And so six months have passed.
I started this blog about a month before Juliet died and I’m more and more inclined to bring it to a close, now it has fulfilled its purpose. I probably won’t ever close it completely – how do I do that anyway? – but just put it into a state of suspended prose.
It’s worth reminding myself (author’s none-to-subtle device for reminding you, the reader) why I set this blog up:
- To inform family and friends of Juliet’s condition. In the early days, it did that perfectly, it saved me a lot of time on the phone repeating the same information, and saved a lot of people the agony of wanting to know but not wanting to intrude.
- Then it became my therapy, my unburdening, a cathartic way to get some of the hurt out of me and enjoy celebrating Juliet’s life through old photos.
- Lastly, I vaguely hoped that it might help others in a similar, horrible position. I don’t think I’ve mentioned too much of that, so I thought I might jot down a few pieces of wisdom here.
So – if you are with someone who is dying, or has a terminal illness…
Start preparing, as soon as you can. You never know when the disease might suddenly and viciously increase its effects. We were lucky (that’s not meant to be ironic). We had many months to prepare. So what should you do?
Write letters to each other, while the dying person (I’ll call her the “patient”) can still read and understand. Even better, talk to each other about why you became a couple. This isn’t something that you can just launch into over the washing up, or at bedtime, so go for a long walk or drive, or just sit in a quiet sunny room, whatever. Look at your old photos and talk about them, and the memories they invoke and the things that aren’t in the photos. We did that; I would have liked to have looked much more at the photos but we had to live for the moment as well. In the later weeks, when Juliet had trouble in expressing herself clearly, we both found this terribly upsetting, but we had had our discussions previously.
Write individual wills, it’s easy on the internet or through a kit, if your affairs are simple. Set a deadline for doing it, including getting a couple of friends or neighbours to witness and sign it. It’s a bit awkward (for them), but do it, it’s too important not to. The probate process was distressing and difficult enough even with J’s will in place.
Prepare for the funeral. Again, it is difficult to find the right time to do this. I used to look through books of readings & poems in bed on a Saturday morning with a cup of tea, until it got too upsetting, as it did for several weeks. Make some notes about what the patient does and doesn’t want – readings, songs, things to say, things to avoid. You don’t have to plan the fine detail. We did this preparation, and I felt better at the funeral that I was respecting her wishes.
Plan some memorials. These might be just the funeral itself, or more elaborate forms, it’s a matter of personal choice. Making the various memorials to J become reality gave me a strong sense of purpose – the planting of Juliet’s tree we did while she was still alive, then there was her rose, the music books at the hospice, newspaper obituaries, the plaque at the school and the newspaper article about the plaque. But be prepared for a big hole in your life when all these targets are met (ask me how I know).
Get in touch with your old friends. Before the funeral. Before the patient dies. For example, it was pretty gutting to finally track down one of J’s old flatmates and find that not only was she living less than twenty miles away from us, but also that a couple of our last trips out had been to locations either side of her village.
Here’s a couple of photos from one of those trips, near Brill Windmill in Oxfordshire. It was one of the first times I took J out in the wheelchair, 10th April 2011. J took the photo of me. I sort of like and dislike my photo – although it’s currently my Facebook banner photo. The fence stretches away into the blue sky and oblivion. Make up your own metaphor.
You can see something in my face – stress? pain? I was probably thinking “It wasn’t meant to be like this”. Sorry, a self-pitying moment. I deserve a few.
And after the death? The bereavement counsellors at the hospice knew what they were doing. They don’t contact the bereaved until 6-8 weeks after the death. Because, frankly, there isn’t anything they can say to take away the grief. You just have to go through it.
I read an interesting study called the Holmes and Rahe stress scale, which quantifies a stressful life event with a score. Don’t go to the link just yet. So:
- Had a bad Christmas? That’s a 12.
- Trouble at work? 20 to 23.
- Child leaving home? – hello, that’s just happened to me as well – pah, a mere 29.
- Sex and pregnancy only get to 40.
- Sacked from your job (that happened to me once): 47.
- Getting married: 50. (Eh?)
