‘Grief dissolves you. I could no longer sleep upstairs in our bed’
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne on the death of her husband Bo, the subject of her new memoir
Éilis Ní Dhuibhne: Writing is what I do, but the only thing I wanted to write about in the years after Bo’s death was him, my life with him, and the trauma of parting from him. Photograph: Eric Luke
The world is full of widows – several among my closer friends. We have each known that grim rite of passage, have engaged with grief and loss, and have not exactly emerged, but found a way of living after and beyond. It is an entirely changed life, for anyone who has been in a long marriage ... alone in bed, alone most of the time, without that presence towards which you turned for advice, reassurance, with whom you shared the good news and the bad. Every decision now taken alone, no one to diffuse anxieties. And a thoroughly commonplace experience – everywhere, always, so get on with it and don’t behave as though you are uniquely afflicted.
Penelope Lively, Ammonites & Leaping Fish. A Life in Time
Penelope Lively, one of the many writers who comforted me during the first shocking years of grief, sums up the experience of widowhood very well.
In the few weeks immediately following the death of my husband, Bo, I felt the numbness and emotional denial that is described in much of the analytic literature about bereavement. It seemed to me that I had no feelings at all. Rather I had a curious sense of being hollow, without anything inside my skin – no stomach, heart, or emotions. Perhaps I was aware, viscerally, that the part of my identity, my personality, myself, which was Bo, had now gone? It was as if my innards had been scooped out and I was like a blown-up plastic doll, empty inside. Or transparent, like a ghost.
On the surface, I assumed I looked and behaved just as usual. I was surprised at what I was happy to call my ‘resilience’, the term I quickly picked up from reading one of the psychiatric studies of bereavement. One latches on to any concept that offers hope or comfort.
And certainly one seems resilient, at first. The theory is that the mind shuts down, so the body will have time to adjust to the new situation. This may be an exaggeration of the response, or just a piece of folklore. At first, it seemed that I just didn’t have time to absorb the fact of Bo’s death - it had come about so suddenly. On Thursday, November 7th I assumed Bo would recover. On Friday, November 8th I was still being reassured by medical personnel that he would be okay. On Saturday, November 9th, he was dead. And as is usually the case when someone dies, the first week or two were extremely busy, filled with events and people. My children and their partners stayed in the house; there was a constant stream of visitors, bringing casseroles and cakes and flowers, memories and sympathy. And of course there were visits to the undertakers, decisions to be made about the funeral, a service to be designed. The few weeks around the funeral were as filled with activity and tasks as very busy periods at work – it was not unlike the weeks leading to the opening of a major exhibition in the National Library, or coming up to a conference for which one has had organisational responsibility.
No plans for the funeral were in place since Bo had died unexpectedly. We had on a few occasions talked about death and funerals, but in a light-hearted way. Once, long ago, Bo had asked to be cremated, and to have his ashes scattered in Dún Chaoin in Kerry, the place he loved above everywhere else (although, like me, he loved several places!) But in later years he wondered if it would be nice to have a grave, and asked me if I would go and leave flowers on it. ‘Are you mad?’ I said. ‘Sure I never set foot in a graveyard! I don’t like them!’ Which was true. Back then. Before.
Now, however, I decided that I would fulfil both requests. Bo could be cremated. Some of his ashes would be buried in the cemetery close to where we live, so he would have a grave and headstone that I could visit and lay flowers on. Later we would scatter the rest of the ashes in Dún Chaoin.
When Bo died, the consultant asked if I would agree to a postmortem examination of the body, an autopsy. I agreed. I would have requested such an examination myself, if it had not been suggested. The postmortem was carried out, and this meant that the funeral was delayed for a week. This did not concern me in the slightest. I needed a week to make all the arrangements, which were complicated since Bo was originally Lutheran, but for most of his life an agnostic, with a strong affection for Irish traditions – including the Irish traditions surrounding funerals. I tried to design a funeral that would honour all his affiliations, and was helped by family and friends to put together a service which was appropriate. In Sweden, Bo’s country, it is normal to hold funerals about three weeks after the death, so a week seemed like a reasonable period of waiting to me. I find. Normal life would not be resuming any time soon, if ever. I was in no rush to bury Bo.
