By Lucie Brownlee
My husband Mark died suddenly on February 11th, 2012 at 8.13pm. He was 37 and suffered a catastrophic heart arrhythmia as we were in the middle of making love. (The precision of the time seems important – like the horizon line in a flat landscape, it starkly differentiates the old life from the new.)
I spent the first month much as I imagine you did – accepting and disposing of casseroles, accepting and ignoring platitudes, drinking alcohol and shouting down the telephone at automated option recordings in an effort to close down his accounts.
The second month was mostly spent waiting for the joke to be over and for him to come back.
In the third month, I bought a notebook and wrote my first words since his death:
Thursday. Not a minute goes by when I don’t think about you. With love, with fear, with yearning, with a smile, with incredulity. I picture you so vividly, it is impossible to believe that you are gone…I just cannot conceive of never seeing you again.
I continued for two pages, cataloguing memories and thoughts. I exorcised feelings of guilt (had I killed him with my thighs?) and rage (that bloody heart consultant at the hospital had a case to answer by god!) I made lists of things he used to do, expressions he used to use, things that made us laugh.
I wrote each day for a short while, but soon entries became sporadic and rambling. Words didn’t, as they had in the past, seem to be working. He wasn’t coming back. The pain wasn’t abating. I still couldn’t eat. Besides, the effort of picking up a pen was too exhausting, never mind contriving something to say about how I was feeling.
The last entry is dated April 4th 2013, almost a year after I started. It reads:
I was remembering how you didn’t like being spooned at night because you got too hot, so I used to nestle my cheek between your shoulder blades instead.
The pages after that are filled with felt-tip drawings of aliens by my then five year old child, which, if interpreted as depictions of grief, kind of sum it all up.
Seven days after that last entry, I started my blog, Wife After Death. I started the blog because I felt increasingly isolated and alone. I started it because I didn’t know what else to do. I started it in the hope that someone out there might be able to tell me. (I started it because my notebook was filled with drawings of aliens.)
Of course, no-one could tell me what to do. But writing to a responsive audience reassured me that I wasn’t going mad. Comments began coming in from all over the world. “I get what you’re saying about the drinking / the sleeping around / the sense of hopelessness and dread,” they said. “Because I’m doing it too.” I linked into a new blogging community, widows and widowers who were writing about things that only those who have been bereaved can truly understand. I felt closer to strangers than I did to some of my oldest friends.
I was writing entries two, sometimes three times a day on the blog. I pounded grief, rage, loneliness into my keyboard and my keyboard, like every good friend, listened and offered an opportunity for reflection.
I continued the blog for over a year and one day, a curious thing happened: I didn’t feel much like writing it anymore. Was it possible that life was getting…easier? I looked back at that very first desperate entry and read through until the final one. I had unwittingly created a sort of grief diary, and the evidence was there – I had written myself to a point where I felt ready to start writing about something else.
Then my agent approached me. Would I consider turning my experience into a book? I hesitated. The success of the blog was its raw immediacy. How could a book have anything like the same appeal? And did I really want to write a book about me after Mark’s death anyway? What would his mother think?
In the event, I completed the book, Life After You, in just three months. It was a far more reflective piece of writing than the blog; it had less rage, more perspective. Virgin bought the rights, it got picked up by a film company and made it onto Richard and Judy’s Autumn 2015 Bookclub list. It exposed the warty underbelly of grief and thrust it into the mainstream, a fact about which I am extremely proud.
I am now approaching the five year anniversary of Mark’s death. What will I be doing at 8.13pm on the 11th of February 2017? This year, as with the four that have preceded it, I will be remembering my old love in the company of good friends. But I’ll also have my new love, Craig, at my side. The fact that he is a widower himself is both pivotal and peripheral to our story. We are soul-mates with an added mutuality, which brings us closer than anyone on the outside can ever truly understand.
And five years on I still write, though my keyboard no longer reverberates with grief and sadness. Where the landscape was flat, it now rolls.