I was 30 years old when my wife died. Eight months previously she had been diagnosed with small cell cancer, triggered apparently by becoming pregnant with what would have been our first child. The tumour was growing rapidly on her liver, fuelled by the growth hormones from the pregnancy. In order to save one life, albeit only for a short time, we sacrificed another and Alison had an abortion. It felt like murdering our unborn child but the doctors said we had no choice. After that, and powerful doses of chemotherapy, we had a precious few months together. But the cancer eventually came back with a vengeance and before I knew it I was standing by Alison’s grave, feeling useless, clutching a bunch of flowers. We’d been very happily married – we assumed we’d be together forever. What had happened to my beautiful life?
To say it took me a while to come to terms with all this is a gross understatement. 18 years on and it could still bring a lump to my throat. I was, initially, just numb. It took me 8 months to cry for the first time (I finally broke down when visiting my brother, which he found very awkward – crying wasn’t something we had much practise of in our family). I couldn’t see round, or over, or through this massive, invisible thing, this wound. The one thing I couldn’t do was ignore it. Yet neither did I know what to do with it, how to respond.
I sensed somehow from those around me that the thing to do was to get on with my life, not make too much of a fuss about what had happened. In a way, this suited me – I could tidy my emotions away and deal with them later on when I was ready to face them. So I got on with my work and day-to-day routines, glad to have something to hold onto.
Gradually I started to find ways of expressing my grief, in conversations with friends and family, and to find healing through time in nature and quiet reflection. The pain started to ease. And I began to rebuild my life. I re-married and had a son. I learned to be careful about sharing what had happened to me. I realised most people didn’t know how to respond. And whilst my new wife was very understanding about my past and my pain, I couldn’t keep parading my wound around the house.
So life went on yet the wound didn’t heal completely, and I began to wonder if it ever would. Perhaps it was too wrapped up with my self–image. For a long while, quietly, inside, amidst the pain and the sheer shock, I suppose I felt a bit special. I had this self-image of the young mourning widower, wounded but brave, suffering but stoic. When I told my story, and could see the surprise in people’s eyes, it gave me something of a buzz, if I am honest. Maybe we all like to feel special and this was one way in which I could show how special I was.
I feel I am past all that now. What shifted things, I think, was an invitation a couple of years ago to tell my story by writing a chapter in a book “Stories of the Great Turning”. This felt like a great gift. By really going into, and expressing, what had happened, I could finally come to terms with it. These days a scar still remains but it is no longer an open wound. I have been through the grief and come out the other side. What’s more, I can see what happened to me as a type of gift – something I can use to strengthen me as I encounter the ups and downs of life.
What I have realised on this journey is that my story is by no means unique. Yes, the details are particular to me. But pain, suffering, shattered dreams are something we all experience sooner or later. There are the human dramas: parents who lose a child, children who lose a parent, people who lose a limb, or an eye, victims of violence or neglect, of famine or war. On a wider scale, there are other tragedies that affect us all in some way – large swathes of rainforest destroyed each year, acidification of the oceans, pollution of the air, species loss on a massive scale, the mindless brutality of dictators, large corporations and other bullies, the stupidity of our economic system that only values what has no intrinsic value.
We are not encouraged to dwell on these occurrences. Our individual pain is, at best, to be dealt with quietly, out of public sight, by professionals. As for the larger scale tragedies, they are to be read about in a hurry over our morning cereal before we get on with being good, obedient, unquestioning citizens. So it is that a newspaper will tell a shocking story about climate change and its potential impact, or some major disaster, and then on the opposite (or sometimes the same) page, tell some utterly trivial story about a “celebrity”, someone who is well-known only for being well-known. It seems our tolerance for pain is so low that we need an instant antidote – a pick-me-up to stop us feeling anything deep, to stop us being moved.
Yet by refusing to acknowledge our pain and suffering, we dis-honour it. We also inhibit our healing process, leaving part of us frozen, traumatised. Trapped in our old story, our ability to respond appropriately to our situation is restricted.
I find people in general have contradictory responses to my story. Superficially, they don’t want me to dwell on my wound. They want me to move on, to play the role of a confident, happy, strong individual who can take anything on the chin and come up smiling again.
Yet when I have the chance to share my pain, people are touched. They allow themselves to get in touch with their own pain, their own unattended wounds. Attending to these wounds is the thing they most crave and yet most fear.
Now that I have this perspective, I have realised with a jolt (but also with relief) that I am not special. Or rather, that my story may be special to me and those close to me but that what connects people to my story is its universality. By sharing the pain, the grief, the vulnerability, the emptiness that I have felt, I give them permission to connect with their own feelings about what they have experienced in their lives and what is going on in the world. They can honour their pain and so heal themselves and move on.
When I share my story, I speak for us all.
By Patrick Andrews
To see more of Patrick’s wonderful writing, visit his blog The Musings of an Itinerant Lawyer, Reflections on Life and Work in Times of Uncertainty here;