My body insisted that Bo was just away somewhere, on a trip abroad, or in Kerry, and would come back at any time if I just hung on. He had to come back. How could it be otherwise?
I don’t think I cried at all during that week, or at the funeral. A non-stop party was going on in my house. I was constantly aware that the most important person, for me, was missing, but the atmosphere was lively. Somebody gave me Xanax and I slept reasonably well. I could eat. There was little time to ponder what had happened. Even when I did, I could not believe that Bo was really dead. The phrase ‘I don’t believe it!’, uttered so often, in Ireland, in response to any surprising news, made perfect sense. I didn’t believe it. My body insisted that Bo was just away somewhere, on a trip abroad, or in Kerry, and would come back at any time if I just hung on. He had to come back. How could it be otherwise? The arrangements – which sort of coffin, cremation or burial, where will we have the service – seemed to relate to someone else, some stranger. The funeral seemed like a toy funeral, a weird game that for some reason I was obliged to play. It was held in the small church in Belfield, since Belfield had been such a key locus in our lives, and everyone said it was a lovely service. Even during it, I felt no emotion, apart from a mild impatience with the whole thing and a wish to be elsewhere - at home with Bo. After the cremation in the crematorium in Mount Jerome, as people came and offered their condolences, I found myself looking over my shoulder, wondering where he was. I had had enough, as he or I often had, at a party. It was time to escape, get into the car, go home and have a post-mortem about the social event we’d just been at, and then return to our normal lives.
One of the things I miss most is the possibility of relaxing totally with Bo, chatting frankly and ironically about the party or the lecture or the visit or the funeral. And then going back to reading and writing companionably, cooking and eating, watching television. After about two weeks the fuss died down. My children went back to their own places and occupations. I was alone in the house. Good friends, especially two of Bo’s good friends, Padraig and Roibeard, telephoned me every few days, to make sure I was all right, and my sister and some of my own friends were in frequent contact. But my sense of transparency and hollowness increased. I felt as if I were made of paper, moving through the rooms like a shadow, and the house seemed large and cold and alien. What was I doing here? I had hardly ever been in the house without Bo for longer than a few weeks.
Grief dissolves you. I could no longer sleep upstairs in our bed; the big bedroom overlooking the sea was cold and frightening. I took to sleeping on the sofa in the front room
After two or three weeks, the soft grief, the tears, began to hit. The metaphors – waves, inundation, floods – are accurate. Grief dissolves you. I could no longer sleep upstairs in our bed; the big bedroom overlooking the sea was cold and frightening. I took to sleeping on the sofa in the front room. In the mornings I woke with a tight knot in my stomach, and rocked myself in bed for half an hour before I could get up. In my diary I described the sensations of grief, ad nauseam – they lasted for several months:
This is how grief feels: there is a heaviness in the chest. An iron ring around the heart. Tears on the bubble behind the eyes. Sometimes an empty feeling in the stomach.
All these feelings can go away temporarily. But they return, as if the ring around the heart were the default position for the body.
I began to panic about financial issues. There were heaps of forms to fill in, at a time when the last thing I wanted to do was this sort of work – not that it is ever enjoyable. There was actually no pressing problem. But when you are widowed your income decreases considerably, although the household expenses remain much the same. As it happens, everything fell into place gradually, but dealing with a new economy, and, in most instances, a lower income, is one of the issues which adds to the terror of the experience of widowhood – and there is a social taboo on talking about it. Bo always helped me deal with worries of this and of any kind, reassuring me that everything would work out, and helping in practical ways: he was efficient at paying bills and so on although he was a very unworldly impractical person. Now, when I was down, I was faced with many bureaucratic issues and had nobody to help me deal with them.
I began to have difficulties sleeping. All night I would relive the last week of Bo’s life – the pills, the rash, the struggle to get him into a comfortable hospital. I could not get the image of Bo trussed up like a turkey, intubated, his mouth pulled to one side cruelly, out of my head. I was convinced he had suffered pain. I went over all the mistakes I had made. If I had done A or B or C, Bo would be alive. I had promised Bo that I would make sure he never suffered pain. But he had suffered great pain, in the end. I had stood by and let this happen.
