by Bella Tee
Living in the aftermath of the loss of a loved one
|Three years. Three long years later, and here I am, still in this city, in our apartment, driving our car, going to our local stores, getting my coffee at the cafe downstairs where we spent all those Sunday mornings, working at the same place. My therapist used to say it was a subconscious mentality, because I couldn't handle anymore change. I think, though, it's because the more that's the same, the more it's like he never left. Or at least, the more it seems he's coming back. It's true what they say, that not a day goes by without obsessively thinking about what he'd say or do in some obscure situation, without those ten years of memories flooding back one by one. I see him everywhere. Every time I'm going out, he's right there in that mirror, fixing his hair, throwing his scarf on, grabbing his keys from the bowl his nephew made him at school. On the couch, in that corner that no one has sat on since, with a glass of wine, watching TV or talking to Mace on the phone for hours on end. Eating dinner with his feet up on the seat opposite, in our room getting changed amazingly early in the morning, or bringing up a cup of coffee in the morning and the both of us curling up reading the paper or just talking. Sitting at the desk in the living room with his iPod marking exam papers, or watching some stupid video on YouTube and laughing with that unforgettable laugh that made me smile just hearing it. And those eyes – those huge sparkling pools of chocolate eyes that haunt me still.
There's no way to describe that numbness that engulfs you, completely and utterly. The darkness that there is just no way to escape, because the one person that would get rid of it was him. That wave of nausea that comes on purely because you know that no matter how hard you cry, or scream, or pray or plead or just beg, he will never be here again. It doesn't matter how long I wait, how long it is before I finally wash that coffee mug, or throw out the adoption papers that, to this day, sit on our kitchen counter signed and ready to go, get rid of his clothes, his computer, briefcase, and that godforsaken coat that he never wore. His keys, phone, aftershave. He wont be back to reuse his mug, or wear his coat or check his Facebook or call his Mom, begrudgingly. Or raise a baby. There will be no more memories, no more moments, no more laughs, no more fights. All there is, is a deafeningly quiet apartment, an empty car, an empty bed. The dreams that we had, it's all gone. I remember one day, we were out one night with Mace and a few other people, he turned to me as we were sitting at dinner and whispered in my ear 'See their faces? We're the couple that everyone's jealous of, the ones with that connection that no one else has but they all want.” I laughed it off at the time, but it was true. Most couples, after a few years, the romance dies. Or at least dims, somewhat. It's more of a routine, a chore, than something fun and amazing and something that you cherish everyday. But it wasn't with us. We were still in love, we still had so much of our lives to live. And that's the cruelty in someone like him being taken. He was so warm, funny, carefree but caring. Even in those awful times during his treatment, that light never left his eyes. He was such a loving, nurturing man, and he would've been an amazing father. The time he was most in his element was with those kids, when he was teaching, and I know that he would've been such a good Dad, because he knew what it was like to have a bad one. His father didn't attend the funeral, or any of the memorials we've had so far. I doubt he will. His mother is OK, now anyway, because she has her other boys, the ones that he knew were loved more even as a kid. She never understood just how wonderful he was, and that was her loss frankly.
They say there are five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. I think I only went through two, anger and depression. There are simply no words to describe that awful, soul destroying sadness. That sorrow that just leaves you so empty, carved out. And once you become exhausted from being pissed off, you get hit so hard by that depression, you are simply drained. You're a shell of a person, but nothing can touch you because it feels like it's all over. Nothing to live for. There was never anything to deny, because that came earlier, when we found out he was sick. I guess for me, being the one left and not the one dying, bargaining wasn't an issue – I know that no matter what I do, nothing would ever bring him back. And again that came earlier. I think that half of it we worked through together, the denial and the bargaining at least. It's ironic, how in a way we had been bracing ourselves for him to go, and then just as there was that hope, as his meds were finally working, he was gone. But preparing for the end, that was so much easier because we were both there. I wasn't alone, we could talk and just sit there together, wrapped around each other, knowing with all our hearts that it didn't matter how awful it became for us because no matter what, day or night, we would have each other forever and always. That security is probably the greatest gift that anyone could possibly receive, knowing that someone was there to catch you.
