I’m musing – stay with me – about big grief and its progression over time, given that last weekend marked two-and-a-half years since Matthew’s death. Three things that are top of mind:

I’m just about starting to realise that I am no longer part of a marriage and partnership with another person. Rationally, of course, I have known that from the start, but deeper parts of my psyche are only just starting not to be constantly surprised by it – it’s taken that long for the new neural networks to begin to form.

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The eleven-month mark passed on Saturday. I was in the Peak District, with dear friends, with a map and compass, a bivvy bag, and a sleeping bag that was too thin for Friday night’s high wind or Saturday night’s clear skies. Forty-odd miles of walking took me in a wide loop across the high moors, on paved paths, on periodic trods, and through trackless bracken, heather and bog. Continue reading

It’s an odd thing, grief in the time of corona. I’m now physically alone, but I was emotionally alone before. There’s a stress on the world, and I was already battered by loss. Billions have been pushed into a psychological world I had already for eight months been forced to call my home: sometimes I feel closer to other people as a result; sometimes I feel further away.

This morning I was awake for forty-five minutes before I remembered that Matthew is gone. That’s forty-five minutes of reprieve before I pick up that sadness and carry it with me through the day. It’s not at all that I don’t want him in my head; I do. But I also want some periods of grace without that awareness, when I can live other parts of my life. I want as well to be able to choose how I remember him, to picture him in life and not in cold death.

That choice still feels a long way away. But through corona I’m enjoying wandering London in its emptiness and quiet, as though the world is mirroring my inner life. And forty-five minutes of reprieve is for today progress enough.

Here’s what I think it should be like: a constant sense of sadness underlying everything I do, with stronger waves that sweep me into tears. Those tears should come when, for example, I sort through Matthew’s belongings, or when I find myself in a place he loved. That’s what, emotionally, would seem to make sense.

It isn’t like that.

This weekend I’ve been in Worcester, surrounded by Matthew’s life. I’ve seen his friends and colleagues. I’ve begun to make decisions about what from his many collections I keep, and what I jettison so that I can move forward. I haven’t been overcome by grief. I haven’t even cried. I have chatted, and laughed, and been a whirlwind of efficiency activity.

It may be that I’m back in denial, telling myself I’m kindly doing for him while he is away the house-clearing he won’t ever get round to himself. (There’s certainly an element of that.) It may be that at six months into this new life the situation is getting easier; belongings are becoming ‘stuff’ and not a way to try to conjure him back.

I imagine it’s some of both. I imagine also that the balance between the two will become clearer over the next few hours as I relax and as the undercurrents of my brain find their way to the surface. Either way, this isn’t is what I think it should be.

It is instead, as the wise continue to tell me, exactly what it is. And what we do regardless (I’ve added this bit) is that we go to the hills. So last night with Lucy I faced into the gale, and looked down as darkness fell on the floods and on the the bright lights of Malvern. We’re into March now. On we go.

Last weekend for Matthew’s birthday I was in Chamonix and on skis. On Saturday that was exhilarating; we lapped the off-piste in Vallorcine over and over again – in powder on the open slopes, then still on powder through the trees, then through the chopped tracks, and finally for the sake of it down the bumps under the lift. Being in the shadow of the ridge on which Matthew was injured kept distracting me. Despite that the day was fun and I also skied well. But then on Sunday and Monday the grief was debilitating again. Mostly I cried, or slept, or wandered aimlessly through town. I also made full use of the medication I’ve been prescribed. It’s taken me another four days to get back into some emotional balance.

I hadn’t anticipated that. I expected, obviously, that Matthew’s birthday on Sunday would be hard. But I’d been let off lightly at New Year by an evening that was easier than expected, and so my guard was down. I expected to be sad. I didn’t expect to be knocked to the floor.

My point is: I have no knowledge of how this plays out.