I went to a doctor and got some sleeping pills. I began to visit a counsellor, who listened sympathetically to my story and did not dismiss my version of events in the hospital as just a ‘stage of grief’ – denial, or anger. I continued to visit her for six months and the sessions became a crucial part of my survival during that time.
I developed a strategy, although develop is hardly the mot propre, to ‘get through’. Grief is a rusting of the soul, which only work and the passage of time will scour away, Dr Johnson said, or words to that effect. He also said that grief will pass, but the suspense – the waiting – is terrible. I delved into all the grief literature I could find. Some of it helped. Most of it offered some word of useful advice. One writer gave hope, another wisdom, yet another simply the comfort of empathy: understanding that other people went through this too – half the world, in fact – for some reason provided consolation, although I don’t really know why. Misery likes bedfellows? Or perhaps knowing that they experienced this trauma but survived to write about it suggested that it was possible to ‘get through it’ and come out at the other side, if not ‘healed’, at least less of a total wreck than one feels in the first months.
CS Lewis writes that you emerge like a person who has lost a leg. The wound heals and you learn to manage without it. That seemed realistic, even optimistic
CS Lewis writes that you emerge like a person who has lost a leg. The wound heals and you learn to manage without it. That seemed realistic, even optimistic, in the raw state in which, to paraphrase Julian Barnes, I felt as if I had been thrown out of an aeroplane. I think it was simply the company of the bereaved that one experiences in these good books which was in itself a comfort – the knowledge, in their accounts of the last days of their loved ones and the days, early and late, of their grieving, that somebody understood what losing your spouse is like. They ‘get it’: these writers who have done us the service of describing their own loss and sorrow.
As did my many neighbours and friends who had been widowed themselves, who ‘belonged to the club nobody wants to be a member of,’ as Dermot Bolger, a writer who lost his wife a few years back, put it in his letter of condolence. The main comfort of those books was in their richness of insight and understanding: Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story, Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life, CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Henning Mankell’s collection of essays, Quicksand, several of which deal not with bereavement but with his reaction to his cancer diagnosis, I found particularly uplifting.
There is plenty of rubbish among the self-help books, many of which I bought – you see quickly which work is good and which superficial. I found research-based studies of grief by psychologists and psychiatrists useful. In particular, Colin Murray Parkes’ study of grief in widows was comforting – Bereavement: Studies of Grief in Adult Life (1972) This is a scientific study of the process of grief, but it’s written in accessible prose. Conclusions, such as that after 18 months 70 per cent of widows reported significant improvement in their feelings, offered more hope than statements such as ‘everyone’s grief is different’, or ‘it comes in waves’ – true as these observations are. Eighteen months seemed like a long time to suffer the sorrow and sense of loss I was experiencing, as I realised more and more that Bo and I were soul mates, and that there is nobody in the world who shares my particular interests and perspective on life as he did. But at least the statistics suggested that recovery was possible, that people are resilient.
Ordinary proverbial wisdom, folk wisdom, also suggested that recovery was likely, of course. On a dark day in January, soon after the beginning of the spring term, I bumped into Bo’s old friend and colleague Séamas Ó Catháin on the campus in Belfield. He was about to give a lecture to the Folklore of Ireland Society. I burst into tears, as I was doing repeatedly at this time whenever anyone said a sympathetic word or even gave me a kind look. ‘I know it’s a cliche,’ Séamas said, ‘but time will make it easier.’ ‘It’s a cliche, but it is a true cliche,’ my friend Luz Mar Gonzales Arias wrote, in one of her many comforting emails. ‘Time heals.’ And a neighbour I met while walking in Shankill put some sort of time limit on it. She, who had been widowed when she was a young mother of three children, said ‘It takes a few years to get over it.’ This was when I had been widowed for a few weeks. A few years sounded like a death sentence. But I held on to her words. I could believe her, because she was in the club nobody wants to belong to. She had gone through it and survived.
