I struggle to remember exactly how I got through those first few days, I remember people saying I would expect to feel numb and shocked, but I assumed they were referring to how I felt when I saw Morag die. When I did a mental ‘pat for my keys’ I still felt like me, but I did warily recognise that the depths of despair and anguish I had felt before she died had gone or were at least significantly muted. A guilty part of me felt relief, the hellish roller coaster of hope and then despair was over. The worst possible thing had happened. So now, it must be all uphill, no? I became fixated on getting things done. How can the Bereavement Office leave us waiting for a call when this monumental tragedy has happened? I had moved Jamie and I back into our new house. I just sat at home, playing video games and feeling raw. The only thought I remember was “How has this happened?” clattering around in my head over and over. Thinking of Morag only led to flashes of images of her dying and the worst times in hospital.
Morag’s parents were still in practical mode and asked me to find our marriage certificate and her passport, which we would need for registering the death. I remember hunting through her office, looking at an open notepad with her writing in dismay. I went through everything, tearing through the office in a disorganised way. I just wanted to find the certificate and passport, and close that door, no metaphor intended. I couldn’t find anything. Finally in desperation I expanded the search and found a wicker basket which I could see held some kind of paperwork. I opened the lid and realised this was Morag’s memory chest from our wedding. I blinked and part of me thought “Ok, here it comes, here comes all that emotion…..” Nothing. Before I could explore that further I started rifling through the box like a fox in a rubbish bin. I picked up and discarded the wedding invitation that she had hand printed herself, our table setting, some of the little bags on dried lavender she had made as wedding favours, the sign she had designed for this box which letters and cards were put into. The wedding breakfast menu. Of course my organised, dear Morag wouldn’t stuff our marriage certificate into this box but I was determined to find the certificate and ‘tick a box’. It wasn’t there. I stopped and started as if waking from a dream and looked around at the mess I had made, like I had desecrated something pure. I left and shut the door and retreated to Morag’s parents’ house.
We discussed the funeral we were waiting to organise. Morag was an incredible singer, she was the head of her choir at her school and had joined a choir in London she sang with for many years. She was a trained Opera Singer. Morag’s parents asked if I knew of any hymns that she liked, ashamedly I admitted I didn’t. Being an atheist I never attended Church regularly. A couple of times I went to wait for her to finish so we could go into London for lunch. But never took notice of the hymns names. And it’s hard to pick out the syllables, let alone the words of Gregorian Chants! I messaged the head of her choir asking if he knew what hymns she liked. He messaged back with a few, but also mentioned that Morag had been due to sing Mozart’s “Laudate Dominum” at her friend’s wedding in a few weeks. He said the majority of the choir wanted to come to the funeral and suggested one of them sing this song in her honour. This resonated with Morag’s parents and me, so we agreed.
Sadly, I don’t have loads of pictures of Morag. She was always conscious of her weight, even though she was always beautiful to me. In most of the pictures I had taken, Morag was secondary to Jamie. I remember in that first week my mind kept returning to a few images. One, was Morag’s last birthday present to me. It was a frame of a watercolour of a Daddy Bear and Cub, looking away, holding hands. Underneath it says “Daddy and Jamie. Adventure Awaits”. Meant as an endearing gift given months before she got sick, it had become a lot more poignant and painful to think of. It almost felt like mockery in its now-aptness. The other was a video of Morag standing with Jamie, when he was only a few months old, he is on her chest and she has just sung him to sleep with Ella Fitzgerald’s “Someone to Watch Over Me”. She sang him to sleep when he was upset, annoyingly I only managed to record about 20 seconds of it. My heart fit to burst for her gorgeous voice and her enduring image of motherhood. We picked this song for the funeral as well. This video added to the flaming sense of injustice that coursed through me. It was around then that I first wished it had been me to die, not her. She was too good a person, too good a mother, too good a wife, too good a daughter and sister to have this happen to her.
Morag’s parents really worked hard to make me feel included in the funeral arrangements, but to be honest, I struggled. I was objectively aware that the funeral had to happen and part of me wanted it to happen so I could start to ‘move on’. But it was also incredibly strange and impossible to grasp. I find it very difficult to articulate how my mind worked in that first week. Denial comes to mind. The sense of complete revulsion at what had happened made it feel unreal. I guess my mind avoided dwelling on things like that because talking about the funeral made it real, receiving cards offering condolences made it real, getting Facebook messages from her childhood friends made it real. It wasn’t that I avoided hearing these things, but mentally I did. It would just be bypassed somewhere. The overriding thought as I keep saying, was “How the hell has this happened?!” It wasn’t that I wanted to know the physiological things that had killed her, it was this profound sense of injustice, and rage against fate, things which I had always smugly assumed I didn’t prescribe to. I think if she had died in a car crash it would have made more sense to me. For her to go from vague tummy pains to late stage cancer to death in 6 weeks just didn’t make sense. For us both to be children of GPs and therefore have an awareness of red flags. For her to get this kind of cancer at 34, months after a miscarriage.
