The first year of grief

What I learned in each month after the shocking loss of a loved one

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In mid-April one year ago, I lost my ex-boyfriend Paul. We had recently broken up due to my indecision about whether I would move to his native Australia with him by the end of the year.

When I received a call from his best friend insisting that he meet me, I was expecting bad news, but certainly not the news that a seemingly healthy man had died of a sudden heart attack.

Every ensuing day would bring a heady concoction of awful shock, strong denial, outrageous anger, ineluctable sadness, and deep gratitude for what I had shared.

For those walking the long, challenging road of grief, I want to share a few reflections from each month of the last year. I hope that it brings some solidarity with what you or a loved one may be going through, and that some nugget stirs you to take positive action.

Month 1: Shock

Pretty much a blur. I mainly recall dear friends checking in two or three times a day to make sure I had gotten out of bed, showered, and ate something. Seeing his lifeless body brought home how fragile life is; one moment bursting with promise, and in another hope splintered.

Month 2: Pain

As my body recovered from the hard decision to leave my job and the shock of death, searing chest pains started. I would normally thrive under pressure. This was different. I came to experience how emotional pain could trigger real physical pain.

Daily swims, yoga, long walks with the dog, intimate dinners with friends, and massage helped me to breathe. Within days of the funeral, I felt inspired to do something to honour what we shared, so I started to list ideas.

Month 3: Escape

I tried to push forward but my body was not cooperating. I decided to listen to what my body and spirit needed. For me, it was a complete break from my familiar environment and a space to quietly reflect on what mattered to me now.

Month 4: Connect

The vastness and silence of desert landscape provided solace from London hustle. It was also the perfect metaphor for my life, stripped of its usual colour and replaced by strange new tones. It was a blessing that I could convalesce in nature’s strong, gentle arms.

Month 5: Review

It was still hard to know where to start, but I had to face my life. I started to investigate becoming a trustee of a charity, noodle with writing, take up wine tasting, and rehearse a new script for my life.

Month 6: Try

I ran as hard and as fast as I could, drawing on the strength I had gained during my time away. Yet, it was too much too soon. I was trying to run on an injury.

Month 7: Flop

I thought I made one step forward but now it felt like two steps back. I felt more exhausted, frustrated and despondent than ever. Then my dear aunt died. And I had all my belongings stolen in a foreign country. I was reminded that life’s challenges don’t stop.

Month 7: Anger

I began to lash out at those closest to me. I felt they did not appreciate how hard this was. Christmas was also coming and it was going to hurt. My family would help me ride the waves.

Month 8: Hope

It was comforting to be with people who intuitively knew what I needed. It was strange to be taken care of like this, as I got used to living without their physical presence. I was surrounded by love, but an indescribably hollow feeling still scented the air.

Month 9: Forge

A friend had told me to think of the hollowness as empty space in a garden, and to imagine would I would fill that space with. I decided that I would have to get comfortable with some emptiness, but that I could find, and even create, joy and beauty in this new space.

Month 10: Dread

Alongside final acceptance came the dread that now I was going to walk the road of the last arguments, the last meals, the last hugs. This time last year, my heart was broken and I would now begin the process of letting him go. If only I knew what was to come!

Month 11: Connect

I fought against dread. I threw everything I learned about what was helpful to me at it: exercise, company of loved ones, escape to nature. This helped until fears of a global pandemic made things more challenging.

Month 12: Peace

Experiencing his death anniversary while alone under lockdown was a masterclass in using my emotional reserves to fight against despair and anger. Surprisingly, I came out of the day feeling proud of being able to many tiny but consistent steps towards things that still mattered to me.

I am no stranger to losing loved ones in sudden, tragic ways. Every relationship is different, so it makes sense that grieving its loss is different as well. Perhaps the most meaningful skill I learned in the last year was the ability to respond or response-ability.

The world will break your heart, but it will also heal it. It might not feel like it for a long time, but you owe it to yourself to claim response-ability.

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