I was advised by others, including my counsellor, not to set time limits. In fact, the counsellor in particular had an aversion to time limits, and hinted that I was too obsessed with that idea. But clinging to the belief that it will get better in time is a comfort. We need hope and the only hope for someone who is shattered by the death of their partner is that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that time will heal. One hears different time limits. ‘Four years’ – my friend Helena, who had watched her mother recover from the untimely death of her father – after four years you could sense a lightening, a change.
Of course it is true that the waves of grief return, even over two years later, and a pang of longing can ambush you when you least expect it. But the most terrible waves do not return as often as in the first year, and when they do they are easier to deal with.
For instance, after about a year I stopped reliving the last horrific days of Bo’s life; perhaps until then I had been going over every moment of that nightmare of a week, in some vain expectation of correcting the mistakes, doing things differently, and arriving at a different result: life rather than death. It was what Joan Didion calls ‘magical thinking’; you relive the past in order to change it. But you can’t change the past. We know that but the subconscious, the body, doesn’t get the message. It took about a year for the lesson to sink in. It was a year before I stopped obsessively going over the most horrible week of my life. After two or three years, I stopped thinking about Bo all the time. After three years, I was able to think about him without sadness – I can simply remember him; I consult him for advice, and, although this can obviously be self-deceptive, I feel fairly confident in almost all instances of what his advice to me would be. I had in any case been in the habit of talking to my mother, who died in 2007, in this way: as far as both she and Bo are concerned, I can guess what their counsel would be, and in both instances I know they are always on my side – now, just as they were when they were alive.
Of course, talking to a memory or a ghost is not the same as talking to a living person. A good imagination is a gift, but it can be overrated
Of course, talking to a memory or a ghost is not the same as talking to a living person. A good imagination is a gift, but it can be overrated. As Keats wrote, imagination is no substitute for the real thing. ‘The fancy cannot cheat so well/ As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.’ You get used to it, walking with one leg. There is no compensation for the loss. With Bo, I shared a great deal: a love of nature, walking, holidays, exploring, books, various modern and medieval languages, folklore, history, literature, our garden, our house, our children. Certain television programmes. There is nobody in the world with the same eclectic combination of talents and feelings and interests. I know nobody who is as truly learned and who wears his learning so lightly. I feel his absence constantly. But it hurts less, even as I gain ever more insight into how much we had together and how unique and special and perhaps strange our marriage was.
It took a few years before I could walk down a street in Dingle, where we used to go on holidays, without weeping. During my first visits to Kerry, in 2014, this was not possible. I missed him every second of the day in Dunquin and the surroundings. I would park my car in the carpark near the Mart in Dingle, and walk down to Main Street and Green Street, and break down in tears. Always we had parked, then gone our separate ways for an hour or so – while I shopped and went to the internet cafe to check my emails. We would meet in Café Liteartha, where Bo would be engaged in conversation with someone, or just reading and drinking coffee, and then we’d drive home. These were very simple pleasures, but afternoons of real happiness – my only consolation was that I was aware of how happy I was while experiencing those times. But it was a long time before walking around Dingle alone brought me anything other than pain.
One is advised to ‘live through the grief’, not to avoid it or try to bat it away. There is not a lot of choice – grief waylaid me in predictable and unpredictable ways.I hate words like ‘wallowing’ or ‘self-pity’. They are judgemental and used by those who have a tendency to dismiss and deny emotional pain – yes, it would be great if it did not exist, but unfortunately it does. And of course you wallow in sorrow when you lose your husband. Of course you feel self-pity, as well as pity for him. How could it be otherwise? I do not have a stiff upper lip, nor do I want one. I ‘went through it’. But I needed also to find ways of escaping from it. If you ‘went through it’ from morning to night and morning again, your life would not be worth living. You would drown in sorrow. And some do.
I quickly began to look for ways of temporary escape. I noticed already in the first month that while I was teaching a creative writing class on the short story or the novel, I felt no sadness: all my attention was focussed on the students and the texts we were discussing. But after my class, I would feel horribly empty, and suffer huge pangs of sorrow. Woe betide anyone who bumped into me just then – they would be treated to a spate of tears. Everyone was of course entirely kind and sympathetic, but it must have been embarrassing or frightening for them sometimes. Usually they asked, kindly, ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’
Time heals. But time takes its time. Work is the great comforter. And luckily there is always work at hand – as Bo knew very well.