When you think that you are an atheist, surely you have to accept that we live in a chaotic universe? Clearly on some level I didn’t. Same base instinct I had made me think we lived in a moral or just universe. I remember thinking “But I played the game right!? We dated, moved in together, got married, had a baby, moved to York, tried to be healthy, loved and supported each other. Why punish us?” Outside of this I started to think about how I was going to support myself.
I had moved from London to York and had few friends, I was acquainted with a few of Morag’s friends from school, some of whom I have mentioned previously. And I had Morag’s family. I didn’t have anyone else. I got my Mum to come up and she did her best to support me. She had thrown herself into reading about bereavement and was the first person to talk to me about the stages to expect, and how time really was going to be the only thing that would improve things for me. She found the charity, Widowed and Young (WaY) – a charity specifically set up with the aim of putting widows and widowers under 50 together. Beyond that, she just tried to take care of cleaning, cooking and helping out where she could with Jamie. My Mum was a very special person, she was incredibly selfless and her heart broke for me. However after a few days I sent her home, she had a dog staying with a friends but I think she would have stayed as long as I wanted. I think the problem was that in her primal instinct to “fix” my situation she couldn’t sit with me in silence. I was so numb and in pain but completely unable to vocalise it that I just wanted to sit there. And as reassuring as it was to have someone with me, my Mum couldn’t sit in silence.
Next came the cards. The condolences started flooding in. “There are no words…” is probably the most-heard statement when you are bereaved. You get sick of seeing them. “Thoughts and prayers” and “Condolences” are a close second. I read them and felt nothing, except feeling vaguely touched by everyone’s messages. It did become a scary thing though, when they started flooding in, it somehow reiterated how terrible a thing had happened to me- when my brain was doing its best to deny all. I shuffled around the house, seeing her coats still hung up at the front door, and her shoes literally everywhere. I don’t like being stereotypical but fuck me, she had so many shoes. When I looked at them, I would just shake my head and think “How the hell has is this happened to us?” The unjustness of it sickened me. However there was no anguish, no profound sadness, just revulsion at what had happened to her, and me, and Jamie. Finally on the Thursday after she had died we received a call about going to get the certificate. Morag’s Dad and I walked into the hospital, this time walking into the bereavement office that we had walked past dozens of times in the last week. Not far from the ward where she had died, which was one floor up from the ward she had been born in. I kind of expected to be treated like a number, you assume someone who does this for a job would become inured to it, but the Doctor seemed genuinely upset for us, commenting on Morag being only 34, and that she had a daughter a similar age. Morag’s Dad and I sat their stiff backed, trying to keep it together. Very quickly we had the form and my eyes skittered over “Person: Morag Wilson. Cause of Death: Metastatic Colorectal Cancer Perforated (operated). Wife of: Ian Wilson”. She asked if we wanted to speak to someone about a memory box for Jamie. We waited and a young woman came around clutching a small white box and put it in my hands. I wanted to dash it against the wall. She talked to us with a weird, quiet, dreamlike quality that I just found patronising. I wanted to tell her to just shut up, instead I cried. “Do you think it would be nice to get Jamie to decorate it?” Oh yeah, I love the idea of my son decorating a box in memory of his dead Mum. We left and walked to the car, it was raining so I was protecting the memory chest with my coat, to the detriment of the rest of me- again, no metaphor intended.
Morag’s Dad and I went to get some lunch. While we were eating he started listing the things I needed to do, closing bank accounts, seeing a solicitor, etc. Again I was rankled by his practical manner and thought him heartless. It was when we talked about the funeral that I saw his bottom lip quiver and he looked at me straight in the eye. What I saw there was scary – for an instant I saw how broken and distraught he was. He stuffed his sandwich into his mouth and quickly regained his composure. I sat there feeling so ashamed that I had prejudged Morag’s parents as too practical. Having military and medical backgrounds I thought they were not as devastated as me. But that one chink in his armour smashed my false perception to pieces. And I grieved for him. A few days later we were all together at the funeral directors being asked stupid questions like ‘Do you want Pall bearers to carry the coffin in, or do you want it there waiting for you.’ I know it sounds childish and stupid but I still wanted to stand up and flip the desk screaming “I don’t want any of this!” Time was rushing onwards away from her death while part of my mind wanted to everything to stop, surely I can go back and fix this.
