It took a while – for over a year I was physically incapable of formulating a sentence. But exactly 14 months after Mark died, on 11th April 2013, I took to the keyboard and wrote this:
Thank God, The First Year is over. It’s the worst, apparently. It’s when you feel everything at its most acute. Things get better, after The First Year. You start to accept, to miss him less. Because you have to accept in order to move on.
I’m almost two months in to The Second Year and I still haven’t begun to feel. The numbness hasn’t abated from around my heart. The shock of the night that he left. I’m moving through life, dodging the emotional stuff like those little bombs on Pac-Man. For what would happen if one of them exploded?
The very first post on my blog, Wife After Death, and where Life After You began.
I wrote on the blog almost every day for over a year. Wife After Death became a raw and intimately documented journal of grief. I pounded my heart and soul into the keyboard, spilling my darkest and most desperate thoughts out into the void. I was tired of platitudes, of reading self-help manuals about what ‘stage’ I was supposed to be at and how I was supposed to feel. I wrote because I felt totally isolated and simply didn’t know what else to do.
Despite a strong and supportive cavalry of family and friends, none of them could possibly relate to how it felt to lose a soulmate. The blog helped them to try to understand. It allowed them access to my thoughts without having to deal with me face-to-face, without having to come up with the right thing to say. It allowed them to check-up on me, tacitly; to monitor the situation daily as it unfolded.
But other people – strangers – began reading too. Widows, widowers, women who’d lost children. Even those who weren’t bereaved, but wanted to send support or simply say ‘hi’. A whole raft of remarkable individuals came floating into my life just when I needed them most. They reassured me that I was not crazy or debauched. Most of all, they reassured me that I was not alone.
The blog went on to win Best Personal Blog in the Blog North Awards, and caught the attention of a national newspaper editor – he liked its candour, the way it challenged taboos around grief and loss.
But my motivation was never about challenging taboos or writing with candour. Words just poured out; some of them profane, some of them clumsy, but all of them honest and true. At times it felt as if I was writing in a fug of grief-induced madness, but nonetheless, I had to write, no matter what the cost. And I did face some criticism for my frankness, from both friends and strangers, who believed that grief should be a private affair. I took to the blog to respond:
I acknowledge that some people don’t understand why I am writing this blog. They don’t understand my need to talk about my husband’s death, and the feelings and reactions it provokes, on a public forum.
I have gone round in circles justifying myself until I have reached the conclusion that I should never have had to justify myself in the first place. I am not ashamed of anything I have written and if you don’t like it, don’t read it. I am a writer; this is how it comes out. Deal with it.
The ire inherent in this riposte is symptomatic of where I was in the ‘grief process’ at that time – now, I might be slightly less defensive…
I hesitated when my agent asked me if I felt up to writing a book based on the blog about the first two years of my widowhood. Part of the success of the blog was its immediacy, its succinctness, the fact it went directly from keyboard to world unedited and unabridged. How would I ever capture this in a book? Was I capable of doing it? Did I even want to?
In the event, I wrote the first draft of Life After You in just three months, in between school pick-ups and in moments of sleeplessness. It effectively wrote itself. I realised it wasn’t about replicating the format of the blog – the book was not meant to be an angry, impulsive rant into a keyboard. It was a reflective meditation on two years without my husband.
That’s not to say there is not anger in the book; indeed, in my view the whole thing is underpinned by a quiet rage. But writing the memoir was quality time spent with Mark – gently unpacking memories, actually trying to make sense of the senseless nature of his death rather than raving about it to anyone who would listen.
At times during the writing process I questioned myself and the entire project. Were those people right who said that grief should be private, dignified, not for public consumption? Was I somehow defiling Mark’s memory by writing so unflinchingly about my life after he’d gone?
Now the book is published, I have stopped the self-interrogation and I am at peace. Life After You is not about Mark – it’s about a woman living in the aftermath of a savage loss. Neither is it really a book about death. Rather, it is a book about true love, real life, and tentatively, hope.