Grief in a foreign country
When I was 17 I met the man I thought I’d spend my life with. When I was 17 that man died. For many years I pushed my grief into a box and shut the lid. I’ve had close friends who never knew about it and I’d been with my current partner for over 10 years when I told him some, but not all, about it. It happened decades ago, but this will be the first time I’ve written about it.
It was only when I began to write about grief and to talk with other bereaved people, I found myself thinking about that part of my life again. At the time it wasn’t treated as a bereavement, so I struggled to identify my loss and work through it.
He was older than me and my family didn’t like him. He was 26, devilishly handsome, sexually knowledgeable, well-travelled and the lead singer in a rock band. He held me in his arms, looked deep into my eyes and sang to me. He told me stories about Mexico, Thailand and Goa. He told me about guacamole and baklava, drinks with names like Pernod and Absinth. He told me stories of a world I didn’t know and promised to take me to all of those places where I would eat all those foods and drink those drinks. I went up and down the country over months, watching his band perform. I was terribly, terribly in love with him. We looked at flats and talked about children’s names.
His band had a gig in the far north and I decided not to go as it would take all day to drive there, do the gig and then all night to then drive back afterwards. I spent the night at a friend’s house instead.
I was woken by my friend in the morning. He told me to go home immediately and listen to the radio. I went home, put the radio on and waited. The news announced his band had been involved in a serious road incident and that some members of the band had been killed. I waited by the radio all day, praying and bargaining with God. I offered God the option of serious injuries and promised to nurse him all his life but that evening they listed the dead on the news and the first name they read out was his.
I went to the funeral parlour and sat alone with his casket for hours. At his parent’s house I didn’t see his mother. She had shut herself in her bedroom since the day the police called with their news and hadn’t come out since. His father was very kind to me, giving me my boyfriend’s scarf and his favourite t-shirt. It still smelled of him and for a long time I wore it to bed.
His funeral was the first I’d been to and I went alone, travelling by bus. I didn’t own suitable clothes so I wore the darkest clothes I had which were a mix of navy blue and black and the one hat I owned, which was also black. The crematorium chapel was crowded and I didn’t know where to sit. I saw the white and anguished faces of his parents in the front row before I found a vacant seat about halfway back from them. Because I had no previous funeral or crematorium experience I didn’t know that at the end of the service, the little curtains would close and his coffin slide away from us. The urge to leap up and grab so strong I got up and ran towards it for a few steps before fainting for the first time in my life. I came round alone in a side room with a kind staff member giving me a glass of water. I walked home even though it was miles. I really wanted to be alone in fresh air.
Over the next few weeks I ached from needing to talk about him and I became obsessed that someone he was still out there. I caught the bus to all the places we used to go and looked for him in the faces of every crowd, every street, every town. Eventually I went to the family GP and told him how unhappy I was. He prescribed Valium which I took every day but it only seemed to increase the effect of feeling as if I was on the outside of life, looking in.
Then the father of one of the other guys from the band phoned me. His son was out of hospital and would really like to see me. I went round to his house, sat in his bedroom and we talked until he could talk no more. I started going round to see him every few days and he talked obsessively about the events of that night, going over and over every little detail. I needed that so badly – I needed to know and understand what had happened. Later we talked obsessively about everyone who had died, sharing memories as if we were making emotional collages.
I needed this desperately. I needed to talk about him, to remember the colour of his eyes, his clothes, the way he walked, the way he laughed. At home no one ever referenced what had happened or asked me if I was alright. He, my life with him and the life I thought we were going to have together, had simply been erased.
After a couple of months the crash survivor told me he was moving to Australia to start a new job. He said he wanted a fresh start where no-one knew him so he could live a different life and be something different from “that guy from the band who were killed”. We said goodbye and my heart ached. He had become my memory repository, the only person left that I could talk to. Without him I was lost and now he was moving on, while I was left behind. I stopped talking my Valium and saved them up instead. In my mind I was very calm and very clear. I was going to go to where my boyfriend was and then we would be together for ever. Although I wasn’t living at home, I wrote my family a note explaining why I was leaving them, took my pills and went to bed.
3 days later I woke up in hospital with a drip in my arm after a very long sleep. From the hospital I was discharged to a “convalescent unit” for people who needed “a bit of extra help”. It catered to younger people up to 40 years, who had all been damaged by life in some way. Once a week we talked to a psychiatrist and in between we were encouraged to talk to staff and to each other. I was the youngest person there and was later told initially they were unsure about accepting me as the official admittance age was 18, but it was thought I would benefit from having older people around me. There was no TV but we were encouraged to take up hobbies and to chat. I learned to knit (badly) and I read a lot and listened to other people talking about their lives. I never talked about what had happened to me, not even to the psychiatrist on my weekly visits, who always seemed less interested in listening to me and much more interesting in hearing himself talk.
After a month I was discharged to a shared apartment in a city some distance from my family. There I learned to put my grief in a box, press the lid down firmly and never speak of it to anyone. Later that year I made the only visit to his gave in a huge municipal cemetery. After walking for half an hour I found a simple brown stone under a yew tree. On it was written his name, the dates of his birth and death, and in a single line at the bottom, the words “Possessed by God”. I never went there again.
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”.