The following week I started putting my support network in place. It was clear that I was thinking of grief as a disease, something which could be managed and that by embracing it I could get through it quicker. From speaking to other widows/widowers this seems quite common. Lots of people experience a period of numbness and tend to focus on practical details, which does help because there is a hell of a lot of admin associated with someone’s death. One of the first things that made me weep was when I received two letters. One was a card to me offering condolences, it was from a nursery friend that Morag had made before we left London – they had grown incredibly close in a short period of time. But within the card to me was another letter addressed to Jamie. She had written a letter to Jamie for when he was older, filled with specific memories of her time with Morag and him, and how she saw Morag. From diagnosis onwards, the coping strategy of “taking one day at a time” is drilled into you as the only real way of staying sane whilst living with the unbearable. This letter to Jamie dragged my mind forward through the years to when he will be old enough to read it. Jamie when he is leaving primary school will not have his Mummy, Jamie when he does his exams will not have his Mummy, Jamie when he gets married or has kids will not have his Mummy. Jamie when he has outlived his Mummy will not have his Mummy. It broke me. The second letter was from Jamie’s nursery. The card was signed by other parents and nursery workers. But again, it was the additional package inside that broke me. It was three sheets of A4, it succinctly listed the nursery child’s name, the parents’ names, their phone numbers and email address. Underneath this is it had a short paragraph on days they could pick up Jamie, days they could do some washing for me, meals they could freeze for me, etc. Along with a voucher for a frozen food supplier. Again, I wept. This simple, thankless, humble offering of real and practical help to me was more touching than all the thoughts and prayers. Unfortunately my mind also interpreted it as an act of such generosity that would only be warranted if something truly terrible had happened to me. Clearly it had.
Three of the Mummies from nursery quickly became a real life line for me. They didn’t just say “Call us if you need anything”, they practically kicked my door down asking me to go for walks, and to ask if they could come round. They texted me throughout the day and in the evenings. They seemed to have this pure instinct for what I needed. In those early days I needed lots of people around me, but you don’t recognise it, when you have a person you have spent every day together for 12 years you are simply not built to recognise the deep loneliness that afflicts you. My Mum and my best friend, Jay, similarly called me every day. These daily debriefs were one of the biggest things I missed practically about being with Morag, and they became incredibly important to me. My Mum and Jay kept reassuring me to just “Feel what I feel”, not to tie myself in knots or try to elicit emotion because I feel guilty or that what I am feeling is ‘wrong’. Two of the nursery mummies who I had jokingly referred to as “Super Mums” for their incredible homes and birthday parties were one of the first to ask me to out to walk the dogs. I I quickly judged them as not really being equipped to talk to about real stuff, but would be great for getting me out of the house, and plans to improve my house, and playdates for Jamie. Another Mummy, I started to refer to as my “Sweary Mummy Friend”. She would curse enough to make a sailor blush and she had also had her own bereavement when she lost her father a couple of years previously, whom she described as her best friend. I could say anything to her, and her insights and support were invaluable. I don’t know how many times in life I need to learn the lesson that you shouldn’t prejudge people. I had quickly decided that the Super Mums would only be able to support me in practical ways, but they quickly demonstrated they had their own baggage and deep reservoirs of strength to lend me, they were more than capable of supporting me in that way. I will forever be indebted to Alex, Kathryn and Faye.
I remember I kept thinking about a scene from the film, Trainspotting, where the main protagonist is preparing to give up heroin. He knows he is going to get very sick so he prepares himself with all the things he will need to get through it. It doesn’t work out for him but this was how I felt at the time. I knew that I was not fully grieving. At times you could almost feel this huge wave of turmoil rising up from your stomach, before my mind pushed it away. My grief felt like a locked room, through the door I could hear the angry buzzing and storming of emotions but I kept it firmly shut. Quite amazing really, how your brain protects you in those early days. I wanted to get a support network of friends who I could talk to, I saw my GP regularly to discuss what services were available, I kept up running, I spoke to charities about what Jamie needed from me. I tried to take as many offers from people as I could. You could tell some people were completely frantic to find something to help me and Jamie. Sometimes it’s hard, if someone says “Is there anything I can do?” Actually finding something, but you get a sense of the people who are offering platitudes, and others who are desperate to help in anyway. I had dipped into a few blogs about bereavement and a few talked about how they received dozens of offers in the first few weeks. But their numbness and longing for solitude isolated them, then when the grief was in full flow 3 months later, those people whom originally had been offering their right arm were nowhere to be found. As uncomfortable as it was to try and build new friendships based on such a deep need on my, I was very focussed on getting them in place for when I would be in a mess. I think anyone grieving should be prepared for this dynamic and to try hard to take it personally. You will quickly find out who the true people are, namely as they will stay the course, while those who are less generous will fall by the wayside quickly. People who I assumed would be bashing my door down sometimes were completely absent, and others seemed to have that sixth sense as to what I needed and when. My Mum was one of them. Jay was another. Super Mums and Sweary Mummy were too.