I saw my doctor last night. We were both talking at the same time, both saying that the issue is I don’t know how to manage this grief in the context of my life. I’ve managed my illness, with help from her and others, for over eight years. I know how to do that, know when I can push on and when I need to rest. I know what imminent collapse feels like, and generally can judge how severe the symptoms have got. I know that when I’m about to dissociate it affects my eyesight first, and then my speed of movement, and then my ability to speak, and onwards until I have no feeling in my body and my brain entirely shuts down. I know the other patterns as well. I have a well-practiced plan for what to do when things are bad. I’ve used it time and time again and it’s kept me alive.

But the grief is new and it is brutal. It has a rhythm of its own, different triggers, a set of symptoms which are unfamiliar and still, six months in, unexpected. I don’t yet fully know how to ride those – or when I’m about to fall off. Having those layered on top of my illness puts me on a bucking bronco. Life currently is tricky, to say the least.

So here’s what we do. My doctor knows me. She knows my illness. She knows grief. I trust her absolutely (a trust forged in extremis and over many years). Independent, headstrong and driven as I am, I have for now submitted the process of my life to her. Very literally I have written down how much time I am going to spend for the next week on work, clearing the house, dealing in one way or another with Matthew’s death, and anything else that causes mental, physical or emotional stress. We’re agreeing limits to each of those, and I have agreed that I’ll stick to them. This is not me. I prize my independence, my ability to do more than anyone thinks possible, and my right to do as I choose. But for the moment I need to let that go, and do as I am told, and wait, and believe that somehow I’ll learn how to manage this as well, and somehow I’ll come out the other side.

I’m looking at my diary from April last year. I was preparing to go to India and was nervous as well as excited. It seems a wise friend said this to me: ‘You’re going to go and have the experience of a lifetime and you’re going to come back and tell the tale, whatever it is.’

After a year of disaster and grief, and now with fear of what the future might bring, there are worse approaches to 2020 than a simple commitment to telling the tale ‘whatever it is’.

(Picture is of Changuch, first climbed by Martin Moran in 2009, viewed from just below Longstaff’s Col on Nanda Devi East.)

Matthew and I competed on everything – more lightheartedly as the years passed and arguably we both grew up a bit, but still over the silliest things and all of the time. Who could pick the right carriage on the Tube for the exit (usually me). Who won the race to the trig point (always him, however late I waited before my dash). Who dressed fastest for dinner when we were running late (always me, and we always were).

Today I remembered that once long long ago we competed – with laughter – over which of us would have to dump the other when our relationship ended. ‘I’ll get in first,’ he said, ‘I’ve never had someone break up with me, and I’m not going to spoil my perfect record.’ But I was in the same position with respect to previous relationships, so I of course claimed I’d be breaking up with him.

And now? Professionals have told me it would be normal to feel that by dying Matthew actively deserted me. It is common, they have said, to be angry at that desertion, however illogical the anger may be. I don’t currently feel either of those things. Who knows, though, at some point I may.

What I feel instead is that I am the one deserting him. I am leaving him forever in August while myself moving into a new year. I am starting, because I have no choice, to consider what a life without him might look like. In that life I will inevitably know new people and do new things. At times the sense of guilt is overwhelming, and it’s just as illogical as resentment at him would be. And then came the thought: what this is is a parallel – a desperately sad one – of our old banter in which neither of us is leaving the other first, or both of us somehow are.

There’s nothing I can do about any of that. Matthew is where he is. At some point I will have to move forwards: there is nowhere else for me to go. But I hope desperately that as I do make that move, I do so holding in both hands the beautiful fact that, despite all the competition, or maybe because of it, our relationship never needed either of us to break it up.

An evening of many tears, and much shaking, and this:

Until he died I didn’t realise he was mortal.

I did, of course, know that at some point he would die. I expected – with nine years between us – to be the one left alone. But I associated ‘mortality’ with age and that, in my mind, was so far ahead of us that it had no real weight.

Now it has a weight, a heft, that is dragging me down. I feel it; any sense of lightness has gone. Mortality has become a leaden anchor on my life. (Others have known this before me; I needed to learn it for myself.)

