by Sally Dalzel
When my husband died, I thought I was ready to face what was to come. He was many years older than me, and he had experienced deteriorating health for the thirteen years leading up to his death.
He had suffered awfully in the last year of his life, determined to hang on to the life he loved so much and had lived so well, despite complex medical issues. We had struggled in the last two years with grossly inadequate community care and an appalling lack of communication between the various services involved. More than sixteen emergency ambulance admissions for acute conditions in an eighteen-month period provide some indication of how deficient community and health care cooperation had been in his case. By the end, we were both exhausted.
Despite this, he had an indomitable will to live and determination to enjoy life. In addition to his suffering, for which on many occasions I could do nothing, one of the hardest things to witness was the loss of dignity and interest in who he was by many of the professionals involved in his care. He simply became another old man with a series of conditions.
With this background, although I dreaded the end, I thought that we had fought and lived through the stages, which would help me to let him go.
What I was not prepared for was the enormity of the space that would be left behind; the total and utter absence of him.
Ours had been the most unlikely but extraordinarily successful love affair. We had not only lived and brought up a family together but worked alongside one other for twenty-six years, developing a method he had pioneered, teaching other professionals, and lecturing all over the world. This was the loss not only of a lover and best friend but of an intellectual sparring partner. While he used to say our relationship was one of, “two heads with a single mouth,” I described it as, “the magic that generated the ideas and energy, borne not of individuals, but of the sparks that flew between”.
I had been so busy for so long, so needed and now I was no longer necessary. I felt dull without him as if without my reflection in him I had ceased to exist, and simply went through the motions of the day inside a bubble removed from the rest of the world. I also knew that I was one of the lucky ones with a job to return to and a family who cared for me. I knew how to manage finances, household bills, etc. on my own. I was competent and did not have to go through the process of learning how to manage these practical things myself as many widows and widowers do. But my purpose in being seemed to have died with him.
I was not outwardly grief-stricken and made a conscious effort to be cheerful with others, hating the thought of people feeling sorry for me, or even worse, being sorry for myself. But as the weeks went by and autumn turned to winter, I became increasingly isolated. My time away from work was spent alone, often for weeks on end. I looked at local groups to join but could not seem to motivate myself to start something or feign interest in something I did not really want to do. If the sun was shining, I would drive to the sea or the mountains and enjoyed my time, but it seemed to hold no place in memory without someone to share it with. My children and grandchildren would come to stay, and I would feel nearly normal for a few days having a role once more, but I hated the moment the car would drive away as they returned to their lives.
Because we had shared such a full life together and had many friends and colleagues in other parts of the world, we had not had time to build up a social life locally, and what social life we had seemed to vanish with him. I soon realized that without him I had become socially “untidy”. In a world of couples and families, the life a single person does not “fit” – interests, ambitions, shared experiences all take on a different hue – even the prospect of going on holiday is a different conversation. The loss of a spouse or partner is not only the loss of the beloved it is the loss of a whole way of life and the adjustments required not only emotionally, but socially and practically are enormous.
I missed having him to talk to. I did not know what to do with the thoughts and feelings which had nowhere to go, and so, I started to write to him – a series of letters – letters which enabled me to articulate the feelings only he would have understood. I knew as I was writing them that it was a fantasy, temporary removal from reality, on the one hand, an acknowledgment he was no longer there, and on the other being able to share with his memory all that he had meant to me. These intensely personal letters, written without censorship were a way of slowly letting him go, although at the time I started to write them, it felt more like a way of holding on to him. Written over a period of nine months they chronicle my journey from loss to unwilling acceptance.
A few weeks after his death, resisting pride I contacted the Hospice where he had died. At the time of collecting his death certificate, the nurse had mentioned that the hospice offered a bereavement counseling service. As a psychologist, I knew all about the stages of grief written by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and I sought help privately, unwillingly, and wary of analysis or over-sentimentality. I could not envisage how counseling could help me through the feelings of loss that were unique to me and could not be shared even by my wonderful family who had also loved him.
I had come to recognize that death’s sting never feels the same way twice and is exclusive to each relationship. However, I did know that I was lonely; that I experienced anxiety in trying to deal with work-related problems alone, and that I did not seem to be able to break out of my social isolation. To my surprise, I found a place to talk, not necessarily about grief, but the many anxieties which loss had unlocked, and in talking I started to find alternative solutions, a right to exist again, not just as a wife, a caregiver, career woman or parent, but simply because I still am.
Sometimes I felt I had “fenced” with my counselor, deftly sidestepping issues that were too deeply emotional to articulate without fragmenting, but my letters to Peter had continued privately alongside the counseling sessions. At the end of the process, which coincided with the first anniversary of his death, I gave the letters to a close friend and to my counselor to read. One suggested that rather than professional writing about grief from the outside, they provided a rare insight into the journey made by the person who was living it and that they could be of help to others and to professionals.
In this context, written under a pseudonym, I offered them to a publisher, hoping that allowing other people to read them was not an act of either extreme self-indulgence or arrogance in thinking that my experience was worse than anyone else’s who has traversed the process of loss, but rather sharing the message that the one thing that outlives death is the enduring quality of love. Of all the things we seek to build or accumulate in life, the only thing we leave behind for others to take forward is the gift of love.
Because You Were There is a series of love letters written during a journey begun without a map, compass, or traveling companion and with destination unknown. In making the journey, I discovered that it is not only the landscape that changes.
About the Author: On August 18, 2013, phones buzzed, babies were born, and families enjoyed a Sunday day out. But Sally Dalzel’s world fell apart. Her husband of 26 years passed away and she plunged into loneliness and isolation. In private letters to her husband, Sally documented her journey from mourning back to love, acceptance, and joy. She hopes that by publishing her letters, she will provide support to others struggling with the grieving process.