I always have thought of myself as empathetic, often times to my detriment. Often in life I have waived off poor behaviour or service thinking that I don’t know what is going on in that person’s life, but at the same time wishing I had stuck up for myself more. Many people were so completely unaware of what to say or do, that they were stunned into silence. I would never judge those people for that. Some people that I was quietly disappointed not to see liking posts on facebook or sending me private messages would come to message me months later, saying they have been meaning to contact me for ages but had no idea what to say. It’s a tough lesson that I think society needs to learn, rather than everyone bereaved like me having to learn the hard way. I didn’t want people offering advice, hope or platitudes for the most part. Sometimes I just wanted to sit in a room and not be alone.
The evenings were the worst. Once Jamie was down I would come downstairs and look at my new house, that Morag and I had dreamed of together. I wouldn’t weep, I wouldn’t eat, I would do nothing. Until I finally picked up a tablet and watched short viral clips on Youtube. The technology equivalent of getting drunk or smoking weed. Speaking to my Mum always helped. I would think I had nothing to say but then I would go into minute detail with her talking about what happened that day. I remember feeling like my grief was a big boil, thinking that I just needed to lance it hard and fast and all the grief would come boiling out. Or that it was a big stack of paperwork, that had to be given time to process. By talking about my feelings, exercising, eating right and seeking help then the grief would be easier and quicker. I think those things do make grieving better, but not easier or faster.
I tied myself in knots about ‘grieving right’ and whether Jamie was ‘grieving right’. I was overly critical of myself and over analysed what I was feeling. Determined not to feel guilty of a lack of emotion, but at the same time feeling no real understanding of my thoughts and feelings. I had always quietly taken pride in my emotional intelligence, so it was disconcerting to feel so untethered to my frames of emotional reference.
My advice to anyone in the early stages of grief is to not be hard on yourself. I think the problem with feeling so functional and numb in the early stages, as well as our Western culture, is that people stick to mantras of “I must be strong”, especially when kids are involved. My other advice is to just feel what you feel. If you cannot eat, that’s fine, if you eat too much, that’s fine. If you need to sleep then sleep. There is nothing that I can offer that will make it easier, the worst thing has happened. Your grief is valid and real. You will start to learn what grief is, and it’s something unique to each person. But in my opinion, being self-critical, or guilty or expecting too much of yourself adds to the burden. It doesn’t make grieving harder or easier, but it certainly is an unwelcome distraction. If you cry all day, that is fine. If you don’t cry, that is fine. If you drink yourself into a stupor to get to sleep, then I won’t judge you. What you will slowly start to learn is that grief is very much not a disease, that will be treated or respond nicely to your plans. Grief is an all-encompassing term to cover what losing someone central to your life is. Grief is not sadness at losing the love of your life. My grief included rage, sadness, injustice, depression, denial, physical sickness, trauma. You start to realise you are not just grieving the person who has gone, you are grieving for your own life, which has gone, you are grieving for what the person has lost, you are grieving for the trauma of the process, you are grieving for the future you have lost. Mindfulness apps, sleeping noise apps, exercise, eating right, talking to people, cleaning yourself. If you manage some of this everyday then you are doing well, and if you aren’t, then fuck it – let anyone else go through this and then tell you what you should or should not be feeling/doing. You don’t even need to have hope for the future, you just need to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and taking it day by day, minute by minute, second by second.
If you are reading this for someone else grieving then my advice is to offer real practical help – pop round when you know they are alone. Call them at 9pm. Cook a little extra, bag it up and bring it over to be frozen. If you don’t know what to say, that’s fine, as we all know ‘there are no words’. You don’t have to say anything. Just be there with them. Sit with your back to them, so they don’t feel you are just staring at them. Do the washing up. Don’t tell them to “Keep being strong”. Don’t tell them “You are doing great”. Don’t say you are so impressed with how strong they are being.
People kept complimenting my strength at a time when I have never felt weaker. My numbness and shock being interpreted as stiff upper lip and strength for Jamie. I didn’t feel strong, I didn’t feel proud, I felt fundamentally broken and lost. I was crying out for support but I guess I was too numb or ‘British’ to phone people and say “I’m in crisis, please help me”. I have subsequently learnt to do this though, and I have never regretted picking up the phone when in need.
To those of you grieving, if you need to talk, please do not hesitate to contact me.
p.s. I have written the story of Morag’s diagnosis to her death, in the ‘My Story’ section, I think the link was broken when I launched the blog.