The last week or so, I’ve been a bit of a shambles.
I had annual leave last week, which was supposed to stop me feeling so burnt out at work. I love my job, but lots of my colleagues and I are feeling like we’re cracking under the pressure in the NHS.
We spend all day talking to people about the very worst aspects of human experience, and that was always going to be tough, but we keep being expected to do more and more with less and less. I feel guilty all the time and lots of us feel like we haven’t got much more to give.
I had been dying for some time off, over the last few months, and then I had my long awaited holiday in Cornwall. I came back more stressed than I was before, after the dramas with possible suicide attempts, head injuries and brain tumours.
When I came back and described how stressed I felt, my boss suggested I book another week, if I had enough leave. And I did.
This week it’s the birthday of my boyfriend who died, and it would have been ideal if I’d had this week off, but there was something on at work that meant last week was much more convenient. I had been finding his birthday and the anniversary of his death easier, so I thought it would be fine to have last week off instead of this week.
So that’s where things were.
On, Tuesday, last week, on my week off, I was watching a film on Netflix, late at night. It was ‘To all the boys I’ve loved before‘, and someone’s mum has died in it. When they were talking about bereavement, I got a bit tearful and realised I was sad about my dead ex-boyfriend’s impending birthday.
What has worked really well for me, is booking annual leave on the anniversary of his death, and his birthday, and doing something special in which I can embrace any bad feelings I have. I tried blocking it out and pretending those days weren’t happening, by going into work, visiting family, going on abroad, but it was only when I turned towards the sadness and made room for it, that I got any sense of peace.
Taking the day off work on his birthday was really working for me. In the weeks leading up to it, every time I saw his birthday in my diary, when booking appointments with patients, or on Best Before dates on food, even if it was below my level of conscious awareness, I’d feel tense or sad. When I was trying to power through the date and pretend it wasn’t happening, that tension and sadness would grow and grow, under the surface.
However, once I started planning for it, whenever I noticed the date, a few weeks before, I’d think That’s fine, I can cope with whatever my feelings are on the day. I’d almost look forward to having some time to think about him and feel sad or whatever came up.
I realised that this year, because I knew I’d be back in work, I felt unsettled when I thought about the date. I also just felt really sad and missed him more than I had in a while. I also ended up agreeing to do something really stressful at work, on the day.
I thought the best way to handle this, would be to turn towards the grief a week early, and get it out the way before his birthday. So, I paused the film, and stayed up until about 3am, tearfully reading emails that he and I sent each other.
There were ones I’d forgotten about, and ones I remembered. At first I felt warm, but then I started feeling guilty and upset, for the way I hurt him, right before he died.
There was one he sent me when I was on holiday in Australia in 2008. We missed each other so much. I sent him a postcard every day. He sent me an email, and at the end, it said, “I was curious about texting across the globe and how long it would take. But love doesn’t take any time at all. Have you noticed?”
There was an email I sent him, when I wanted to buy him some trainers for Christmas. I sent him a list of links to trainers I thought he might like.
He replied saying he didn’t mind buying them himself, but said, “thank you for knowing my shoe size. It gave me a little soul tickle.”
Then I found several that I sent him after he died and it was heartbreaking to read them again. I got really upset.
I felt quite up and down for the rest of the week.
It was his birthday this week.
The night before his birthday, I was thinking about him and feeling a lot more peaceful. I remembered we sent each other a lot of messages on Facebook, as well as by email. I had forgotten that, the other night. I read some of the Facebook messages we sent each other, over the years.
He sent me a list of things that he liked about me, when I was feeling insecure, when our relationship was new, in 2007.
“I’ll look after your brain. I’ll keep in my pocket.
Things I really like about you that aren’t physical.
1.Your ‘look at my clean window’ pose.
2.Your pretend cross voice combined with fists on hips.
3.The fact you rarely swear but when you do it exudes sex.
4.That your parents are bell ringers.
6.Your ranty stories with no obvious conclusion.
7.Your dress sense.
8.The importance you place in music.
9.You have an eel in your bedroom.
10.Your casual yet strict attitude to rudies.
I’ll do another ten when next you go a bit afraid. x”
Then there was this one:
“I had to throw the rest of my jelly away earlier. Sorry. Doing so made my heart heavy. Nicest Christmas Pudding ever.
This was about some rabbit-shaped jelly I made for him at Christmas.
Then at the end, I read a list of things he was going to miss about me, after we split up, shortly before he died.
“Doing crosswords in a cafe
The programmes Getting On and 2012
Big Bang Theory (sorry I kept it from you)
Enjoying train travel
Harry Potter films (only the wardrobe of the cast)
Aloe Vera plants
Asking for bonus points when buying condoms
I could go on but I will appear more twatish than is acceptable.
