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  • Writer's pictureelmarfleet

July: When You're Gone

Updated: Aug 11, 2022

"...When you're gone

The pieces of my heart are missing you

When you're gone

The face I came to know is missing too

When you're gone

The words I need to hear to always get me through the day

And make it OK

I miss you..."

This month I want to write about how grief feels and Avril Lavigne's song When you're Gone sums so much of it up. The song is about missing someone and the accompanying music video reveals three stories across different ages of life. The teenager misses the boyfriend she's forbidden to see, the pregnant army wife misses her husband whilst he's on tour and the older gentleman is a widow. Avril starts her song over a delicate piano melody but soon with a crescendo of guitars and drums, we hear her anger and all the raw emotions felt at the very root of grief. This song goes straight to the root of my feelings and Avril paints a picture of life that I now and reluctantly have become familiar with. The bed is always, "made up on your side", the clothes you left, "smell just like you" but are beginning to fade, and I often ask aloud when no-one can hear: "Do you see how much I need you now?"

Grief is an incredibly complex emotion, the most complex that I have ever felt. I like the way Avril frames it in this song's chorus using just three simple aspects of love: how I feel about you, what I see of you, and what I receive from you. Like a trilogy, love needs to find favour in all of these to be true and I like to think about that. What I had was true. It was love and I liked it. But it's now in the past tense: it's how I felt, what I saw and what I received. It's past and raw and it hurts. I loved how I felt about you Tom, and I loved both what you looked like and all the things you said to me.

How I felt about you:

"The pieces of my heart are missing you

When you're gone"

The truth is that a part of me is missing now too. I look at photos of us together and realise that I don't only miss you, I miss me. That girl has gone too and nothing will ever be or feel the same again. Part of me died on the day that you died too. It just did. The scales have fallen from my eyes and the magic has gone. Life is now about getting through each moment and doing the best I can. I try to stay in the moment and not think too far ahead for what I will need to do and face by myself. I know that I'm lucky in so many other ways and I hold tight onto my children's hands using my love for them to be my guide. Using them to help me see the sparkle that used to always just be there.

What I saw of you:

"The face I came to know is missing too

When you're gone"

And then your face - I loved looking at your face. Your beautiful smile and your dimples, your light blue eyes with laughter lines radiating from their corners, my gorgeous husband. You always told me how beautiful I was, but insecurities block a complete belief. I now realise that it doesn't matter. As long as I liked what I saw in you and you liked what you saw in me, then that was good enough. More than good enough. All those imperfections make the person you love even more perfect. It's human, it's love and it's good. I miss the face that I came to know so well. You really were beautiful and illness didn't change how I felt about your body in the slightest bit. I just wanted you to be OK and I would do anything to see you again.

What I received from you:

"The words I need to hear to always get me through the day

And make it OK"

I loved hearing your thoughts and ideas about everything. So much of what you said made me feel like I belonged. I miss our discussions and how you'd open my mind to seeing things differently, and I loved it that I could do the same for you. I loved your wit and sensitivity, and hearing you talk about the things you cared about so much. I try to hold onto them but I feel more unfiltered as I face the world by myself. My hold isn't as strong as it used to be and I don't feel so confident or safe anymore. I try to dig deep into myself to find the strength I know we had together and I'm getting better at finding it, but I miss the ease of having it just there, always there, by my side, day and night, with you.

I read the Guardian Weekend magazine on Saturdays and enjoy the Q&A Life & Style interview where different people are asked "What does love feel like?". I like Emma Bunton's answer: "magical, warm, but also butterflies" and I like David Jason's: "warmth and security". Julia Ormond says it's, "a blurred, warm state of total acceptance and joy" and Serena Williams feels it as: "like you can do anything". Bjorn Ulraeus says: "it's a calm and secure feeling of deep loyalty" but I would simply answer that it's: "belonging". My stomach tightens when read Steph McGovern describe it as: "scary, because when you really love, it means that you are really scared of losing it as well". The truth is that I knew what I had but I didn't expect to lose it and she's right, grief is scary and dark and lonely. It's the opposite of 'belonging' and it hurts.

My overriding experience of grief though, is a feeling of bitter-sweet. The stronger the love, the harder the grief and yet how lucky am I to have experienced that love? That feels bitter-sweet. A few days ago I was looking through a box of old cards and came across one from Tom. It felt like I was reading a new message and I was filled with happiness, thankfulness and it made me smile. In Tom's handwriting: "Here's to the next 50 years of having fun. I love you xx" I love it that he wanted to spend another 50 years with me and that he was having fun too. I love seeing his words in his handwriting: "I love you". But it hurts that we didn't have those 50 years; it feels like we didn't get our chance to try. 50 years without Tom doesn't seem like fun to me. I didn't follow the old advice not to put the keys to your happiness in someone else's pocket. I willingly and happily placed them into Tom's 20 years ago and would do so again if I went back in time. I would tell my 25 year old self to do it all again: fall in love, fall so deeply and completely because you will be safe, you will feel that warmth and security, you'll feel total acceptance and joy. You'll have the strength to do anything, you'll feel that calm and secure feeling of deep loyalty and you will feel like you belong. It's worth feeling all of that even if, 20 years on from then I am left without it and feeling lost. That's the opposite of belonging: Lost.

