As a woman of few words, the last think I would have expected to be doing, this time last year, was starting a blog. Now, however, I am no longer quite the same person I was before my relatively straightforward, happy life was shattered in an instant in July 2015.
As a visual artist, paint and textiles are the way I usually choose to express myself creatively. Now though, as I’m left trying to work out who I am and where I’m going, this is difficult. There is too much going round in my head that can only be expressed in words or perhaps by a radically different approach to my visual artwork but I’m not ready for that yet. I hope that writing things down might help me to start working things out. It will certainly be a good thing to stop keeping most of my feelings within myself so that they just go round and round in my head and make me feel distanced from everyone else. If anyone wants to read about my journey along the way, that’s good, and if it is helpful in any way to someone in a similar situation that’s even better.
I have often read that the second year after the loss of a partner is worse than the first. This is not my experience. It is now just over 2 years since I lost my husband, John, very suddenly. I still find the loss of the person I thought I would spend the rest of my life with very difficult and what happened still seems unbelievable to me. The first year following his death was absolutely awful. I was unbearably lonely, despite having very supportive friends and family; I was numb; I was desperately unhappy. Even when I was with other people I felt separated from them. This feeling was particularly acute when in a situation where there were other people who didn’t know me well and didn’t necessarily know what had happened. I felt as though I was separated from the rest of the world by a glass screen that I couldn’t and didn’t really want to break through. I couldn’t speak to other people because I was different and no longer part of their world. I just wasn’t talking to anybody about my feelings or what had happened. Towards the end of the first year I was in a pretty bad state.
At that time I just knew that I had to start talking or I was just going to sink further and further. I felt like I was drowning in my grief. I decided to try counselling. At first I went to group sessions. I had thought that talking to other people who had lost partners might help but soon found that this was not the case. Most people in the group were older than me and all had lost partners to cancer. My experience of the death of my husband was very different to theirs. I don’t mean that their grief was any less significant than mine. It was just that losing my husband so suddenly, never getting to say goodbye, not being able to see his body or even to know exactly how he died made it more difficult for me to relate to the group. Next I tried individual counselling sessions and also started writing this blog. I only went to three or four counselling sessions but they did at least put me into a situation where I had to start talking about my feelings and I think now that I should have started writing my thoughts down much earlier as it did help.
Last Saturday I went to a 60th birthday party where I found myself quite happily talking to different people; some that I knew and some that I had never met before. I remembered the glass screen and wondered at which point exactly it had disappeared.
I can’t believe that it is two years already since my wonderful husband died after falling from cliffs. It all still seems so close. How can it be that that amount of time has passed?
This morning I took flowers to the cemetery where my husband’s ashes are; pink and orange chrysanthemums. He wasn’t one to stick to dull shades and they reminded me of the colours of some of the shirts and jumpers that he used to wear. After arranging the flowers, cleaning the stone and standing in the drizzle thinking for a while, I drove to the headland where he died. It was sill cloudy and drizzling heavily, unlike two years ago when it was a lovely sunny day; perfect for taking photos. After parking the car I walked up the pathway, carrying the roses and rose petals that I had picked, from my garden, earlier in the morning. No one was around as I walked towards the cliffs. Soon after my husband’s death a gate was put near the end of the path leading to the cliffs. It says ‘Danger of Falling’ and is padlocked shut. Last year I climbed over the gate but this year I decided it was easier to climb the rocks at the side of the gate and go around. Once past the gate I climbed up the rocky track that leads over a rocky outcrop then drops down towards the cliff edge. Last year my son was with me. This year I was completely alone.
My husband and I used to love this place. We used to think it was one of the most beautiful places along the coast. This morning I felt almost scared as I walked closer to the edge. Walking near any cliffs is quite difficult for me know. They frighten me and yet at the same time have a strange draw. Once I had got as close to the edge that my husband fell from as I could, I placed the lovely yellow roses that I had cut earlier onto the rocks. I then scattered the red and white rose petals that I had gathered over the cliff edge. I stood for a while in the increasingly heavy drizzle with thoughts of my lovely husband, the life we had had together and what had happened going through my head. I will never know exactly what happened that day and I still find it hard to believe that it could have happened. How could he have just gone out one day with his camera and never come home?
Earlier this week I went to the opening of an exhibition. It was an exhibition of small artworks drawn or painted onto cut out suitcase shapes produced in a refugee camp in Greece. These were exhibited alongside small artworks executed on cut out house shapes produced by artists and people living in my local area. Three artists had previously travelled to the refugee camp to work with people living there. The artworks all symbolise ideas of what makes home special to each individual.
