When my wife Charlotte died suddenly and unexpectedly at Easter my auto reflex kicked in. My busyness gene went into overdrive, and I turned into even more of a whirling dervish than usual. Some might say that over the next six months my list of achievements was impressive:
- Organised the funeral and all the admin which piles up when someone dies
- Set up a Just Giving site in Charlotte’s memory and raised £17,000 so far
- Edited and launched my business book “My Job Isn’t Working!”
- Finished our barn restoration project
- Had friends and family from all over to stay, or went and visited them
- Organised the biggest party our household has ever seen (it was my 60th three days before she passed)
Along with learning how to cook, garden, clean……
I knew all along that all I was doing was buying time whilst I got over the shock of it, and that at some point I would have to face the music.
So a few weeks ago I took up a very kind offer from within the family to stay in their holiday home in the Scottish Highlands. My trusty cocker spaniel Ross and I headed North for two days and found ourselves in a scene of astonishing beauty: the sea literally feet away, with views across the Sound of Sleat to Skye and its mountains. It’s a land of sea eagles and otters, surrounded by majestic and immortal mountains. There we spent a week together, just the two of us. I hardly spoke to any other humans. The TV remained off, and I went offline and read, wrote, listened to classical music. Above all, FINALLY, with no to-do list, deadlines or distractions, I did some deep thinking.
It was an exquisite mix of pain and joy, because two days after arriving I found Charlotte again, waiting for me quietly with her gentle smile. We had at last reconnected, and instead of keeping her at arm’s length because of the pain, I found I was able to commune with her again. Ross and I spent hours on beautiful long walks, during which I talked with her openly and freely once more. Now that we have reconnected there has been no going back, and all I ever find is a smiling loving face and the support and encouragement I so badly need. At last I can visualise her for more than three seconds without pushing her away. I think (I don’t like to sound too confident, and I know these things can come and go) I have come to terms with “IT”, as we call her death.
This has to be the most personal Blog I have ever written, or am indeed ever likely to write. I’m doing it because I want to share what I have learnt and I know that most of us suffer from the same addiction to busyness that I used to. Maybe I can help you reflect on this and find your own way to slow down, or even stop, so that you too can connect with what’s important. It’s taken me 60 years and the equivalent of a smack in the face with a baseball bat to come to my senses: maybe you can do it sooner, without the bloody nose.
One book that hit me harder than any other was When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chodron. Drawn from traditional Buddhist wisdom, it helped me to find some personal insights which I realise have until now eluded me.
Pema caught my attention with this type of wisdom:
“We think that by protecting ourselves from suffering we are being kind to ourselves. The truth is we only become more fearful, more hardened and more alienated.” This resonated fully and painfully with me. She got me in one.
I now recognise that from an early age, like most of us, I have been striving to achieve, almost at the expense of everything else. In my early days this was to please my parents primarily, and to show them a good return on investment in my education. Since then my life has been a relentless pursuit of achievement in my career and in my personal life. Ultimately it has been about ego, status and being competitive with both myself and others. I’m not proud of it.
The breakthrough thought is that living life like that means you end up living in the future, constantly working towards goals or objectives, and in my case this has resulted in not living enough in the present. I have concluded that I don’t need to achieve any more: what I have built so far will more than suffice.
Far more important is to learn to LIVE, and to grow myself by being more present. In that way I will find more peace, and continue to be able to connect not only with Charlotte but with other important people in my life. The black hole inside me will never go away and will always be bottomless and painful. But I can grow myself and encircle it so it becomes less significant. That will require letting go of my ego, and achieving what Pema calls “egolessness”. I love that word: if only a few more of us had it.
The other profound insight Pema has given me is to recognise that life is inherently fragile. It is built on sand, and yet we spend our whole lives trying to nail everything down: to derisk it somehow, by giving it what we think is structure and predictability. This is never going to succeed. You cannot have love without grief, or pride without a fall. Everything we value has a natural opposite, and the sooner we accept that the sooner we can release ourselves. The sooner we do that the sooner we can find peace.
I can’t recommend the book highly enough. It was the catalyst for me: a powerful but warm and loving slap in the face, leading me to some life changing conclusions. These mean reading more literature and fewer business books. Spending more time outside, exploring the beauty of where I live more fully. Less time chasing new business and more time with friends and family. Less time on the laptop and more time meditating, reading and playing the piano. Saying no more confidently when I spot a time stealer, and holding firmer to what I find meaningful. Staring out of the window and allowing myself to be idle rather than checking my social media likes. The list of objectives for the year has been thrown away. I will be no less active, but it will be activity which has more meaning.
If you can relate to this and find yourself living life in the future, let me urge you to reflect on that. How much of what you already have are you letting slip through your fingers through too much focus on the future? When are you going to allow yourself to stop?
You don’t need to have a wake up call like mine to make this change. It’s a choice, and it’s sitting there waiting for you.
Please share this article if you know someone who might find it helpful.
If you would like to know more about what led to Charlotte’s death and the research work into thrombosis which we are supporting by raising £50,000 (yes, I think an objective is relevant in this instance), here’s the link to her Just Giving page.
