On Easter Saturday morning our alarm went off as usual at 6 am, and I knew something was wrong because my wife didn’t turn it off. It took about ten minutes for me to fully register that this was because she was dead.
Charlotte had suffered a pulmonary thromboembolism: a massive clot in the pulmonary artery, causing instant lights out. She knew nothing about it, and neither did I. Thankfully.
Charlotte was 57; a fit and healthy non smoking dog walker on nil medication, who didn’t know her doctor’s name because she never needed to see him.
I met her in Oxford 40 years ago, and we were married for 36 of them. She was my rock, my soul mate, my inspiration and my life coach.
There are no words.
This makes it awkward for everyone. People want to communicate with you, and to express their support and love in whatever way they can. The result was a deluge of emails, texts, whatsapps, cards, flowers, facebook messages, letters, and cakes. All of which were on the one hand lovely to receive and on the other quite stressful. I felt I had no space left in my brain to think and try and process what had happened, and it got so bad that my daughter (who was experiencing the same, of course) suggested we try a long weekend without our phones. I hid hers and she hid mine. As I lay in bed the first night listening to my heart (which I now tend to do a bit more than I used to) I could hear how much calmer it was, and slower. I got some sleep that night, which was joyous.
As you can imagine, I am on something of a learning curve right now: learning about myself for sure, learning new skills, learning much more about the people I know, and doing a lot of reflecting on how I can help others and ensure that Charlotte’s cruel and untimely passing has meaning.
So I think I have some advice for you on how to communicate with someone who has suffered a severe loss of this sort.
Firstly, beware the default “How are you?” question. When you ask this, the respondent has to choose whether to tell you the truth or whether to bat it away with a trite answer. I’ve built up a little portfolio of these:
“Still above ground”
“Keeping on keeping on”
“Still buggering on” (thank you, Churchill)
“Oh you know, ups and downs”.
The truthful answer is I have no idea how I am, and I am probably using a range of strategies to keep this whole thing at arm’s length, such as by keeping madly busy (on anything, be it gardening, cleaning, relearning the piano, hedge laying, you name it), and thinking about longer term projects such as fund raising and writing another book.
My point is that the question, which is meant as a gentle opener to the conversation, in fact goes right to the heart of how the other person is coping, and if they choose to respond meaningfully it requires self diagnosis and personal disclosure which they are probably not ready for in the pub or in the street or wherever the question is asked.
My second piece of advice is to recognise that both parties know there are no words. Someone has effectively been struck by lightning, and there is no explanation, nothing that can be done to change it, no one to blame, it is simply what it is. Don’t try and paper over it, avoid the standard cliches of “time is a great healer” etc, and I personally think the best thing is to show you acknowledge that there are no words.
Someone did that the other day: came up to me, smiled, extended a warm handshake and looked me in the eyes for a while, then patted me on the shoulder and walked away. I found that very powerful and supportive.
A couple more suggestions:
- Remember that if you leave a phone message the recipient feels they are obliged to ring you back, even if you say not to in the message
- If the other person is showing less energy than usual (highly likely), what they don’t want from you is your energy. Your response should be to match their energy, ie bring yours down. They don’t need energy, but they might welcome your acknowledgement of their state by your adapting your state.
That’s it. I’ve run out of words. Another thing I am learning to do is to avoid talking for the sake of it. Make it count. Everything.
You may be aware that I’m publishing my business book “My Job Isn’t Working!” on 10th July. When Charlotte died I had finished the book but she hadn’t read it. The message in the book, which is that you can create more meaning and fulfilment in your job without having to leave, ties in miraculously well with the two huge points I am learning from this whole unreal experience:
- Take nothing for granted, and be more grateful for what you have
- Make everything count.
I am donating my proceeds from the book to the British Heart Foundation, to support their research into thrombosis. They are making great progress, and it is very likely that fewer people will suffer a stealth attack like Charlotte’s in the very near future. I’d like to finish by asking two things of you if I may:
- If you would like to help us to raise the £50,000 I am aiming at, here’s the link to Charlotte’s Just Giving page
- Help me to make the book a success and thus raise more money by joining my launch team if you haven’t already. We already have 300 confirmed team members, who will download the book for £1 at the given hour on launch day, and thus rocket the book into #1 slot on Amazon from the off. Please sign up so I can communicate the plan to you as it evolves. (The sign up form’s at the bottom of the page on this link. Please check your Junk folder immediately, as there is a confirmation email you have to open to get into the team.) And share this article with anyone else you think might like to help.
Thank you. I am so grateful for your loyalty and support. It means the world.
I’ll finish with a quote sent to me by my publisher Alison Jones, written by another of her authors. I find it very helpful when I am having a low moment:
“An ending is just a beginning in disguise.”
1960 – 2018
Rest in peace.