A story of grief by a man and a boy

time travel

I remember the pain of last November well. And I remember lying awake all night in bed searching my mind for answers and the internet for solutions to that pain. I so badly wanted to find something or someone who could tell me that things were going to be okay; that I would be okay again. I kept coming up against the same problems though. What authority did that person have to tell me? And how could a stranger, who by definition didn’t know me before, have any idea of how I might feel in the future?

I’ve found advice from others pretty hard to swallow over the last few months. And I’ve made no secret of the fact that I find the generalisations and platitudes of grief difficult to digest.

‘Year two’s always the hardest.’

‘It gets easier.’

‘Time heals.’

Surely all of these things are dependent on too many factors – personality, support, mental stability, age, health, etc. – to be definitive guidelines to grief.

I guess I’d find each comment easier to stomach if they were slightly more personalised:

‘I found year two to be much harder than year one.’

‘I found it got easier but I still have really tough times now.’

‘Time brought me comfort. I don’t think l’ll ever be completely healed but I do feel better now than I have in years.’

I get asked for advice all the time and I find the emails I receive a real challenge to answer. How can I tell someone how they’re going to feel when I know nothing about them, other than the fact that they have also lost someone they love? Why should I make assumptions about their potential prospects when I’m still suffering so badly? And who am I after all? Just one guy who has – at least in my book – only recently lost his wife himself. I’ve always tried to avoid telling anyone what to do, how to feel or what the future holds because, quite frankly, I have no idea.

But having visited my wife’s grave this morning and not having felt the same gravity of emotion as when we lowered her body into the ground that day, I wondered, ‘What advice do I wish the person I am today could have given the person I was in November?’

  • I wish I could have told myself to use my own intuition about what is right and wrong for me personally and not looked to others for all the answers
  • I wish I could have told myself to just be. Not to be strong, not to be brave and not to try to be a hero; to just be. To let grief have its way with me and to let myself feel the full spectrum of emotions that it brings. Because only when I did let go and stop fighting a losing battle, did I start to feel anything like myself again
  • I wish I could have told myself that grief was a natural reaction to loss, even though it felt like the least natural thing in the world. I wish I’d known that I wasn’t really in control of myself and that I didn’t need to feel guilty for the thoughts in my head because they weren’t really my own
  • I wish I could have told myself that the raw pain that made my body function differently wouldn’t last forever; that the physical pain would ease
  • I wish I could have told myself that things would change. Not that I would suddenly be healed by the passage of time, but that feelings and thoughts would ebb and flow. That no two days would really feel the same. That the initial shock of bereavement is extreme in the extreme and that back then I was the most extreme version of myself I’ve ever been. Confusing? Extremely!
  • I wish I could have told myself not to expect doctors to have all the answers. Even more than that, I wish I could have told myself that a doctor is just a person, that sometimes they are wrong and that there is no doctor in the world that knows me as well as I do. I wish I could have told myself not to always trust the letters after a person’s name simply because they are there, and maybe to shop around a little too
  • I wish I could have told myself to go easy on myself and not expect too much progress too soon. And that it was okay to put myself first sometimes

As I write this wish list out, I can still see that entirely broken version of me searching for the answers from my bed late last year. I have this image in my head, like a passage from The Time Traveler’s Wife, where the old me and the current me are in the same room together listening to and giving advice respectively. And even though it cuts a sad scene, I suddenly find myself rather amused.

I’m having a little laugh to myself because, despite wanting the answers, Ben 2012 is telling Ben 2013, ‘Piss off! What the fuck do you know?’

But then I guess I am only saying that because I didn’t want my own raw pain to feel undermined or somehow marginalised. And because maybe even then I knew that I’d need to go through this myself rather than rely on the reassurances of others.

16 comments on “time travel

  1. Jay
    July 26, 2013

    Excellent post. Having travelled this road twice once in my late 30’s and then again in my 40’s I desperately tried to remember the second time around what I had learned from the first. Impossible. I was still racked with grief, totally engulfed by sadness and loss. The difference was the second time around I had no regrets, my first loss had taught me to live and love as if it were my last day on earth and I had spent 7 years doing just that. You are so right, we cannot find answers from others or even from within ourselves……….all we can do is just be.

    • Celia Marszal Iannelli
      July 26, 2013

      I agree…I lost my first husband, now my second husband in April ….I too am totally engulfed by loss…and get this: Folks think because you’ve done this before it “should” be easier…..Its not….

  2. Paul R
    July 26, 2013

    All very good advice, but I know that for the first three to five months after the death of Laura I wouldn’t have grasped the content. I was in too much pain, shock, and confusion.

      July 26, 2013

      That’s exactly my last point. I didn’t want to listen to anything that anyone said in those initial months because it felt like they were somehow undermining my pain.

  3. markoborn
    July 26, 2013

    Ben, having recently found myself in the same situation as you (I lost my wife three months ago) I find your story rather compelling.

    The technique you are using of time travelling is actually a technique that is often used in coaching. I’m a business and life coach so should know.

    I wonder if you could imagine yourself as a rather older gentleman, perfectly content, with everything resolved and with the wisdom that age brings with it able to help people younger than himself.

    I wonder what that older gentleman would tell the present Ben?

