The threat of death is more present in our national unconscious than it has been for decades. A killer virus and a sudden violent invasion in Europe have shaken our sense of safety. A safety that many of us took for granted. The horrific scale of deaths in Ukraine is only just beginning to emerge. Our own mortality and fragility continue to alarm us at profound psychic and physical levels – even if we do not have to hide in bomb shelters.
The pandemic left behind a shared sense of trauma, which the invasion reignited in many people’s minds. Trauma overwhelms the sufferer, leaving them powerless and shocked. While the two situations cannot be compared, they share certain aspects. Both represent deadly incursions into people’s lives. We may be far from the conflict in Ukraine, but most of us identify closely with the families being separated, women and children going west, men staying to fight. Some of those fleeing already know they will never meet again. The images of people at railway stations about to be forced apart are among the most heart-breaking I have ever seen.
The pandemic, in its deadliest months, killed hundreds of thousands as it swept around the world. In Britain, it meant many were forced to say goodbye on phones or computer screens to the person they loved most. The ONS records that 24,257 people were widowed in the UK between December 2019 and February 2021 by Covid. This grim statistic doesn’t account for those in unmarried relationships. Those figures do not exist.
I am a psychotherapist and I frequently treat people whose partners have died. While there is no hierarchy of bereavement, the death of a partner is among the most profound losses. The death of the adult you love the most, an especially cruel experience. I know this as I was widowed at 45. Andrew’s death was sudden, unforeseen, and the psychological impact took many years to understand – much longer than I would ever have imagined, had I ever allowed myself to. I was used to working with bereaved patients; I believed myself to be prepared. I wasn’t.
In a clinical group meeting last spring I was told of a patient, 45, whose husband, 52, was ventilated for four months before his machine was switched off. The psychotherapist treating this woman was very concerned about her state of mind. She has stayed in my mind. Today, my colleagues and I are alarmed by how many referrals we receive. Often we are unable to meet the need. I spend hours each week contacting other psychotherapists hoping they have a vacancy. Politicians and the media voice growing concern about mental health provision: how bad this time has been for the young, elderly people, the underprivileged, and the lonely.
But will anything improve? The NHS struggled to manage the epidemiological catastrophe. But the psychological consequences are not yet known and no funding exists to pay for it.
At the height of the pandemic, the number of cases and deaths became the thermometer that gauged how quickly life could return to normal. To begin with, photos of Covid victims were flashed up nightly on TV, and I wondered what this moment of recognition might mean to someone. Did it feel disturbing or comforting?
But many Covid deaths were also stories of a couple’s life together cut short by death.
While grief is not a mental health issue in the same way as depression or anxiety, it is a profound psychological wound; one of the most bleakly transformative events a human being can experience and one we need to understand better. Grief education should be part of our national curriculum, but it isn’t.
The loss of your partner is one you cannot hide from psychologically or practically. Humans are programmed to be in couples. They are all around you – and you are single. Your status suddenly changes from two to one – in the most mundane ways, which are hard to articulate. I felt (existentially) alone for many years, despite a loving family and friends.
For those fortunate enough to afford therapy, it becomes possible to share this feeling. But my consulting room is a place where patients often describe shame and a fear of boring friends as the grief forges ahead, dragging them along in its wake. Grief has its own horrendous timetable, which has to be experienced to be believed. The death of the person you live with is especially devastating because they remain everywhere. Their DNA on the cups you drink from, the smell of the loved one’s clothes in the wardrobe. These feelings are invisible to the outside world.
But a bereaved person is not a single person. Someone loved you and you continue to love them. After his death, l loved Andrew as deeply as I had in life. He was no longer alive, but that bond, that commitment wasn’t broken. It stayed this way for quite some years, until I met a very different, but equally lovable man and re-entered the world with him as a new, loving couple.
Yet the right to continue to exist in a couple is frequently misunderstood by those who have not experienced this loss. In fact the feeling of being in a couple can persist for years, decades, what is left of a lifetime. In my work, I see it as sacred, and vital to respect. Bereaved spouses, however, are often difficult for other couples to handle. Their sadness is weighty. What is half a couple? A threat, a reminder?
What, meanwhile, the bereaved wife, husband, partner, lover needs to learn is that the new life, once rebuilt, can be lived alongside the sadness of the loss of the old life. The experience of the death of a partner leaves a hollow behind, which is vast, cavernous and full of dark shadows that unexpectedly appear like sharp and painful objects, to trip over and wind you. These objects are memories, which re-emerge suddenly when the loved one is dead, and are quite different to a memory of someone still alive. The letting go, is of a different texture to those ties you abandon because someone no longer loves you, or you no longer love them. When someone dies and they still love you, there is a guilt that must also be endured in the survivor. That you have life still. Something they wanted so much, too. You can move on, while they are immobilised.
In the most ordinary and prosaic of ways, memory haunts you differently alone. Memory that is shared is of a different order. A widower’s memory of a marriage anniversary is hard to celebrate with others, without it feeling mawkish. What can be remembered – her birthday, the first time he saw her, their first lunch, supper, holiday, engagement? It is complex to do so alone. What does the memorialisation of the couple mean? For whom are these private calculations, internal ruminations, reminiscences, and recollections? Without being shared, they can bring pain.
Grief experts encourage us to find strength, power, “silver linings” and resilience in our experiences. Except that has never been the case with me, or any patient I have seen in my consulting room. Most choose to bleakly live on, because, however bad, the death instinct eludes us in life. We wait for change of some sort.
The pandemic, like the war, will eventually become part of a shared history. But things are never equal, and the mass loss of life will never be felt by onlookers as it is by those bereaved. Only the bereaved can imagine bereavement, because only they truly know what it feels like. Only those in Ukraine can really know what it is like. We can try to help in many practical ways, but we should also keep their psychological pain in mind.
And the bereaved spouses of the pandemic, let us not forget them, or look for change, improvements, smiles, new interests, relationships, or love. We must let them remain in their couples, silent, alone, stunned, disbelieving.
Above all, we must respect the one of two they once were, and not degrade or diminish the stature of the loving state of mind they had with their lost person. Gradually, the grief ebbing away, the mourning beginning, they may start to join the rest of us again. Let them love in their own reduced, heart-breaking way, talking to someone who never replies. In my work I have seen many examples of how love continues, transforms even, when the loving object is gone. Eventually, someone becomes defined, not by loss, but by love.
This content was originally published here.