Earlier this week I stood outside in our courtyard, balanced on a wooden bench, picking dead leaves from the vertical garden my husband and I installed just a few weeks ago. It’s been unseasonably warm in Sydney and the new plants are thriving – mostly; yet here and there curled shoots have fallen by the wayside, lost in the shock of their recent transplant. As I stood there with the sun warming my back and a hand full of crisp, brown leaves, my mind raced ahead to a vision of myself as an old lady stooped over a garden, pruning dead shoots and faded flowers. I have been asking myself in recent days how long this pain will last, but standing up there on the bench, I was struck by the sudden realisation that this pain isn’t going anywhere. Many years from now, I will still feel this ache of losing my husband. Wherever my life goes from here, there will always be the love and loss of him. It is a part of who I am. So while I am terrified about memories of Matt fading – the sound of his laugh, his stubble against my cheek, the weight of his arm draped around my shoulders – the one thing I know I will never lose is this sense of loss for the man who lit my world. It’s so hard not to feel robbed of the very best part of me – of the person who made me feel most myself.
I realise now that death is all around us. Of course it is. Life goes hand-in-hand with death. Yet somehow it feels as though I have been walking around wearing blinkers. It is Matt’s death (and my cousin’s last year) that have ripped them from my eyes. I feel raw to it now – exposed. My senses are heightened to the inevitable cycle of nature, the tragic news stories, and the friends and strangers sharing their own stories of pain and loss with me. I am a new member of a very big club. So many of us, I see, are moving through the world bearing our losses, silently grief-stricken. How did I never notice this before? Why don’t we talk about death more? I find myself watching people, wanting to run up and urge them not to take a moment for granted.
Yet even with all this agony and all this uncharted loneliness and fear, there is still life in our house. It butts up insistently against the death. The plants in the vertical garden are already sending out new shoots that will transform to flowers this spring. The cat noses my laptop out of the way so that he can curl in a circle on my lap. Friends are dropping by with warm hugs and plates of food. And always my two children, their laughter and tears pulling me through the days.
There is so much I would like to tell Matt about this strange life we are living. I long to pick up the phone and chat to him. I would tell him about Gracie’s new sleep spot on her bedroom floor, and the game she now plays, dressing up in his belongings – sunglasses, shoes, a hat – before crowing with delight: ‘Look! Daddy’s home. Look Judey, Daddy’s home’. I would tell him about his daughter’s new talent for anger and how his son wears his grief differently: in his downturned mouth, his pale face and the purple shadows under his eyes, so stoic until just before the lights go out and the questions come in a rush. ‘Mum, where do you go when you die? Mum, what does it feel like to be dead? Mum, does anyone still love me? Mum, why can’t we all be immortal jellyfish?’ And hardest of all, ‘Mum, is Daddy ever coming home?’.
Like the kids, I am learning new skills, too. I am the incredible skin woman – empty – hollow – nothing real or warm left inside. I am a sham, pretending at life. I am master of the silent scream; a Munch-esque response to the quietness of the house in the evenings, when the children have fallen still and I find myself alone with my thoughts. When I feel like this, I try to draw upon the mantra my grief counsellor has given me: This is a moment of pain. Pain is a part of life. I wish myself peace.* I try to pull myself back into the safety of the moment with the mindfulness techniques she teaches me. I attempt to focus on the simplest, most immediate details. My hands wrapped around a warm mug. The distant sound of a plane traversing the sky. The sunlight falling onto the last of the Japanese maple leaves. The steady rise and fall of my chest. In these moments I remind myself that I am sad, but I am safe.
And what is perhaps most startling of all is that even amidst the unrelenting pain, there are flashes of light and love, breaking through like flowers rising up through cracked asphalt. Spinning on my husband’s expensive reading chair – the one we were always so careful with. A rainbow breaking over the bay as I walk with friends in memory of Matt. Precious words written by my husband, found in secret places. The ‘Frozen’ birthday party we hosted at home for Gracie’s 4th Birthday earlier today. Even amidst our misery, there is still the urge to keep going, to keep putting one foot in front of the other, to keep breathing, to keep celebrating life’s important moments.
So here I sit now, with the paper snowflakes drooping around me, balloons slowly deflating and a half-eaten Birthday cake (which the kindest friend made so I wouldn’t ruin the batter with my tears) attempting to pull myself into this moment. To the familiarity of these computer keys moving beneath my fingers. To the low hum of the fridge in the kitchen. To the cat sighing and stretching on Matt’s chair. To the heavy ball of emotion expanding in my stomach.
This is a moment of pain. Pain is a part of life. I wish myself peace.
Thank you for reading. I hope my words don’t make you sad, for I wish you peace in this moment, too. x
*Since first posting this piece, I have found out from my counsellor, Louise Adams, that the mantra she gave me was created by Dr Kristen Neff. You can find out more about both these amazing women by clicking on their names.