This time, it just felt moving and profound but OK. I felt nice to read his words.
One time when I saw him, after our breakup, he was talking about the pain of losing me and said, “it’s exhilarating.”
It had given him a wake-up call, that he needed to sort his life out. I had hoped it would be the making of him.
He said, “it’s like God’s shaking me awake, and he’s tapping his watch.”
Reading the messages and feeling the feelings on the right day felt exhilarating. Trying to get the grief out of the way a week early, reading the messages made me feel distraught.
I think what I will take away from this is that you can’t hurry grief. I couldn’t feel his birthday sadness a week early and get it out the way, just like I couldn’t decide it’s more convenient to have a headache or my period at a specific time.
On the actual day of his birthday, work was OK. I rescheduled the very stressful thing, and took each hour at a time and got through everything I needed to do.
After work, I arranged to meet my friend Tess, to do something to mark the day.
I can’t explain why, but something about throwing some flowers into a large body of water feels right to me. Last year I put the flowers on the banana bridge, near our old house, and that was perfect.
This year, I couldn’t do that, because I was in London, but I bought a bouquet of the weirdest flowers I could find (because he liked weird things). Tess and I went to Kew Bridge and I threw the flowers into the River Thames.
I had pictured the flowers serenely diving into the moonlit river, but actually, when we got there, to tide was quite far out. The flowers were a bit bedraggled from being in my car all day. We threw the flowers, one at a time, and most of them landed on the gravelly riverbed.
Then we moved to a different part of the bridge, and it worked a lot better.
It felt right. Tess gave me a massive hug afterwards and then we went for dinner.
I had decided I wanted Andrew to feel included in my grief. Matthew, my last boyfriend, seemed threatened by my love and grief for my dead boyfriend.
I could understand it, as I’ve felt overshadowed by people’s exes, and Balthazar is the ultimate ex. All of his things feel like the most precious relics, and you can’t speak ill of the dead. However, Matthew’s feelings made me feel guilty for grieving and made me try to hide it from him.
I remember one year, wanting to post something on Facebook about Balthazar’s birthday. I felt guilty towards Matthew, as I knew he wouldn’t like it, so I considered not doing it, but then I felt guilty towards his family, who I knew wouldn’t like if I didn’t post anything.
I wanted to start out completely differently, with Andrew, and make him feel included in my grief.
So, I decided to do the things with the flowers with Tess, because it’s a bit weird but I knew she wouldn’t care.
Then, we went for dinner, but Andrew joined us too.
It was the first time they had met. He was a bit late due to a misunderstanding about the plans, but had ironed his shirt. This was the first time I’d seen him in an ironed shirt.
We had a lovely dinner together, then I drove Andrew and me home. This was another first – the first time he, a Policeman, had seen me drive.
When we got to my place, he said my driving was ‘very smooth’.
Then, we went inside. I showed him a book of memories of Balthazar which I made, after he died. He seemed really interested.
(He used to make me a packed lunch to take to work and put in a drawing.)
I asked him how he felt, when I talked about Balthazar.
He said he didn’t feel threatened or overshadowed at all. He said, “I think he and I are probably quite different.”
“Yes. He would never have been a policeman. And he didn’t have your work-life balance. He always used to get me to call in sick for him, because he didn’t want to go into work.”
“I think he was probably cooler than I am,” Andrew said.
“Well, he was… yeah. I’m not going to lie.”
However, I told Andrew that there were other, small ways in which they are similar.
“Something about getting to know you and our honeymoon period has reminded me of when I was getting to know Balthazar, and it’s reminded me of things I haven’t thought about for years.”
I started telling Andrew about what it was like, when I got the news from the police, that he had died. I thought it might be useful for him to hear what it’s like to be on the opposite side of receiving what he calls a ‘death message’.
He just listened and seemed really interested. He told me some things he thought they should have done differently, and explained some things I had found strange.
Then, we got onto what happened next. I always found it really hard that I was the very first person that the police told, and yet, as soon as I gave them the contact details for his next of kin, I wasn’t kept in the loop anymore.
I had lots of practical questions, about the investigation into the fire, and other things. There were lots of things I needed to know, but I wasn’t told, because I wasn’t his next of kin.
As well as the practical side of not getting information, being kept out of the loop made me feel worse about my relationship with him. Even though we had broken up, I was still probably closer to him than anyone else in the world. His relationship with his family was complicated and they didn’t understand him. He often felt let down by their lack of contact.
Not being told things made me feel like I was nobody to him.