Oliver Jeffers is an incredible children's storyteller using words and illustrations together to explain human feelings, relationships and connections. This month the boys and I share The Heart and the Bottle, reading it over and over and talking about what it means. It's a simple story about losing a loved one and how they take part of us with them when they go. In this book, the older character passes away - it looks to me like a grandfather, but the boys see him as the little girl's father, making my stomach grip hard again at seeing the filter through which they now see the world. The older character takes all the curiosity the little girl previously feels about the world with him when he goes. The little girl decides to put her heart into a safe place to stop it from feeling, to stop it from hurting and she puts it in a bottle and hangs it around her neck. It "seems to fix things... at first. Although in truth, nothing was the same." I know that I did the same thing as the little girl and I think in reality that I do it over and over again, several times a day. If I can put my heart away then I can stop feeling because sometimes a feeling is too intense, too much for me that it even hurts to breathe. Throughout all of my grief experience so far I have needed to feel and to control how much to allow for myself depending on what the moment can offer. I have an intense drive within me to feel so that I can in some way understand all of this... but grief is an emotion that overwhelms. The waves come at me relentlessly and knock me off my feet. It's how I imagine drowning to feel as it fills inside me and I have to work so hard to find the calmness I need to be able to take small breaths again. Small breaths lead to bigger and I get there eventually but the waves and the storm wait ready to come at me again and as I learn to accept how they will always linger around me, I put my heart in a bottle like the little girl. I learn to control and I learn to numb feeling as I imagine medication can for some people. I know that I am someone who can't put an emotion into a box and bury it permanently, I am someone who can put it temporarily into a bottle around my neck to deal with again when I'm ready. I can acknowledge the pain when I have time and space for it and then I can put it back inside. I can grow and build strength around it. Writing helps, hugging the boys helps, yoga helps, all the incredible books and songs I have shared here help, other young widows help and my inner strength and love for Tom help. At the end of the book the little girl, now a grown woman, finds the help she needs to be able to take her heart out of the bottle and rediscover all her curiosities about the world. She can then make her grandfather's - or father's - chair hers so it's not "so empty any more."

One of my favourite children's books of all time is Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo. It's a story full of characters who are lost for different reasons and tells of their coming together, because of Winn-Dixie. This belonging comes in the companionship they find with each other driven by the wonderful main character Opal, and the stray dog she finds and names after the store she finds him in, Winn-Dixie. There is so much human emotion and painful life experiences beautifully carved into this story that my overwhelming feeling on reading it again to Matthew and Daniel this month is of warmth. Despite reading about the pain of loneliness, abandonment, grief, recovering alcoholism, post prison rehabilitation and trying to start to live a life alongside painful lessons learnt in the past, these characters offer us as readers a warmth and hope that I enjoy exploring again with the boys.

DiCamillo understands grief. She weaves her characters' stories together with that theme of bitter-sweet and illustrates it using an actual sweet: the Litmus lozenge. DiCamillo's character Miss Franny Block tells the story of her great-grandfather Littmus who enlists and fights in the American Civil War aged only 14. Franny says Littmus loses everything: his father dies on the battlefield, he returns home to find everything "burned to the ground", and his mother and three sisters "dead from typhoid fever". Littmus loses everything and cries with grief for both his family and for the "boy he used to be" but then has the strangest sensation for wanting something sweet. Franny tells Opal that Littmus figures that there are enough ugly things in the world, that he was going to put something sweet in it and so goes on to create his lozenge. But it's no normal 'candy', it tastes both "sweet and sad at the same time." For DiCamillo's characters it tastes of root beer and strawberry but the 'sad' and the 'bitter' tastes differently for each of them:

"Sorrow," Miss Franny said, "Not everybody can taste it. Children, especially, seem to have a hard time knowing it's there"

"I taste it," I said.

"Me, too," said Amanda.

"Well, then," Miss Franny said, "you've probably both had your share of sadness."

We can't change the past, but we have the present and whatever life has given each of us. We can look to each other and do what we must to live as best as we can. Going forward is about finding contentment in each day rather than the happiness and the fulfilment of how it used to be. Expectations lower and it's hard and it's painful, but it's the only way to keep going. Every step I take feels heavier that it once did, every sigh is deeper and tears come more easily than a giggle or wonderful belly laugh used to.

It's true that everything changes when you lose your partner. Every single thing. From the moment I wake up and open my eyes to see the space next to me in my bed, to the end of the day when I lie back down again, next to that space that will never be filled by him again. I go through the routines of a day and feel his absence in them all - there are only the smells of my showers now which float out of the bathroom, only my clothes that get worn, only my mug used and there's an empty chair at our kitchen table. All those absences before 8am. The list goes on as the day unfolds and I have to learn to adapt. I lower my expectations and seek contentment now in all I can do. My grief tastes bitter-sweet as my heart swells for my boys and the utter joy they give alongside its heaviness in missing him and me, and what life was and what it should be but no longer is.

This month we decorate stones and hang labels on a tree back at the hospice where Tom passed away and at home. Marking the bitter-sweet feelings to dance in the wind, and setting them in stone because they won't change. We can taste the sadness in those sweets now and life can't ever be what it once was.

"...We were made for each other

Out here forever

I know we were

And all I ever wanted was for you to know

Everything I do, I give my heart and soul

I can hardly breathe, I need to feel you here with me...

...I miss you"

Avril Lavigne

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