When I was approached to produce an artwork for the exhibition I immediately said, ‘Yes’. The proceeds of any sales were to be donated to the refugees and I like to get involved in local Art projects. Although I found it easy to decide what to do, it was hard because it focused my mind on the fact that all my family are gone, and they were what made my home special. The painting and stitching that ended up decorating the surface of my small house represented the plants growing in my house and garden and me trying to stitch my life back together. I have been spending a lot of time in the garden and the plants are now the only things living with me. I completed my piece and duly delivered it to the local Art Centre where the exhibition was to be held.
The opening of the exhibition was well attended and it was lovely looking around the different artworks and speaking to different people. What I hadn’t appreciated was how profoundly it would affect me. I struck me that my artwork seemed cold in comparison to many, who had family at the heart of their representations. It threw me back to last year when I felt very much separated from the rest of society and unable to speak to people. I felt in some ways that I could relate more to how the refugees felt. Although I know that, unlike them, I still live in a nice house in the place I have lived most of my life, but I do still feel dispossessed and displaced in many ways.
For a long time I was just trying to get through what was left of my life whilst constantly missing the person that was the centre of it. Over the last few months, although I haven’t written anything, I have been trying to live the new life that I have. I’ve learnt that I can still have a future; something that seemed impossible last year. There is a lot to be happy about in my new life but it is always underpinned with a sadness that constantly underlies everything. There is never a day when I don’t think about what happened and it is still painful but I suppose I just accept that now as something that will always be there; an integral part of my life. It has all been brought back very strongly recently because of someone else going missing from a local cliff path; someone who I had actually met a few times. After extensive searches her body was found in the sea by fisherman over a week later. The circumstances are different in some ways but knowing what her family must be going through brought my experience of twenty one months ago right back to the forefront of my mind.
In trying to live my new life one of the things I have had to process is where I go with my art. I have written before about how difficult it has been to carry on. My artwork was so strongly related to the coast of the island on which I live. The coast is still spectacular and I do still go for walks along it but it no longer holds the joy for me that it did. There is now a more dark and sinister beauty about it. The other day when I was walking with a friend we went to a part that I have never walked to before. There were very sheer drops close to the pathway in one particular place. I felt an almost overwhelming pull to the edge whilst at the same time being afraid to leave the path. I have and am sure will continue producing artwork relating to the coast but portraying the joy of the place no longer works in the same way for me and maybe I need to think about embracing and reflecting the darker side of it in some way.
In the meantime I have started working on a series of abstracts. These are a form of therapy and are in many ways a reflection of what has happened in my life. They involve painting and printing, destroying, stitching and recreating the surface into something that works in a different way to the surface that I started with. They are intuitive, reflective and reactionary and involve a lot of random, chance elements as well as those that are decisive choices. I am enjoying producing these works as they allow me total freedom to interact with the surface in a way that is impossible with more representational work as well as, and more importantly, being a way of expressing my emotions and processing my thoughts. I create a surface or surfaces which work and that I like. I then destroy their harmony in a reactionary way with paint and scissors. I am then left with something that is in pieces and no longer works. I then have to recreate what is left into some new kind of harmony. Many of my choices in this are an instant, intuitive reaction to what is in front of me whilst some are more considered.
I have learnt over the last year that I can survive, I can still have a future and that I can still be creative. I also think I am a much more empathetic person than I ever was before. Living on a small island it was difficult to find the support that I needed at the beginning and I didn’t know anyone who had lost someone very close to them in similar circumstances so I ended up reading a lot about grief and other people’s experiences on the internet. This was important for me. What I read helped me to feel less alone. It enabled me to understand and to process my thoughts and emotions better in the knowledge of what others had experienced. At times I found articles that so closely expressed what I was feeling that I shared them on Facebook in the hope that those close to me would read them and be able to understand better what I was going though. I know that some people did and it did make a difference.
I haven’t written anything for a while. The summer and autumn seem to have run away with me and now it’s nearly Christmas. Life has been very busy. I went away for a bit to stay with some lovely friends, who I have known for many years, and now live in Spain. When I came back my sons and their girlfriends came to stay for a while, which was great. I went away to Edinburgh for a few days with my sister and then a couple of weekends later to stay with my youngest son and his girlfriend in London. A few weeks later I went away again. This time to Brazil where I travelled out into the Pantanal, looking for jaguars and other wildlife. In between all of the trips away I have been out and about walking with friends, trying to keep up with the gardening and some artwork that I needed to finish for exhibitions. All in all I haven’t had much time to collect my thoughts and put anything down in writing.
Thinking back now, over the last 17 months, I have come such a long way. The last few months seem to have been a bit of a turning point for me. Overall I have been in a much better place since the beginning of July following the anniversary of my husband’s death. That doesn’t mean that I don’t still feel overwhelmingly sad at times but I have started to look forward to and enjoy things again. I feel more able to talk to people and no longer have the constant feeling that I am separated from the rest of the world. I am naturally fairly quiet and reserved and in my past life enjoyed nothing more than staying in and getting on with my artwork or gardening. We had a fairly quiet social life with family and a small circle of friends, we enjoyed travelling and we enjoyed each other’s company at home. In my new life I am certainly a far more social person than I have ever been and I like that.