That doesn’t – not for me, not yet – make life more precious. What it makes it is more serious, more important, heavier. I was told early on that the petty would fall away. That’s my growing experience. I’m no Romantic, so I won’t savour thoughts of heavier death to intensify my experience of life, won’t crush its grape against my palate for wine. Nor will I chant, as a medieval Christian, that in the midst of life we are in death. But I can understand why both, weightily, importantly, have been said.

(Pic is Regent’s Park in tonight’s dusk.)

I’ve been thinking about bravery and about curiosity – the former because I’m more in need of it than I ever have been; the latter because it was a characteristic of Matthew’s. I started off musing on them separately. I’m now convinced they are two sides of the same coin.

There will be some among you who immediately comment that I am brave. Thank you. But in many ways I’m not. I endure. I stand up and go on again. Both of those have an element of bravery. But my sort of bravery tends to be dependent on closing my emotions down, putting my guard up, getting all my defence mechanisms in place – and then stepping out into the cold, hard world. That mode of bravery is at the expense of what therapists have repeatedly encouraged me to call self-compassion; it can also be at the expense of taking joy in life. There are reasons for that behaviour on my part, and those are not the point. The point is that my particular pattern only takes me so far.

Matthew had less of the push-on-regardless type of bravery than I do. What he had in abundance (what spurred him on) was curiosity – a willingness to open himself to the world, a delight in new people, new places, new thoughts, new experiences. His curiosity could be infuriating: he had to look at every single restaurant menu in a new town before deciding on a place to eat; he tried to read every book review, and hoarded unread literary magazines for years in case there might be something in them he didn’t want to miss. But his curiosity was a fount of enjoyment and a revelling in the richness of the world.

Just today my world does not feel rich or warm. I am deep in the post-adrenal crash that was – apparently – inevitable given what I succeeded in getting through between August and November. I don’t regret how I got through that period. I’m proud of the services we put together for Matthew, and every ounce of energy it took to honour him was worth it a thousand times. But it came at a cost, and I’m paying it now. (Maybe also it is the cost of love.)

There’s a way out of this place which I’ve taken many times before. That way is to stand up as soon as I can stand, and to move forwards whatever it takes. I will need to do some of that. But it will be easier if as I stand and move I am aware of the richness of the world around me, if I absorb the kindness coming my way, if I’m curious about what life is bringing, and if I see novelty as I go. With curiosity about myself more compassion may come as well.

That’s the goal. But in the meantime here is Matthew on a summer evening in Salzburg, taking an inordinate amount of time to order, because he was reading the whole of the wine list, line by line.

In the first days and weeks after Matthew died I wrote down memories of him obsessively, terrified they were already fading, desperately trying to hold onto all of him and knowing that so much was already lost. I wrote down turns of phrase, physical habits, the sound of his voice in different contexts, how he and I spoke to each other when no-one else was around. I wrote what his forehead and lips felt like when I kissed him when he was alive, and also after he was dead.

I’m glad I wrote down all of that, and I will come back to those pages in time. But at the moment they are too painful to touch. I’m too scared of my emotions to open up those files. More comforting currently is the smooth-edged monumental picture of Matthew which we created through the memorial service, a picture not of untrue perfection, but one nonetheless necessarily simplified and consciously shaped. That was the nature of the setting and a consequence of merely three merely seven-minute tributes; but it was also a long way from the messiness of a whole life.

I’ve listened to that service over and over again. It is rich, and it is grand, and it is also not just about Matthew but about everyone who was there, and about all the other people who were not there but whom Matthew touched over twenty-five years of teaching and forty-eight of life. It is a preservation, as though in amber, of all we could fit in of his life. Unlike my memories, that recording will hold its detail, and it is also at a level of intimacy which my emotions can currently bear.

As it happens, Matthew regularly wore a pair of amber cuff links, given to him by one of his closest friends. The same friend gave me an amber bracelet for my birthday on Wednesday. I’m wearing it for the first time today.