My therapist was adamant that one day, I would reach acceptance. And I waited, but to me, if you can accept the death of someone who means more than anything else to you, there's something very wrong indeed. Because the fact is, he should still be here, living another twenty years like we thought. Right now, we would be living in a house, maybe not as edgy and sleek as this apartment, but we would be raising a baby who would be about two now, going to play group and watching our own little baby take it's first steps and laugh and cry. We'd be stressed out and sleep deprived but we'd love it and we'd be together. That's the most important. We never got the chance to grow up and be a proper family, which is just heart breaking. Because we could've done it, we were going to do it, we were so close. People tell me all the time, how great it was that we never got around to adopting, because now I'm not left with the burden. But I wish we'd done it, that is my one regret from those ten great years, if we'd settled down just a year earlier, he would've been able to be a Dad, to have that connection that he'd craved ever since his own father deserted him. He would've finally filled that part of him that was missing since that, still scarred. And, aside from that, I would always have the memory of him, because we had this baby together. I think that my grieving process would maybe have been harder in the beginning, but now, there would be no crossroads, no question of where do I go from here? Because I would have this child to nurture and live for, someone who needed me and who would forever remind me of him. It wouldn't be a struggle to get up very morning, it couldn't be if there was a little person there counting on me. But the past is the past. And, like all this, there's no way to change it.
My personal grieving process has been the worst thing – the worst pain – I could ever imagine a human being going through. There have been periods where I have thought I could move on, and periods where I have honestly thought about ending it all, that I could not go one more day like this. The first week – during the flurry of activity that happens so soon afterwards, the funeral and the wake and telling people – was my most normal week over the last three years. I didn't cry once. I didn't feel anything, because you can't comprehend anything like that. It's not possible to understand something that big. People were around me constantly, I was busy with the funeral, I never had time to sit down and take it in. More importantly, I didn't want time to let it sink in.
Eventually, though, people go home. The funeral ends, people have to get back to their lives and jobs and husbands or wives or partners or kids. They kept the memory of him alive, in the back of their minds, behind due dates and kids and friends. Over dinner, they might make a passing comment - “Oh, God, I gotta call and see how it's all going”. But everyone knew it wouldn't happen, because it wasn't important to them. But I couldn't just forget about it like everyone else. I was living it, and that meant that eventually, I was alone. It was exactly a week later that it happened. My mother, who had stayed in the apartment for a week, went back home. I was alone that night, sitting on the couch for the first time since. And subconsciously, I got up and said 'I'm going to bed.' And, like that it clicked. It seems stupid, but that deafening silence after I said that turned something on in my mind. I threw up. I don't know why, but in that moment I became desperately cold and so nauseous I thought I was about to die. I was shivering so violently that I had to lean against the wall for support. I threw up again, but there was nothing to throw up. It was that sudden shock, that I knew was coming but ignored until it surged up and slapped me in the face. And then, the inevitable happened, and I burst into tears. I'd told myself not to, I said it didn't mean anything, so there was no point. I'd said that I'd grieve with meaning, not just cry like a baby. But as I was couching against that wall, my eyes welled up. I remember taking in a shallow, shaky breath and willing myself to not let them spill over. But one did, just one. And then another, and another. At first, I tried to be silent, so I could say that I'd had a moment of weakness and move on.I breathed deeply, I shut my eyes, and then out of nowhere, a sob just escaped. And then, I was gone. It all came tumbling out. I cried for hours, curled up against the living room wall sobbing, wailing bitterly. I didn't stop shivering, I didn't stop throwing up, I didn't stop crying, screaming. I woke up the next morning, curled up on the floor, my face wet with tears. I didn't get up that whole day. I went to the bathroom and went to bed and I lay there. I didn't sleep, I didn't eat, I didn't move. There was one thing going through my mind – him. I immersed myself in the memories, I told myself he was coming back. I put myself into a sort of delirium, an alternate world where we were still living our lives. I talked to him, I went through my life in my head, as if he was still there. This lasted for three days, I lied to myself for three days, and that was the scariest three days of my life. I didn't eat, I didn't sleep. I got up in the morning and got a glass of water, and peed twice a day. In the dark, alone.
After that, well, I got up. Monday morning, I was going to work. I had a shower, made a coffee, shaved, did my hair, put on my best suit. But I couldn't go out the door. As I grabbed my keys and put my coat on, I could almost feel his cheek brushing up against mine as he kissed me as we were looking into that mirror each morning. That nausea hit me and I was gone. I was officially lost. I was broken. If I couldn't even make it out the front door...so I slept for a week, I didn't take any calls and I didn't reply to the fifty plus texts that I received. It was then that I knew I needed a therapist. The first few times, she came to me, because I couldn't get myself out the door, I could barely get out of bed. But it's her, and only her, that's the reason I'm here today. Because I swear to God I would've killed myself. Opening up, talking to someone, was amazing. Those three hours a week saved my life.