There is one important piece of advice that I took on board early on in this widowhood journey. It is: accept every invitation. I have done this from the beginning. I often didn’t feel like going out and I didn’t look forward to things but I made myself go because I found that even though it didn’t take away the despair I was feeling, I always felt a lot better than if I stayed at home on my own. I have renewed many friendships from my past and made new friends. I am so grateful to all of the people who have kept in touch with me over the past months and got me out of the house. Despite the fact that nothing will ever be as it was before, I enjoy the social life I now have.
My output of artwork has definitely suffered. I have kept up with the things that I needed to complete because of commitments but I haven’t been motivated to do more and the work routine that I had developed has gone completely out of the window. Hopefully my inspiration and desire to create will eventually return to what it was. Being in the house alone, working or doing anything else, for any length of time is still very hard. For now I am just trying to do what makes me feel the happiest.
Yesterday, on the anniversary of his death, I went back to the spot where my husband fell. One of my sons and his girlfriend are staying with me for a few days so they came too. We took roses from the garden and my son and I scattered the petals close to the edge of the cliff whilst we thought our own thoughts about a wonderful husband and father who we miss so much. Both of us too scared to go near enough to the edge to scatter the petals down the cliff, which had been my intention. I didn’t cry. I don’t seem able to cry any more. The crying seems to stay inside and I live with a constant, intense, overwhelming feeling of sadness.
The place is still beautiful but I no longer feel the joy about it that I did when we used to walk there together looking at and taking photos of the wonderful views. This area of the cliffs used to be easily accessible but now there is a padlocked gate with a sign saying ‘Danger of falling’. Earlier in the week before he died we had had such a lovely time there walking in the sun. I had been so happy with the photos that I had taken. One in particular sticks in my mind of cobweb covered heather. The light and the colours on that day were bright and uplifting. Not so yesterday under the overcast sky. When we first visited this place several years ago we had talked about what a lovely place it would be to scatter our ashes. I don’t remember why the subject came up. Why was it that on our last visit there together that I felt compelled to ask if he would still like his ashes scattered here? His answer was that he thought he would prefer them to be at our local cemetery. I still keep wondering why I felt I had to ask that question on that day, little knowing that a few days later he would be dead.
Earlier in the day we had taken red roses to the cemetery. Red roses were what he always gave me on special occasions such as our wedding anniversary.
July is a month I used to love. Summer, good weather, BBQs and as a teacher the prospect of the start of the long Summer holidays. This year I have approached July with a sense of dread. A year ago today my husband went out of the door and never came back and I was never allowed to see him again. It was a Friday when he left never to return. I can’t believe that I have lived through that long without him. It all still feels so recent -The Friday evening when he didn’t return and my phone call to the police. Then the seemingly endless wait for any news that followed. Another phone call to the police when I was put through to an inspector who told me that a lot had been happening and he would send someone around right away. Sitting with the two policemen, feeling numb and terrified waiting for news from the search teams -This could not really be happening.
His car had been found, his rucksack had been found and later on in the evening his camera was found half way down the cliff, but no sign of my husband. The land and sea search teams had to stop when darkness fell but then a helicopter from France came over to extend the search and continued until the fuel was used up. Once the search had ended for the night the two police officers left, saying that they would be back in the morning when the search would resume. I was told that I could have an hour in which to contact my sons before a missing person announcement was put onto social media. How do you tell your sons who are on the other side of the world that their father has gone missing and is probably no longer alive?
My sister arrived at some point so that I wouldn’t be alone overnight and my brother-in-law who had come round earlier in the evening left. Then a sleepless night was followed by the continuation of the nightmare the next day.
Two police officers arrived during the morning to tell me that a French fishing boat had spotted a body several miles of the coast. Eventually I was told that the body had been brought to shore and that although it seemed certain that it was him, it was too badly damaged to be identified by me. I had to provide artefacts that would carry his DNA in case he could not be identified by his dental records.
I was then given an hour to contact my sons again before a media report was put out saying that the search had been called off. The police wanted to do this quickly as so many people had been in touch asking whether they could help with the search. At that point one of my sons could not be contacted as he was on a flight from New Zealand to Hong Kong. I left a message for him to get in touch with me as soon as he arrived and before doing anything else. Of course he looked at Facebook on arrival and found himself alone at a strange airport with the news that his father’s body had been found. My other son who didn’t have quite as far to travel was with me by that time and spent a lot of time talking to his brother over the following few hours until he boarded his next flight. I was in such a state talking to me just made it worse.
All of this and everything that followed is all still so clear in my mind that it feels like it was yesterday. The endless pain, the sobbing, the numbness, the anxiety, the fear, the not wanting to be here, the disbelief, the what ifs. How can it be a year already?