Life as a Widower

A young widowed father opening up about living with loss

simplifying things

There’s a brilliant film on BBC iPlayer by Adam Curtis called Bitter Lake. Aside from being about decades of war in Afghanistan it has nothing to do with grief. An underlying message within it resonated with me beyond its immediate subject matter, though. The real point of the documentary is to show how the big stories that politicians tell us have become so simplified that we no longer seek to understand the complexity of the world around us. It aims to offer a deep and thorough counterpoint to the thin – and often manipulative – stories told by those in power today.

Watching it made me realise how accustomed we have become to making judgments based on short and snappy (social) media soundbites. Judges who apply their own country’s law are made out to be enemies of their nation. Women who have worked their whole lives to build successful careers are reduced to the status of ‘celebrity wives’ when they marry men of profile. Bereaved families from war torn countries, who have doubtless suffered unimaginable psychological injuries, simply become ‘immigrants’.

Perhaps, though, these headlines are often thought rather than felt. Of course, it’s always easier to believe something fleetingly than it is to try to understand something deeply.

This, I believe, isn’t necessarily our fault. Our ability to empathise hasn’t kept the same pace as our capability to create and share news. Arguably, our brains still function at a somewhat emotionally local level while facing increasingly global issues. It’s really no wonder that we suffer such high levels of stress and anxiety these days. As Matt Haig puts it in his compelling book Reasons to Stay Alive: ‘We humans might have evolved too far. The price for being intelligent enough to be the first species to be fully aware of the cosmos might just be a capacity to feel a whole universe worth of darkness.’

The four-year anniversary of my wife’s death is just around the corner and I’d been feeling alright about it until earlier this week. I had mentally written the headlines: My son and I are settled at home; Jackson seems happy; I feel a million times better, healthier and more secure than I did four years ago etc. I suppose I reduced the potential feelings to thoughts, forgetting that it’s the way we feel in grief that tends to overrides what we think.

Why the sudden sensation of heaviness and lethargy? I asked myself last night. Why has my mood dipped so low when I’ve already worked things through in my head?

The loud bang of a firework outside my window interrupted this brief mental analysis as I reached for the thermostat to warm up the house a little. I flicked the light on in the living room to break the abrupt darkness that had begun to take over the room sooner since the clocks went back.

And there it was: November.

Completely unmistakable; dark, cold, loud and utterly evocative of a time I would rather be able to forget. A time that, year on year, I think I can get my head around but that, regardless, usurps me emotionally without fail. The smell of smoke, the crashing sounds, the bitter cold, the blackness of the sky, all evoking memories that can often be ‘unthought’ but, evidently, can never be ‘unfelt’.

Even as I write I’m beginning to wonder whether this is even making sense or whether it’s little more than a written stream of consciousness counselling session. But perhaps that’s the point: sometimes we try to oversimplify things that are inherently complex. We crave neat conclusions to chaos. We want to reach the end of things that are infinite. We hope to think our way out of things that actually need to be felt. Things that will be felt even if when we think they won’t.

How simple things would be if anything was in fact simple.

11 comments on “simplifying things

  1. Shelley Sawers
    November 5, 2016

    Oh Gosh, so very well described, about so much in the world today – from your own painful November anniversary to the tumult around us, and the confusion …. ‘How simple things would be if anything was in fact simple’ ……

  2. Maria
    November 5, 2016

    November is my painful anniversary too. 5 years since my twins died in my arms. And I am still broken and often in the dark. Time to hibernate.

  3. Bill Wright
    November 5, 2016

    I think you’re absolutely right Ben about the regressive nature of empathy in society. On a separate note I loved both Adam Curtis documentaries, his latest on I Player is well worth watching if you haven’t already.
    Wishing you peace for the November date.

  4. petrovna4
    November 5, 2016

    Hi Ben, you put it into words again just perfectly, thank you. I hope you get through the bad days as ok as possible. It cannot be unlived and it keeps koming back, sometimes with unbearable suffocating pain. Yes, usually when you just thought that things were going ok despite all…
    And there is so much pain yet to come. wishing you hope and faith, in whatever works for you.

  5. encounters
    November 5, 2016

    Thank you Ben, as always I look forward to your deep insights to life and the issues that affect us at one point in each of our lives.
    My mother died in April a long time ago every time when that anniversary arrives I cope with it very well. Like you I find November a very challenging time because her birthday is November the 3rd. This is the time I find difficult I do not seem to cope very well with the thought of her no longer being around. Her birthday was always a big family celebration but now it is no longer part of my diary activities anymore and always without fail I find myself feeling lost even if I am an old woman who should be able to deal with that loss.
    People have said to me “its high time you move on” what they do not realise is that it is better said than done especially for those who have to deal with the loss. Remembering our departed loved ones is easy because we do it everyday, but there’s an ache within our hearts that will never go away because it is not simple.
    Thank you once again for articulating things so clearly and well.

  6. victoriawhyte
    November 6, 2016

    What you share makes complete sense to me. Sending you and Jackson hugs and prayers at this time. xx

  7. Where I Write
    November 7, 2016

    It is incredible the power of anniversaries on your emotions. As you say, your head knowledge doesn’t really have any impact on the grief that is drawn out by so many factors that cause you to “feel” everything you felt at that time of year, every year since.

  8. Alison
    November 7, 2016

    It never leaves you, we just become adept at distraction. I am happy that you are feeling less consumed by grief, however the oath is well worn and too easy to be transported back in seconds of a thought, smell or sound. Xx

  9. dot schwarz
    November 7, 2016

    sorry to add a cheerless note. Losing Zoe 16years ago. I no longer think of her 24/7.When I do the sorrow is not so much different to what it was then

  10. Ingrid
    November 23, 2016

    “For in grief nothing “stays put.” One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral?

    But if a spiral, am I going up or down it?

    How often — will it be for always? — how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, “I never realized my loss till this moment”? The same leg is cut off time after time.”
    ~ C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

    “Getting over it so soon? But the words are ambiguous. To say the patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he’s had his leg off is quite another. After that operation either the wounded stump heals or the man dies. If it heals, the fierce, continuous pain will stop. Presently he’ll get back his strength and be able to stump about on his wooden leg. He has ‘got over it.’ But he will probably have recurrent pains in the stump all his life, and perhaps pretty bad ones; and he will always be a one-legged man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it. Bathing, dressing, sitting down and getting up again, even lying in bed, will all be different. His whole way of life will be changed. All sorts of pleasures and activities that he once took for granted will have to be simply written off. Duties too. At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again.”
    ~ C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

    “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.

    But no, that is not quite accurate. There is one place where her absence comes locally home to me, and it is a place I can’t avoid. I mean my own body. It had such a different importance while it was the body of H.’s lover. Now it’s like an empty house.”
    ~ C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

    “Aren’t all these notes the senseless writings of a man who won’t accept the fact that there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it?”
    ~ C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

  11. myheadspacedotcom
    March 30, 2017

    The need for square little boxes to put feelings in, because the intellectual mind wants to believe we can create our own reality… The need to believe we have control…. But sometimes, when we stand still long enough, it happens: the moment catches up with our busyness to make sense and control and create order …..and we catch ourselves observing our ineptness with wry amusement…. The mind and the heart have to work in balance if we want to optimise both.

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