In the beginning, I was angry. I was overtaken by this rage, this furiousness at God or the driver, even at him. Just as things were getting better, he was gone. It wasn't fair, it wasn't a matter of sadness, I told myself. It was a matter of getting even. I went to the drivers trial and sat there as the strong, proud, determined one. Not that I was ever a believer, but I had a fair go at God. I even got pissed at him, for stupid reasons. That he'd decided to cross the road at that particular spot, that he hadn't taken an extra two seconds and avoided the speeding car, because that's all it came down to, a couple of seconds. I yelled at myself for not staying on the phone with him five seconds longer or giving him a bigger kiss that morning. I went through every possible scenario that would've made him two seconds later that day. I spent about six or seven months being furiously angry. But you can't keep that up forever. I gave way. Cue breakdown number two, cue a week in bed, cue endless crying and screaming and plate smashing. Cue losing twelve pounds by not eating. The cycle started again. I didn't go out for a month, to work or to my therapist or anywhere, I surrounded myself in him as the transition from anger to sadness took place. If I went out, I was forgetting him. I couldn't forget him. So we started again. But this was harder. When I was so amazingly angry, I had fuel to keep me going, I was fighting for him in a way, I kept going because of that strong emotion. But this – it was like being the walking dead. I didn't smile, laugh, think, communicate. I didn't scream, talk or interact. I was operating on auto pilot. I got up, I went to work, I went to therapy, I came home and cried from pure exhaustion until I fell into a fitful sleep. I opened up in secret, but on the outside, never. I didn't give a shit anymore. I wasn't living, because there was no point living. I was trying to survive for one reason only, because if someone had to through something half this bad if I died, I couldn't forgive myself. So I struggled on, my defence mechanism being to shut myself down, operating on the bare necessities, without sinking into the blackness. Little did I know, I was already in it. Surrounded by it. It was a struggle to wake up, it was a struggle to do anything, but no one ever saw that. I wasn't a person, I was a robot. I did what I had to do, but all I thought about was him, all the time. Everything I did, I imagined what he'd say, or do, or be like. His sarcasm, his wit, his stance, facial expressions. I obsessed, unhealthily. My mind didn't shut off the memories of him, so much so that I didn't get more than an hours sleep per night. But when your not using energy living, it's amazing what you can survive on. My therapist waited and waited until finally, as it had twice before, it all came crashing down. Yes, this time, it had been about a year, operating on empty, without a soul. But no one can keep it up.
So finally, I knew what I had to do. Clearly, locking myself away and then acting like it was all fine wasn't working. Extreme to extreme wasn't healthy, and it wasn't necessary. I thought that maybe, if it was hard for me, it would bring him back, because it was impossible to suffer that much. How could anyone be expected to do it? But it wasn't bringing him back, nothing I did would. Obvious, yes, easy to understand, no. I spent tens of hours and thousands of dollars figuring that out. And once I did, it didn't make sense to damage myself more. So I took baby steps. I went to therapy every day, whether it was one on one or group, I needed that connection to keep me going. Those people were the only ones I trusted and they were the only people who could vaguely understand. I took my antidepressants religiously, as I still do, trying to keep myself out of that engulfing darkness that I'd spent the entire last year in. It was by no means pretty or fun, and I questioned myself a fair bit, you know, if I should be taking medication to keep myself functioning. Why live if the only way life is manageable is artificially? But I can't fall back there, because I'm not sure I can make it out again. And if that means I need a few chemicals, so be it. I started working three days a week, more in a good week, less in a bad. Believe me, the ratio of good to bad was about 1:100. I saw friends again, sparingly at first. I went back to all our old haunts, however banal they were, one by one. The coffee shop, the supermarket, the gym, at first. But then to his work to clean his desk out, to our favourite restaurant, even to the club in New York where we'd first met that fateful night during the 90's and the hotel that we went to for our anniversaries. I cried, I yelled, I still remembered things so violently that I threw up, but I was weaving a thread of normalcy back into my life, however wispy it became at times. Then slowly, I dropped back therapy, a day at a time, to my twice a week now. Even if we never talk about Cash, those sessions help me unload the trap that is my brain onto someone else, it allows me to shed the burden of my thoughts. I worked a regular week, saw more people. I distinctly remember the first thing I laughed at, in more than a year, and how bizarre that sound was coming from me. I cry everyday without fail, I scream, I still remember things so violently I throw up, but my memories made it better, not worse.