- Separation or divorce gets you somewhere between 65 and 73.
- Finally we get to the death of a spouse and the score leaps to the big 100.
There’s nothing else listed after that. It is literally the most stressful event you may ever face. No wonder my concentration at work fell off a cliff. I was clued-up enough not to take any silly decisions about work, like giving it all up. But I still haven’t ruled that out.
I’ve been very slowly removing some of J’s presence from the house – clothes, sewing machine, shoes, coats, her jewellery on the dressing table etc. This is extremely difficult, but the reality is that it is no longer “her” house, nor “our” house but “my” house. That said, it is still the family home for me and my two girls, when Lucy is home from university, and I can’t change it too much. So in fact I haven’t yet got round to removing any of J’s coats, shoes or underwear. It’s going to be a long process.
Now a thorny one. New relationships. Don’t go out looking for someone new too soon. I’m thinking six months at least, but that is coincidentally today, so treat that with a pinch of salt. And as some readers will know, I met someone new very soon after J’s death and we’ve been together several months now, and it’s great and it has really, really helped me through many of the dark days. So I’m uncomfortably aware that this paragraph is completely contradictory. You know what, you’re going to have to take your own counsel on this one. Don’t listen to jelly-brain in this area.
Right, some other stuff. Christmas, birthdays and anniversaries will be horrible, and they are and they were, but I’m told they get better once you’ve been through one of each. Today in fact wasn’t too bad, I was very busy at work in London. A couple of days ago, on Sunday, the six-month anniversary in weeks, if you follow me, that was worse.
I made my peace with the so-called friend who failed to contact me for months after J’s death. He eventually called me and the conversation went something like this (his part is played by an actor named Jack):
“Hi Simon, how are things, it’s been a while”.
“Yes, Jack, it has been a while. Do you know how long a while?”
“It will have been at least five months tomorrow. How do I know that? Because I haven’t heard from you since Juliet died, in all that time, and she died five months tomorrow. No card, no call, you didn’t respond to the funeral invitation, nothing.”
I interrupted his stuttered excuses and said “Jack, you got it wrong. Really wrong. You really screwed up”. And more in similar vein. I didn’t rub his nose in it for too long, I said I wasn’t going to lose a friend over it and that we’d have a beer sometime. We haven’t yet, but I expect we will.
So – if someone you know is dying, or has had bad news, get in touch with them, call them, email, write, send them a card, even Twitter if that’s what it takes. But don’t ignore them. This is the time they need you.
If this blogging software had a Rambling Alert function it would be flashing red by now. So I will draw this post to a close.
Six months on, life is actually getting better.
- I’ve a new friend who makes me happy.
(The term “girlfriend” seems ridiculous at my age, “partner” is too formal and committed and “companion” makes her sound like a Dr.Who girl).
- I’ve just come back from a week in the US on business, on a new and exciting project. So I may yet get my work mojo back again.
- Film nights and pub nights with my pals still occur, if on an irregular, but very pleasant basis. Beer and talking b******s.
- I’ve done my winter evening class on Orwell and re-discovered a love of reading, maybe even as grand as a love of literature.
- I’ve got some weekend breaks booked, and thoughts about a summer trip to the US with the girls to visit my brother and his wife.
- There’s a new company car on the way, to replace the very-capable and pleasant Volvo estate. (I only got the Volvo for one reason – because it could fit a wheelchair. So I won’t really regret its departure).
- I’m keeping my running up and my alcohol intake down, both of which I promised Juliet. The former is doing better than the latter, but not too bad.
- My drive towards learning more cooking skills and watching more classic and contemporary films would probably appear on a school report as “Shows some progress” – if the teacher was being kind. But there’s time yet.
- We’ve got a cleaner in to help with the housework.
- The winter isn’t over yet, but in another three weeks it will be March.
Well, actually it won’t, because we are in a leap year. I can get through Feb 29th.
Did you know that John Dryden “To die is landing on some distant shore” was the first official Poet Laureate?
Sorry this has been a text-heavy post. Here’s a photo of Juliet with her beloved Sydney Opera House, taken on our second visit to Australia, 25th August 2005.