Soon after Bo’s death, one of the things several people said was ‘Be kind to yourself.’ Lots of empty formulae and annoying comments are iterated to new widows
Soon after Bo’s death, one of the things several people said was ‘Be kind to yourself.’ Lots of empty formulae and annoying comments are iterated to new widows (‘Call me if there’s anything I can do’, ‘We must have lunch sometime’, – most annoyingly, as if it made any difference to me – ‘What age was he?’ ) but this is one of the most irritating, and puzzling. Whenever I heard it, my immediate thought was ‘Wouldn’t it be better if you were kind to me?’ But I wasn’t even sure what the phrase was supposed to mean, and I don’t think those who trot it out knew either. When I asked someone for clarification, she was clearly taken aback, then shrugged and said, ‘Well, have a massage. Eat a whole box of chocolates if you feel like it.’ Ah, yes! Possibly the advice about the massage – very common – was not bad, in that it acknowledges that the body suffers grief as well as the mind. Grief is visceral; the emotions and the physique are affected alike. Hence the knot in the stomach, the tightness.
After a while I interpreted ‘be kind to yourself’ as finding out what I really liked to do and allowing myself to do it.
I set myself goals and tasks in fields that I liked. Easy tasks for the most part, but tasks that I knew would require concentration. I enrolled for an online course in Swedish writing, since my writing skills in the language were poor: I learnt to write Danish correctly in 1978 but although I had made the transition to oral Swedish decades ago and even though I read Swedish regularly my spelling and grammar when I wrote were bad – surprisingly, I seem to be able to read endlessly and still not write the language accurately, possibly because I tend to read fast. I continued to write book reviews regularly for The Irish Times – they continued to ask for them, which was a real blessing. I wrote a diary and kept a record of dreams.
In the summer, I took a summer course on Irish grammar in Kerry – I realised that doing a course would help me to come to terms with being in Dunquin without Bo, which was a huge challenge, since, in thirty years, I had never been in our house down there without him, and since, over the past six or seven years, our summers there had been idyllic. In 2015 I began to learn a new language, Bulgarian. It’s very hard to sink into grief when dealing with the aspect of the verb in a Slavonic language, or trying to pronounce a new word of ten syllables.
I also watched a lot of films. I went for long walks alone and with a group, swam once or twice a week. I socialised with my good friends, and made some new friends - wonderful people,actively kind – during this time.
For the first year, though, my only goal was to survive. After that I would start working properly again. Joyce Carol Oates in her moving account of her own first year of widowhood confirmed that. ‘On the first anniversary of her husband’s death, the widow should congratulate herself. I have survived.’ That is enough, for the first year.
“And a thoroughly commonplace experience – everywhere, always, so get on with it and don’t behave as though you are uniquely afflicted.”
Penelope Lively, Ammonites & Leaping Fish. A Life in Time
So writes Penelope Lively. The death of a partner is the huge commonplace tragedy that will afflict about half the human race. I adore Penelope Lively’s writing, but this ‘get on with it’ line I find a trifle dismissive, and, dare I say it, old-fashioned. I wish she, who writes so well and with such insight, had written in more detail about the death of her beloved husband, about her experience of grief. I wrote Twelve Thousand Days in the first place because I was compelled to, personally. Writing is what I do, but the only thing I wanted to write about in the years after Bo’s death was him, my life with him, and the trauma of parting from him. That’s why I wrote the book. Why did I publish it? Because I derived considerable comfort, in the darkest days of my bereavement, from reading other people’s accounts of their own version of this ‘thoroughly commonplace experience’. In these books, I was in the company of people who ‘got it’. I wanted to add my book to the shelf of ‘grief books’ that is growing ever larger. Hasn’t grief been a bit of a taboo topic in the past? It is an embarrassing subject. After all, how do you respond to someone who bursts into tears in the cafe, or on the footpath? (Change the subject fast! Then get away. Would have been my strategy. Before.). But, as with many other formerly embarrassing subjects, we are now allowed to talk about this commonplace but terrible part of life. And to write about it.
This is an edited extract from Twelve Thousand Days: a Memoir of Love and Loss (Blackstaff Press)