A year ago I had a full and busy life. I was the group editor of a publishing company, mom to two young kids (eight and ten) and busy training for a 10km run. My husband of 10 years was also dying of brain cancer. I was emotionally exhausted and I simply had no reserves. On Wednesday I went for a 5km run during my lunch hour. That is the last thing I remember for over a month.
* This article was published in Women's Health SA under the title A Year On
On Thursday I got flu and by Friday I was in hospital. By Sunday I was in a coma in ICU and on a life support machine that kept me breathing. I stayed in the coma for three weeks. I was diagnosed with acute viral pneumonia. It had spread like a match to rocket fuel and things were not looking good for me.
But three weeks later I woke from the coma. Three days later my husband died. He was 41.
Death is unexpected. I don’t care how long you know someone is dying; it is still a very physical shock when they are simply no longer there. Intellectually I knew he was going to die. But I never thought he would simply not be there for a call, a cup of coffee, a chat or a giggle.
The funeral and the first few weeks were a breeze of unreality. My kids were on a high with all the visitors and cake. Death is just a word. The reality is harder. It took months for the very physical loss of him to sink in.
I was still desperately sick. I was in a wheelchair and I had a massive hole in my throat from the ventilator and no voice at all. Recovery? That wasn’t on my mind. The only word was survival.
Grief is such a big feeling and it is made up of a rollercoaster of emotions. I just threw myself into it. All my shields were down. I had almost lost my life. I had lost my husband. I was totally broken. I cried for my husband. I cried for myself. I cried everywhere, relentlessly and in front of everyone. My eight-year-old son hated it so I slowly learned to find appropriate places and time. Even now when my eyes water he gives me The Look.
“Don’t you dare cry mom,” he says. A year on I cry selectively and with choice.
I wasn’t angry. I had been angry long before during the four long years my husband was ill. There was only one incident really and it came late at night and months down the road. I smashed almost everything in the house. Then I put the brakes on, checked the kids were still asleep (miracle) and started to put the house back together again. I had no maid the next day.
All my hair fell out. It started shedding, them coming out in handfuls. On my 38th birthday my girlfriends came for tea, took one look at me and marched me to the hairdresser who cut it all off. It felt fantastic. It took ages to start putting it on but the weight slowly came back over the year.
For nine months I obsessed about every second of the last few days. I poured over every photo taken of him while I wasn’t there. I quizzed everyone. What did he say? Did he miss me? Did he ask for me? Did he love me? I needed every single, tiny, terrible detail. A few months ago I forced myself to back off from those last few days. We had twelve amazing years together. Now I consciously force my gaze backwards beyond the actual death so it doesn’t drown me in the ending.
I learned to walk again. The first time I walked the whole way along the beach I cried the whole way. The second time I wore a heart rate monitor. Last month I ran 8kms.
I built up slowly. After eight months I joined a gym and started doing weights to try and rebuild my lost muscle. The scars inside take longer to heal.
I took medication. There was no choice in the matter – I had been in a coma for almost a month and I was balmy. I couldn’t sleep. I cried all the time. I was having massive panic attacks. I hate the idea of it, but the reality is that it has helped me cope and kept me able to function.
Kids are living proof that life goes on. No matter how terrible I felt, how much I just wanted to stay in bed all day I still had to get up at 6am and make the school lunchboxes.
I isolated myself. I was overwhelmed with support and friends and family. But I wanted to be alone. I kept my circle tiny and a year on it is still very small and quiet.
The grief gets easier. I wanted to feel the sadness. But now it is less. I don’t expect him to phone, or send me a message via a dream or a psychic. I used to think about him about 8 hours out of 12. Now I find I can go days before I let myself go there. I have put a lot of the photos away that were all over my house. If I really want to feel him deeply I can just close my eyes and I am right there, back in the pain and the love. And he is right next to me. But it hurts so damn much to do it too often.
In June I left my kids behind and went to Greece alone and stayed on a farm. I cried for four days. And then I knew my tears were over for a while. I met some new friends, kissed someone just for fun and a small crack of light opened up for me and I thought for the first time in a long time that maybe I do have a future. But I still can’t take his number off my phone.
This is story was published in Women's Health under the title A Year On
Sarah Bullen is a writing coach, agent and book editor. She is a structure fanatic and coaches writers on how to write and get published.