A year is a strange thing. 365 point something days, during which the earth orbits the sun and spins on her axis, eventually bringing you back round to the same date. It can be bittersweet. Anniversaries and birthdays, markings of celebrations and of commemorations.
The first year after a bereavement is a time when it feels as though all the certainties, the solid anchor-points of life, have been ripped up and thrown away. No matter what you try, nothing feels right. You cannot get comfortable, as if comfort itself no longer exists. And when you do teeter on the brink of it, you jerk back, feeling guilty, uneasy and disconcerted by the sinking into an old normality that doesn’t really exist. Like that stomach-churning moment when you step off the final stair, and for a second, you believe there are more stairs and that you are about to fall, before you catch yourself, heart-pounding and filled with absurd fear. The Rev Richard Coles has a book coming out called “The Madness of Grief” detailing his journey through loss, and though it’s not a book I could read right now, the idea that somehow in that liminal time after bereavement we go into a kind of madness, resonates.
But the year thing, there’s truth in the old adage of time being a great healer. Cliche that it is, and one that should never be offered to a grieving person as a shortcut to actually sitting and being with them, it contains old wisdom. Each day you go through is a triumph; each sleepless night, a survival of that pain. The other week was the first anniversary of my mother’s death. She died in the first few days of the UK lock-down, and so much seems to have happened (and so little too, strangely) since then. The nights of excruciating insomnia, the endless rehashing of memories, the inevitable and (probably) unearned guilt, have begun to peter out finally. It’s unusual rather than the norm, for me to be sitting reading on the sofa at 2am, with a cat for company and a heated blanket for comfort, drinking herbal tea or hot milk. That year of mourning has given way to less raw, less immediate sorrow. Not gone away, no, but the sheer touched-on-the quick roar of grief has settled.
The Victorians partially codified their grief and their rituals and customs around mourning; deep mourning was worn for a certain period of time, usually a year, but sometimes longer, depending on the closeness of the connection. Sombre colours were then allowed, in varying degrees. I remember a colleague speaking of a friend who had lost her husband in his 30s, of how she wished she could use some of those customs because after that first year, when others had begun to forget about her loss, she knew that the grief was still very much in the early stages. She wanted to BEGIN wearing mourning for her love, because only the shock of the loss was past and the real process of grieving was starting at a point when others expected her to begin dating again.
Grief is a journey we all travel along in our own unique ways; the completion of the first year after a death brings for many a subtle change. It can deepen the grief, but for me, I have felt a change. There is great sadness, but it feels different. I’m not sure how to explain it but there is a lightening of the burden of sorrow. It’s still one day at a time but there are more good days than bad ones and I am grateful for that.