There's one other person that comes into all this, and that's Mace. We literally didn't see each other for a year after, I think it was too painful to be together without him there – it had never happened before and I don't think we could bring ourselves to let it start. It was to weird, too much of a reminder of the gaping hole left in both our lives. We met by chance in the street one day, and we both had no idea what to do. We had a coffee, but there was that elephant in the room, the thing that we weren't talking about, even though it made no sense not to. Finally, we both let that wall down and it all came pouring out. I found it hard, at first, to accept that someone else had as many memories as I did. I didn't want there to be someone who had suffered as much as I had – I wanted to be the only one with the insurmountable grief, because somehow that made sense to me. But, the fact was, that it was really nice for there to be someone who understood without having to explain how it felt, what it was like to have him missing from my life. We had a period of a few months where we became really close. But we both got a little freaked out – it was too much too soon. The guilt we felt, as though we were replacing him, was too much, so we pulled back. It may have been stupid and weird, but it felt right. You do whatever you have to to get through the day with your conscience, soul and mind intact, more or less. I couldn't deal with the guilt of growing so close to Mace. She would always be his best friend, not mine. Now, we're close, but nothing over the top. We don't look at each other to cling to anymore like we did. I think that came from the fact that we were the only two who understood the emotions, the anger and grief and the pain. But, you don't come to terms with these things by clinging onto someone else. You have to find that equilibrium yourself. By being so close to Mace, I could push all that emotion to the side, because 'she got it'. I'm by no means finished dealing with it – I doubt I ever will be – but maybe I'm that much closer now, without leaning on her, that I would have been otherwise.
Apparently, after a while, you start going back to normal. The grief is supposed to subside. It doesn't. Ever. And I know it won't. You can't just one day wake up and forget that loss, it's not possible. It's when a memory takes you by surprise, and it literally winds you, it's like someone just punched you so hard that everything else disappears. It happens all the time, I'll be grabbing a coffee or brushing my teeth or putting a pile of washing away and one of these memories, possibly more than a decade old, that has been lost in my subconscious, just comes out of nowhere. It stops you in your tracks. Makes you physically weak, dizzy. And after one, more and more flood back, take over your mind and it can take hours to feel strong enough to face the world again. It seems impossible for the grief to subside when you remember that person so vividly every day. Even if it's just a single, silent tear, I cry. It's the stupidest things that set me off, but it happens without fail. Like when I was putting away my coat for summer and his was hanging in the closet. Or the other day when I saw a girl wearing a chocolate brown scarf, that reminded my instantly of his eyes. I couldn't stop the tears. I still turn his electric blanket on, clean his sink in the bathroom, because the more you cling on to those desperate routines, the more it seems that he'll just walk in the door, throw his bag on the table and hug me from behind as I'm cooking dinner and give me a kiss on the cheek, just like he used to. And the more it seems like that, the less likely I am to ever forget a memory.
Jesus, I love you so much that there is a physical pain in my chest every time I think of you. I will never be OK, no matter how supportive everyone is, because no one means as much to me as you. I only care about one person as much as this and there is nothing in the world I wish for more than you. Your face, body, eyes, smell, laugh, humour, care, kindness, love, I miss these things and so much more everyday that it hurts to wake up. The best part of my day is the three seconds after I wake up and I roll over and hope and pray that you'll be there so I can snuggle into you, like we did. The sickness that I feel, morning after morning, when you're not there lasts until the second I fall asleep, and into my dreams. Even though it's stupid I secretly expect you to be there every morning. God, baby, it hurts to go on living without you. When I think of you, it can bring pain, but I don't feel so alone when I remember you. The silence is so deafening sometimes that I want to scream, my hands feel so empty without yours in them, my eyes will never see anything as beautiful as your eyes. I will never come across anyone as giving as you, anyone who inspires people as much as you or anyone who I can ever love as much as I love you. For as long as I'm on this Earth, the pain will never go away, the rawness and emptiness of my heart will never subside, because there is only one person that can fill it, and you're never coming back.
I love you, Cash Cooper. I love you.