    With all those years of knowledge having helped him reconcile everything in his life, what advice would he give you?

    What I really want to do now Ben is to thank you. Whilst I work as a coach it’s difficult to coach oneself – it all gets a bit messy inside one’s own head! But I am now going to sit quietly, imagine myself as that older gentleman that has resolved everything that needs resolving and I’m going to listen to what amazing advice that older gentleman could give me now.

    Thank you Ben, I really mean that.

      July 26, 2013

      Thanks Mark. I’ll give it some thought. I must be in a funny mood today because all I can hear Ben Snr saying is, ‘Drink less, talk less and spend less.’

  4. Dave Varley
    July 26, 2013

    Another great post. I have found that not only is grief about dealing with and coming to terms with the death of a loved one, it is also about coming to terms with the person I have now become. The 2012 version of me was a lot different from the current incarnation, but still somehow the same. A bit like Dr Who really I suppose! If I were able to offer the old me advice, would it make any difference? Probably not.

  5. Caroline
    July 26, 2013

    When I’ve tried to provide support or help to any friend or family who has experienced loss in one sense or another, the most important piece of advice I have always avoided giving, is that of ‘being strong’.

    Having experienced loss myself, I knew that I didnt want to be strong, I wanted to feel, I wanted to grieve and I wanted to lose myself in my emotion because I was comfortable knowing that there is no right or wrong way to feel and helping people to understand that if you’re not strong or you dont feel strong or dont want to be strong, then thats ok is a good message to deliver.

    Just ‘being’ is certainly the hardest way to deal with emotions but also, the most valuable.

  6. Roberta Yap Rennie
    July 26, 2013

    excellent list. I lost my husband 20 months ago and I reflect on the first 6 months often. those months were foggy at best. time clears your vision and allows you to adjust to the loss. but just like you say, the difficult moments still come.
    thanks for your blog. when I read it, I feel like I’m reading my own thoughts. xx

  7. Soph
    July 26, 2013

    Ben, I’ve been reading your blog for months. Not because I’ve been bereaved, not because I’m rubbernecking, but because from your first entry, the power of your writing has compelled me to genuinely care about you, Desreen and Jackson. You’re an exceptionally powerful writer.
    I don’t usually comment, but this reminded me of when my husband left me when I was pregnant. My mum was also dumped when pregnant and tried to reach out to me. In my grief (for that’s what it was, in a way), I pushed her away. She didn’t know what I felt, the circumstances were completely different and she couldn’t know how awful and twisted I felt.
    As time went on, I realised that my mum knew better than anyone else how I felt. She was the only person I knew who’d been through anything like that situation, and her empathy was the empathy with the most truth in it. And she was the person I couldn’t bear to begin with, because I couldn’t imagine surviving the pain. I didn’t want to believe or hope that things would get easier.
    As I said, not the same situation as yours even a little bit, but I think that grief and pain doesn’t necessarily go away with time, we simply learn more about ourselves through it and teach ourselves to cope. Nobody can tell us how to do it.
    Keep writing Ben, you’re an inspiration.

      July 26, 2013

      I think we’re saying the same thing. People have good intentions but it can be so difficult to believe anyone could possibly understand at the beginning. And even if they do, what then? They might tell you that you’re going I be okay but you can’t believe it because the pain is ravishing you physically and mentally. I guess what I’m trying I communicate is how contradictory grief can be and if the copy I write ever sounds harsh, then that’s because grief is that too.

  8. Fiona
    July 26, 2013

    Ben, I lost my husband last November, your post totally resonates with me, people can say such unhelpful and clumsy comments, my grief ebbs and flows daily, whilst the physical pain has gone apart from some anxiety symptoms, the emotional pain is always there, my character and approach to life has totally changed since my husbands loss, This may sound strange but it makes sense to me, i try and see myself as a seed in the ground, establishing new roots, which turn into shoots of new life, a plant forms then flowers eventually, grief is such a massive readjustment process

  9. Celia Marszal Iannelli
    July 26, 2013

    Ben, I am downloading this post…It says it all. The thing is: We cant look to others for answers…I know in my gut and heart what this feels like…Its raw, And because this is the second time around in widowhood…I find myself no less grief stricken…I am surrendering to the whole thing…its the only way through this.. Fighting the feelings and saying c’mon Ceil you’ve done this before be strong is foolish…I need to be what I will be and you are correct there are no two days that are the same; for that matter no hour is the same emotionally…..

  10. Rebecca Wagstaffe
    July 26, 2013

    I’m slightly disagreeing with Ben Snr. I think you should drink more, talk more, spend more. xx

  11. Mary Mourad
    July 27, 2013

    For the first 24 hours I just simply couldn’t accept any advice that even hinted that he is really not coming back! So strange, but my brain just couldn’t accept it! I refused to meet or speak with other widows and it took me months to realize that I’ve really belonged to that camp. The image I held for my own bereaved grandmother and other family and friends who lost loved ones left me so chattered that I didn’t want to be one of them or know what they’ve done or how… Just wanted to believe that somehow I will be ok and my husband will be back … Somehow!

  12. cnhiatt32
    July 28, 2013

    Thank you for your honesty and insights. I’m trying to do the same on my blog. Good luck. I’m in it with you.

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