Very sorry to hear your sad news Michael – having had a similar experience with a lifelong friend who was like a sister to me I ageee wholeheartedly – at some point you have to stop. All best wishes to you and your family
Thank you Christina. I hope you have found some peace at last. It’s ironic that it takes something like this to get us to wake up and realise how much there is to life when you slow down a bit.
There are some lessons for me in here. My daughter was murdered two years ago and I have not stopped since. I’m not sure I can – but you have made me think. So thank-you Michael
Dear Sue, I am so very sorry to hear it. I can’t imagine what you are going through. I wonder whether you can find the courage to stop and let yourself do some thinking. If you would like to chat more deeply about how I made myself do that, I’d be very happy to share with you. Just email me or give me a ring (see top of the page).
Wishing you strength and courage to start to let it in.
Thank you for this, Michael. I am so sorry for your loss. I wish you the very best in managing the next steps.
Thank you Graham
A truly great blog Michael. They say that the last third of our lives should be spent sharing wisdom, and what you have written exemplifies that. Having time to reflect on how you feel, what you see around you, and where you might make a contribution is so freeing. And sharing time with others and supporting them – a real source of pleasure. Thanks for writing so openly – it is appreciated by all who know you, and probably many who will come to know you…
Thank you David. Yes, I feel I have a renewed purpose: maybe I can help others in other ways by sharing my experience and helping others through theirs. Not sure yet how best to do it, but this Blog is a start.
Inspiring post Michael. Good to be reminded of the present, even though often this is done in the most brutal way. Your post should get that across to many of the readers, who hopefully have not had a wake up call.
Thank you Robert. I hope so.
We don’t know one another but Dave Loewy is one of the threads that bind us, he responded to your call to action and shared this blog with me. The other thread is the common ground of having lost a spouse. Your time in Scotland sounds like it spoke to your soul, I’m a huge believer that you have to slow down to speed up your self awareness, this lesson has been one of the many gifts that the disgusting reality of grief has given me. Thank you for taking the time to share your discovery and use it to educate others – so much of how to be with death is so hugely misunderstood by western society. Praying for more rest, more space to be with your soul and more freedom to be in the moment. It’s not a coincidence but I’ve just started writing chapter 2 of my book and kicked it off with this quote this morning just as the email link to this BLOG arrived in my inbox. It’s from a famous book by Matthew – so I’ll take it that this is encouragement for us both and maybe all who are grieving…
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.”
Thank you so much Louise. Yes, the reality of grief has many lessons for us, and I see it as part of Charlotte’s enduring legacy. So hard to have to learn them in this way, but nonetheless at least we learn them before it’s too late.
Love the idea of letting tomorrow worry about itself.
As I read on a bench overlooking the sea in Cornwall recently: “Mourn me, but don’t mourn too long. Miss me, but live.” Yes indeed. Peace be with you.
Wonderful, profound article for whch I must take note. We have just seen the most wonderful sunny summer go by and yet…. I haven’t seen it. I haven’t gone for long walks in the beautiful countryside outside my door. I have seen the sea once and only because I was there for work, I haven’t painted outside for hours on end for my benefit… and I am pretty darned sure there are more like me out there. I shall think on your article and attempt to act upon it. Thank you. Wise move gong to Scotland and so glad you found Charlotte. She was never far away, you just couldn’t feel her. Quite understandable. Well done you and Josh x
Thank you Jane. It’s never too late to learn (said he, who has only just started!) I’m so sorry you missed the summer. Autumn still has plenty to offer us.
I do hope Dick is doing well and on the mend.
Thank you for your openness. I agree that we all need to live more in today. Hugs!
What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the Master calls the butterfly. I’m sure C would be so proud to see you make a new way of being in the world.
Yes indeed. Thanks Mandy x
I’m so glad you took the time you needed to delve deeply into your grief, Michael. I honestly think we do have to learn many things the hard way, in fact, that is how we learn the hard things (the things that are hard for each of us specifically). Even though your journey has been painful, I suspect that your ability to love and be compassionate has grown tremendously. People will still learn the hard way but the intimate portrayal of your experience will provide sustenance and hope along their way.
Thank you Lisa. I hope so.
I am so sorry to hear about Charlotte. My heart goes out to you. Thank you for your blog, and the wise words contained within it…I will certainly take note of them, and will read the book you recommend.
Beautifully written and shared Michael.
I wish you even more joy on your journey.
This is a beautiful blog Michael and oh so true. I can relate to it having been very like you during my working life, and even now, when I do have the time to really appreciate and make the most of life in the present it is all to easy to slip into the old habits. I’m sure this blog will help a lot of people.
Thank you so much Jo. I hope others will find it helpful. We don’t all have to learn the lessons the hard way!
These are such wise words Mike. I know the power that the Highlands have on our souls and I’d like to find out more about the book that has inspired your thinking.
It sounds like it could be a useful guide to living life’s adventures as they happen.
Yes, I think you’d get lots from the book Ceej. And that you find some peace for yourself north of the border.