering as to how I can help her family and other close friends. You have probably realised by now that simply by expressing your feelings and experiences, so many people are being helped. Thank you.

  10. Jeff
    March 6, 2013

    I can identify with the sense of lost intimacy. There is no one whom I was closer to than my wife wither emotionally or physically. There is no one that can fill that place. I have resisted sharing this part of my grief but then I came across this blog. There is nothing that can be done about it though so I tend to keep it to myself.

  11. Anne
    March 13, 2013

    Ben, your words echo exactly how I felt after my fiance died nearly 7 years ago. I was 31 when he died and we had been together for over 6 years. I don’t think I have heard anyone else explain things so well. I used to find myself feeling like there was something missing, or I had forgotten something…then realise it was just because he was not by my side. I used to turn to tell him something, then cry when he wasn’t there.
    I remember so well the wondering about whether or not he would approve – especially of clothes, or a new hairstyle, and even when I moved house and changed jobs. I found it so hard that there was so much he wasn’t a part of already, in such a short space of time. I still do think sometimes about all that has changed for me and his family since he has gone, and wonder what he would make of it all.
    I wish that I had some good advice to give to all of you, but I think this journey is different for everyone and we all have to follow our own path through grief to recovery.
    All I will say is to accept help wherever it is offered without fear of being indebted or becoming a burden (and ask for help if you need to), let yourself cry as much as you need to, keep talking about those you have lost and take one day at a time.

    And know that things will get better (by better I don’t mean that you will forget, just that you will learn to create a new life around the gap and that it will be a happy life again)…….time will pass with no input from you, whether you like it or not….and in the end, time will heal you. x

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