I had just assumed it was an unfortunate aspect of the unusual circumstances of the fire, but actually, Andrew told me that I should have been included more.
He said that if he’d been investigating a situation like this, he would have got permission from the family to routinely update the recent ex. He couldn’t believe the police hadn’t got a statement from me about what happened and how Balthazar was, and his lifestyle. They did speak to me on the phone, but apparently it should have been more formal than that.
“You were a key witness. If not the most significant witness,” he said.
I told him that I had a lot of questions, and I did try and ask the detective investigating the fire, but I was a bit all over the place and partly didn’t want to know the answers, so I didn’t follow it up as much as I could, which isn’t the police’s fault.
I ended up contacting the police, on the first anniversary of the fire. I then had to go through this horrible process of grovelling to the coroner and explaining my relationship with him.
The coroner wrote me a letter, answering my questions, and I found it confusing and devastating. I had to take two days off work after reading it, as I couldn’t pull myself together.
“I could help you understand the letter, if you want,” Andrew said.
We were sitting on the edge of my bed. I was drinking a glass of wine. He was drinking a bottle of beer.
“Actually, can you?” I said. I surprised myself, as I hadn’t wanted to look at that letter in 5 years.
“I mean, we don’t have to, and it doesn’t have to be now,” he said.
“Actually, can we do it now?” I said.
I started digging around for the letter in my box of documents, and he asked if he could read more of the Memory book, while he waited.
I found the letter.
“OK. Here it is. Hang on, let me go to the toilet first.” I felt nervous about reading it again.
The coroner hadn’t been able to answer some of my questions, like
- would he have suffered?
- would there have been a period of time when he knew he was going to die, but wasn’t dead yet?
- would he have survived if he had been sleeping in our bedroom, instead of the living room (because he stopped sleeping in our bedroom because he missed me too much)
- what was he wearing when he died?
For each of these, they put, “I regret that I do not have sufficient information to answer this,” which I found a bit formal and cold.
For some questions, they did give me helpful answers
- which day did he actually die? Because I know the fire brigade arrived shortly after midnight
- was it the electric I bought him, which caused the fire? (It was apparently caused by him drying bedding too close to the heater)
But some of the answers, I found very upsetting
- was his body damaged by the fire (there were superficial burns to his body and limbs)
The worst thing was that I asked what the cause of death was, just to help me understand. I think I wanted to check it was the smoke and not that he burnt to death from the flames.
I didn’t understand the answer, but I feared it meant that I was even more responsible for his death than I had previously thought.
They said that there were three official causes of his death:
- carbon monoxide poisoning
- alcohol poisoning
- brain haemorrhage from a head injury.
“Someone should have gone through this with you. I can’t believe no one told you when the inquest was,” Andrew said.
I had spent a year coming to terms with the fact my boyfriend died in a fire, and then I read this letter, and it was like it all unravelled again. Did this mean that he actually drank himself to death, because I left, and unrelated, the house the burnt down?
I knew he started drinking more because I left.
I didn’t even know what to do with the head injury. What did that mean?
Andrew explained that the letter said that the carbon monoxide poisoning would have been sufficient to kill him on its own, but the postmortem found that there was a lot of alcohol in his blood as well.
He said it was most likely that the alcohol made it even harder for his body to fight the smoke, but it was probably still the fire that killed him.
“Is it my fault?” I asked, with my eyes welling up with tears.
“No! Of course not. How was your fault if he started drinking more? You were kind to him. And you probably started drinking more too, you were upset about the breakup too!”
“I did actually.”
Andrew said he could help me get more information about the head injury, if I wanted.
He said it could be that he fell and hit his head, because he was drunk, and maybe him falling somehow knocked the bedding onto the heater.
He told me all the different types of information the police would have on file, about Balthazar and the fire and our house and what happened. Photos, statements from our neighbours, reports from the fire brigade.
“I can help you, if you want!” He said.
I thought about it, and said, “actually, I think I know enough. I don’t think I want to know anymore.”
I put the letter away and we had a serious hug.
Even though it was 1am, we decided to watch an episode of Catastrophe on my laptop, as a palette cleanser after the Coroner Action, so we could have sex without feeling weird.
Last night, we spoke on the phone.
Andrew said, “Last night was good. I felt close to you because I understand more about you and your life and what happened with Balthazar. I’ve been thinking about him a lot today. Sorry, if that sounds weird.”
I said, “it doesn’t sound weird. Thank you for helping me. I can’t believe I felt OK about looking at that letter again. I thought about how you told me you don’t want people like your neighbours to know you’re a policeman, but you were so keen to help me. It made me feel special.”
Then we went onto our usual post match analysis of our most recent sex.