OPINION: Photos and sharing memories are best ways of getting over a loss
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Today I’m writing about the ongoing sorrow that we experience when someone close to us dies, and I’m calling it Long Grief.
Long Grief can happen, obviously, when you lose a child. That is possibly the most devastating of losses. But people can be truly bereft after losing a sibling, a friend, or a parent. However, for most of us, the biggest bereavement in our lives is when a much-loved partner leaves us.
One aspect of being widowed, which you rarely consider before it happens, is just how many other people are in the same boat. It’s a like a huge club; a club no one wanted to join. And once you’re alone you tend to gravitate to others in it, and they seek you out, because they recognise your needs, and are kind and eager to help.
Recently, I’ve had several conversations with widows and widowers who are making changes in their lives which are causing an unexpected upsurge in their grief.
A common alteration when we have been alone for a while, is that we downsize and move nearer to adult children and grandchildren. In some ways, this can feel like an adventure. But unfortunately, it also tends to generate complex emotions – especially when you face up to how many items belonging to your late partner you need to get rid of.
A widow I know is going through her late husband’s vast quantity of books. Like most of us, she is unwilling to discard titles she gave to her husband or he gave to her – particularly those inscribed with loving messages. But deciding about the rest feels an onerous task.
Then there are clothes. I remember finding it easy to give away loads of jumpers as well as my husband’s favourite big, warm winter coat – because I was sure the Salvation Army would get them to people who really needed them.
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But other outfits and accessories felt too precious to part with, including a carrier bag of his favourite ties and the Norfolk Jacket I gave him at our first Christmas together.
Will I keep them forever? I don’t know. Most of the time, I hardly notice them in my house, but it’s comforting to know they are here.
One gentleman I spoke to last week said that after having put everything into store while he sold the family home and decided where he wanted to be, he felt he was grieving all over again now he was settled in a new property and unpacking boxes.
"I have wept over, and literally inhaled, piles of my wife’s clothes that so far I haven’t had the heart to give away," he told me.
"I can’t bear the fact that she’ll never need them again. I also feel a lot of other emotions, like anger that she died first, and guilt that I never took her to Venice, which was somewhere she had always wanted to visit."
Guilt is a very uncomfortable emotion and I’m pretty sure all widowed people experience it at some time.
I remember talking to the wonderful, veteran journalist Katharine Whitehorn after her husband died.
She told me how through their married life, her clothes had always been creased and crushed because there was so little space for them in the wardrobe she shared with her husband. After he had gone, she felt pleased that she now had sufficient room for her things.
But then she felt guilty because it seemed wrong to allow herself any pleasure after his death. Many of us will recognise that kind of scenario.
I think another difficulty that arises as the years pass, is your realisation that though you thought you were prepared for the death of your partner, you really were not.
When my husband was dying, he used to ask me if I would be OK ‘afterwards’, and I would reply: "I promise you I’ll be fine. I’m tough and I’ve got all my wonderful memories of us".
But in reality, I was totally clueless about the toll it would take on me and I discovered the hard way that there are days, even now, when I feel far from ‘fine’. I know I’m not alone.
So, what can you do if you have Long Grief? Well, just as with Long Covid, I believe you have to accept that you can’t know when, if ever, it will go away.
Secondly, I urge you to embrace the healing properties of photographs. So many widows and widowers have described to me how looking at pictures of them and their partners has been a big boost to their well-being. They find themselves thrilled to see the love for each other reflected in their eyes, and feel cheered up to see real, visual evidence of how comfortable and happy they were together.
Talking is good, too. When we speak of our departed loves, they remain alive for us and other people. And that is a great feeling.
Siegfried Sassoon wrote in a poem: ‘I am rich in all I have lost’. And I think that sums it up. Grief is harsh, brutal and sad, but in a sense, it’s the price we pay for having experienced much joy.